15th August 1963

The last hanging in Scotland

Henry John Burnett was convicted of the murder of merchant seaman Thomas Guyan and executed by hanging in Aberdeen. He thus became the last man to be hanged in Scotland.

Burnett had been living with Guyan’s former wife, Margaret, and when she announced her intention to return to Guyan on account of Burnett’s unacceptable behaviour, he put a knife to her throat and dragged her indoors.

Thomas Guyan killed

Fortunately for Margaret, he didn’t kill her, and she was able to go to Guyan, but this sealed Guyan’s fate. Burnett stole his own brother’s shotgun and shot Guyan dead, then stole a car at gunpoint. By now, the police had been alerted, and pursued, eventually pulling him over a short distance out of town and taking him into custody.

Justice was swift. Burnett had killed Guyan on 31 May. The following day, the Aberdeen Evening Express related event, which had resulted in “a young Aberdeen labourer, Henry John Burnett (21) [appearing] in private before Sheriff Hamilton at Aberdeen to-day charged with capital murder”.

Henry Burnett tried for murder

By July, Burnett was being tried on three counts: assault of Margaret Guyan, murder of Thomas Guyan, and theft of the car. On 24 July, the Aberdeen Press and Journal said that he “listened intently in the High Court at Aberdeen yesterday as fish worker Mrs Margaret Guyan (25) said that he shot her husband then asked her to marry him” and occasionally smiled at people in the court that he recognised.

Burnett seemingly hadn’t denied the murder when police arrested him as, according to the Aberdeen Evening Express, again on 24 July, Bell told the court that, after being read his rights, “Burnett said: ‘I gave him both barrels. He must be dead’.”

Henry Burnett found guilty

However, the Liverpool Echo reported on the same day that, in court, he had denied all three charges against him and “a special defence of insanity has been lodged on Burnett’s behalf.” This didn’t work. On 25 July, the jury convicted him by a majority after less than half an hour of deliberation. He was sentenced to be hanged.

The following day both the Burnett and Guyan families were united in their call for a reprieve and were organising a petition to the Scottish Secretary for clemency. Neither of these was successful and, on 15 August, Burnett was hanged.

First execution in 100 years

That day’s Coventry Evening Telegraph explained that it was Aberdeen’s first execution in more than 100 years, and although it was not carried out in public, as the last one had been in 1857, a crowd had gathered outside the prison gates. It only dispersed when told by a police officer that the execution had taken place and no further notice would be posted.

That morning’s Daily Mirror had included a column about the Burnett case, using it as an argument against further passing of the death penalty as the scant publicity it had received meant it was unlikely to act as a deterrent.

“Ritual sacrifice”

“Are executions such as this likely to make anyone feel safer?” the Daily Mirror column writer asked. “Hardly! In England and Wales the crime of Burnett, his trial and his impending execution have gone almost completely unnoticed. In Scotland they created a certain brief stir – partly because the victim’s mother, sister and brother signed a petition for his reprieve… the quick, judicial death of Harry Burnett will have as little meaning as his short, sad life. Unless the very fact that it means so little rams home this blunt message: Public safety no longer requires the ritual sacrifice of the death penalty.”

Two years later, use of the death penalty for murder convictions was suspended in the United Kingdom for five years. In 1969, the suspension became a permanent abolition.



Other events that occured in August

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