Backrow farmhouse, Bothkennar, taken during a visit to Scotland. © Pauleen Cass 2003
Quite some time ago, I found a family story among the British Newspaper Archives on Find My Past. It’s taken me ages to get to it, but I finally transcribed the whole story[i]. It involved the prosecution of my great grandmother’s brother, William Sim aka Sym, for feloniously shooting Hugh Cowan on 12th July 1872. It seems to me that the prosecution did their best to get a conviction. However, the charge was rather more elaborate than that, including inter alia:
Glasgow Herald, 16 July 1872, page 4.
“…. yet true it is and of verity, that you the said William Sim are guilty of the crime first above libelled, aggravated as aforesaid , or the crime second above libelled, actor, or art and part: in so far as on the 12th or 13th day of July 1872, or on one or other of the days of that month, or of June preceding, at or the near the farm house of premises at or near Back-row aforesaid, then and now or lately occupied by the said James Sim, you the said William Sim, did wickedly and feloniously, attack and assault Hugh Cowan, miner, then and nor or lately residing at or near Kinnaird, in the parish of Larbert, and shire aforesaid, and presented at the person of the said Hugh Cowan a gun or other kind of firearm, loaded with powder and shot, or other hard substance to the prosecutor unknown and did wickedly and feloniously shoot at the said Hugh Cowan the contents of one of the barrels of said gun or other fire-arm, whereby the said Hugh Cowan was struck and wounded on or near the right shoulder, or other part of his person to the effusion of his blood and serious injury of his person…”
William Sym aka Sim, the 19 year old son of James Sim of Backrow farmhouse in the Parish of Bothkennar was thus charged. The early news reports had stated it more succinctly as we can see in the image from the Glasgow Herald of 16 July 1872.
A Letter to the Editor from a Mr Meikle to the Falkirk Herald, published on 27 July 1872, makes it clear that it wasn’t quite as clear-cut as the earlier news reports suggests.
Falkirk Herald, 27 July 1872, page 3
In this context it’s helpful to have a sense of the local geography:
This is an extract of the Ordnance Survey Map of Stirlingshire XXIV.12 (Bothkennar) Completed in 1859, it was published in 1862, so very relevant to the case in point. Backrow farm steading is in the lower left, Skinflats on the lower right, and the Bothkennar kirk is in the top right. National Library of Scotland.
As we can see from a current Google Maps satellite view, the geographic layout remains very similar. Having read the reports, I believe the miners were on the direct path between Skinflats and the rear of the Backrow property, rather than on a normal road.
The case came before the Stirling Autumn Circuit Court on 13 September 1872 when those involved were brought before the court. One of the advantages of court reporting in newspapers is that it should be accurate, or risk all sorts of legal penalties. Each of the people involved in the event was interviewed by the prosecution and the defense:
John Jenkins, a miner from Kinnaird, also part of a band which had played at a miners’ meeting in Skinflatts (sic).
Hugh Cowan, who had been shot in the shoulder.
James Penman, another of those who’d attended the miners’ meeting.
Robert Jenkins, a pit-bottomer, also from the meeting.
James Sim, farmer of Backrow, Bothkennar, my 2xgreat grandfather.
Ann Sim nee Wood, wife of James Sim, farmer (my 2x great grandmother).
James Sim, son of James and Ann, also of Backrow.
Dr Haig from Airth, who treated Cowan, described the Sim family “I known the Sims, and have done so for ten years. I never heard anything against the panel or his family. They are very respectable people altogether. The prisoner, so far as I know, is a quiet, inoffensive lad.”
Mrs Duncan, a local resident who provided water to Jenkins for the injured man.
Constable Campbell of Carronshore, who’d been called out by Annie Sim.
The Rev. Mr Stevenson, minister of Bothkennar, “bore testimony to the excellent character borne by the prisoner. He was a quiet inoffensive lad.”
