Welcome to our latest entry in a series where we explore some of the strange, unsolved mysteries that each country has to offer. Today, we investigate Scotland as we take a look at loch monsters (no, not that one), unidentified killers, ghosts, aliens, and unexplained disappearances.
10. The Identity of Bible John
Every country has, at least, one notorious killer who managed to escape justice. England has Jack the Ripper. The United States has the Zodiac, and Scotland has Bible John.
In the late 1960s, a man murdered three women after meeting them at the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow. He became known as Bible John after reports from a witness emerged that he quoted the Old Testament several times and that he took exception to married women visiting “dens of iniquity” such as ballrooms and dancehalls. Despite having eyewitnesses, a composite sketch, and one of the largest manhunts in Scottish history, Bible John was never caught.
Officially, he remains unapprehended, although many investigators and criminologists believe they know his identity – Peter Tobin.
Tobin is also a Scottish serial killer currently serving life in prison for three murders committed between 1991 and 2006, but could he have also committed the crimes attributed to Bible John? There certainly are quite a few similarities, starting with the fact that the timelines match up. Tobin was a man in his early 20s living in Glasgow at the time of the Bible John murders, and he left the city and moved to England right when the killings stopped. He was also deeply religious, bore a striking resemblance to the sketch of Bible John and admitted to visiting the Barrowland Ballroom in his youth.
It’s nothing definitive yet, but this is one mystery that may actually be solved in the near future.
9. The Vanishing at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse
At first glance, the Flannan Isles represent a small group of unassuming islands off the coast of Scotland, in the Outer Hebrides. No humans have inhabited any of the isles for almost 50 years, but it used to be that a few men lived on Eilean Mòr, the largest of the islands, to look after the lighthouse there. And that brings us to our point today, because the biggest claim to fame of the Flannan Isles is something very strange that happened over a hundred years ago – in 1900, the three lighthouse keepers mysteriously vanished without a trace.
The three men were James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William MacArthur. Shortly before Christmas, a fourth man named Joseph Moore was supposed to join them to make the rotations easier. He arrived on the island aboard the Hesperus captained by James Harvey. This ship had made this journey plenty of times before but, on this occasion, it became immediately clear that something was wrong. None of the usual preparations had been made, nor did anyone come to greet them. Upon further investigation, the crew of the Hesperus could find no trace of the three keepers on the entire island.
Plenty of hypotheses, both new and old, point to some kind of supernatural phenomenon as to the cause of the disappearance, including aliens, ghosts, and sea serpents. There are also more plausible ideas, such as a fierce gale or a giant wave that swept the men away.
8. The Murder of Marion Gilchrist
The case of Oscar Slater still remains a giant black eye for the Scottish legal system, even now, a hundred years later. It is one of the country’s most egregious miscarriages of justice, fueled by prejudice, xenophobia, and antisemitism.
In 1909, a German Jewish immigrant named Oscar Slater was convicted of the murder of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy 83-year-old spinster. Somebody had entered Gilchrist’s house while her maid was out, beaten her to death with a hammer and began rifling through her drawers. A neighbor heard the noise and checked in on the old woman, forcing the killer to flee with only a brooch.
A few days after the crime, Oscar Slater left for America, after having recently sold a brooch to a pawn shop. This was all the evidence police had to go on to arrest him. Never mind the fact that Slater had scheduled his trip before the old woman was murdered. Never mind the fact that his brooch turned out to be a different one which belonged to his girlfriend, or that he had an alibi.
Slater was charged, convicted and sentenced to death, but later commuted to life in prison. His trial had been rife with prejudice, and his defenders pointed out all the flaws in the prosecution’s case, with one whistleblower even alleging that evidence in his favor had been purposely hidden. At one point, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved, publishing in 1912 a pamphlet arguing for Slater’s innocence.
Slater was eventually released after almost two decades in prison, receiving £6,000 compensation from the government. His case became rather notorious, but one aspect that tends to be left out is the actual murder – the true killer of Marion Gilchrist has never been identified.
7. The Lost Legion
Legio IX Hispana was a Roman legion which was originally formed during the 1st century BC when Rome was still a republic. When Augustus became emperor, he sent it to Hispania to fight in the Cantabrian Wars, and afterwards it spent the rest of the century involved in the Roman conquest of Britain.
