Henry John Burnett - Scotland’s last execution.


21 year old Henry Burnett became the last person hanged in Scotland in the newly constructed Condemned Suite at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen at 8 am. on Thursday the 15th of August 1963.  He was to die for the murder of 27 year old merchant seaman, Thomas Guyan, on the 31st of May 1963.



Thomas Guyan had married Margaret May on the 2nd of February 1957 and a year later they moved into a first floor flat at 14 Jackson Terrace, Aberdeen, in a house owned by Margaret's grandmother, Annie Henderson.  Margaret gave birth to a son in September 1958 followed by a second one in February, 1961.  However the second son was not fathered by Thomas who, although he knew this, would not divorce her.  Thomas was often away for lengthy periods at sea.

In December 1961 Margaret took a job at John R. Stephen Fish Curers where she met and fell for Henry Burnett.  The relationship blossomed and by May 1963, Margaret had moved out of Jackson Terrace with her younger son, Keith, to 40 Skene Terrace to live with Burnett.

Burnett was very possessive and feared that Margaret would leave him.  He took to locking her in the house whenever he went out which was totally unacceptable to her.  On May the 31st 1963, Margaret met Thomas and agreed to go back to him.  Margaret went to Skene Terrace at 4.00pm, to pick up Keith on that day. Her friend, Georgina Cattanagh, accompanied her.  Margaret announced her intention to go back to her husband to which Burnett replied "Margaret, Margaret, you are not going to leave me!" He put a knife to Margaret's throat, closing the door behind them.  Georgina banged repeatedly on the door and told Burnett to let Margaret go.  Minutes later Burnett opened the door and escaped. Margaret was left shaken but unhurt.  Here is a photo of Burnett with Margaret in happier times.

The murder.

Later that day Burnett went to Guyan’s flat at 14 Jackson Terrace in Aberdeen and knocked on the door.  When Guyan opened it Burnett shot him in the face at close range with a shotgun he had earlier stolen from his brother.  He dragged Margaret out of the flat at gunpoint and then hijacked a car at a petrol station but was captured at Ellon near Peterhead within the hour as PC’s. Raeper and Mitchell had followed the vehicle. He offered no resistance to the officers. During the journey he had proposed marriage to Margaret and she had accepted! 

Trial and execution.
Burnett was tried at Aberdeen before Mr. Justice Wheatley on the 23rd to the 25th of July 1963.  W. R. Greve led the prosecution.  As Burnett had used a gun, it was capital murder and his stealing it gave clear evidence of premeditation.  Burnett’s barrister, R. R. Taylor, attempted a defence of insanity or diminished responsibility but the jury took only 25 minutes to convict him.  Burnett did not appeal.

Both his own family and that of the victim petitioned for his reprieve.  Even Thomas’ mother, Jeanie, petitioned the Scottish Office for clemency.  She said: “I can find it in my heart to forgive Henry Burnett. I’ll sign the petition. I don’t think Henry Burnett should hang. I don’t want revenge. His death won’t bring my Tom back.”

As this was the first hanging in Aberdeen since October the 21st, 1857 when John Booth was executed, a new condemned suite had to be constructed.  It is not clear why Burnett wasn’t simply transferred to Glasgow or Edinburgh for execution.  Burnett told Margaret that it was “like the Ritz”!

A few days before the execution Burnett wrote to Margaret saying: “Well, my darling, you will be wondering why I did not kill you up in Skene Terrace.  “Well, it was because I loved you. I could easily have done it if I had wanted to but what they were saying in court was a heap of rubbish about me being insane even at the time. I knew exactly what I was doing.”

Margaret was allowed to spend half an hour with Burnett on the day before the hanging.  She would stand by Burnett till the end and later claimed: “My heart is with Harry (as she called him). People can talk but I still love Harry.”


Harry Allen was the hangman, assisted by Samuel Plant. A crowd of some 200 people had gathered outside the prison.  (see photo)  HMP Aberdeen as Craiginches is now known, closed in January 2014 and Burnett’s body has now been re-interred elsewhere.  Here are the written instructions for carrying out this execution. (Pages 1 & 2)


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