William Sim’s testimony after his arrest was tabled:
I am 19 years of age. Am son of, and reside with James Sim, farmer, and Back-row in the parish of Bothkennar, and county of Stirling. Last night, about 11 o’clock, I was in bed and asleep at home, when I was awakened by hearing my mother crying out to some men who were making a noise outside our house to let our dog alone. I had previously heard stones rattling against the dog-house. I arose and went down stairs, and followed my father out of the house. On going out I saw nearly a dozen men around the door of the house, and some of them having large sticks or stack props in their hands. I found them still throwing stones at the dog, and threatening to drive the life out of it with their sticks. My father told them to let the dog alone, and they then turned upon him, and he received one blow upon the face from a stick. Three of the men then seized hold of my father and threw him down among some corn, after dragging him across the road. I then went forward to assist my father but before I reached him two men attacked me on each side, each pair of men having a stack prop in their hands, and I was struck upon the elbow by one of these, and prevented from assisting my father. My sister, Ann Sim, then came out, and she was threated in the same way, but she succeeded in getting my father away, and we all three escaped inside the house door. Upon this all the men turned upon eth dog worse than ever. My father then opened the door again, and I called out that I would bring a gun to them if they did not leave the dog alone. They swore and said they would knock both me and the gun to hell. The gun was then brought to me by someone from within. I know that the right barrel was loaded with powder and small shot – I think number two – but there were no caps on. I first held up the gun in order to frighten the men. I then put some loose powder into the left barrl, and put on a cap, and tried to snap it in the air. I then put a cap on the right barrel, and tried to snap it in the air, but it also hung fire. Upon this I was turning into the house when the gun went off as was fetching it down from my shoulder. I declare that I did not aim at anybody, or intend of hit anyone. As soon as the gun was discharged some of the men came still nearer the house, threatening us with sticks, and calling out that the house would be no longer ours. They remained at the door threatening us, and in about ten minutes, while they were still there, a man came up to the door and asked if we knew what we had done. I said we had not done much, and he replied you have shot a man. I replied that it was not intended then, for I fired in the air, and the gun hung fire. Some of them then cried out to draw us out and take our life. Upon this we shut the door, and they again yoked on the dog with their sticks. Shortly afterwards some of the party came back accompanied by a Police Constable and asked for a cart to take away the wounded man. We got him a cart and I accompanied it to the place where they man was lying at a quarter of a mile or less from our house.
My great grandmother, Annie Sim later McCorkindale, gave her experience of the events:
Ann Sim deponed – My mother cried to the men to go away. There was a great noise. There be about a score of men. I was standing at the garden when father was dragged past me. William went out behind my father to help him but I saw nothing done to my brother -only, I believe, some of them kept him back. I went to help my father. They were kicking him in the field. I dragged off two and one fellow had hold of him by the finger with his teeth. There would be five of them in the cornfield and there were others about the premises. My brother brought the dog on the chain and we got my father in. The men then came rushing to the door. I had not gone for the constable then. They threatened to break open the door, and were asking matches from each other to set fire to the town (Note: I assume this to mean the farm-steading including out buldings). I went for the constable after the gun was fired off. I told him they were killing my father. I did not know any of the men. The constable came and I afterwards heard a person had been shot. During the struggle one of the men caught hold of me and said he would knock my brains out.
I am proud of my great-grandmother’s feistiness that she took on the men who were threatening her father and managed to get him inside the house safely, despite personal threats, before going to fetch the constable.
One day I will get to read the actual court documents in the Scottish Records Office for myself, but for now I’m content to have been privy to a rather scary experience of my ancestors in the middle of the night. Shooting Cowan was not a good thing, even if accidental, but they must have been more than a little frightened in the middle of the night, fairly isolated, to have to deal with this threat.
The conclusion to the case?
‘….the jury retired, and after an absence of about 20 minutes returned with a verdict, which was read by the foreman, as follows :_ “On account of great provocation the jury find the prisoner not guilty.” Sim was accordingly discharged. The result seemed to give great satisfaction.’
[i] Falkirk Herald, 14 September 1872, page 3 through the British Newspaper Archives on FindMyPast.com