Scottish law myths explored and debunked

From stealing whales’ heads to ringing door bells some bizarre and archaic laws endure to this day.

From stealing whales’ heads to ringing door bells some bizarre and archaic laws endure to this day.

Yet much work has been done by both the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission in updating the statute books in order to keep UK and Scots law as streamlined - and relevant- as possible.

The organisations sought to distinguish between fact and fiction when it comes to the strangest laws of the land.

Taking a whale’s head from a beach

All whales and sturgeons found on the coast are the property of the Crown with a 14th Century statute still standing today.

It is said to have been written to ensure the Queen had enough whalebone for her corsets.

However, the Royal House is at liberty to turn down the offer of the animal remains. Back in 2004, a sturgeon caught in Swansea Bay in 2004 was sent to the Natural History Museum after the Monarchy said it didn’t want it.

Today, the protection of whales and sturgeons has been updated by Europe-wide legislation and it is illegal to deliberately catch or kill them.

Forbidden to allow a boy under 10 to view a mannequin

It has been suggested that it is illegal for a boy younger than 10 to be exposed to a human mannequin.

The Law Commission stated last year it had not found any evidence of such a law.

Forbidden to wear a suit of armour in Westminster

One to bear in might if you fancy making a statement at the Houses of Parliament. Brought in during the reign of Edward II of England. It states “that in all Parliaments, Treatises and other Assemblies, which should be made in the Realm of England for ever, that every Man shall come without all Force and Armour”. Prosecutors in England have said they are unaware of this offence being committed in recent times.

Shooting a Scot within the walls of York

Not a Scottish law but one worthy of inclusion due to Scots being the subject of the legislation. It has long been held that it is legal to shoot a Scotsman within the walls of the city of York on any day but a Sunday.

The Law Commission has stressed this was most likely to have been as a result of a city ordnance which has been replaced by criminal law and the European Convention on Human Rights. In short, it’s murder now and highly illegal.

Ringing door bells

Various “nuisances” were set down in the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 - with much of the arcane detail only being repealed last year.

Much of the legislation referred to how horses and cows were handed in public areas but the way houses were run was also a concern. It was illegal to bang rugs before 8am, for example, or have plant pots on your windowsill without them being safely secured.

Interestingly, the legislation also outlawed the flying of kites - with this provision of the Act only now being removed.

One key element of the original legislation remains. And person who wilfully and wantonly disturbs any inhabitant, by pulling or ringing any door bell, or knocking at any door, or who wilfully and unlawfully extinguishes the light of any lamp remains at risk of prosecution.

Might be worth remembering if you take the notion to relive the fun of playing knock down ginger or ‘chickenelly’.

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The law dictates you must allow passers by to use your toilet if in desperate need in Scotland

It has been claimed that if someone knocks on your door in Scotland and needs to use the toilet, you are bound by law to let them enter.

The Scottish Law Commission however said there was no evidence to support this and that the myth may have grown around local custom and point to Scottish people’s “strong sense of hospitality”.

It appears as though this ‘law’ was little more than a tradition, or polite custom. That said, trespassing was once legal in Scotland due to a law that allowed free passage through people’s land and it’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that the custom was borne from this. Initially passed to allow people to cross large areas of land belonging to neighbouring clans (which gives you an idea of the age of this law), it is now used today by hikers.

Destroying Money

It is not illegal to deliberately destroy a banknote. However, under the Currency and Banknotes Act 1928, it is an offence to deface a banknote by printing, stamping or writing on it.

Artists in the United States and Greece have recently done exactly that in protest against capitalism and the economic climate.

The Coinage Act 1971 also makes it an offence to destroy a metal coin that has been current in the UK since 1969, unless a licence to do so has been granted by the Treasury.

Opening mail that is not for you

Under the Postal Services Act 2000, it is an offence intentionally to open or delay a postal packet. Interfering with someone else’s package still can lead to hefty fines.

Last year, the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission proposed to clear away more than 200 old laws from the statute books.

These include the 1979 Act that allowed referendums for a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Lord Pentland, chairman of the Scottish Law Commission, said: “The Law Commissions of England and Wales, and of Scotland, are committed to cleaning up and modernising our legislation. The statute book is littered with dead law from down the centuries.

“Obsolete provisions from as far back as the 13th century continue to survive long after they have ceased to serve any useful purpose.”