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As Lord Advocate he was the minister responsible for the persecuting policy of Charles II in Scotland against the Presbyterian Covenanters. After the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 Mackenzie imprisoned 1,200 Covenanters in a field next to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Some were executed, and hundreds died of maltreatment. His treatment of Covenanters gained him the nickname "Bluidy Mackenzie". It has been argued that both he and Claverhouse kept to the letter of the law. It is unclear whether or not the epithet "Bluidy" is contemporary; it appears in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), given to Davie Deans. The language of blood prevails in the published testimony of Marion Harvey, hanged in 1681, who calls her blood onto Mackenzie: ""that excommunicate tyrant, George Mackenzie, the advocate", among others.
Mackenzie mausoleum in Greyfriars, Edinburgh
Mackenzie resigned for a short time in 1686, before taking up office again in 1688 and serving as shire commissioner for Forfarshire from 1688 to his death. He opposed the dethronement of James II, and to escape the consequences he retired from public life.
In private life Mackenzie was a cultivated and learned gentleman with literary tendencies. He published in 1660 Aretina, which has been called the first Scottish novel. He is remembered as the author of various graceful essays. A contemporary antiquarian, Alexander Nisbet, calls him "learned" and "renowned".
Mackenzie wrote legal, political, and antiquarian books, including:
Title page of Mackenzie's 'Vindication', published in 1691
The Science of Heraldry, Treated as a Part of the Civil Law of Nations: Wherein Reasons are Given for its Principles, and Etymologies of its Harder Terms (1680);
Institutions of the Law of Scotland (1684);
Jus Regium: Or the Just and Solid Foundations of Monarchy in General, and More Especially of the Monarchy of Scotland: Maintain'd Against Buchannan, Naphtali, Dolman, Milton, &c. (1684), a major royalist tract;
A Vindication of the Government in Scotland (1691);
Antiquity of the Royal Line of Scotland (1686);
Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland from the Restoration of Charles II (1821).
Mackenzie took part in the Midlothian trials for witchcraft in 1661, and defended the alleged witch Maevia. He later wrote at length of his experience with witchcraft trials. He did not endorse the sceptical position, but stated that witches were fewer than common belief made out. He attributed confessions to the use of torture.
His Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal (1678) was the first textbook of Scottish criminal law. In it Mackenzie defended the use of judicial torture in Scotland as legal. He said it was seldom used. In the aftermath of the Rye House Plot Charles II authorised the use of torture against William Spence, secretary to Archibald, Earl of Agyll, who was moved to Scotland. The Scottish privy council was reluctant, but eventually went beyond Scottish law in torturing Spence. Mackenzie visited William Carstares in prison in London, caught up in the same investigation, to warn him of the consequences of stubborn behaviour under questioning.
A Moral Essay preferring Solitude to Public Employment (1665);
Moral Gallantry (1667); and
The Moral History of Frugality (1691).
Mackenzie was the founder of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh. His inaugural oration there is dated 15 March 1689, so just before his departure south; but the evidence is that the oration was written some years before, and the library itself was operational from the early 1680s. The initiative followed Mackenzie's appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, in 1682.
^The exact year of his birth is uncertain: his biography in the Dictionary of National Biography identifies the year as 1636, as does the biography published in the folio edition of his works (1716-1722), but he himself in his own work, The Religious Stoic, declared in 1663 that he was not yet 25 (Lang 1909, p. 22). "[He was born] either in 1636, as most sources assert, or in 1638, as his own works suggest" (Jackson 2007).