Murder in Torridon?
A True Tale of the Mountains.
Written by the late Douglas Williamson of Lumsden Aberdeenshire.
With permission to publish kindly granted by his widow Mrs. Alison Williamson of Lumsden Aberdeenshire, a keen reader of my blog.
It was April 1961 when Iain,Harrold,Douglas and Bill set out for Torridon
in Iain's car. Bill worked in the drawing office of an engineering firm; the
others were Ph.D. students at Glasgow University. We arrived at the
SYHA Hostel at Inveralligin on the north shore of Loch Torridon.
planning to climb Beinn Eighe the next day, which blew a gale with
horizontal rain. After a few hours of struggling just to stand on the
quarzite scree but making little progress even on hands and knees, we gave
up and retreated to the joys of the 'Modem Mistress', as the stove in the
hostel was named in cast iron letters. The only other occupants, a party of
four, had gone home but there was now a stocky, tough chap in ex-army
gear. He said he was lan Simpson, was camping by the shore and wanted
a bit of warmth and company. A doctor at the State Mental Hospital at
Carstairs, he just wanted away from it all for a bit.
That evening, he spoke very knowledgeably about mental hospitals,
but turned out to be argumentative, proposing that morals had no
defensible basis and challenging us to disagree, which we strongly did - to
our probable salvation did we but know. I, Douglas, took a few flash
photographs in the hostel common room though Simpson was extremely
reluctant to be included. However, he obviously knew the area extremely
well and offered advice on approaching the local peaks, warning that the
'Horns of Alligin' should be treated with care as they had been the cause
of fatalities in the past. The next day, Iain and Harold had to return to
Glasgow in the car and, when Simpson heard this being discussed, he
asked for a lift to lnverness as he needed a haircut and various provisions.
This was readily agreed and the three left after breakfast, with Bill and I
setting out for Beinn Alligin.
We got back triumphant but tired after a great day, made some
supper and soon went to bed, the only occupants both of the hostel and its
male dormitory, which was a wooden hut in the grounds. A bit after
midnight. I was wakened by a person entering the dormitory and using a
unusual torch with the beam at right angles to the barrel. I was annoyed at
being thus wakened and pretended to be fast asleep, and Bill took a similar
view. The person soon went out. ln the morning, we went up to the main
hostel to get breakfast , whereupon Bill discovered that his food had been
ransacked. We quickly checked our belongings. spread out on adjacent
beds in the dormitory, and realised that my camera was definitely missing.
We both had a suspicion that the intruder might have been Simpson as he
had had the same unusual pattern of torch. In the wet ground outside
there were fresh boot-nail marks and, unusually even then he had worn
nailed boots. But surely he was in Inverness with our friends, so it
couldn't be him. We reported the incident/loss to the warden. Kenny
McDonaid (also shop owner, grave digger, shepherd, garage man and
ferryman, etc.), who phoned Kinlochewe police and had the local bus
stopped but there was nobody on it.
Meanwhile, we phoned Iain and Harold in Glasgow, who told us the
significant news that on the previous day, when they had reached
Achnasheen. Only 20 miles on the way to Inverness, Simpson had asked to
be left there, since he claimed to have belongings, including a motor
scooter stashed away in a nearby ruined croft. He would make his own
way to Inverness later. By now we were deeply suspicious and checked
information at Glasgow and Carstairs, discovering that there was no
'Doctor ' Simpson, and the police were told all this.
A couple of months later, I received I call from the police who said
they had now identified Ian Simpson. "a bad lad" as they said. He had a
string of convictions for petty theft, but was self-styled pastor of his
own church in Mothewell, a corrugated iron shack, which had a
congregation of around 100 trusting, innocent souls. His last prosecution,
indeed had been for theft of communion vessels from the local church
of Scotland to furnish his own. Subsequently, he had been committed to
Carstairs State Mental institution from which he had escaped and was on
the run when we met him. Sure, he had Carstair's connection but as a
patient not staff! lf he could stay out for 28 days, the law then required
that the process of certification be re-enacted. "No wonder," said the
Police, "he objected to you taking the photograph, and he undoubtedly
came back with the particular purpose of obtaining the camera which he
would then throw in the loch. We have a warrant for his arrest and
we'll find him." (It is another of the coincidences of this tale that
Simpson, it emerged at the trial, had undertaken courses at a Bible
Training College of which my father was principal administrator.)
Around Easter the following year, the action moves to Craig Youth
Hostel, on the coast north of Diabaig, in a very remote spot about I0 miles
from lnveralligin, only reached by an indistinct footpath over moorland.
