247-year-old murder case re-examined

A Kilwinning historian who has spent forty years investigating the evidence surrounding the murder of the 10th Earl of Eglinton may have uncovered new facts that challenge the accepted version of events.

Speaking at a public presentation last Wednesday, former Physics Teacher Jim Kennedy gave a detailed account of his investigations to an audience of around forty people at the Abbey Church Hall in Kilwinning.

Jim Kennedy, Kilwinning Historian gave a talk on the Trial of Mungo Campbell.

Kilwinning Historian, Jim Kennedy gave a talk on the murder of the Earl of Eglinton and the subsequent trial of Mungo Campbell to members of Kilwinning Heritage in the Abbey Church Hall on Wednesday 3rd February, 2016.
Image: © Iain Graydon

Jim starts by telling us that it’s not only local history buffs who share his interest in the murder case as he has recently been interviewed by Belgian TV for a programme about the life and death of the Earl.

The popular version of events is that on 24th October 1769, the 46-year-old Earl was shot in cold blood by Mungo Campbell (56 at the time of the incident) when he had been caught poaching on Eglinton’s lands at Montfode adjacent to Ardrossan’s North Shore. Jim displayed a wooden panel painted on one side with part of the Eglinton coat of arms, and on the other with the words: ‘This was the panel of the coach that Alexander Earl of Eglinton stepped out of in the year 1769 and was instantly shot by Mungo Campbell, Gauger’.

According to Jim: “Campbell was certainly a Gauger (an exciseman), but the plaque simply perpetuates a myth…

“The Earl was not in his carriage and the incident had nothing to do with poaching; nor had it been a random meeting between the two men.”

Jim described how there had been bad blood between the pair as a result of Campbell having arrested the Earl’s favourite servant, Alexander Bartleymore, whom he had caught smuggling rum ashore some months earlier. Bartleymore had escaped punishment—most likely as a result of the Earl’s intervention. It was Bartleymore who informed Eglinton that he had seen Campbell carrying a gun on the Earl’s land and urged him to action.

Campbell was not alone that morning; he was in the company of John Brown, the Tide Officer at Saltcoats. The pair had gone hunting on the grounds adjacent to the Earl’s estate with the permission of the owner. They had caught nothing and so made their way to the beach where the Montfode Burn joins the shore, briefly crossing Eglinton’s land on the way. It was there that the Earl, mounted on his horse, and accompanied by five servants, confronted Campbell and demanded that he hand over his rifle.

Campbell, a former soldier, declined and argued that he had the right to carry a gun and that he had not been poaching on the Earl’s land. The Earl persisted in his demands while repeatedly nudging his horse forward forcing Campbell to back up towards the sea. Eglinton ordered a servant to bring him a pistol, and now armed, dismounted and pointed the gun at Campbell saying: ‘So you would shoot me? I’m as good a shot as you’.

Campbell, ignoring his friend John Brown’s pleas to give in to the Earl, continued to retreat backwards before tripping over a rock and falling to the ground. The Earl saw this as his chance to seize Campbell’s gun, but before he could grab it Campbell pulled the trigger and hit the Earl in the bowels.

The Earl died of his wounds early in the following morning.

Campbell was incarcerated, badly beaten, and held in Irvine Jail. He was later transferred in chains to Edinburgh to stand trial on the charge of murder.

During his research, Jim found a witness statement claiming that Campbell had been heard a few weeks earlier saying that he ‘…would never give up his gun to Eglinton’.

If the Earl had had knowledge of this it would perhaps explain why he was so keen to challenge Campbell, and certainly, such a statement repeated at Mungo’s trial would be damning. But Jim went on to warn that this may mislead us into believing that the two men were simply spoiling for a fight when in fact it should help us understand the level of civil unrest simmering amongst ordinary Scots at that time. Jim explained that only 46 people in Ayrshire—and all of them male—had the vote in 1769 and that there was enormous dissatisfaction at this lack of representation.

Campbell’s overheard comment was most probably typical of the thoughts of many people at the time who resented the injustices of the feudal system and the game laws. Consequently, Eglinton and the rest of the landowning class would have been highly sensitive to any signs of rebellion in the community.

During his research Jim has discovered that Mungo Campbell had received a surprising level of support from several influential people of the time. As well as being represented by three of Scotland’s top lawyers, he also had the support of James Boswell the biographer of Samuel Johnson. Boswell’s support is all the more surprising since he himself was a close friend of the Eglinton family. Jim suggested that the unusual mix of allies Campbell had found around him might show that the sense of injustice felt by the common man also extended into the educated middle classes.

As comforting as all this influential support may have been for Campbell it was to be of little help in the end. On the day of the verdict the courtroom candle which had been lit at the start of the trial was snuffed out and Mungo Campbell was sentenced to death by hanging, his body to be dissected. When asked if he had anything to say, Campbell simply replied: ‘I have never thought that the outcome should be other than it is’.

But Campbell didn’t make it to the gallows or to the surgeon’s scalpel. Before the day of his execution he was found hanging from a silk scarf tied to the rafters in his cell. His body was taken away and buried only to be dug again soon afterwards and mutilated by an angry mob who felt they had been cheated out of a show.

Jim says: “Discussion of the Earl’s murder persisted both within Ayrshire and beyond for many years to follow.

“It was the equivalent of ‘where were you the day JFK was shot?’ for our generation.”

In the months and years following the trial there were rumours that Campbell had not hung himself but had escaped, or had been helped to escape. Some people even claimed to have seen him alive and well in Saltcoats. Jim’s presentation shows that interest in the case persists to this day and is likely to continue for a long time to come.

Jim will soon be publishing his book The Earl and the Exciseman in which he presents his findings in much greater detail. The public presentation was organised by Kilwinning Heritage who are keen to recruit new members. Anyone who may be interested in joining can find out more by visiting their website: kilwinningheritage.org.

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Multimedia journalist specialising in both print and digital media content for Scottish charities, professional associations, voluntary sector organisations, and SMEs. Iain also provides search engine optimisation and content refresh services for website owners in any industry.