The story of James Robertson

Opinion: The British Empire: A legacy of violence?

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union – a country which for years has been accused of racism, of being a ‘terrible friend’, of being a threat to liberal values, and of being economically unstable – I am reminded of the story of James Robertson, an Anglo-Irish revolutionary who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1782 for the kidnapping of Robert, Viscount Irlam of the Isle of Skye.

I first heard this story one Saturday afternoon in a pub in a small town in the west of Scotland. This pub had a sign above the door which read ‘the best damn pub in the country’. I found I could ask questions and that I knew the answers to most of them. And so I did. The last question was very simple, but with a very deep meaning. When asked how he had come to be sentenced to die (as James Robertson had been) the judge had told the jury, “It is by your verdict that I know if you are a good man or a bad man.” But the jury gave their verdict, and gave a verdict that was not a verdict at all. They were convinced that James Robertson was a good and kind man, and that his deeds had been good. But they could not bring themselves to say that it was also necessary for him to be a bad man–to be a bad man was to be a villain, and it was one of the jury’s duties to decide whether someone was a hero or a villain. They could not bring themselves to make that finding. Instead, they said they were convinced of his good intentions. The law that they had to apply to James Robertson’s life showed them that James Robertson was the hero they had hoped he would be–a hero for what he really was, that he had been a good and kind man.

A few days before Christmas I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about a book he was

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