Righting a 400-year-old wrong (maybe)

leith hall 026For a moment yesterday, 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. 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 one 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 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’m having to repeat the exercise this year at Leith Hall – new location, new crime required – 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.


leith hall 022Very near the house, there’s a hanging tree, so I’ll be able to tell the tale of some unfortunate who was not only wrongly accused of the murder but also hanged within sight of the music room’s windows. I’ll then provide the visiting groups with enough clues to exonerate him/her, give him/her a posthumous pardon, and finger the real perpetrator. I’ll set it in the early 1700s so they’ll be righting a 400 year old wrong. Unless they spot a stray bowler hat, of course.

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