After Britannia had been established as a province of the Roman Empire, there was still the land to the north called Caledonia, which mostly corresponds to modern-day Scotland. The Ninth Legion was involved in the conflicts against the confederacy of Caledonian tribes that formed to take on the Romans, but, at one point, it simply disappears from history, without any clear mention of what happened to it.
This occurred at any point between 108 and 197 AD. Obviously, we can expect some knowledge gaps given how spotty the historical record is from 2,000 years ago, but the Romans were usually pretty thorough when it came to keeping track of the movements of their legions.
The most obvious solution indicates that the legion was completely annihilated in battle, but where this happened is still a hotly debated topic among historians. Many suggest that the Romans were killed fighting the Caledonians, and some even believe that the destruction of the Ninth Legion was one of the main factors which prompted Roman Emperor Hadrian to build Hadrian’s Wall. Others believe the legion might have actually left Caledonia and later met its demise in Judea or Armenia, as there was certainly no shortage of conflicts at that time.
6. Morag, the Loch Morar Monster
The Loch Ness Monster needs no introduction. We could not have a list about Scotland’s greatest mysteries without a quick mention of the country’s most notorious resident. However, because Nessie is so well-known, we’re not actually going to talk about her, but rather Scotland’s second-most famous loch monster – Morag.
This mythical creature is believed to live in Loch Morar in the Scottish Highlands, the fifth largest lake in the country with a depth of over 1,000 feet. The first ever sighting of Morag dates to 1887 and over 30 other alleged sightings have occurred since.
The most famous of all took place in 1969, and involved two fishermen named Duncan McDonnel and William Simpson. The two claimed to have accidentally hit the loch monster with their boat, prompting Morag to attack them. In return, McDonnel began hitting the creature with his oar, while Simpson picked up his rifle and opened fire. This made Morag back away and sink back into the depths of the loch, but the two men later described the monster as being 25 to 30 feet long, with rough skin, and three humps.
After this event, the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau actually expanded its research into Loch Morar in the early 1970s, but just like its more famous cousin, Morag has eluded them.
5. The Fairy Coffins of Edinburgh
Almost 200 years ago, a group of boys playing around the Edinburgh countryside made a bizarre discovery – it was a small cave inside a rocky peak called Arthur’s Seat, with its entrance hidden with pieces of slate. Inside, the boys found 17 tiny coffins, only 3 to 4 inches long, each one containing a carved wooden doll dressed in cotton clothes.
This is the most common version of the story relating how the “fairy coffins” were discovered in 1836. The truth isn’t known with certainty because the discovery did not really generate a lot of initial interest. In fact, when the coffins were first sold a decade later, the whole lot went for a measly £4. They then spent the next half a century in various private hands and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that eight surviving coffins made their way to the National Museum of Scotland.
Much more interesting questions about the “fairy coffins” were “Who made them?” and “Why?” Did they have some kind of ritualistic purpose or were they just creepy toys? Had they been used for witchcraft, maybe? This wouldn’t be far-fetched as the city had a long and violent connection with witches, having condemned and burned more people for witchcraft than any other city in Scotland.
Another strange idea said that the coffins represented the victims of infamous Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare since the numbers matched up, and that it was done as some sort of symbolic rite.
4. Desmond Arthur, the Ghost of Montrose
Of course, like other countries, Scotland has spooky ghost stories and we are looking at one of its most famous ones, dating all the way back to World War I. It involves Lieutenant Desmond Arthur, an Irish pilot who had the unfortunate distinction of becoming one of Scotland’s first aircraft fatalities.
He was part of the No. 2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the precursor of the Royal Air Force (RAF). He flew out of RAF Station Montrose, the first military airfield in the United Kingdom. On May 27, 1913, Arthur’s biplane crashed during a routine training flight, killing the lieutenant instantly. He was buried in a nearby cemetery in Montrose, but people soon started reporting sightings of his ghost.
Some of the paranormal activity that allegedly takes place at RAF Montrose, which is now a heritage center, includes hearing footsteps or conversations when there is nobody there, seeing ghostly airmen dressed in First World War-era clothing, even reports of phantom biplanes still flying in the skies above the airfield. Even just a decade ago, people claimed that the old radio in the heritage center, which had no power and no aerial, turned on by itself and started broadcasting the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Winston Churchill speeches.
