The High Court of Justiciary is the supreme criminal court in the country and it deals with all serious crimes, including murder and rape, and other cases which by reason of the potential length of the sentence in the event of a conviction are too serious to be disposed of in the Sheriff Court. From early times the effective administration of justice required the judges of the High Court to travel throughout the kingdom on circuit. In time, three areas were designated as circuits, namely, the northern circuit comprising the towns of Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness; the southern circuit comprising Ayr, Dumfries and Jedburgh; and the western circuit comprising Glasgow, Stirling and Inveraray.
The reason why a burgh of modest size and relatively remote location such as Inveraray was included as a circuit town along with the large towns of Glasgow and Stirling is historical. The office of Lord Justice General, the head of the High Court of Justiciary, was originally held as a hereditary office by the Earls of Argyll. The office was resigned into the hands of Charles I in 1628 in return for which there was reserved to the Argyll family the office of Justiciar-General for the Sheriffdom of Argyll and Tarbert and the Hebridean Isles. After the rising of 1745 the hereditary jurisdictions of the Clan chiefs (including that of Clan Campbell) were abolished. As a consequence, the jurisdiction of the Duke of Argyll ceased and was replaced by that of the High Court of Justiciary. Argyll and Bute were incorporated into the western circuit with Inveraray designated as the circuit town.
The circuit judges thereafter made periodic visits disposing of such cases as there were. Lord Cockburn referred in his book, “Circuit Journeys” to a number of visits to Inveraray between 1838 and 1850. He wrote vividly of the grand scenery of Argyll and commented in less favourable terms on the quality of justice sometimes dispensed by Argyll juries. As the 19th century progressed business at Inveraray, never abundant, declined, possibly associated with the general rural depopulation of the times. The journey from Edinburgh for the legal luminaries was tedious. No railway connected Inveraray to centres of population. For reasons of convenience the resident sheriff was transferred in 1903 to Dunoon, although that court occasionally sat at Inveraray just as today the sheriff at Dunoon sometimes sits at Lochgilphead. Many years went by without a case being heard by the High Court. There was a brief flurry of circuit business in 1908 when two cases were dealt with.
Visits by the court to a circuit town were, until 30 or 40 years ago, accompanied by pomp and ceremony. They were also major social events. There was a procession to the court by judge, counsel and local dignitaries. A military guard of honour was provided; the arrival of the judge on the bench was heralded by a fanfare of trumpets, and there were dinners and civic receptions. These days have gone. The last occasion when the judge inspected a guard of honour is believed to have been in the early 1970s when a detachment of the Gordon Highlanders was reviewed outside the court building at Aberdeen. In criminal circles in Glasgow, when someone was in severe trouble he was liable to be told: “It’s the Trumpets fer you!” But the trumpeters too vanished mainly because, with the growth of crime, visits of the High Court to the circuit towns became frequent rather than occasional. Circuit dinners were notorious and even scandalous due to the liberal flow of alcohol and much disliked by the Bench because the judges as a body had to subscribe towards the costs of a circuit dinner. All that remains of the old days is a civic lunch here and there and in some places, prayers said from the Bench by the parish minister.
Whether or not there was a premonition that this might be the last sitting of the High Court in Inveraray, the authorities were prepared to make the most of it. The opening scene is described in picturesque terms in the edition of the Oban Times immediately following the trial.
“ Shortly before 10 a.m. the pipers of the 8th Argylls struck up a marching tune at the Territorial Hall at the south end of the burgh, and a strong section of this distinguished regiment, under command of Captain Grant Forman, Lochgoilhead, entered the highway at Newtown, and carried on to the Argyll Arms Hotel, where Lord Wark, the presiding Judge, Advocates, and Court officials were in residence. Other officers present were Lieut.-Colonel Bruce A. Campbell, Soroba House, Oban, Commanding Officer 8th Argylls; Major Lockie, Secretary of the Territorial Force Association; Captain and Adjutant George Malcolm yr. of Poltalloch; Captain Campbell, yr. of Succoth; and Lieut. Lockie, Drum-Major Seton, D.C.M., and Pipe-Major George MacDonald. The military were drawn up in two lines. The old Parish Church bell began to toll, and a large crowd surged on to the ground known as the Mercat Cross in front of the arches leading on to the old beech tree avenue.
Lord Wark stepped out from the hotel, and inspected the guard of honour. At the sharp word of command, the Territorials fixed bayonets, and the order ‘present arms’ was smartly responded to. The procession was formed. Gaily accoutred pursuivants from Edinburgh with silver trumpets; Inveraray Town Council guarded by two halberdiers in picturesque red coats trimmed with yellow facings. School children looked on, their young minds filled with wonder and amazement at the brilliant and impressive sight before them. On such procession their ancestors had gazed centuries ago”.
