The Arran Murder of 1889
Robin N Campbell
© Robin N
Campbell & The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal 2001
THE year of 1889 embraced the initiation and foundation of our Club, an organization devoted to the offence of trespass. It was also a vintage year for the crime of murder. It was the year of Jack the Ripper’s 7th and last murder in London (18th July), the year that the poisoner Mrs Maybrick was brought to trial in Liverpool (26th July), and it was the year of the ‘Arran Murder’. Two men — John Laurie and Edwin Rose — went up Goatfell on 15th July, and only one — Laurie — came down. Rose’s badly mutilated body was found three weeks later hidden below a large boulder in Coire nam Fuaran on the south side of Glen Sannox, by which time Laurie had guiltily fled from Glasgow. Laurie was apprehended and charged that he “did assault Rose, and did throw him down, and did beat him, and did murder him”. He was subsequently tried and convicted in November. So far as I know, this is the only case of murder in our mountains to go to trial since recreational mountaineering began.
The case was widely reported at the time, and excited enormous public interest before and after the trial. Even the adherents of the newly-formed S.M.C. took note. Fraser Campbell, writing in the Journal of 1890, described a visit to Arran ‘on a Sunday’ in July 1889, in the company of W.R. Lester. The party made an anti-clockwise round of Glen Sannox. Reaching Mullach Buidhe, Campbell remarked, “As we looked down its rocky sides in Glen Sannox, we little recked of the horrid drama of which it was soon to be the scene — the ill-fated tourist, Mr. Rose, having met his death there within 24 hours of our ascent.”1 So Campbell and Lester passed above the murder site on the 14th July, just missing their chance to provide that forensic rarity — a witness to a mountain murder. For murder is never easier than in the mountains: a little push, gravity amply supplies the violent force, and who is to know, unless there is someone to see? Another early mountaineer, A.E. Robertson, noted in his diary for August 1889 that he mistook an Inspector of Schools from Edinburgh — no doubt a repulsive and menacing figure — for the unapprehended Arran murderer, simply because the Inspector suggested joining forces with Robertson and his friend for an ascent of Ben Cruachan!2
Despite this proof of strong interest in the case from mountaineers, no expert witness from our ranks was called to the trial. However, there are some aspects of the case in which such expert advice would have been useful, particularly perhaps to the defence. I began reading about the case some years ago, when I was preparing the plot of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and thinking about the likely conduct of a murderer-by-pushing in the aftermath of the fateful shove.3 Although this was not how Laurie was charged, some of those who have written about the case subsequently have supposed that if Laurie murdered Rose, he did so by pushing him over a crag.4 On a visit to Arran at Easter a few years ago, I located the place where Rose’s body was found, took photographs, and explored the surrounding ground. Since that time, I have talked about the case to mountaineering audiences, exciting a degree of interest, particularly among hillwalkers. For that reason, and to satisfy our new Editor, I offer a compressed account of the case here, together with a discussion of points of mountaineering interest and some other specific issues surrounding the trial and its verdict which have not been discussed elsewhere. Any reader whose interest is pricked should put flesh on the skeleton presented here by reading the books identified in notes 4 and 5.
A Diary of the Case
The facts of the case are as follows5:—
The Boulder Grave
The Crown and Defence Theories
These are the bare facts of a complex case. The complexity arises particularly from the fact that the evidence against Laurie is entirely circumstantial. That is, there is no direct evidence (e.g. a witness, blood on Laurie’s clothing, a murder weapon) that Laurie — or indeed anyone — had assaulted Rose. Nor was the Crown able to secure any worthwhile motive for murder, not even robbery of the body, since no item found in Laurie’s possession was shown to have been carried by Rose on the ascent of Goatfell, and since Rose and Laurie were to all appearances on the best of terms. Even when last seen together on Goatfell summit, they were chatting together in a friendly manner. On the contrary, arising from a subplot mentioned in Laurie’s letter of 10th August, Laurie had a decent motive to murder someone else — a Coatbridge schoolteacher who was on holiday in Bute at the time with Laurie’s former girlfriend of long standing, and despite Laurie’s statement in the letter that it was ‘to watch her audacious behaviour’ that he went to Bute, there is no evidence that Laurie as much as said ‘Boo!’ to this enemy.
