Friday, 17 April 2015

Stuart Reviews: April Book of the Month: The Hanging of Margaret Dickson

The Hanging of Margaret Dickson
by Alison J. Butler
Reviewed by Stuart S. Laing

I approached this story thinking I knew the rough background to the legend of Half Hangit Maggie, the poor woman who died on the gallows of Edinburgh's Grassmarket only to be found alive in her coffin a few hours later. Alison Butler has done a simply wonderful job of adding flesh, blood and bones to that famous story. Her writing breathes life into a fantastic array of characters who bring real colour and drama to the book, and it is easy to lose yourself in the rich reek of the harbour at Musselburgh as fishwives clean their catch amid the jumble of creels and nets, or the heady stink of Edinburgh where thousands live cheek by jowl in a city with little or no sanitation.

Narrow Wynd in Old Edinburgh
The woman with the basket on her back
is a fishwife as Maggie was.
I found myself being drawn deeper and deeper into the story by the skilful use of fact and fiction to create a satisfying whole. Butler's research and deep love of the story shines through and adds real depth to the book along with a plethora of details, which just adds to the overall picture. Wonder no more why women go out on hen nights before their weddings! Or why sailors don't wish to be between the Devil and the deep blue sea!

From Maggie's childhood, the loss of her mother, her wild, rebellious teenage years and her marriage, at the age of only 17, which brings more disappointment than pleasure for the headstrong Maggie, we follow her life through its ups and downs. It is her undoubted desire to enjoy the finer things in life which leads her into flirtations with prostitution but through it all she always finds herself going back to her husband. It is to Butler's credit that she still manages to have you rooting for Maggie despite her wilful and wild ways. It would be so easy to view her as a deeply unsympathetic character who thinks only of herself without consideration for her husband or children. And there are times as you read the book that you find yourself shaking your head at her behaviour wishing she could just be satisfied with her lot, but that is not Maggie's way. Yet through it all Alison Butler paints her protagonist so well that you still fall for her charms and faults that could so easily have made her a deeply unlikeable character.

When her husband is press-ganged into the Royal Navy, it is Maggie's turn to believe she has been abandoned. Her journey southward with the intention of looking for him in Newcastle will prove to be her undoing. The events which follow will give birth to both a sickly infant destined to a short life and the start of Maggie Dickson's place in Edinburgh's folklore and history.

Edinburgh Tolbooth by St Giles on the Royal Mile. It was here Maggie awaited execution.

Even though the book is moving towards the inevitable date with the gallows of the Grassmarket you find yourself hoping that somehow Maggie will mend her ways. Unfortunately, history cannot be changed and the descriptions of the Tolbooths in Kelso and Edinburgh will leave you scratching yourself at the image of bodies crawling with filth and lice and chained in unlit, stinking cells.

Eighteenth-century Scotland lives and breathes through the pages of this book. From the stink of the midden to the tantalising aroma of French perfume this a book which fills your senses, and like a rich broth leaves you satisfied.

Bravo to Alison Butler for a job well done.


About the Author:

Alison Butler was born in Liverpool, England in the 1970s. She's worked as a checkout girl, bar-maid, model and singer. Alison is married to Dave Butler and has four children - Whitney, Belinda, Isabella and Oliver.

Alison worked for over ten years in the entertainment industry, working as a professional singer. Following the birth of her fourth child she gave up singing to study for a social sciences degree.

While researching for her dissertation, Alison stumbled across a small excerpt in a history of crime and punishment book. It briefly described the true story of a woman named Margaret Dickson who survived a public execution. This incredible story inspired Alison to write her debut novel, using 18th century judicial court court records, broadsheets and marriage/birth certificates.

She can be followed on Twitter here.


Alison J. Butler has very kindly agreed to gift a kindle copy of   The Hanging of Margaret Dickson to one lucky winner. To be entered into the draw just leave a comment below OR at this review's Facebook thread, located here.

The Hanging of Margaret Dickson may also be purchased at Amazon  and Amazon UK


Stuart S. Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin MysteriesHe can be found on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. A great review, Stuart. I do have this book, but haven't yet read it. I will now move it up my TBR list. Congratulations Alison for being chosen April's Book of the Month!

  2. What an amazing story in two ways!!--That Margaret Dickson survived that hanging and Alison Butler might come across Dickson's story so many years later. And a FABulous review, Stuart, I am sold! I really want to read this book!

  3. Fantastic review. Sounds like an engrossing read.

  4. Great review sounds like a fabulous book

  5. This sounds an amazing story, and it's true. I wonder how many people would have accepted this if it had been just plain fiction!