Murder at Brue

Article reproduced from the Herald newspaper
30th November 1999
In 1968 an elderly spinster was found battered to death in her home ”Ocean View” in the crofting township of Brue, some miles north of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis. A crofter/weaver on his way to the loom shed noticed that the blinds in Miss Mary Mackenzie’s bedroom were not drawn across the window in their usual manner. He went into the house to find the 80-year-old lady lying on the bedroom floor. She had obviously been subjected to a violent attack resulting in her death.

The neighbour contacted the police, setting in motion the biggest murder investigation the Western Isles had ever known. Local police were joined by detectives from Ross-Sutherland Constabulary and Glasgow City Police. A 21-year-old local man was arrested and stood trial at the High Court in Inverness in February 1969 on charges of murder and robbery of an unknown sum of money. The dramatis personae were Lord Justice Clerk Grant, Mr John McCluskey QC, Advocate-depute, and, for the defence, Lionel Daiches and junior counsel John Wheatley, instructed by Glasgow solicitor Bill Dunlop.

The jury of seven men and eight women heard that Miss Mackenzie had been found with her hands folded across her breast. A local doctor stated that she might have lived for half an hour after the attack and might have been able to move. Dr Edgar Rentoul, lecturer in forensic medicine at Glasgow University, confirmed this opinion and explained that the victim had suffered several head wounds, probably caused by a blunt object.

She had been found lying in a large pool of blood with a hair grasped in her hand. The jury heard evidence of some of Miss Mackenzie’s peculiar habits. She kept her clock two hours ahead of the correct time as a ruse to get her brother to bed early. He had suffered a nervous breakdown in the First World War and the ruse continued despite his death six years before the murder. She also kept sums of money wrapped up in newspapers secreted around the house and a considerable amount of money was found in the house after the murder. The jury also heard of her considerable use of talcum powder which was found on the floor and on some furniture in the house and witnesses agreed that it was highly likely that the murderer would have had significant amounts of talc and/or blood on his clothes and footwear.

Specks of blood provided police with an apparent early clue which was later found to lead up the proverbial garden path. One witness told of a knock at her window in the early hours of the day the body was found. She said she had recognised the voice of the accused who had asked the time. Later that morning she noticed specks of blood on her window frame but did not report this to police until a few days after the body was discovered. This information seemed to provide a vital link between the accused and the area of the crime about the time of the murder.

On the eve of the murder, the accused had gone into town. He met a friend who was collecting a crowbar which was in for repair and after a few refreshments he was given a lift to within walking distance of his home. A half bottle was passed round during the journey and when the accused was dropped off his condition was described as ”just about merry” – a delightful Highland phrase which is accurate while vague enough to avoid expressing an adverse opinion. He called at a neighbour’s house and had another couple of drinks before setting off for home. There was evidence of a torn banknote being found in a suitcase belonging to the accused which, according to police, fitted pieces of a torn banknote found in the dead woman’s house. This suitcase contained an apparent bloodstain. This scrap of evidence was potentially fatal to the defence but Lionel Daiches wisely concentrated on the discrepancies in the Crown case. The Crown led evidence to suggest a motive. On the day the body was found, the accused was said to have paid for some outstanding National Insurance stamps and the jury heard that it was the practice of many self-employed weavers to pay for these stamps in lump sums.

There was no evidence to connect the accused with the victim or the inside of her house at the crucial time. From the evidence about the pool of blood and the large amount of talcum powder it seems very likely that there would have been some stains or marks on the footwear or clothing of the murderer to provide some ”real” evidence. The hair found in the dead woman’s hand was found to have no connection with the accused and was probably her own hair. There was no evidence to suggest that the crowbar collected in Stornoway was involved in any way. Fingerprints or footprints did not feature in the evidence. The bloodstain which pointed police in the direction of the accused was found to be hen’s blood and nothing to do with the case.

Another mystery arose from evidence about a man buying petrol at a local filling station in the early hours of the day of the murder. His vehicle had an Argyll registration and the driver was a stranger who, according to the petrol pump attendant, ”could be an RAF type”.

Neither man nor vehicle was ever traced. In his speech to the jury, the Advocate-depute described the evidence as circumstantial but very persuasive. The accused was near the scene at the relevant time, he needed money and had the local knowledge to enable him to find it. On the day of the murder he had cash to pay for his national insurance stamps. Lionel Daiches had the gift of graceful eloquence and was always a joy to listen to, particularly when he had something interesting to work on. On this occasion he had the benefit of a shoal of red herrings swimming round the evidence. He described the Crown case as melting away as the various links in the chain were broken. The trial had been avidly followed throughout Scotland with daily press coverage, particularly in the famed Stornoway Gazette. The public had queued for admission to the public benches and on the day the trial was expected to finish 200 people had to be turned away.

After 80 minutes the jury brought in a unanimous verdict of not proven which was greeted with great applause from the public benches. The now former accused took a seat beside his solicitor, William Dunlop, who was praised by Lord Grant for the meticulous care and efficiency with which he had instructed the defence. The people of Lewis continue to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, but in this case, someone, somewhere had failed to obey the commandment, ”Thou shalt not kill” and, to use the time-honoured phrase, got away with murder.

Herald, 1999