Worse still, the Crown could not even show that the two men descended the mountain together or even by the same route, for the evidence of the only witness placing Laurie in Glen Sannox was contradicted by two women whom the witness was with at the time of the supposed sighting of Laurie. Worst of all, Rose’s injuries did not point convincingly to battery. Indeed, the defence produced distinguished medical witnesses who presented impressive arguments that the injuries were perfectly consistent with a fall, and inconsistent with battery. So the medical evidence simply fails to establish that Rose died by violence. In any murder trial, one would expect to see the Crown establish the manner of death of the victim, and a motive, the indicated means and an opportunity for the accused to kill him. Here not one of these key elements of evidence was securely established.
Yet Laurie left Arran without making inquiries about Rose, and took away some of Rose’s possessions. Why would he do that, if he didn’t know that Rose was dead? It is not easy to think of convincing alternative explanations, and the defence offered none. And then, as soon as it became obvious that he would be identified as ‘Annandale’, he fled to Liverpool, concealing his destination with lies. This conduct suggesting knowledge of death and later conduct displaying guilt was emphasized by both Crown and Judge and it may have been a potent factor for the Jury. But, again, Laurie’s behaviour is exactly what one would expect from someone who made off with the possessions of a man killed in an accident. That is, it does not point clearly to murder rather than theft, albeit a particularly callous and odious theft.
Reasonable men such as are presumed to compose juries should therefore reach the conclusions that Laurie was present when Rose died, and that Rose died as a result of injuries sustained in a fall. But the Crown did not prepare the fallback position that Laurie may have caused Rose to fall by tripping or pushing him, but stuck to the unlikely theory that he had beaten him to death with a rock. Likewise, the defence might have argued that Laurie had merely (and meanly) robbed Rose’s corpse following an accident, but chose instead (apparently on Laurie’s instructions) to argue that the two men had descended by independent routes. But if Laurie descended independently, what was he doing between 6.20 p.m. at the top of Goatfell and 10 p.m. in the Corrie Hotel? Although Laurie stated in his letter that he was with friends in Corrie, no evidence was produced to support this statement. So the unfortunate jurors, pressed for time by the impatient Judge, were obliged to decide between two implausible and unsupported accounts of Rose’s death.
The Third Theory
Perhaps, then, the facts favour a third theory that the two men descended together, that Rose fell to his death in the gully, and that Laurie robbed the body and hid it. Much the same conclusion is reached by Jack House (see note 4), whose opinion is that a verdict of Not Proven ought to have been returned. But there are still some difficulties with this account. If he hid the body to avoid or delay discovery, why did he not also hide or remove the various objects belonging to Rose found scattered about the gully, two of them — a stick and a torn waterproof — within a few yards of the Boulder? Rather ridiculously, the Crown, and rather naughtily, the Judge both suggest that these objects were on the contrary scattered about the gully by Laurie so as to suggest that Rose fell. Surely this argument depends on the far-fetched assumption that Laurie took this action in order to prepare his defence! The other difficulties have to do with time and route. Was there time enough for Laurie to put the body under the boulder and conceal it with a wall? And what circumstances led them to return to Brodick from Goatfell so late in the evening by this very circuitous route, which was bound to add a clear two hours to their journey time, when they might have either gone down the Brodick path, or gone straight down to Corrie by another well-known and quick route? Before considering these difficulties, it is necessary to consider the nature of the ground between Goatfell summit, the descent gully and the Boulder.
