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Braco 200: The murder at Ardoch House


This is one of the special posts I'm doing this year to celebrate my village, which is 200 years old this year. I've written posts before on Ardoch House, an old country house near the village, in which I found there had been a murder in the house in 1851. This week I went to Edinburgh to find out exactly what happened 160 years ago.

At 7.30pm on the evening of Friday 28th February 1851, three servants sat down to supper in the kitchen at Ardoch House. By the following Sunday, one would be dead, one would be under arrest for murder in Dunblane Gaol having confessed to the fatal blow, and the murder weapon, a blood-covered poker, would have been taken by police in evidence.

But two and a half months later, the accused would walk free from court after an entire jury refused to find her guilty. So what happened in Ardoch House that night ? As far as I know this story has never been published anywhere since it happened, so I had to track down the documents from 160 years ago to find out what happened.

At the National Records for Scotland


Last Wednesday, my family drove into the outskirts of Edinburgh then caught the tram into the city centre. Then while my mum and my brothers went to the National Museum of Scotland, Dad and I went to the National Records for Scotland, which is in an old-fashioned building at the end of Princes Street which stores all sorts of old records from birth certificates to court papers.

I had come to read the original statements made by the witnesses, and the paperwork from the trial. Even after 160 years you can just walk in and ask for them, and someone will find where they are in the building and bring them to you. I had to bring my passport and two photos of me to get a readers card first. Dad and I had to put out belongings and jackets in a locker, then go up to the research room on the first floor. After we were given the readers ticket, we were given desks to sit at, then we ordered the papers. The room were were in was about the size of a tennis court with wood paneling and a very high ceiling, with a narrow balcony round the edges, and it dated from 1820. Quite a few people were working away in there but it was very quiet.

The documents arrived in a plastic cover, but they were all bound together with string that looked like it dated form the day they were written. The first bundle of papers was the precognitions, which are the statements taken at the time of the death by the local sheriff investigating it. The handwriting was neat but very difficult to read at the same time.

So what is Ardoch House ?

The site of Ardoch House is about half a mile away from my house. It was a country mansion built in 1793 by Sir William Stirling on the site of an older house, and it was one of the two big landowner's mansion houses in my village, the other being Braco Castle. It was occupied by various people until the second world war, when it was used by the Women's Land Army, then it became derelict in the 1960s, and was finally completely knocked down in the 1980s. I wrote about it before here. 

In 1851 it had been inherited by Christian Moray, who was married to Henry Drummond Home, and her eldest son, George Stirling Home Drummond would have been living there at the age of 38. When Christian Moray died in 1864, George inherited the estate.

There were offices and stables at the back of the main house, two lodges on each access road to the house (only the south one still survives), and at least six other houses, but only two still remain today. They had servants, most of whom lived in the house or on the estate.

So who was involved ?

Here are the main characters in the story:

Isabella "Isay" Skinner was a 18yo servant who joined the staff at Ardoch House in November 1850. Previously she had been a servant at another house, where the mistress of the house thought she was "dour" or "dogged".

James Monteath was a 60yo servant who lived with his mother in the village of Braco. He has worked on the estate doing basic jobs for about 30 years, and was in charge of taking the post bag to the post office in the village.

George Stirling Home Drummond was 38 and the master of the estate. He lived at Ardoch House with his first wife, Mary Hay of Dunse, although he wouldn't inherit the Ardoch Estate from his mother until she died in 1864. On the night of 28th February was away with his family in Edinburgh.

Margaret Malcolm was the housekeeper, was from Dalkeith, and was aged 27. She and the butler were the most senior servants. She had worked at Ardoch House for three years at the time. She lived at Ardoch House.

Elizabeth Stewart was the housemaid, aged 25, and had worked at Ardoch House for two and a half years at the time. When Margaret Malcolm was away, Elizabeth Stewart was in charge. She lived at Ardoch House.

George Riddle was a servant boy, aged 16 who lived at Ardoch House.

Duncan Bennett had been a labourer on the estate for at least 13 years, listed as living in the North Porters Lodge at Ardoch, but he came to the house at night to sleep between 11pm and 6am.

There were other staff as well, who seemed to live elsewhere on the estate. The gamekeeper was Charles Stewart, aged 48, and his daughter Isabella Stewart lived with him. James Sinclair was the forester, and he lived with his wife, four children and a lodger on the estate.

So what happened that night ?

Margaret Malcolm the housekeeper gave a very long statement to the sheriff (law official) in Dunblane, but there is a handwritten note in the margin that she was a reluctant witness, who didn't want to get the accused into trouble, and that she was warned about it by the sheriff's clerk,

At about 7.30pm on the night of the 28th of February 1851 it would have been dark and quiet on the Ardoch Estate, Margaret Malcolm wanted to check on  Mrs. Stewart - who is probably the gamekeeper's wife - who lived in "the lodge" and who hadn't been well, and Elizabeth Stewart the housemaid came with her. They left by the kitchen door, to the short walk to the lodge, which would have been about a five minute walk away.

In the kitchen were Isay, the maid, and James Monteath, who lived in the village but who had his meals with his staff on the estate. Monteath was about 60 years old, but looked in good health. Before Margaret Malcolm left, she asked Isabella to serve James porridge for his dinner. When Margaret and Elizabeth left,  James and Isay were chatting pleasantly.

But when they came back, it was a completely different scene. As they approached the kitchen door from the darkness outside, George the servant boy opened it for them. They could hear shouting and swearing from further into the servants quarters. Margaret hurried through, and in a pitch black corridor found James banging on the door to Isay's room, which Isay had locked. James was furious, and "threatening to destroy" Isay. Margaret managed to calm him down, and persuaded Isay to come out of her room.

