Crime & Punishment in the Time of Outlander

What would our beloved Outlander be if Jamie and Claire weren’t constantly getting into trouble with the law? Over the course of Season 1 alone, we see Jamie apprehended for “obstruction” and flogged within an inch of his life. Claire is arrested for witchcraft and sentenced to burn alive before Jamie comes to the rescue, and Jamie is arrested AGAIN after a run in with a group of redcoats and sentenced to hang for a murder he didn’t commit! All this got me thinking, what was life REALLY like for those on the wrong side of the law in that time? Outlander author Diana Gabaldon is notoriously meticulous with her historical research, and the researchers for the Starz show are no slouches either. But through my own digging, here’s what I was able to uncover about 18th century crime and punishment in Scotland.

Despite the 18th century British narrative, many experts believe that crime in Scotland (particularly the rural areas) was lower than that of surrounding British territories, and thus resulted in fewer accounts of criminal activity. It was common during this time to attribute low crime levels to the honest, sober, and industrious nature of a parish’s God-fearing members, and in one such area in the County of Sutherland, the records show only one “capital crime” over a span of 20 years! The most common type of offenses were those pertaining to working, drinking, partying, or fighting on the Sabbath or during a time of worship–normally punished by way of a fine and “rebuke in the face of the congregation.” (Jenkin, 2018).

In urban areas such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, crimes such as house-breaking, theft, robbery, and pick-pocketing were growing more prevalent, particularly in the early 1780s. Smuggling was also high on the list of common crimes because of outrageous taxes, and importation restrictions by the British government. The most common item smuggled in was alcoholic spirits, and this activity saw a sharp decline after the legalization of distilleries in the Highlands in 1823 (The Malt Whisky Trail, n.d.).

Scotland, on the whole, preferred prevention as the cure to legal woes versus the harsh punishment of the “Bloody Code”; a term which refers to the innumerable amount of crimes punishable by death across the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was believed at the time, that the biggest culprit of crime was the use, or overuse, of alcohol. So, it comes as no shock that government officials and other men of high standing lobbied to raise prices on alcohol and make it harder to access. One particular account states, in the county of Stirling, houses and businesses with readily available spirits were blamed for encouraging lawlessness and ‘pauperism’, and charged higher rents because of it. Lawmakers even went so far as to claim that 90% of crimes in Scotland could be traced back to alcohol related causes  (Jenkin, 2019a).

When preventative measures weren’t enough, the Scots were often creative in their methods of punishment. Up until the late 18th century, prisons were not viewed as a means of lengthy incarceration, but merely a place to keep miscreants until a proper court was in session to deal with them. Because of this mentality, jails and prisons had squalid conditions that most of the time consisted of small, crowded rooms with no separation of prisoners by age, sex, or offense, no way to dispose of waste, and no ventilation. These conditions proved a breeding ground for illness and disease which made a stint in prison nearly as deadly as the noose the prisoners were often destined for. The conditions of debtors prisons and bridewells were slightly improved, but still miserable for all that (Jenkins, 2019c).

Not all crimes were punishable by death, even during the time of the Bloody Code. There are reports in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland where adulterers (all women) were dragged through town, and forcibly dunked in the Clyde River in Glasgow, then placed in the jougs–an iron collar fixed to a building or post. The jougs was often found in the market and/or secured to the outer wall of a church, where the offender was on public display for the duration of their punishment.

Witchcraft is perhaps the most infamous crime for women to be convicted of in the 17th and early 18th century, and the last of 3,141 legal executions for witchcraft in Scotland took place in 1727 when Janice Horne was executed by fire (STV News, 2019). Fines, public whippings, mutilation, executions, and other humiliating forms of punishment such as ear nailing and time in the pillory were also used as “payment” for the committing of what would be considered “misdemeanors” or minor crimes, by today’s standard (Kinghorn, n.d.).

Reform of the Scottish prison system finally took place in 1839  (Historic Environment Scotland, 2015) –and with it came more lenient punishments. Executions for moderate to minor criminal behavior began a downward trend, and the building of new prisons under more hygienic conditions began. The punishments we see as consumers of Outlander are not unheard of nor are they unrealistic, and while some, such as Jamie’s double flogging would have been considered torturous in a time where punishments were notoriously cruel, it is still not outside the realm of possibility!

In the aftermath of The Jacobite Rising of 1745, we see another era of crime and punishment in Scotland begin to unfold through the lens of our favorite characters, but that is most assuredly a topic of discussion for another day. I hope this has been as informative an adventure for you as it has for me, and I can’t wait for our next historical journey!

Until next time, Cheers!! 

Historic Environment Scotland. (2015, January). Scotland’s Prisons Research Report 2015. research/publications/publication/? publicationid=71d8b519-8884-486d-a1ff-a70000a49abf

Jenkin, C. (2018, November 21). Crime and punishment in late 18th-early 19th century Scotland: Levels and types of crime. Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

Jenkin, C. (2019a, January 9). Crime and punishment in late 18th-early 19th century Scotland: Causes of crime and crime prevention. Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

Jenkin, C. (2019b, February 20). Crime and punishment in late 18th-early 19th century Scotland: Types of punishment. Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

Jenkin, C. (2019c, March 21). Crime and punishment in late 18th-early 19th century Scotland: Prisons. Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

Kinghorn, S. (n.d.). Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century Scotland. The Architecture of Robert Adam – The Castle Style. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from

STV News. (2019, September 26). ‘Scotland’s last witch’ burnt alive almost 300 years ago

The Malt Whisky Trail. (n.d.). From illicit stills to a global icon – The History of Whisky. Retrieved July 4, 2020, from

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