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Judicial CP - September 2000

Corpun file 22654


Sunday Mail, Glasgow, 3 September 2000

Birchman of Wigtown

Cliff was the last man to lash criminals

By L. McGarvie

HE looks like any of the other retired people running a guest house in the quiet town of Wigtown

But beneath Cliff Gelling's mild-mannered exterior lies a dark and historic past.

He was the last policeman to administer the birch on the Isle of Man.

That claim to fame may make Cliff sound ferocious and, indeed, 71-year-old Cliff's wife Margaret explained that Wigtown parents threaten unruly children with the "birch man".

But she said despite his past as a disciplinarian, at heart he's a big softy.

Cliff played down his past life as the man who birched more than 20 criminals in his 29 years. "Using it wasn't something I enjoyed. It would sometimes fall to me as the constable on duty to do it," said Cliff, who has run the guesthouse in south-west Scotland since 1988.

In 1965, four young Glaswegians got nine strokes of the birch after being involved in a serious assault.

Joseph McKay, William Keenan, James McKell and William Connelly admitted attacking a fellow Glaswegian with a bottle.

After a speedy court appearance in Douglas they were examined by a doctor to see if they were fit for birching. Minutes later they had received their strokes and were released, sore and ready to leave the island.

One year later 17-year-old Glaswegian Ronald McLaren received six strokes for attacking another holidaymaker with a bottle. The last person Cliff Gelling gave a birching to was a young Scotsman in 1972.

Cliff said: "He was given six strokes, but we stopped after three. He had hit some people with a bottle on the prom at Douglas during his holiday and I remember he was brave before he was birched. But he was screaming after one stroke."

Although no one has been birched since the 70s, the punishment was legal under Manx law until this year when the birch came off the statute books for contravening the European Convention of Human Rights.

To some, the birch is barbaric, with no place in modern society. Criminals had to drop their trousers and underwear and bend over a chair. Two PCs held them down as they got up to nine strokes with a birch made of bound twigs.

Cliff is still convinced a lashing was the best crime deterrent the island police had.

He made a near full recovery from a minor seizure two years ago and still advocates corporal punishment for serious assaults and thefts.

He said: "I'd have the birch back on the island as crime is rising. I'm sure Scotland would benefit from having it, too. The reputation of the birch was worse than the reality. People who might have committed crimes were deterred because it was swift justice."

When asked if he felt any guilt over the people he punished, he was adamant he did the right thing. "I thought of the victims they abused and that cleared my mind."

COPYRIGHT 2000 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday Mail

blob Note by C.F. Actually the last Isle of Man birching was in 1976, so if Cliff Gelling's last performance was in 1972 as stated in this piece, then he cannot have been the last man to administer the birch, and the subheading is wrong.

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