Shan, a Canadian researcher student colleague, and her friend Bridget, a
languages lecturer, went there to survey the property with regard to
summer opening. Bridget being the warden. When they arrived, they
found a mathematics student from a London College, who pleaded to be
allowed to stay, although the hostel was not formally open. He also said
that the man who had given him a lift was on his way, having stopped to
buy provisions. The girls agreed and the man duly turned up, introducing
himself plausibly as "lan Fraser", a biologist at the Ben Eighe Nature
Reserve. When Shan revealed that she worked in the Chemistry
Department of Glasgow University, Fraser pleasantly recalled that he had
met several people she might know the previous year at Achmelvich: Iain,
Douglas and Harold! (A curious, self-defeating lie about location.) For
Shan. The penny immediately dropped and she realised the real identity of
'Fraser' as she had heard our story from the previous year. The two girls
went up to their room, and after closing the door, Shan got an amazed
Bridget to help her move the wardrobe in front of it, while recounting the
whole tale. In the morning, the girls hastened the several miles to the
nearest phone at Diabaig and called the police, who said they needed to
acquire some paperwork to arrest Fraser/Simpson but meanwhile to "keep
him under observation" and "he's not violent". They explained their
predicament with some irritation and apprehension, but nothing else could
be done. They returned to discover that Fraser/Simpson had disappeared
and the mathematics student knew nothing. On their return to Glasgow,
we heard the whole story and told the police the details, most of which
they already knew. (It is now known that Fraser actually went on to
Achmelvich Youth hostel, where he spent a couple of days then left,
coolly stealing an antique chest whose considerable value he had
About a month later, I was working in my laboratory when my
supervisor came in stroking his neat moustache, a sure sign of perturbation
and trouble. "Douglas, there is a Detective Sergeant Brown in my office;
he wishes to see you." "Thanks John, I can imagine what that's about." "I
dare say you can," he said, continuing to stroke his moustache with
increased frequency. DS Brown said, "Have you seen the evening paper?"
"No I haven't been out." He held up the front page which, under banner
headlines exclaiming 'A9 Killer Arrest' , displayed a recognisable picture
of Simpson/Fraser. For a couple of weeks, a double murder had gripped
the press, following the discovery of a body in a shallow grave near
Newtonmore and a couple of weeks later another, similarly, in a wood
near Dumfries. Both had been shot at close range. The number of a car
which seemed to be connected with the crimes (it had belonged to one of
the victims) had been noticed and traced. The trail eventually led to
Simpson's rooms in Manchester, where a huge amount of loot had been
found; he worked as an antique dealer and may have stolen to order.
In August 1962, he was tried and convicted, but sentenced to be
detained at Her Majesty's pleasure since he was found to be certifiably
insane. It transpired that he believed he was God's vice-regent on Earth,
with a commission to rid the world of evil men. He worked by pretending
to reject morals: if you argued against him you were safe, but if you
agreed you were marked down for death. Fortunately, I and my friends
plus the mathematics student were saintly or just argumentative.
Piecing things together, we realized that, when he gave the lift to the
student and arrived at Craig, he had just killed the man at Newtonmore,
and when he left, after a couple of weeks, he went South back to
Manchester and en route killed the second man at Dumfries. So the girls
(and the mathematics student who clearly argued) spent a night at a lonely
Craig under the same roof as the murdering psychopath (complete with
gun), said to be non-violent. At the trial, for which I was cited as a witness
but not required, a one time climbing friend related how on Liathach,
roped to Simpson, he was brought up to the ledge on which Simpson was
secured. Simpson untied the rope, smiled and pushed his partner off. He
fell about a hundred feet over rough scree and boulders, sustaining severe
cuts and bruises. He walked away, resolving never to see Simpson again.
Aware of this story, I recall Simpsons warning to us about the 'Horns of Alligin'. He had added "a girl fell to her death there" and then with a
smile I can never quite forget, a mixture of pride and triumph, he went on
"I was the only one that found the body." I sometimes wonder about that.
There is a solemn and dramatically violent ending, which also had a
moral dimension. Simpson was first confined at Carstairs, and then
for a long period at Craig Dunain, Inverness where he took a
distinguished Open University degree and learned to construct excellent
violins. He was then transferred back again to Carstairs which contained
some extremely violent inmates. Two psychopaths managed to obtain
axes and broke out, but were confronted by the local policeman whom
they attacked. Fraser/Simpson, hearing the cries, rushed to the assistance
of the constable, but with him was also hideously done to death, his heroic
and courageous defence of morality to no avail. This incident, with its
characteristics of a classical Greek tragedy, took place some twenty years
after the trial.
Climbing in Torridon has never seemed the same since, even after
forty years. But on my first return, only five years after these events, I was
back in the same hostel having resolved to do the round of Ben Eighe and
visit the great Corrie Mhic Fhearchair wih its triple buttresses. I had
returned and was alone in the hostel when a walker arrived out of the dark.
He was about my own age and not very communicative. I was extremely
disturbed and must have seemed very strange, I later realised. On being
interrogated, I can put it no less, he claimed to be an RAF officer who had
been doing a long walking trip and was heading for Kyle where he would
meet friends. He planned to walk over the Coulin pass and, at
Achnashellach, get the train to Kyle. All this was innocuous as it could
be; I had done a similar trip myself, but I was deeply suspicious. I had
a bad and vigilant night but in the morning , which eventually came
without incident, we both caught the local bus, to my astonishment,
the chap got off the bus at the Coulin Pass road end.
Funny the people you meet in the hills. I still speculate about the girl
who fell from the 'Horns'.
By Douglas Williamson.
Graham and I had recently climbed The Horns of Alligin, a few months before I learned of this story.
So here are a few pictures from Torridon.
Sail Mhor and the Triple Buttress Graham's photo.
Liathach ridge path - it is as bad as it looks.
The scariest path I have ever walked on.
This one made me nervous.
Liathach in cotton wool cloud.