Getting Away With Murder

Today’s post is about an unusual court case, and it starts with a murder that happened on this day in 1749 in Braemar, a remote area of Aberdeenshire. The victim was an English sergeant called Arthur Davis. This happened less than ten years after the Jacobite uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson to the deposed king, James II, had tried and failed to regain the throne from the Hanoverians for the Scottish royal house of Stuart. So it was understandable that a single English soldier, lost and separated from his regiment, might meet with some animosity from the highlanders.

No one knew what had become of Davis for almost five years, but in 1754, two men; Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain MacDonald were put on trial for his murder. It was known that Davis had on his person a fowling piece (a shotgun) and some rings which the two men were known to have among their possessions. It seemed that robbery was a likely motive for the murder.

But then the court heard evidence from Alexander MacPherson, a young farm labourer. MacPherson spoke no other language but Gaelic and needed an interpreter. His account of the murder had come from an unusual source, the ghost of the murdered man. He had been in bed in his cottage, when a figure appeared and asked MacPherson to follow him out of doors. Thinking it was his neighbour, a man named Farquharson, he did as he was asked. But once outside, the apparition explained that he was the ghost of Arthur Davis and asked him to go and find his mortal remains and bury them. He would find them, the ghost said, hidden in a place called the Hill of Christie, and he must take his friend Farquharson to help him.

The next day he had gone to investigate and found the bones of a human body with much of the flesh decayed, but he did not bury it. A few days later the ghost came to trouble him again. He was angry with MacPherson for breaking his promise. The witness asked the ghost who had killed him and he replied with the names of the prisoners at the bar. After that he had asked his friend to help him bury the body. When Farquharson was called to give evidence, he told the same story.

MacPherson’s story of the ghost was further corroborated by a woman called Isabel Machardie whose bed was in the same room. She had woken to see a naked figure come into the room. It had been stooped over and moved in such a frightening way that she had pulled the covers over her head. Unfortunately, even though there was other evidence against the accused, the appearance of a ghost in the testimonies cast an air of doubt over the proceedings. The defence questioned MacPherson on which language the ghost had used to communicate his information. He replied that he had spoken in perfect Gaelic. The council for the defence then pointed out that that was pretty good considering he was the ghost of an English sergeant. The jury found in favour of the defendants and they were set free.

It is possible that MacPherson was using the excuse of a ghost to impart information without seeming to personally incriminate his fellow countrymen. But that does not explain the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie, or the fact that the events referred to had happened three years before two men were formally accused in court.