Murder on the Isle of Islay.
The island of Islay is a small island on the west coast of Scotland. Typical of a Scottish hebridean island it has miles of beaches and coastal views to die for. The locals are also pretty friendly. A local custom of giving passing cars a friendly wave has become famous amongst tourists and has affectionately been nicknamed the ‘Islay wave’. Visitors return to the island year after year and often reminisce about fun filled evenings at the local pub, fuelled by traditional Scottish music and the finest of single malts.
I’ve been made aware this article has sparked quite a lot of interest on Islay. Judging by the sheer amount of views on the page this would seem accurate. I’d be interested to write a possible part two with any further information someone may be able to provide. Please email any local information you may have about this case at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is often described as an idyllic hebridean paradise so visitors to the island of Islay may be shocked to learn that in the 1970s a brutal murder of a local woman shocked this tiny island community.
In late December of 1974, PC Howard MacLeod was called to an address on Shore Street, Bowmore. Neighbours raised concern when they noticed fresh milk bottles had not been collected from the front door step of the property. He arrived at the address to find the front door locked so scrambled over a gate to the rear of the property in order to access the back door. He found that the back door had been left open and on entering the property he looked around the ground floor before making his way upstairs. In a bedroom, under a blanket, he found the dead body of widowed 80 year old Annie Muirhead. Annie Muirhead had been subjected to a violent and sexual assault. She had been struck repeatedly across the body and on the head then strangled to death.
A full scale murder investigation was launched with police detectives arriving from Glasgow to assist with the investigation alongside a team of ten officers from other parts of Argyll. A post mortem was carried out at Glasgow University and the pathologist confirmed that the body was covered in bruises and the throat had been severely restricted. The local doctor believed that Mrs Muirhead had been murdered on the evening between the 28th and 29th December. A dance had taken place at the local village hall in Bowmore that night and detectives set about interviewing islanders who had been at the dance that evening.
A 19 year old local boy, Ewan MacPhee of Gartness Cottages Ballygrant was soon established as a possible suspect. Suspicion was raised initially by an Islay police officer as only a few days earlier, MacPhee had been accused of attempting to break into the home of a local distillery manager on the island. The police officer was called to the property on Boxing Day to investigate and found MacPhee sleeping nearby in a shed.
Further suspicion was raised about MacPhee when detectives interviewed two witnesses Stewart Pate of Port Askaig & Archiebald Paterson also of Gartness Cottages Ballygrant. The two witnesses said in their initial statements that MacPhee had not been seen at the dance. Only a few days later, the witnesses were questioned again and both Pate and Paterson’s story changed. The information they provided during a second interview completely contradicted their initial statements to say that MacPhee had indeed been at the dance. Further information provided by the witnesses (later revealed at the trial) would seal MacPhee’s fate and he was charged with murder by Superintendent Prentice. On being charged, MacPhee replied: “If it was me, I don’t remember”.
On the 22nd of April 1975 the murder trial began at the High Court in Oban. A trial that was reported to have made history for being the first murder on Islay since the 12th centuary. MacPhee pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder and lodged a special defence of alibi citing that he had been in the Ballygrant Inn and afterwards at his home on the night of the murder. He also denied a charge of breaking into another home on the evening of the 26th of December.
On giving his evidence, Archiebald Paterson confirmed that he did see MacPhee at the dance on the night of the murder and admitted that he had previously told police officers otherwise. He also added that he had lent MacPhee a hair brush at the dance that night despite initially telling officers that the hair brush was in a jacket pocket that had been stolen from the village hall where the dance had been held. It was revealed by the prosecution that the hair brush had been found under the dead body of Annie Muirhead.
The next day at the trial Stewart Pate was giving evidence. He accused police officers of banging his head against a wall while he was being questioned and this is why he changed his statement. He also went on to say that the police had been asking him if he was in the habit of stealing women’s underwear and that officers questioning him wanted to, he said: “knock it out of me”. Pate said he saw MacPhee at the dance that evening and took a drink of whisky that MacPhee offered him. He said later that evening he was sitting in a car waiting for a lift home and at this point saw MacPhee walking up Hawthorn Lane near to where Annie Muirhead’s house was.
MacPhee’s mother would later provide evidence to the court that was in complete contrast to claims he had been seen at the dance in Bowmore. She claimed that her son had been at home 7 miles away in Ballygrant on the night in question. This supported MacPhee’s own claims that he had gone home after being in the Ballygrant Inn.
Lord Wheatley’s final summary of the case stated that there had been a lot of conflicting evidence throughout the trial and that the jury would be left to decide what evidence was correct and if there was enough evidence to convict MacPhee of murder.
On the 25th of April 1975 a jury of nine men and six women took only eighty minutes to find Ewan MacPhee not guilty of murdering 80 year old Annie Muirhead at her home on Islay. He was found guilty of a reduced charge of willfull mischief in relation to the Boxing Day incident. As the verdict was read out, the courtroom is said to have fallen silent and remained so only until the clerk told MacPhee he was free to go. On being interviewed before returning to Islay a free man, MacPhee told reporters he “felt great”.
Sadly no one has ever been convicted for the murder of Annie Muirhead. However in the close knit community of Islay, suspicion remains to this day as to who committed this shocking act of violence against a defenceless 80 year old woman in her own home. There are many questions surrounding the circumstances of this tragic murder but perhaps the most important questions haven’t changed in the passing of time, who did kill Annie Muirhead and will her murderer (or murderers) ever see justice?
This article has been written based on reports which appeared in the Aberdeen Press and Journal newspaper at the time of the murder and the trial. All information is therefore already available in the public domain. Newspaper archives can be accessed through the British Newspaper Archive website.
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