A remnant of Aberdeen’s dark medieval past has been revived with the city’s “whipping stone” now on show once again.
The stone marks the spot where petty criminals – including drunks and “harlots” – were flogged with a stick of birch branches before being paraded up and down the city streets. Banishment from the city would usually follow.
Time has not been kind to the whipping stone, which is embedded in the ground in Broad Street not far from the court building.
The stone was once covered with tarmac and even, at one point, double yellow lines. Now, as major redevelopment continues in the city centre, the local authority has fully exposed the whipping stone once again.
Aberdeen-based historian and folklorist Dr Fiona-Jane Brown said: “It is vital we do not forget our past, if only to realise how more humane we’ve become in terms of punishment methods.
“This was the ruling authority flexing its muscles. Break the law and you suffered the penalty.”
Those birched and banished from Aberdeen following their punishment included 13-year-old Adam Frain, who stole books and money from a local advocate.
Other cases include that of three men, including two soldiers, who were sentenced to be whipped through Aberdeen and banished for life after stealing a bag of meal from a ship in the harbour.
Dr Brown said Aberdeen had three “wipping stanes” which mapped out the border of the medieval city.
Records drawn from the old Grampian Police Archive show that whipping was part of the job description of the hangman.
On 18 February, 1596, a Mr John Justice was appointed as hangman with his duties including “executions, banishment, scurging, burning and tormenting”.
People were not just whipped at the stone, but often were whipped through the streets, sometimes as a prelude to banishment, according to information held by the city council. “In some instances women had a scold’s bridle placed on their heads whilst being whipped,” it added.
Physical punishments were used extensively during the medieval period before imprisonment became popular and offered a sense of public spectacle.
Ordered by a sheriff, the maximum number of strokes for a boy under 14 was 12, whilst those over 14 could be given as many as 36.
In the 19th century there was a move away from public whipping. It was abolished for women in 1817 and moved indoors for men in the 1830s.
By law a doctor was always in attendance and could stop the punishment if he saw fit. Birching was finally abolished in 1948, by which time it was considered an “uncivilised” punishment.
Aberdeen maintained harsh penalties for petty criminals – often women – into the 19th century.
Banishment overseas, for crimes as petty as stealing a tablecloth, was used to redress overcrowding in the city.