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The Ratho murderer : last public hanging in Edinburgh

Delve into your family history and what will you find? Lives that were eccentric, funny or sad? But what if alarming family events jump out at you during a quiet meal in a country pub, as happened to Balerno resident, Keith Bryce?

Jessica and Keith Bryce
Jessica and Keith Bryce

Neither Keith nor Jessica suspected any skeletons lurking in the Bryce family cupboard.

“The Bryces moved to Currie in the 1860’s, and recorded their children’s births in this Bible,” Keith says, opening a huge leather bound book. “The family ran a grain business and general store from the Temperance Hall opposite to where Currie Post Office stands today. They did well and their descendants managed several local businesses, including a piggery, dairy farm and haulage business. “

Keith shows me a 1907 haulage contract for moving paper from the local paper mill in Balerno to the railway station sidings (where Balerno High School now stands).

“Originally these loads were horse-drawn, but many people will remember the distinctive blue lorries that followed. They were much photographed, especially on Gala Days, when thirty or more were donated and dressed for the parade.”

“I knew quite a lot of my family history from the 1860s onwards. I had wondered what happened before, and why the Bryces moved to Currie, but didn’t take it any further - until I went to eat at the Bridge Inn in Ratho.”

During his meal, Keith noticed a gruesome death mask on the wall. But what caught his attention was the caption beneath: George Bryce - the last man to be publicly hanged in Edinburgh!

“I was intrigued, and went to check the facts with the National Archives of Scotland. I discovered that George was a ‘simple soul’, victim of his passions. The defence pled insanity at his trial. Nonetheless, he was executed before 25,000 people. But then the archivist revealed records of another Bryce execution - in 1844, George’s destitute uncle James had robbed and then finished off his brother-in-law.“

Two executions in two decades, then, explained the family move from Ratho to Currie. Deeply troubled, some Bryces had emigrated to Canada and the US. Keith’s ancestors, however, stayed nearby, determined to pick up the family pieces, start again, and to work hard.

Clearly, they succeeded.

There is a plaque on the north wall of the Edinburgh registry office at the junction of the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge / The Mound commemorating the last public execution in Edinburgh and mentioning George Bryce, the Ratho murderer.


Article published in Konect November 2011

Author: Emma Merchant


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