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A death in Edinburgh

October 3, 2017

I haven’t posted anything in the past few days, not because of a lack to stuff to write about, but because much of my time has been taken up by two domestic projects.

The first was to scan all my incoming letters over the past five decades, but mostly pre-1990s. More on them some other time.

The second was a garage-clearing exercise. Well, it was supposed to be, but I got side-tracked. I had focused on the contents of a number of plastic crates that mainly contain papers. Boring papers. Reams and reams of them. Business documents that I kept, just in case. In case of what? When you’ve ran businesses and sold companies, you never know whether some gremlin might pop up with some spurious claim, so best to hang on to the evidence that you were on the side of the angels.

Then there’s the personal stuff. Details of mortgages long defunct. Insurance claims for woodworm from twenty-five years ago. Bank statements dating back to the stone age, and all kinds of other bumf that I saw fit to preserve. Why? Because stuff going back, say, five years, might still be relevant. But eventually so much accumulated that to make a bonfire of it might send fragments of paper all over the neighbourhood, 9/11 style.

Chuck it in the municipal dump? Maybe, but then you’re vulnerable to identity theft. What if all those papers bearing our names should fall into the wrong hands – an internet fraudster masquerading as a Latvian municipal employee?

Snip off our names from every document? You must be joking! You’re talking about at least a year’s work.

So in the end, I admitted defeat. The documents are still in the garage, waiting for our kids to deal with when we pop our clogs. Just as we did when my parents died.

My father died fifteen years ago. He was a lawyer, and he continued to work right up to the day he died at the age of 81. Many lawyers do that. It’s their way of warding off dementia, and in the case of Denis, it definitely worked. He was sharp as a pin right to the end.

But then we had to do something about a loft full of papers. As the only members of his family living close by, that task fell to us. Over the next five years my wife got rid of most of them – case work going back many decades in which the protagonists were most likely dead. Anything relevant to our family history we kept, along with evidence of work he did for us.

One crate full of his files remained. We kept it because it contained his more recent stuff. Since most of the people referred to will by now be dead or gaga, this at least was one item that could safely be cleared. But just in case, I went through every file to make sure there was nothing of personal or historical interest.

It turned out that there was.

In among the dusty records of interminable law suits was a summons from a Scottish court issued in 1916. Why it was in Denis’s possession I have no idea.

It tells a sad little story – to the extent that I can understand it.

An army officer is riding through the Scottish town of Aberdour on a motor bike. He has a side car, and in it is a woman – his girlfriend perhaps? A van driver comes towards them on the wrong side of the road. He appears distracted, and wasn’t keeping his eye on the road. He suddenly sees them coming, and swerves to avoid them. He’s too late. The woman is killed, and the motorcyclist suffers injuries from which he may never fully recover.

In some respects the story reminds one how different the world was a hundred years ago, and yet in the most important detail how familiar.

In 1916 there were no laws specifically targeted at dangerous driving. The van driver would most likely have been charged with manslaughter. There was also no Highway Code. The first version was not published until 1933.

I tried to find references to the case on the internet, but without success. Since it took place during the Somme campaign, when large numbers of British soldiers were dying every day, the death of a bookseller’s daughter would probably have merited no more than a few column inches in the local newspaper.

I did find what might be a record of the man who killed her, Arthur Marlow Wilkie. According to, a man of that name was born in Fife in 1898. If it was him, he would have been eighteen years old at the time of the accident. He apparently got married, so did he marry before the accident or after his jail time, assuming he was convicted? No doubt the answer lies in some long-forgotten archive in Edinburgh.

Yet the cause of the accident would be common enough today.

According to the summons, “The motor was travelling west, and was proceeding on the north, ie its wrong, side of the road. The driver of the motor car was at this time observed to be leaning forward as if observing the kerb, or as if examining some part of the car. He was not keeping a look out for oncoming traffic”.

In 2017 he might have been texting, or checking his satnav for a delivery address, with the same tragic result. And today, the victim could have been a cyclist. You don’t see motorbike side-cars these days.

As for the plaintiff, the motorcyclist himself, he was so badly injured that he needed a relative, his father, I thought – a major in the War Office – to pursue the case on his behalf.

A little more research revealed that it was indeed David Murray’s father. And some father. The Right Honourable Charles David Murray, King’s Counsel, later to be Lord Murray, Conservative MP, Privy Councillor and Lord Advocate (Scotland’s most senior judge).