Isay came out holding a lamp, and from its light for the first time Margaret and Elizabeth saw James's face, which had a bloody wound above the eye. Margaret took him to the kitchen, washed the wound, and put a bandage on it. James was swearing at Skinner the whole time.

After that, Margaret ordered George the servant boy to walk James back to the village, where he lived with his aging mother, and asked Isay what had happened. Isay admitted hitting James with the poker. Margaret dismissed her on the spot, saying she must leave on the 1st April. "If she had struck me I would not have cared but she had no right to strike Jamie Monteath", she said in her statement.

James had worked on the estate for longer than any of them. It wasn't known exactly when he began, but it was about 30 years before, when Major Moray Stirling was in charge, or maybe even before, when his mother Anne Stirling owned the estate.

Isabella told her story. She had prepared porridge for James and George, and after they finished, George went elsewhere in the house. She asked James to fold up the large tablecloth, but James refused, saying it needed two people to fold it, and just shoved it in a drawer. She asked him again, and he came around the table with his fists up, scaring her. Then he left the room, and she thought it was over.

If he had stayed out the room until he calmed down, this story might never have been told, and Isay would have just put coals on the fire and forgotten about it. But after a short while, he came back in, threatening Isay again, and putting himself between her and the door. She was scared, no-one else was there, so, she told Margaret, she defended herself with the poker, not meaning to injure him, and ran to her room.

This was Margaret's account of what Isay told her, and neither of them wanted to get Isay into trouble over this, and the story from other witnesses was slightly different.

Margaret called at James' house the next day, but was told he was asleep, and so didn't speak to him. Later on, Isay agreed to go and see James at his house, but she didn't get round to it.

The following day from that, the Sunday - James died at his home.

The arrest

Isay was arrested that Sunday, and taken to the Dunblane Gaol about seven miles away, and the police began to take statements from all the witnesses, including from those who spoke to James about the incident. Because of these, the sheriff began to believe a slightly different story about Isay: which is, after James refused to fold up the tablecloth, she took his mail bag which he was in charge of and hid it, and this got James even angrier. But she had admitted using the poker to hit him, which killed him, and so was charged with "murder, or culpable homicide". Culpable homicide is a Scottish law term which means, "you did something which led to someone's death, even if you didn't mean to".

But two months later, on the 9th May 1851, a jury of 15 men and women unanimously refused to convict her, and she walked free. 

So why was Isabella Skinner found not guilty ?

Four days after Isay was arrested, the Perth and Cupar Advertiser wrote a piece which described James Monteath as "of the most obliging and inoffensive disposition, and especially careful of anything entrusted to him. As it was known he would sooner surrender his life than part with the letter bag or any parcel under his charge, he was seldom or ever annoyed when thus employed. Indeed he was a general favourite."

The story goes on to say that a maid-servant took his bag "in a frolic" and James thought his honour was at stake. But was this true ? The newspaper article makes lots of other mistakes, like getting the day of the incident, and how long he lived afterwards.

Whoever the journalist spoke to, it wasn't the servants at the house, and even two weeks after she was arrested, the sheriff was starting to have doubts about the case. He wrote:

"I have accordingly precognosed certain witnesses as to the habits and disposition of James Monteath the deceased, from which it sufficiently appears that he was a person of weak or imbecile mind, easily [couldn't read this word], and when irritated, inclined to use violence"
Today we would probably say that that James Monteath had learning difficulties. The witness statements show that even though he had worked on the estate for a long time, he wasn't an easy man to work with. He was not really an employee, but he did odd jobs on the site, such "messages" and  taking the post bag to the post office and back each day, for his food. Margaret said in her statement "Monteath was a person of lazy habits and the servants often had difficulties in getting him to do his work". Later she said "He was fond of liquor when he could get it, and he apparently had come by it in the course of the day". He had also hit servants in the past, but Margaret didn't think any of the incidents were serious. It's not really clear why he was never sacked. Maybe the estate masters felt sorry for him.

After the sheriff read the statements, he dropped the charge of murder, meaning Isay would face a charge of culpable homicide. He released her on bail on the 18th March, and she moved to a lodging on Skinnergate in Perth before her trial at Perth Court.

Normally, an event like this would make front page in most papers, but Isay's trial only made 17 lines in the newspaper, listed as case number 30 out of 41, and the rest were mostly theft or assault trials. It says all the witnesses spoke kindly of Isay, and that a crucial piece of evidence was from the doctor who examined James Monteath's body. I read his statement, which was about a page long. It said that while Isay's blow from the poker caused James's death, he had a disease of the membrane of the brain, and a healthy person would have survived the blow. Monteath was just unlucky.

A final clue as to why Isay walked free came from a newspaper report shortly after she was arrested. She was an 18 year old housemaid - but she was represented in court by a very expensive solicitor from Dunblane. How did she afford that ? The report said she had a wealthy benefactor. Was that George Stirling Home Drummond, feeling sorry for one of his servants ?

Even if it was, she didn't get her job back, and I'm not sure I can find trace of her after the trial: Isabella Skinner was a very common name at the time. She seems to have just had a quiet life.

Or did she ?

In January 1868 I found a newspaper report about an Isabella Skinner who was on trial for killing her child. I'm not sure it is her, but the report is from Banff, where Isay Skinner originally came from. I hope it isn't her. I hope she went on to have a peaceful life !

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sedruff said...

Wow, interesting! A real-life murder mystery of sorts. It's also really amazing that you got to see the documents in person and read for yourself what ended up happening in the trial. Where did you find out about this case, or what struck your interest at first?

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