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Response to Review no. 781

I am very grateful to Professor Champion for his thorough and thoughtful review. Very few readers of my Aikenhead book will have such wide and deep knowledge of late 17th- and early 18th-century heterodoxy; his work on John Toland in particular was helpful to me in researching this book. I am especially intrigued by his suggestion that Aikenhead may have been influenced by the ‘three impostors’ manuscripts. Certainly all three ‘imposters’, and Aikenhead’s opinions of them, came up in witness testimony at his trial (Patrick Middleton alleged that Aikenhead thought Muhammed ‘both the better artist and politician than Jesus’, and Adam Mitchell claimed Aikenhead had a higher opinion of Moses’ skills as a magician than those of Jesus).

The ‘critical and collated edition’ of the trial records and related materials Professor Champion suggests might indeed have enhanced this book, although it would have added to its length and already high (I fear) cost. The main omissions from the published record in State Trials are the more complete witness lists (State Trials gives only the names of those who testified in the trial), the lists of all assize jurors summoned (State Trials lists only those who ultimately served), and Aikenhead’s second pretrial petition, as well as several documents relating to the scheduling of the trial and the summoning of particular witnesses. State Trials also misattributes a letter to Locke by James Johnston, claiming that its author was Locke himself. My archival bias led me to the original Justiciary Court papers in the National Archives of Scotland, although I later looked over the copies collected by Locke and preserved in the Bodleian as well as those which made their way into the Harleian mss in the British Library. I did not probe them for scribal variants beyond the obvious (e.g., Mungo Craig’s name is omitted from Aikenhead’s first pretrial petition in the version in the Locke mss, whereas the name is filled in in NAS MS JC26/78/1/12). I did use the handwriting of the original petitions in my speculations about the extent to which Aikenhead had any legal assistance in his defense (pp. 104–7). For me, the most significant aspect of the copying and circulation of these materials was the evidence they provide for public interest in the case, as noted on p. 140.

John Locke’s interest in Aikenhead’s case is certainly an important aspect of its afterlife, and one to which I give some attention (pp. 117, 137–8). But I think Professor Champion may be stretching what we know from the evidence when he writes that ‘Locke preserved and commented on the material’. He certainly collected (and thereby preserved) it, and that is significant by itself. But I was unable to find any written comment by Locke beyond the labeling of the materials, either in MS Locke b.4, or in MS Locke f.10 (the latter being his journal for the period 1689–1704). If Locke scholars (I cannot claim to be one) can find some, I for one would be very eager to know what he thought of Thomas Aikenhead and his sad fate.

If I may offer one other small correction, I’d like to defend George Meldrum, minister of the Tron parish, from Professor Champion’s aspersion that he thought it his ‘Godly duty to hound young girls to death for playing on Sundays’. Meldrum, while certainly a firm believer in the need for ‘moral reformation’, was praised by contemporaries for his comforting style, and was reputed by one source to have sought a pardon for Aikenhead. It was James Webster, pastor of the Tolbooth and a clergyman of a much different temperament, who was so obnoxious at the deathbed of Christian Kerr (pp. 121, 125n). Both Meldrum and Webster attended Aikenhead at the scaffold, but I suspect the latter was much happier to be sending him off.