The Ross Island Lighthouse Murder

by © David R. Collin, Kirkcudbright, 2010.

Fifty years ago I was enjoying a welcome break from my study of architecture at Edinburgh college of Art, spending much of the summer sailing in Kirkcudbright Bay in an elderly thirteen-foot dinghy. I usually sailed alone, enjoying the solitude and open air after a hard year of work in the city, but on Thursday 18th August 1960, my father decided to come with me, hoping for a day out on Little Ross Island. I was a fairly frequent visitor there but my father, like many other local people, saw the island as a fascinating but largely inaccessible part of a much-loved view and consequently looked forward greatly to getting to know it better.

We left in the morning from the old Kirkcudbright Sailing Club slipway, near where the sewage works now stands, taking the rapidly receding ebb tide down the river and into the estuary. There was very little wind and the weather was warm with a mixture of bright sunshine and occasional heavy showers. As we approached Little Ross, we noticed a dinghy near the mouth of Ross Bay, beached or washed up high on the rocks, and made a mental note to look more closely at it on the way home. We reached Little Ross island just before lunchtime, leaving our boat at the east quay which was then in good repair with a ladder, mooring rings, and a small crane by which the Lighthouse dinghy could be lifted clear of the water.

We walked over to the west quay, where a dilapidated shelter that had served as a garage for the island’s motor van provided a place for us to light our primus stove and enjoy our lunch. After lunch, we walked up to the Lighthouse intending as a courtesy to let the keepers know who we were and what we were doing. There was however nobody about and there were no responses to our knocks on the doors of either of the two houses. A friendly and excited dog seemed very pleased to see us and followed us everywhere from that point on. We were not concerned by not having seen anyone and were more anxious that we might have disturbed the keepers while they were off-watch.

As the day progressed however it became a little puzzling that there was no sign of activity. The only sound on the island was the repeated ringing of a telephone. As we stood outside the keepers’ cottages we were startled by a sudden noise coming from under a wooden box on top of the courtyard wall. I lifted the box, and a trapped rabbit ran from underneath it, where it must have been suffering greatly in the hot sun. Something did not seem to be right.

My father plucked up the courage to enter the houses but I stood outside, embarrassed by his well-intentioned intrusion. All seemed peaceful and orderly in the head keeper’s house, but my father quickly emerged from the assistant keeper’s house and shouted for me to see if I could get help, as he had seen a man, apparently ill and in bed. Our boat was by this time left aground by the falling tide so I ran down to the east quay, where I knew that Robert Milligan and his father were fishing nearby in the smack Young John. I had also seen John Poland hauling creels there from the Lavinia. By the time I got within earshot, the Lavinia was heading for Torrs point, but Robert Milligan on the Young John heard my shouts and quickly came ashore. Robert and I went up to the assistant keeper’s house and entered with my father, who guided us to a small bedroom at the west side. A man lay in bed with his head wrapped in a towel and his feet and legs protruding. There was some blood near his head, and rather oddly, some lengths of rope lay on the bed. We all thought that he was dead, but having no experience of such matters, our priority was to seek medical help. My father telephoned both a doctor and the police, summoning urgent assistance. Our suggestion that they went to the mouth of Ross Bay where Robert Milligan could pick them up immediately was not taken up, and instead they contacted George Poland, the skipper of the Northern Lighthouse Commission’s launch, to request passage to the island. Robert Milligan returned to his boat to be with his elderly father, and my father and I began what was to prove to be a long wait for assistance.

We did not talk much about the situation we had encountered. We were both disturbed and saddened to find that a man was apparently dead in the heart of a beautiful island the charms of which we had been enjoying so much. Perhaps he had taken ill or fallen on the rocks. Perhaps his fellow keeper had gone to get assistance, abandoning the dinghy on the rocks in his haste. Why had he not returned? None of it quite made sense. We wandered around the buildings, not quite sure what we were looking for but feeling vaguely ill at ease. The head-keeper’s house was a little haven of normality - spotless and extremely comfortable with a budgie contentedly chirruping in a cage by the window - but it felt wrong for us to intrude. In the lighthouse tower, the logbook showed that the last entry had been made at 3.00 a.m.. What had happened after that? In the workshop at the base of the tower, the vice on the workbench gripped the sawn-off barrel of a rifle. All was not well.