The North Ridge of Goatfell
begins with a steeply-descending rocky section and continues to North Goatfell
over a series of awkward rocky tors. However, these may be by-passed on sheep
tracks to the east or west. If passed on the east, it is then possible to make a
descending traverse across easy ground to the col between North Goatfell and
Malloch Buidhe above the gully. The gully is best descended after the steep
initial section by following ledges diagonally to the right (east) side away
from the gully bed, then returning by a second series of leftward diagonal
ledges to reach the gully below all difficulties and just above the Boulder.
Descent of the gully itself or of its left (west) bank is dangerous and
difficult; descent of the right bank is awkwardly steep and rocky and brings a
sizable crag — referred to in the trial as the ‘32-foot drop’ — into play. This
is a serious hazard, topped by smooth convex slabs and the landing area is the
usual scree of large boulders. The ground below this crag is, however, still
steep and it is quite likely that someone falling would continue to roll down
the gully towards the Boulder. So there is no difficulty here for the defence
theory that Rose may have fallen down this crag, and also such a fall might have
brought him down the gully to a point quite close to the Boulder.
The 32-foot drop
The Boulder is a long thin slab, lying parallel to the course of the gully, firmly embedded on the right (west) side and sloping slightly downhill. The left side is open, but the space below the Boulder, floored with heathery turf, is very cramped; there is just enough room for one person to lie flat, with very little headroom. However, these are present conditions: it must be considered whether or not the Boulder had been used as a shelter or ‘howff’, in which case the floor would have been cleared to subsoil, providing a little more room. Unfortunately, the police evidence gives no indication whether the ‘wall of 42 stones’ was newly-built, or whether Laurie or whoever had simply added rocks to an older foundation. There are several confusing reports of the nature of the enclosing wall given at the trial. The most detailed comes from Francis Logan, the fisherman who found the body, and in his evidence it is clearly a wall that is described. “There was a dyke built in front of the boulder so as to close up the opening . . with pieces of turf between the stones.”8 This is exactly what would be expected of a howff, which must be made windproof, whereas a structure made only to conceal a body might well neglect such comforts.
Of course, the theory of the Crown was that the bizarre and circuitous descent route was chosen by Laurie because he had already decided to do away with Rose, and wanted a quiet place away from prying eyes. But the circumstances allow a different explanation, needing no assumptions of bad faith. When Laurie and Rose were on top of Goatfell the weather was by no means perfect. There had been two heavy showers as the three parties approached the summit and one of the witnesses said that mist filled Glen Rosa. According to the five other climbers, Laurie and Rose didn’t follow them down the east ridge. It seems likely, then, that they proceeded along the rocky ridge towards North Goatfell with a view to turning east down the easy slopes leading to Corrie. It is most unlikely — in late evening and with midges probably already at work — that they would plan to descend via the Saddle or by any other route involving descent to Glen Sannox, committing themselves to a lengthy return journey in darkness. So the descent by the steep gully into Coire nam Fuaran looks very like a navigation error, perhaps caused by mist. If they followed the ridge to North Goatfell for some way before turning off to the east, it would be perfectly possible in misty conditions to stray too far left and end up at the col above the gully. It is very unfortunate that the trial evidence didn’t go into the question of weather conditions, particularly visibility, more thoroughly. For, aside from the question of explaining the route taken, visibility affects speed, and time is of crucial importance in assessing what might or might not have happened in Coire nam Fuaran.
Assuming good visibility and good knowledge of the complicated terrain, the Boulder can be reached in half an hour from Goatfell summit. But false moves in mist on the tricky ridge between Goatfell and North Goatfell, or in the descent gully (these would be likely even in clear weather) could add to this considerably. The next definite sighting of Laurie is ‘just before 10 p.m.’ in the Corrie Hotel. From the Boulder to the Hotel is about 31/2 miles, so the police estimate (given by Sergeant Munro) of 1 hour 40 minutes seems about right. Therefore Laurie had to leave the Boulder at 8.15 or thereby, having reached it by 6.50 at the earliest. He had then a maximum of 1 hour 25 minutes to pull or roll Rose down to the Boulder (assuming Rose fell) and wall him in. The time appears tight, and any lingering on the summit, dithering on the ridge or in the gully would seem to make it too tight. But if the Boulder was already a howff, then the problems concerning time become less severe. Laurie would only have had to push Rose into the howff feet first (this would also explain the fact that Rose’s jacket was turned back over his head) and add a few stones to ‘close the howff door’. So the third theory that Laurie and Rose descended the gully together, Rose fell and died, and Laurie robbed the body and hid it, is considerably assisted by these mountaineering considerations.
