EDINBURGH'S LAST HANGING

Although the Grassmarket’s infamy as the site of public execution stretches back over 300 years, the final hanging in Edinburgh of a convicted criminal is, perhaps surprisingly, within living memory: 23rd June 1954.

Elizabeth McGarry, a Catholic single parent with two teenage children, knew that her homeless ex-husband posed a substantial risk to her family’s safety. Her previous marriage to George Robertson had ended as a result of his violent controlling behaviour and, despite the fact that he was, for a time, out of her life, she kept the door to the family home locked, a chair jammed against the handle to prevent it from being opened, and a poker close by for defence.

What possessed Elizabeth to allow Robertson into her home on the night of 28th February 1954 will probably remain unknown, although a party with the neighbours may have set the family off-guard. What followed, however, is certain, thanks to the court testimony of one of the teenagers present.

Victoria Street, Edinburgh
16-year-old Jean, a paper mill worker, awoke to see her father knifing her brother, George, in the head, before he turned his attack on her. Elizabeth McGarry’s futile attempt to escape from the scene provided the distraction that ultimately would save Jean’s life, as Robertson ceased his attack on his daughter to capture and kill his former wife. 18-year-old George became the next victim as he too attempted to flee, after which Robertson returned blood-drenched to the house, where police discovered him a short time later with his head in the oven. In court, George Robertson pleaded guilty to avoid the public scrutiny that a full trial would inevitably invite, although this was a misguided hope given the brutality of his crimes. The inevitable penalty – execution by hanging – followed only 15 weeks after the sentence was passed and, with capital punishment abolished in Scotland less than a decade later, George Robertson earned the unfortunate reputation, not only as a double murderer, but as Edinburgh’s last visitor to the gallows.

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