Although it was the height of summer, we began to feel cold and we climbed to the top of the lighthouse tower where we could sit in the lantern room in the warm sunshine with a spectacular view all around us. Eventually we saw George Poland’s launch creeping past St. Mary’s Isle Point against the incoming tide, proudly flying the flag of the Northern Lighthouse Commission. We met the launch at the east quay and were relieved to greet two policemen, Doctor R. N. Rutherfurd, and ironically, an official of the Northern Lighthouse Commission who had been on his way to inform the keepers on Little Ross that the station was about to become automated and would no longer need to be manned.

Our role was over. We directed everyone to the assistant keeper’s house and waited outside. The first to emerge was the ashen-faced Lighthouse Board official, who ran from the house and was violently sick. It was soon confirmed to us that the man in bed was the relief lighthouse keeper Mr. Hugh Clark from Dalry, and that he was dead. We answered the policemen’s few questions, and showed them anything that we thought might be relevant such as the dinghy on the shore and the sawn-off rifle barrel in the workshop. After that, we simply waited until we were told that nothing else was required from us and that we could go home.

By the time that clearance was given it was dusk, so Robert Milligan offered us a tow back to Kirkcudbright harbour from the Young John. The journey was a slow one as he was already towing his own small boat, so by the time we reached the harbour it was dark. We edged slowly alongside the quay wall but as we prepared our mooring lines for passing ashore, we were suddenly blinded by a series of flashes. These turned out to be from the cameras of press photographers, and gave us our first indication that we were part of a story that was to make headlines in many leading newspapers the following morning. It transpired that my father’s conversations with the police and the doctor may have been overheard by linesmen who were checking the telephone line to Little Ross for faults because of the lack of response to a routine daily call. The story had spread rapidly.

For the following twenty-four hours we were subjected to what then seemed an extraordinary degree of harassment by the press. We were virtually prisoners in our own home, leaving only by car to deliver my father to and from his office. After the arrest in Yorkshire of the missing assistant keeper Robert Dickson however, press attention shifted elsewhere and following the provision of formal statements to the police, we were left alone to contemplate our strange adventure.

Robert Dickson’s trial for capital murder and theft commenced in the High Court in Dumfries, before Lord Cameron, on 27th November 1960. My father and I were both cited as witnesses and had to give evidence to the court together with a large number of other Kirkcudbright people, all of whom were known to us and many of whom were friends. The result of the case was never really in any doubt as the evidence against Robert Dickson was overwhelming. His mental fitness to be accountable for his actions however was another matter and it seemed to me and to many other people, both then and now, that the defence case claiming that he was a psychopath, episodically on the borderline of insanity, with reactions that were abnormal under conditions of stress, was well made. After the jury pronounced the prisoner guilty, a scene unfolded which no writer of Victorian melodrama could have outdone. As Lord Cameron donned the hideous black cap and prepared to pronounce a sentence of death by hanging, the courtroom grew darker and darker, until coinciding with the Judge’s awful words the courtroom was shaken by an enormous flash of lightning and a colossal peal of thunder. Nobody who was present will ever forget that terrifying moment.

So how does it all seem now, fifty years after the events? I am still a regular visit to Little Ross Island and have occasionally enjoyed a cup of tea in the very room where the murder took place. There are no ghosts and there is no feeling of dread. Sadness does linger, but it is chiefly regret that a life was lost and another initially ruined and ultimately lost. The greater regret is the loss of the wonderful traditions of the Northern Lighthouse Commission’s resident keepers, and their dedicated professional vigilance on behalf of all seamen.

What does still fill me with horror is my memory of the trial in Dumfries, and the fact that my evidence and that of my father and our friends played a part, admittedly minor, in bringing about the death of a physically healthy twenty-four year old man. Although Robert Dickson was reprieved five days before the execution planned for 21st December 1960, he took his own life in prison two years later by an overdose of drugs.

Little Ross island is still one of my favourite places in all the world, but I cannot pass the courthouse in Dumfries without a terrible shiver running up my spine.