The Linlithgow Factor
The Crown’s theory depended principally on Dr Andrew Gilmour’s evidence that Rose’s injuries could only have been caused by violent blows to the head delivered by a stone used as weapon. Gilmour was Provost and Sheriff of Linlithgow for 19 years, and Master of St. Michael’s Lodge — in a word, King of Linlithgow. According to his evidence, ‘in the month of July I was staying as a summer visitor in Arran’. Rose had made friends with two men from Linlithgow, Francis Mickel and William Thom, and after Laurie and Rose arrived in Brodick on Saturday 13th July, they spent most of their time with Mickel and Thom. In particular, on the Saturday afternoon all four paid a visit for tea to Andrew Francis Craig Gilmour, another Linlithgow man resident at Corrie. Now, astonishing as it might appear, there is nothing in the trial report to tell us that this Gilmour was the son of Andrew Gilmour.9 But he most certainly was, and so it is more than likely that Gilmour Senior met Laurie and Rose on the 13th, and absolutely certain that Dr Gilmour had the benefit of his son’s, Mickel’s and Thom’s opinions regarding Rose and Laurie before he was called to examine the body. The trial record tells us nothing about Gilmour Junior’s opinions, although he gave evidence about Laurie’s journey from Brodick to Glasgow on the16th. But Francis Mickel made his negative opinions of Laurie clear at the trial and claimed that he had warned Rose against him and advised him not to climb Goatfell with him. These opinions appeared to be based on nothing more than that Laurie was ‘silent and uncommunicative’: as the Defence pointed out, there was ample evidence that Laurie was suffering from toothache, which would have rendered the most amiable soul ‘silent and uncommunicative’. Now, although the Crown made use of Mickel’s evidence to blacken the character of Laurie, the Defence — had it decided to explore this Linlithgow factor — might equally have used it to suggest a source of prejudice in the mind of the medical examiner! My own view of the matter is that, long before the discovery of the body, Dr Gilmour had formed the appalling conclusion that he and his fine son had entertained a murderer and his victim to tea, and then used his considerable influence to make sure that nothing of this emerged at the trial.
The Curious Incident of the Folded Cap
One of the many objects discovered in the gully was a cap (Label No. 3 in the list of Productions). This was found high in the gully, well above the ‘32-foot drop’ just below a ‘19-foot drop’ on the west side of the stream. The finder, Angus Logan, quarryman, described it as follows, “It was folded in four, with a stone about 6 inches square and 3 inches thick, and 7 lb. or 8 lb. in weight, lying on the top of it. The cap was in water, there being a small stream of about 3 inches.”10 The cap was identified by John Silverman, Rose’s tailor, as belonging to Rose.
The Crown and the Judge both made much of this cap. In summing up, the Crown suggested that the position of the cap disposed of the theory that Rose had fallen over the ‘32-foot drop’.11 The Judge, it will be remembered, suggested that Laurie may have deliberately scattered Rose’s possessions about the gully “so that if the body should ever be found it might appear as if he had fallen over a precipice”, and then observed that the cap had evidently been deliberately placed where it was found.12
But if one pauses to consider the question, “Why would anyone fold a cap in four, put it in the bed of a stream, and place a heavy stone on it?”, it is obvious that we are faced here with an inexplicable fact, or rather a fact which admits of a myriad of explanations, all highly improbable. Perhaps Rose stopped on the way down the gully for a rest, removed his cap, put it down in the stream-bed, then dry, and put a stone on it to stop it rolling away. Leaving, he then forgot it. Or perhaps someone climbing the gully in late July picked up the cap lower down and then, thinking better of this minor act of theft, placed it as found. Perhaps — the Judge’s theory — Laurie, having killed Rose beside the Boulder and buried him, climbed 300 feet up the gully to put the cap there to suggest a fall, and then so forgot this plan as to put a heavy stone on top of it! So the curiously-positioned cap is a complete red herring. It is a fact which points in no particular direction, since there is no explanation of it that makes any great amount of sense.
