On April 29th just over 150 years ago, a young mother of four was taken, screaming, to the gallows in Dumfries. She had lived a poor, quiet, life in a hill community in Kirkcudbrightshire, struggling each day to keep body and soul together. Her trial and death brought her a fleeting, unwanted fame and a mention in the history books as the last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland.
I am currently researching a book about Mary Timney but her case was the subject of a play written by Dumfries poet and playwright Tom Pow for Radio Scotland back in the late 1980s. Tom met with me recently to discuss the case. We quickly discovered that our research differed because of the way we each approached the story. As a journalist I'm looking for facts, but Tom was looking for information that would tell the story. I'm getting ahead of myself, firstly, I wanted to know how Tom had come across the tale of Mary Timney.
Tom explained that he had been living opposite to the Dumfries Museum and often visited. 'I was initially interested by the death mask of Robert Smith, the last man to be publicly hanged in Scotland. I wrote a sequence of poems about that case. On display behind the mask, was a broad sheet about the last woman to be hanged in Scotland and at first I thought I would write another pair of poems. The more I read about the case, the more I thought that it would make a play, Mary tried to blame her own mother for the murder and her young daughter testified against her.'
The Archivist at Dumfries tipped Tom off about the existence of trial papers which he found in Edinburgh.
'The excitement... this guy in white gloves brings you this box and I got the feeling that the contents had not been opened since they were placed in there. Everything was tied with ribbon and folded so that you had to hold the documents open or they would snap back into place. Everything was covered in dust. This was the evidence.'
Tom decided to use Scots for Mary and her neighbours but faced the difficulty of making the story clear to those who may not understand the language. His answer came in the form of the local minister who written down the testimonies of the witnesses in the initial police enquiry. Tom decided he would not have spoken Scots so at various points in the play the minister translates the words back to the witnesses.
From these papers Tom was able to flesh out the characters of the play and, at times, the evidence statements form the basis for the dialogue. But this is where Tom and I part company in our approaches to the subject. Tom, coming to the story as a creative writer is able to portray his characters as he decides, interpreting the information but using his imagination and creativity. Coming from a background as a journalist I need to present Mary and her story based solely on the facts and information that I find. Tom was able to write a wonderful and powerful play based on his research but I need to make sure I have exhausted every avenue and followed up every lead before I start putting the book together.