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The Life and Crimes of Adam Lyal

By Alexander Clapperton, March 27, 2017 - 5:01pm
Adam Lyal (deceased)

As today marks two hundred and six years since the execution of Adam Lyal (nice round number), we take the opportunity to look back at the life of Edinburgh's best-known working stiff.

Almost nothing has been learned of Adam's parentage or early life, other than that he was born in 1785 (he gave his age as 25 at his arrest), and had a younger brother John, born in 1789, and a sister Catharine whose age is unknown.

His first recorded employment was as a domestic servant to a Sir Henry Campbell, in 1801. This position lasted about a year before ill-health forced him to move in with friends in Stirling while convalescing, which took about two years.

In 1804, Lyal again took work as a servant, this time to Colonel Dallison of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, then garrisoned in Stirling. This time his tenure lasted about four and a half years, and included travel around Britain, to the West Indies and Spain. Once again, his employment was curtailed by illness, this time of the terminal variety afflicting the Colonel.

Adam Lyal next surfaces in 1810, as a member of the Edinburgh Militia - seemingly a somewhat restive member, as he was being punished for desertion and drunkenness. He was bound over in the Edinburgh Jail for a few days, then sent to Dunbar for punishment (it is not clear what punishment he received in Dunbar, or whether that was the punishment). Not long thereafter, he deserted again, this time permanently.

After a summer working at the John Haig distillery near Glasgow, in October Adam made his way back to Edinburgh where he reunited with his brother John, who had by his account been doing various seasonal labouring jobs. It was at this point (as far as is known) that the brothers decided to turn to a life of crime.

The duo's first two robberies occurred on 9th October, the victims being a chaise-driver in Linlithgow and a farmer on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The sums or items stolen, or the circumstances of the robberies, are not recorded. However it may well have been with the aid of their ill-gotten gains that they purchased two pistols and a barrel-key in a shop on the Lawnmarket a fortnight later, on 22nd October, in preparation for more audacious crimes.

The very next day, the Lyals robbed a courier named Andrew Hay on the road between Alloa and Dunfermline, relieving him of a pocket-book containing ten Pounds sterling, and a purse containing about twenty shillings of silver. The following night (the 24th), the pair roomed at a small public house in Menstrie outside Stirling, cunningly recouping some of whatever they had paid for ther lodging by pilfering anything that wasn't nailed down from their room, including some blankets and a shawl.

Departing the lodging house early the next morning (perhaps to avoid their hosts noticing the volume of their luggage being greater than when they arrived), the brothers took up position at a spot known as Damhead, on the Sherriffmuir Road north of Stirling. There they lay in wait for their next unwilling benefactor, who presented himself at around noon.

William Boyd, a cattle dealer, was returning on horseback from a fair held in nearby Dunning the previous day. As he approached Damhead, the Lyal brothers confronted him.

The following is from the Caledonian Mercury newspaper's coverage of Boyd's testimony at the trial.

On coming up, one of them laid his arm over the bridle, and having both pistols in their hands, they presented them, and desired him to deliver up his pocket-book, or they would blow his brains out. To this he answered, that he had no pocket-book, and that he was only coming from the market, whereas if they had attacked him when going to it, they would have had a better chance of getting money. One of the robbers then said, "Blow the b------'s brains out if he does not give us what he has in his breast."

On this witness gave them a parcel of small notes, amounting to £26 : 9s. ; but with this they were not satisfied, and repeated their threat to blow out his brains if he did not deliver up the whole of his money. He was accordingly obliged to give them £100 which he had concealed in large notes inside his vest, when they told him to ride off. He had not, however, proceeded many yards when he thought it strange to be robbed at that time of day. and therefore resolved to get the aggressors apprehended, if possible. With this view he dismounted from his horse, and leaped over a dyke, about 300 yards distant from the spot, in order to gain a height from which he might see what road they took. At the back of the dike he saw two bundles lying, and on observing one of the robbers coming up with a pistol in his hand, he took them up and got into the road.