What seems to me crucial about the case is that not one of the key elements of a murder was established: the death was not shown to be homicide, but might well have been accidental; Laurie could not be put at the scene of the crime, if crime it was; no motive other than petty theft was suggested, and none was established; no murder weapon was found. Unless there was witness evidence, now lost or mislaid, which helped to establish some of these elements, and bearing in mind the plausibility of the third theory discussed above, Laurie should surely have been simply found Not Guilty. The Judge’s breakneck approach to timing and his somewhat biased Instruction would nowadays have resulted in a successful appeal against conviction, but such appeals were not allowed in the High Court until 1926. Perhaps, too, if Laurie had been additionally charged with Theft — as he should have been — the Jury would have found him Guilty on that charge but would have adjudged the murder charge Not Proven.
So it may be that the stain of
murder should not have been applied to our gentle recreation. But that it was so
applied provides the present-day climbing visitor to Arran with interesting
opportunities. Mrs Walker’s shed in Invercloy, Rose’s grave at Sannox (marked by
a boulder!) and the fateful gully and Boulder grave are easy destinations for a
wet day, and rich with morbid associations. For the very hardy, a bivouac in the
Boulder would provide a memorable conclusion to this novel excursion!
1. SMCJ 1890, I, 31. ‘The Glen Sannox Hills’
2. See my The Munroist’s Companion, p. 49, for details.
3. See ‘The Dreadful Business of the Abernetty Brothers’, SMCJ 1995, XXXV, 604-615.
4. Notably Jack House, in Murder Not Proven?, 1984, Penguin Books.
5. Unfortunately there is no official published transcript of the trial. I have relied heavily on William Roughead’s detailed record The Trial of John Watson Laurie. Wm Hodge & Sons, 1932, supplemented by later accounts and by contemporary newspapers, especially The Buteman & Advertiser. Roughead attended the trial as a young man, and gave an earlier briefer account of it in his Twelve Scots Trials, published in 1913 and recently reprinted by Mercat Press.
6. From The Buteman, 10-8-89, p. 3. Needless to say, this posse found nothing!
7. Actually, that only 53 gave evidence is by no means certain. The trial record in Roughead’s book is conceded to be imperfect, and certain remarks in the closing speeches refer to witnesses whose testimony is absent from Roughead’s transcript. So it may be that some of the missing 33 witnesses provided evidence after all.
8. Roughead 1932, p. 91
9. See A. Eddington & W.T. Pike. Edinburgh and the Lothians at the opening of the 20th Century. Brighton, 1904. A modern reprint (Peter Bell, 1983) is titled A Dictionary of Edwardian Biography: Edinburgh and the Lothians.
10. Roughead 1932, p. 96
11. Roughead’s report (ibid., p. 197) is not very intelligible: "But what very definitely disposes of this [the idea that Rose fell at the 32-foot drop - RNC] is, that it was at a point 40 yards below [the place] that the cap of the deceased was found. [There must be a typo here, as indicated, since the cap was found 40 yards above the 32-foot drop]. I do not think that anyone can doubt that the position of the cap had something to do with this [with what?] — everything to do with it, in fact. It was put in the position in which it was found by a human hand, in a place where it was difficult to reach from below. Then, as regards the other drop, the 19-feet one, which is certainly above where the cap was found, it so happens that at the upper edge of it there is a comparatively flat stone. It does not have a sloping top, and thus it does not satisfy the essential condition of Dr. Heron Watson’s theory [that there was a fall]."
12 Ibid., p.221
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