The procession comprised important people of the county, including Sheriff Principal J.P. Dickson, K.C., Sheriff McMaster Campbell, Campbeltown, the Provost of Inveraray, the Chief Constable of Argyll and his Deputy, and the Vice Convenor of the County representing the Duke of Argyll who, although expected, was unaccountably absent.
The case was one of murder. At that time the punishment for murder was death by hanging. Anyone old enough to remember capital murder trials will recall the tense atmosphere in the court as soon as the accused entered the dock because everyone knew that as a result of what might be said and decided in court, that person might die. If convicted, he would be sentenced by the judge who would briefly put an 18th century tricorn black hat on his head and utter the awful words “This sentence is pronounced for doom”. It is not surprising therefore that the court room was packed while a large crowd remained expectantly in the streets.
The Crown was represented by Mr. John Cameron, Advocate Depute, who no doubt relished the irony of a Cameron prosecuting in Campbell territory. The accused was defended by Mr. David King Murray, K.C. The accused was Thomas Joseph Ledwidge, described in the indictment as “a billiard saloon attendant”. The incident in question took place in or near Argyll Square, Oban. Ledwidge was accused of assaulting Hugh Martin of Drimvargie Terrace, Oban by striking him on the face and head and knocking him down, whereby he received injuries from which he died.
The deceased, it appears, was a habitual drunkard addicted to drinking, amongst other things, methylated spirits. He had many convictions for drunkenness, molesting the police and assault. On the day in question his behaviour was aggressive and he was making a nuisance of himself in Argyll Square. The accused came up to Martin complaining about allegedly indecent behaviour by him towards his wife. A quarrel developed and the accused struck him a blow causing him to fall to the ground. He was assisted to his feet and then followed the accused, who had made his way towards “Messrs Boots’s shop”. Martin was shouting at him whereupon the accused gave him what was described by witnesses variously as “a smart blow on the face” or “more a jab than a blow” causing him to fall to the ground. Martin became unconscious and never regained consciousness. The medical evidence was that there was no fracture of the skull but there was a haemorrhage within the skull which could have been caused by Martin’s head having come into contact with the road surface. The post mortem revealed that the deceased was “sodden with drink” and there was medical evidence that the amount of methylated spirits drunk by the deceased had an effect on the arteries whereby blood vessels would tend to be more easily ruptured than normal. In this discouraging situation for the Crown at the end of its case, the Advocate Depute indicated that he was withdrawing the libel so far as charging the accused with murder but would be asking for a verdict of culpable homicide. The presiding judge stated that in his opinion the Advocate Depute was exercising “a wise discretion.”
The accused gave evidence to the effect that Martin was pestering him and waving his hands in an aggressive manner. In trying to get rid of him, he finally gave him a jab. He had no intention of seriously hurting him.
After speeches from counsel and directions given by the judge, the jury retired and after five minutes they returned with a unanimous verdict of not guilty. To have convicted Ledwidge of culpable homicide, the jury would have had to be satisfied that he had assaulted Martin and that the result of the assault was his death. That verdict was clearly open to the jury if they were satisfied that the blow was of the character described as “a smart blow.” On the other hand it was open to the jury to regard “the jab” as described by the accused in evidence as a means merely of ridding himself from Martin’s unwelcome attentions without any intention to do him any harm. Whatever the legal niceties the jury clearly took a broad and unhesitating view of the justice of the matter.
When the verdict was announced applause broke out in the court and the public were rebuked by Lord Wark, saying, “This is a court of justice. It is not a theatre”. This admonition was quite appropriate in the circumstances, but in a wider context his Lordship was arguably wrong. Looking at the pageantry of the occasion, the guard of honour, the halberdiers, the trumpeters, the tolling of the Parish Church bell, the procession, the crowds, the wigs and gowns, the tension of the trial, and the jury’s verdict, it can be fairly described as pure theatre. It is said that afterwards there was some mutterings from higher authority about the cost of such a magnificent display as a setting for a trial concerning a minor scuffle which happened to have fatal consequences. In retrospect, it does not matter. Justice had been dispensed at justiciary level since at least the late Middle Ages and Inveraray justice was raised to permanent, if controversial, prominence by the Appin murder trial and the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson. So it was fitting that the end of this long association should be carried out with style.
After scolding those who applauded in court, Lord Wark addressed the magistrates and Town Council congratulating them on the rarity of serious crime in Argyll. It was over 25 years since the High Court had been in Inveraray and he sincerely hoped that “Another similar period would elapse before another court was held.” In fact, exactly 20 years later a order was made making Oban the circuit town for Argyll instead of Inveraray. Only the handsome court house and jail now so well exhibited remain as a memorial to these times.
In reporting the trial which was about to take place the Oban Times stated “Lord Wark will hold an official or circuit dinner in the evening in the Argyll Arms Hotel at which there will be at least 30 guests.” There is no record as to how well this occasion was enjoyed.