David Murray, according to the biography of his father, married the exotically named Comtesse Elena Maia Sollohub. Based on inconclusive internet searches, my best guess is that her family were Russian nobility from St Petersburg. Was she an émigré who came to Britain after the Russian Revolution? If so, it’s likely that she married David after the accident. Which in turn suggests that he recovered from his injuries.

Despite being the eldest son, he did not, however, succeed to his father’s title. Lord Murray died in 1936, and his third son Keith became the second Lord Murray. If David was in his mid-twenties in 1916, it seems that he didn’t live beyond his mid-forties. Was his life shortened by his injuries? I drew a blank on this also.

The summons was essentially a demand that Arthur Wilkie’s employers, David Goodall and David Tullis, should pay David Murray what was an extremely large sum of money in compensation. Goodall and Tullis are described as “posting masters and carriage and motor hirers”. Clearly they were in the car hire business, but what a posting master did is less clear – couriers perhaps? They had thus far refused to pay, so they were being summoned to court. And to encourage them, the court prohibited them from selling any of their “movable goods and gear” and any property they owned – their homes for example – unless it was to pay the debt.

There’s no evidence as to whether the family of poor Mary Isabelle Williamson were awarded compensation. But you can bet that David’s father, being a prominent lawyer and a pillar of the Edinburgh establishment, would have squeezed Goodall and Tullis on his son’s behalf until the pips squeaked.

Another striking aspect of the document is the legal language. I’ve seen a few examples of arcane legalese in my time, but nothing, absolutely nothing, approaching the weird combination of words and phrases stitched together in the epic preamble. Here’s an example:

“That is to say, to hear and see the premises verified and proven, and decree and sentence pronounced by our said Lords, or else to allege a reasonable cause to the contrary, with certification as effeirs : Attour that in the meantime ye lawfully fence and arrest All and Sundry the whole readiest moveable goods and gear, debts, and sums of money, and other moveable effects belonging or addebted to the said defenders, wherever or in whose hands soever the same may be found, all to remain under sure fence and arrestment, aye and until sufficient caution and surety be found acted in the Books of Council and Session that the same shall be made forthcoming to the pursuer as accords of law:”

Effeirs? Attour? You have to wonder whether the person who drafted this was dyslexic. And what of the folksy “aye” casually inserted into the middle of the text?

The whole thing is riddled with obscure language that seems almost designed to leave anyone but a Scottish lawyer tearing their hair out with incomprehension and frustration.

When we get to the statement of the facts of the case – bizarrely referred to as the “Condescendence”, it seems as though our writer has suddenly cast aside his legal robes and decided to write in plain English.

The whole thing is a masterclass of drafting that could have been written by someone with multiple personality disorder.

Yet the tragedy is clear enough, even if the aftermath isn’t.

The question remains as to why my father had the document. Was it perhaps a case study set in an exam when he qualified as a lawyer back in 1948? Or did he use it as a legal precedent in a case he was handling? Or did he just delight in reading obscure legal judgements?

I will never know, because there were no accompanying papers. Just this obscure little paper pregnant with implied tragedies that would have devastated at least five families: the van driver, the Murrays, the defendants and the bookseller’s daughter.

Finally, a coincidence of sorts. A month before the fatal accident in Scotland, my maternal grandfather was riding on his motorbike, and collided with a heavy lorry coming from a side road. His knee was mangled, and he took months to recover. He was an artillery officer commanding all the anti-aircraft batteries in Crosby, Liverpool. The injury delayed his deployment to the Western Front, where the Somme offensive had just begun. Would he have survived those extra months in France?

He arrived in time for the battle of Passchendaele, but he survived the war. Like David Murray, he died within twenty years of the end of the war, a relatively young man.

Did the parallels between the two accidents so close in time occur to my father? Indeed, was he even aware of his father-in-law’s account in his war diary? Again, I will never know.

One accident led to a death, and the other quite possibly enabled a life – that of my mother, who was born four years later. And it took a hundred years for two written records – a court summons and a war diary – to sit side-by-side on the desk of someone with the time and inclination to think about their implications.

That’s one of the reasons I love history. It’s not just about the dead and the gone, but about life and the living.

From → History, Social, UK

  1. Abdullah Wallace permalink

    What do you think of this piece about KSA? I trained Malise when he was just a cub reporter. I’m very proud of the result.

  2. Can’t see a link Abdullah. S

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