Tuesday, June 10, 2014

CSI Scotland

Leith Hall
Recently, when I was researching for a short story, I came across an item that suggested that James Abernethy of Mayen had done me a great favour on December 21st 1763. That was the day he, John Leith, the Laird of Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and several others were in a pub carousing (I think that was what they called it at the time), and it degenerated into a brawl. They went outside, Abernethy shot Leith in the head and he died on Christmas Day. It seems that, on several occasions since then, John has appeared as one of the many ghosts which stroll around the house and grounds of Leith Hall. Apparently his head is heavily bandaged and he does a lot of groaning and moaning – which is understandable.

As I read all about the incident, I was getting quite excited because it would have fitted perfectly into one of my plans. To explain, let’s go back to the previous year. As well as doing my ‘Write a Crime Novel in an Hour’ workshop as part of the Aberdeenshire Crime and Mystery Festival, I had to think up a plot and provide clues for a murder mystery which was supposed to have taken place some time in the past at the stately home known as Haddo House. The idea was that families would be given the evidence collected at the time, walk through the relevant rooms, gather and interpret clues and decide whodunit. In other words, they would use the detection facilities available at the time. They would then be allowed to use modern methods – fingerprinting, DNA profiles, chemical analysis – to get a more accurate picture of what had happened. It would be a fun couple of hours and interesting to compare procedures and outcomes then and now.
Apparently, it was a highly popular event but results were very varied and, from what I’ve heard, I won’t need to be nearly as meticulous with my plotting in future since many of the amateur detectives relied on instinct and speculation rather than actual evidence. My favourite example was when one group decided that the murderer was the daughter of the laird. Bizarrely, she’d killed him because, according to them, she was a lesbian. There was nothing in any of my notes about her sexual orientation but, even more bizarrely, they’d deduced it from the fact that they’d seen a bowler hat in her bedroom.

So, to return to the killing of John Leith, I was going through the same processes but this time for a different property, Leith Hall, also in Aberdeenshire. It was a new location, so it needed a new crime and to find a real-life murder (for which Abernethy was never tried, by the way) was very serendipitous. The problem was that, disappointingly, it all happened in Aberdeen, rather than at Leith Hall, so I’ll have to fabricate something again.


The Hanging Tree
Very near the house, there’s a hanging tree, so I was able to tell the tale of an unfortunate servant who was not only wrongly accused of the murder but also hanged within sight of the music room’s windows. I set it in the early 1700s and, on the contemporary evidence available, most visitors also found him guilty. However, when they were given access to other clues, which were found thanks to modern procedures (fingerprints, DNA, ballistics), they realised he’d been a scapegoat and they were able to eliminate him. I’m not sure how much value there is, however, in the man receiving a pardon 400 years after he’d been hoisted on the hanging tree. At least he wasn’t convicted on the basis of a stray bowler hat.