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
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
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
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
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
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 &
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.
About this website
Search this site
Article: Birching in the Isle of Man 1945 to 1976
Country files: CP in the Isle of Man