Tuesday, August 11, 2015

CSI in the 18th century by Bill Kirton

Leith Hall
Some months ago, I thought 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, 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 just a  year before. 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 a local stately home, 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 had to repeat the exercise at another famous house, Leith Hall – new location, new crime required. So when I read about James Abernethy and the real-life murder of the 18th century owner of Leith Hall (for which Abernethy was never tried, by the way) I got quite excited. But there was a problem: disappointingly, it all happened in Aberdeen, rather than at Leith Hall, so I’d have to fabricate something again.


The Hanging Tree
Very near the house, there’s a hanging tree, so it occurred to me that I could invent a tale of some 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, when justice was very harsh for those without the money to defend themselves. But the visitors again had access to modern techniques and there was enough evidence in the clues I gave to show that the guilty party was in fact an aristocrat, not a servant. They therefore had the satisfaction of clearing the poor servant, giving him a posthumous pardon, and identifying the real perpetrator, thereby righting a 400 year old wrong. And I made sure there were no stray bowler hats lying around.


Jackie King said...

I'd love to attend the Aberdeenshire Crime and Mystery Festival someday when you're presenting the program. What fun! I loved this post. My only complaint: Could you enlarge the print so we Oldies can read your blogs easier?

Bill Kirton said...

My apologies, Jackie. As probably the oldest of the oldies here, I should know better. I shall totter over to the blog and make sure my next offerings acknowledge the fact that size does matter.

Jackie King said...

Thanks for the laugh and the help!

Jean Henry Mead said...

An entertainaing and fascinating story, Bill. I agree with Jackie about the larger print.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Jean, your (and Jackie's) wish is my command.