WHOEVER professes to disclose from criminal records anything that has both importance and novelty to recommend it, will generally need no further excuse for offering it to the public. There can be no source of information more fruitful in incidents which have the attraction of picturesqueness along with the usefulness of truth. In every country in which there is even a pretence of administering justice, the social circle where crime is to be sought and punished, is subjected to a sudden and searching investigation of its elements and condition. The Asmodeus of the law catches the group by surprise, ere it has time to veil itself in conventionalities and adjust appearances for public view. The administration of criminal justice may thus be said to cut to the very centre of society, and lay bare all its strata. Besides the reference of every criminal trial to some main central event, in which the passions and propensities of mankind are developed in their most emphatic shape and deepest hue, each investigation reveals, collaterally, the social secrets of the day – from the state-mysteries, guarded by the etiquette and policy of courts, down to those characteristics of humble life, which are removed from ordinary notice by their native obscurity.
Under arbitrary laws, the knowledge thus extracted is generally retained for generations in official secrecy, and may, or may not, be brought to light in subsequent ages, by persons who do not inherit the original motives for concealment. But whether found in the mouldy registers of secret inquiries, or developed in the broad daylight of a public trial, the details of such investigations are a great mine of impressive knowledge. The contents of the following pages have been drawn from both these sources. The author offers them to the public, under the impression that they develop remarkable social conditions, and throw new light on the secret impulses of historical events; but whether he has thus formed a just conclusion, is a question for others to decide.
The materials here made use of, had accumulated in the author’s hands, along with much other miscellaneous matter, in the pursuit of historical projects relating to Scotland, which he hopes yet to realise. The authorities drawn from are indicated, here and there, in the usual manner. And it will be seen, that while some of them are yet in manuscript, several others, owing to the limited circle for whose use they have been printed, may be considered as in the same condition to the world at large, however well they may be known to investigators in peculiar corners of Scottish history.