open country

I return to that spot where I was standing one sunny afternoon during Easter weekend. On my own in the quietness of Sannox graveyard; I stare at Edwin Rose’s gravestone. The traditional story is that the boulder used for his grave was brought from the site where his body was found.

I can see him striding off the packed steamboat at Brodick Pier – he would have been called a spiv in his fashionable clothes. My mental image of him is very strong and unchanged since my childhood – slim, dark hair with a thin moustache, salmon-coloured suit and light-coloured cap.

As I was buffeted by strong winds on the narrow Stachach ridge, my Dad told me the parts of story that he knew connected with the only alleged murder on the Isle of Arran. I looked down the graceful flanks of the ridge and could not conceive of this confident man accidently falling to his death. My kagool was bright yellow with a large pocket at the front.

From North Goatfell, the ridge continues as it narrows towards the Saddle; the narrow col between this summit and Cir Mhor. The beauty of the ridge belies the acute exposure it affords the casual hill walker and memories caricature the experience until one forgets the airy scrambles.

A strong hand is flat against his back, his body tilts, he loses balance, his head falls forward – thud – grass, rocks – losing consciousness and bones cracking, flesh tearing. The body rumbles as it catapults to the base of the mountain – fall ended, life ended.

The policeman who found the body removed Edwin’s shoes. At that time, some people still believed that the spirit of those who died a tragic death would roam the area unless their shoes were taken away from the body. This story plagued my childhood imagination more than any other detail.

The psychology of the potential for a haunting did not deter me from bringing a Victorian shoe up to the house from the midden I excavated; to this day I still think the wind in the eaves of the Arran house is this lady rattling the attic door.

John Laurie boarded the Ivanhoe, a steamer run by the Firth of Clyde Steam Packet Co, on July 6, 1889. On it, he met Edwin Rose and his two companions. On the same day he booked accommodation for the four men at Invercloy in Brodick for a week.

On July 15, Laurie and Rose climbed Goatfell, not starting until late afternoon. Five witnesses saw them on the summit at 6.20pm, but Rose never returned from the mountain. That night, Laurie was seen in the bar of the Corrie Hotel, then on the 7am ferry the next morning. He finished his holiday on Bute and quit the island, as he did Arran, without paying his bill.

Even though he was found with some of Rose’s possessions, despite his trail of lies, even though he hid Rose’s body, Laurie’s death sentence was changed to murder not proven after a petition was raised. Laurie remained in prison until his death in 1930.

This case is curious as it is the only alleged murder ever committed on Arran and it is the only alleged murder that has gone to trial on Scotland’s mountains. Thanks to an article given to me by John Mitchell, I have read a new theory that I have not been aware of before.

Writing for the Scottish Mountaineering Council in 2001, Robin N. Campbell notes that the visibility on the day of Rose and Laurie’s excursion was poor, according to a witness who was at the summit at the same time. They may have intended to come round an easier part of the ridge and descend the manageable slopes of Mullach Buidhe. However, they could foreseeably have taken the wrong fork at North Goatfell, therefore finding themselves on the narrow and exposed ridge … slip, falling in a painful panic … life ended.

We will never know why Laurie reacted the way he did if this was an accidental death.