Poetry Corner: Death by Selection

By Bernie Bell

I’d just sent my ‘Guilty or not Guilty‘ piece  to the Orkney News,  when I read ‘Death By Selection’ in Richard  Wallace’s book of poetry  (‘Think About It’, published by Shuswap Press).  I emailed Richard, saying that I felt that the two pieces of writing, chime. In return, he sent me his poem,  saying it’s fine by him, for me to share it. So – here it is……………….

Death By Selection By Richard Wallace

Death is all around us.

Death by mischance,

we can live with that.

Death by selection

is a little harder to take.


Water foul,

their protective blanket


from an oil slick

die at sea.


Birds and animals

weakened from cold and snow,


are easy prey

for the fox.


An elk,

having broken through

spring ice,

in the middle of a marsh,

dies a lonely death.


Death is death.

Dead is dead.

No return.

No second chance.

It’s natures way.


But what of the victims

of a car bomb


a deranged man

with a gun?


What of men and women

in the armies of the world?

In uniform or no uniform,

murdering the innocents,

the terrified civilians.


Death by selection

is not natures way.

Death by selection

can not be reconciled;

it is just a little harder to take.

Guilty – or Not Guilty? By Bernie Bell

Reading the article about the tours of the higher levels of St. Magnus Cathedral, written by Fiona (G), which includes a picture of the old Hangman’s ladder, reminded me of a tale I was told, some years ago, about the last person to be hung in Orkney, an execution which took place in Kirkwall in 1728.  It’s the sorry tale of a young servant girl, Marjory Meason, who worked at Frustigar on Shapinsay.  Marjory was hanged for ‘child murder’. But the tale is murky, and I can’t help wondering if her case would have received a more compassionate hearing in these times?

It’s hard to think of that young girl, being led up to the platform on the top of Clay Loan, then led up the ladder, step by step, side by side with the Hangman, “to be hanged by the neck upon a gibbet until she be dead.”  Does anyone deserve that form of death?  The ladder has 13 rungs, as all Hangman’s ladders had, and one side is said to be more worn than the other, as the condemned person went up the ladder once, while the hangman went up – then down again.

The tale of Betty Corrigal is a different kind of story, but, how different?   https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/03/24/betty-corrigall/

My problem with the death penalty is this – however ‘humane’ the actual killing may be ( and hanging most certainly was not humane), how can it be right for one person to be ‘allowed’ to kill another person, because they had killed someone?  Double standards.

One of my mother’s many sound sayings was “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

A Hangman was, essentially, a socially condoned and accepted serial killer. Young Marjory had killed once – who really knows in what circumstances? The Hangman who killed her – how many people had he killed?  How many did he take with him to the grave?

I say “accepted”, but did folk feel comfortable in his presence? Standing next to him in the pub …or the church?  I wouldn’t!  He’d chosen that way to make a living ( no irony intended), but…why?

And why is it seen as being within the law, to kill many times, just because a Judge, who is only human too, has said that this killing is to be done?

I have some sympathy with Marjory Meason. What chance did she have? A servant girl, in the year 1728, accused of murder, being judged by ‘her betters’, and then murdered, legally, in the eyes of the law.  It’s reported to have taken the Magistrates and Council, 24 armed men, plus officers, several workmen and a hangman to perform the execution,  which cost £15 8s – of which a large part is said to have been spent on ale for those ‘officials’.  Maybe they felt bad about their actions, and needed some ‘Dutch courage’.

A sorry tale, but at least it was the last hanging to take place in Orkney.

I wouldn’t be physically able to do the tour of the upper levels of St. Magnus Cathedral, but, if I did, I wouldn’t like to encounter that ladder, with the two flights of rungs – one for the socially condoned killer, and one for the …condemned.

To quote Gandalf again…

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement”.

St Magnus Cathedral

double ladder – for the hangman and the condemned

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , ,

1 reply »

  1. Thank you, Bernie. I found this very meaningful. That climb to execution left me sad for Marjory in particular and regretful of all executions, lawful or not.

Leave a Reply