The Criminal Stirling Imprisoned for the Crime of High Treason (c. 1725)



By Eleazar Albin, in A Natural History of English Song-Birds (1737), 10. 

Courtesy of Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

James Stirling of Keir

James Stirling of Keir (1679-1749).

From The Stirlings of Keir, and Their Family Papers (1863, 582).

Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland. 

   This broadside poem takes aim both at censorship of Jacobitism and at the habitual hypocrisy and predation of Presbyterian church officers. The Edinburgh of Pennecuik's day was oppressively subdued on Sundays, with church patrols, called "seizers," walking the streets to ensure that the Sabbath was profaned by neither work nor frivolities (Buchan 2012, 60-61). According to Hugo Arnot's 1779 History of Edinburgh, on one occasion a seizer came across a caged blackbird belonging to a Jacobite barber (possibly called Archibald Shiel; Pennecuik 1744, 10), which had been taught and was whistling the popular and seditious tune "The King Shall Enjoy His Own Again," causing the seizer to turn the bird in to the city guard (Arnot 1816, 156). This is the scene of absurdity and menace depicted below. Jacobites made extensive use of bird metaphors in the coded language they were normally obliged to use to avoid trouble. The blackbird in particular often represented James VIII and III (Pittock 1994, 48). If anything like this encounter actually occurred, then for once, at least, the bird was literal.

   This incident also seems to have given Pennecuik occasion to revisit recent history through a pun. Pennecuik depicts the barber's bird as a starling - both blackbirds and starlings were caged and taught tunes (Albin 1737, 2, 11). He describes the bird as a "Stirling" or "Sterline" (Scots: stirling), neither of which were words commonly used to describe the bird. In 1708, James Stirling of Keir, along with several other men, was charged with treason for riding about in arms in an alleged attempt to raise support for the anticipated arrival of a French-backed James VIII and III, the Jacobite claimant to the throne. The men were said to have drunk to James VIII and III's health; they protested that "the drinking any person's health is not a crime" (Fraser 1858, 69). The men were tried in Edinburgh, and the case foundered due to bungling by the prosecution and a higher standard for prosecuting treason under Scots law. Queen Anne and her ministers were horrified, and, against the protests of Scottish Members of Parliament, Scottish law was reformed to reflect England's broader definition of treason and more severe treatment of those suspected of the crime (Steffen 2001, 71-74). In 1715, James Stirling's estates were subject to forfeiture for his appearance with the Jacobite army at the battle of Sheriffmuir (Fraser 70). If Pennecuik did intend to call James Stirling to mind, it might also explain the poem's allusion to the dean of Dunblane (42) - Dunblane Cathedral was where the Stirlings of Keir worshipped, and many of them were baptised and buried there (Fraser, 69, 475).

   The portions of this transcription in square brackets have been taken, because illegible in the broadside version, from the 1744 Collection of Poet Pennicuicke's Satires on Kirkmen (10-11). Later versions, under the title "The Zealous Constable," are somewhat more altered, and the potentially punning sterline is rendered starling (e.g. 1787, 22-23).  


      Criminal STIRLING
For the Crime of HIGH TREASON.

A Zealous brother of the canting Crew,
And Sabatarian,[1] stricter than a Jew,
Who thinks Hypocrisie a Gospel Creed,
But solid Piety a Legal Weed,
In his reforming Survey Sabbath last,                                                                       5
(He'll turn that Festival unto a Fast;)
Seiz'd on a Juicy Joint, of roasted Meat,
And bid the graceless Owner, chaw[2] the spit,
Ungracious Man, I'll execute the Law,
And keep it, to my own Spritual Maw;[3]                                                                10
The plundered Person, staring in his Face,
Cry'd twenty d---ls[4] go down, make that the Grace.
The Seizure made, O then he gravely says!
With grievous Groans, for when he Robs he Prays,
Ale Drinking's a sad Sin, but none of mine,                                                             15
The spirit rises Best, with Forty Nine;[5]
There's yet another Sin, which much prevails,
Women on Sabbaths, bearing milking Pails;
Elders and Deacons[6] (tho' the Churches Prope)
Had never courage yet to Seize a Scoup.[7]                                                           20
Officer take the Milk from yon Young Maids,
And Poind their Pinners,[8] since they have no Plaids.
The [beagle][9] said, before he made them stand,
This holy Work will sowre upon our Hand.
Nay he chastiz'd, a worse Transgression yet,                                                           25
(The holy Man, is for his Office fit)
People Prophane, who's Tongues are Satans Swords,
Transmit their venom, to their Bairns[10] and Birds.
   A Sterline hatch'd, in some malignant Nest,
Had learn'd a Song, which should not be exprest:                                                    30
Thrice with his Batton, did he touch the Cage, 
And thus he Roars, like Doctor on a Stage,[11]
"O thou'rt a vile, a mad malignant Bird,
"To Sing a Song that's Treason ev'ry Word,
"Had ye been Taught by me a Bow-head Saint,[12]                                               35
"You'd sung the Solem L----- and C------t.[13]
"Bessie of Lanerk,[14] and the last good Night,
"But ye're a Bird Prelatick,[15] that's no Right,
"Ye have a Breath that doth pollute the Air,
"To turn a Tory Tune, unto a Sabbath's Pray'r.                                                         40
"Ye have been bred, by that malignant Lown,[16]
"Dean of Dumblane,[17] I seiz'd upon his Gown,
"Go take it to the Guard, and Owner both,
"Until they Swear, the Abjuration Oath,[18]
"Compear[19] before the Constables and Session,[20]                                             45
"And make an ample, and sincere Confession,
"These Sterlines, are a wicked kind of Folk,
"This is a Rebel worse than the Muir-Cock.[21] 
"O could my Baton, reach the Leavrocks[22] too,
"They're Chirling[23] Jamie, Jeamie,[24] just like you:                                             50
"I hate vain Birds, who lead malignant Lives,
"But love the G--l G--k,[25] that sings to good old Wives.
   The Captain smil'd to see the merry Jest,
A well bred Bird mock'd [by an ill bred beast.]