As far as why Lieutenant Arthur would want to haunt his old stomping grounds, some believe that the sightings started when there was some controversy regarding his crash. Initially, it was put down to a bad repair job, but later investigators concluded that it was pilot error which brought down the biplane, as Arthur was showing off with unnecessary “stunt flying.” They think that the pilot came back to defend his good name and, indeed, a 1916 report exonerated him of all wrongdoing.
3. The Unknown Bairn
One of Scotland’s most tragic mysteries is the identity of a young boy whose body washed up on the shore of Tayport on May 27, 1971. Found by a local postman, the child was between two and four years old and seemingly died of natural causes.
There was a lot of publicity surrounding this case in its day and multiple leads and hypotheses were put forward as to how the child ended up on that beach. Some believe that he may have been on a ship crossing the River Tay and fell overboard, but this would not explain why nobody would come forward to claim him. Others think his parents were too poor to afford a funeral, or that they were Irish Travellers.
Despite a nationwide appeal, he was never identified, and was buried in Tayport as “The Unknown Bairn.”
2. The Dechmont Woods Incident
We’ve talked about monsters. We’ve talked about ghosts so, naturally, we also have to mention aliens. Scotland has its fair share of UFO sightings, but none more mysterious than the Dechmont Woods Encounter of 1979.
On November 9, 61-year-old forestry worker Robert Taylor arrived home in rough condition, with cuts and bruises on his body, his pants ripped to shreds and in a general state of confusion. Thinking he had been attacked, his wife called the police. Investigators arrived at the house expecting to look into an assault case, but Taylor had quite a different story for them.
He claimed to have encountered aliens. While walking his dog at Dechmont Law, he saw a UFO in a clearing. It was dome-shaped, about 30 feet high, and made out of a dark metallic material. He then said that two smaller, spiked spheres came out of the ship and approached him, hooking their spikes into his trousers and pulling him towards the dome. At that point, Taylor noticed a strong, burning smell and passed out. He woke up 20 minutes later in the same place, but the UFO had disappeared.
That was his story and he stuck to it word-for-word until the day he died in 2007. Besides all the media attention it generated, this event stands out in UFO lore because it was actually investigated by the police. Officers went to the abduction location and found 32 strange holes in a pattern, about 3.5 inches in diameter. They examined the forestry machinery, but found no equipment that would make those holes. They seemed to indicate that a large object weighing several tons stood on that spot, but there were no signs of it moving in any direction… unless it went up, that is.
1. The Case of Madeleine Smith
The trial of Madeleine Smith in the 19th century was shocking, sensational, and outrageous in its day, with many criminologists drawing comparisons to the case of Lizzie Borden in America. Here was a young woman from a wealthy, respectable family, who stood accused of murdering her lover to hide their forbidden tryst.
Madeleine Smith was born in 1835 to an upper-class Glasgow family. Unsurprisingly, given the time period, it was expected of her to marry an appropriate suitor, someone of equal status. But she didn’t do that. Instead, when Madeleine was 20 years old, she began having an affair with a lowly apprentice nurseryman named Pierre Emile L’Angelier.
She wrote him hundreds of love letters and even promised to marry him, but had a change of heart once her parents found her a rich suitor named William Harper Minnoch. Madeleine wanted her letters back, but her spurned lover instead threatened to have them published unless she married him. Then, on the morning of March 23, 1857, L’Angelier died of arsenic poisoning.
Police inspected his lodgings and found the letters. From there, they discovered that Madeleine had recently purchased arsenic. She was arrested, charged, and a scandalous trial ensued. As her letters were read in the courtroom, people almost became more outraged at the idea of a young woman displaying such sexual freedom than they were at the murder.
There was almost no actual proof against Smith. Besides the circumstantial evidence that she purchased arsenic and L’Angelier died from arsenic, there was nothing to show conclusively that the two had met prior to his death or even that his death occurred from poisoning instead of accidental ingestion. Those who condemned Madeleine Smith did so based on the reasoning that, if she was a sexual deviant, she could also be a poisoner. Even the judge in the trial advised the jury to “look at things morally,” but they did not share his sentiment. They returned a verdict of “not proven,” meaning that the prosecution could not conclusively show the defendant was guilty. Madeleine Smith walked away a free woman, and the case was never solved.