Upon reaching Stirling, Boyd enlisted a messenger, Thomas Miller, who obtained a warrant for the robbers' apprehension. Following sightings of two men matching their descriptions in the area the previous day led them to the public house in Menstrie, where the contents of the "bundles" were identified as the stolen items by the landlord's daughter. Further sightings in Alloa and at the Queen's Ferry led them to Edinburgh, to Shaw's Hotel on Princes Street where the suspects were thought to have stayed the night. However, it was now morning and the Lyals had already checked out. The trail, they feared, had gone cold.

Now assisted by town officer Archibald Campbell and his men, Boyd spent some hours fruitlessly scouring the streets of the town. Eventually, defeated, Boyd and Miller decided to repair to the hotel to drown their sorrows. This was to prove serendipitous, as at the very moment they drank up and made their exit, the Lyal brothers happened to be passing by (after a day's retail therapy with the proceeds of their crime).

Recognising his assailants, Boyd grabbed John Lyal by the collar and restrained him. Adam Lyal made a brief attempt at flight, but was quickly caught and subdued by Miller. They proceeded to march them to the Council chamber to have them arrested and charged. Even in the jaws of justice, though, Adam made a valiant attempt at reaching a more amicable (for him and his brother) solution:

"God, what will a man bring himself to. Take us to a public house, and we will give up the money, and pay all expences."

We can only conclude that Adam's gentlemanly offer to buy Boyd a drink (with his own money) and get everything straightened out without troubling the justiciary fell upon deaf ears, for in a trice he and John were in the chamber being arraigned and relieved of their day's shopping (including some new leather boots and spurs) and the remainder of their loot. The brothers were incarcerated in the Tolbooth gaol, where John's demeanour rapidly grew strange and withdrawn.

On 3rd January 1811, the Counsel for the Crown made the case against Adam Lyal, who pleaded not guilty to all charges (the robbery of Matthew Boyd and the others committed in partnership with John). John, for his part, was deemed "an unfit object for trial" due to his seemingly deranged mental state (whether this was genuine or performance was hotly contested both then and in later proceedings against him). He would eventually stand trial for these crimes himself, but for the time being, he was given over to the custody of his sister Catharine and her husband.

The testimony of Matthew Boyd, supported by the detailed reconstructions of the brothers' movements before and after the robbery built up by the publicans, chaise-drivers and others they had encountered, amounted to an incontrovertible case against Adam Lyal. Bizarrely, his counsel's only tactic (reported in the Mercury's account) was to contend that the Crown had misled the court in its indictment as to in which jurisdiction the crime had taken place: they had stated it was in the Shire of Perth, but Lyal's counsel called as witness a sheriff officer from Stirling to state that the locus delicti (scene of the crime) actually fell within the county of Stirling. Quite how he thought this would snatch legal triumph from the jaws of defeat is unclear; perhaps he just hoped it would string the proceedings along a bit further, which is understandable, given he would have known full well the likely eventual outcome.

Ultimately this bit of brinkmanship achieved nothing, as the trial was not delayed and the jury proceeded in short order to unanimously find Adam Lyal guilty of all charges. Sentencing took place on 14th February: Adam Lyal was condemned to be hanged between 2-4pm on 27th March, 1811. (It is not known whether he received this news in the form of a heart-shaped card accompanied by some overpriced chocolates.)

The Mercury briefly reported the execution:

Yesterday, Adam Lyal, some time since convicted of highway robbery, before the High Court of Justiciary, was executed, at the west end of the Tolbooth, pursuant to the sentence of that Court. He was assisted in his devotions by by the Rev. Mr Andrew Thomson, and Mr Porteous, chaplain of the Tolbooth; from whose Christian labours he seemed to have profited much, as he met his unhappy fate with great penitence, firmness, and resignation.

Adam Lyal had paid the ultimate price for his brief criminal career. The annals of justice are filled with abrupt endings such as his, and it is largely by chance that one such volume should have fallen open at his particular page while Robin Mitchell sought a real-life Edinburgh convict to become the mainstay of his new walking tour. Nevertheless, the story struck a chord, and Part II of the tale of Adam Lyal began; a sequel which, by now, has lasted longer than the original.