1 One who adheres strictly to observation of the Sabbath. 
2 Scots: chew.
3 Scots: belly.
4 Devils. The constable is being cursed for confiscating, and consuming, a Sunday feast.
5 The OED confirms "forty-nine" as a kind of liquor, but not specifically identified.
6 Senior church officers.
7 Scots: the spout of a vessel for holding liquid. 
8 Scots: confiscate their store of money.
9 Scots: constable or informer.  
10 Scots: children.
11 A mountebank, i.e. someone selling fraudulent medicines in public.
12 An epithet for Covenanters, derived from the Covenanter Thomas Weir, who resided in West Bow, Edinburgh. Weir was renowned for his godliness until, fearing damnation in his ailing old age, he confessed to crimes including incest and bestiality, for which he was executed in 1670 (Stevenson 2004). "Bow-Head Saint," then, carries an implication of outward piety and secret iniquity. 
13 "The Conflict in Conscience of a Dear Christian, Named, Bessie Clerkson" (1681), and "Lord Maxwell's Last Goodnight" (Child 1898). 
14 League and Covenant - the 1643 agreement intended to secure Presbyterianism in the British Isles, in exchange for Scottish support for English Parliamentarians in the War of the Three Kingdoms. 
15 Episcopalian.
16 Scots: a lowly person. 
17 Possible interpretation supplied in the introduction. If a specific office-holder is meant, I have not identified him. 
18 An oath, necessary for public office, rejecting the legitimacy of the Stuart monarchy. 
19 Scots: appear.
20 The Court of Session - the civil authority.
21 Scots: grouse. Pennecuik wrote a handful of poems regarding some transported criminal that he only refers to by this avian alias, but, if that is who is meant here, I have not identified the figure.
22 Scots: larks. It is not clear who or what specifically is meant here.
23 Scots: singing.
24 An affectionate diminutive for James VIII and III. 
25 Unknown.



Albin, Eleazar. 1737. A Natural History of English Song-Birds, and Such of the Foreign As Are Usually Brought Over and Esteemed for their Singing. London: A. Bettesworth and Co. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Arnot, Hugo. 1816. The History of Edinburgh, from the Earliest Accounts, to the Year 1780. Edinburgh: Thomas Turnbull.

"The Conflict in Conscience of a Dear Christian, Named, Bessie Clerkson, in the Parish of Lanerk, Which She Lay under, Three Years and a Half." 1681. Edinburgh. Early English Books Online.

Dictionary of the Scottish Language. Accessed April 6, 2018.

Buchan, James. 2012. Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World. Edinburgh: Birlinn. 

Child, Francis James, ed. 1898. "Lord Maxwell's Last Goodnight." In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Vol. 4. 34-38. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.

Fraser, William. 1858. The Stirlings of Keir, and Their Family Papers. Edinburgh: privately printed.

Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed April 6, 2018.

Pennecuik, Alexander. [1725?]. "The Criminal Stirling Imprisoned for the Crime of High Treason." Edinburgh. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

---. 1744. A Collection of Poet Pennicuicke's Satires on Kirkmen, etc. [Edinburgh?] Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

---. 1787. A Collection of Scots Poems on Several Occasions, by the Late Alexander Pennecuik, Gent. and Others. Glasgow: Alexander Buchanan. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. 

Pittock, Murray. 1994. Poetry and Jacobite Politics in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steffen, Lisa. Defining a British State: Treason and National Identity, 1608-1820. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 

Stevenson, David. 2004. "Weir, Thomas." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Criminal Stirling