Dennis Nilsen: The making of a serial killer

Dennis Nilsen is one of Britain's most twisted murderers. Now a new BBC Alba documentary looks at his childhood in the north east of Scotland in search of clues to what drove him to such heinous crimes, writes Emma Cowing

• Dennis Nilsen

THE VILLAGE OF Strichen, near Scotland's windswept north-eastern coast, is one of the gems around Fraserburgh. There is a pretty water mill, a ring of standing stones and a quaint high street along which one can occasionally spot First Minister Alex Salmond, who has a house in the village and sometimes drinks in the White Horse Hotel bar.

But although it is rarely mentioned, Strichen has a dark side. For it was here that one of Britain's most prolific and terrifying serial killers spent his childhood.

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Dennis Nilsen – who was born in Fraserburgh and in 1983 was convicted of six murders and two attempted murders and is believed to have killed at least 15 men and boys – defies categorisation. He abhorred cruelty to animals, yet murdered human beings. He was a loner, yet kept the corpses of his victims in his flat for company. And despite the brutal way he slayed his victims, often cooking parts of their remains and boiling their heads before setting them on fire or flushing them down the toilet, he once said of his crimes: "I can tell you what I did but I can't tell you why I did it."

A new documentary examining Nilsen's life and his crimes, due to be broadcast tomorrow on BBC Alba as part of a five-part series on Scotland's most infamous murderers, attempts to cast fresh eyes over the life of this serial killer, with a particular focus on his early days in Fraserburgh and Strichen.

"He skews opinion everywhere you go," says executive producer Patsi Mackenzie. "He doesn't fall into any particular psychological box, so it's tantalising subject matter because you can talk about him forever really.

"We thought it was worth looking at especially from a Scottish perspective. I don't think that his childhood has been covered too much in the past so it was good for us as Scottish programme makers to look at his early life in Fraserburgh."

Nilsen's Scottishness has often been played down. Along with Glaswegian Moors murderer Ian Brady, he is one of the few Scots we seem reluctant to lay claim to as our own. And because his crimes were perpetrated within London (he was known for a time as the Muswell Hill Murderer) and he is held in HM Prison Full Sutton in Yorkshire, many are unaware he is Scottish at all. Yet it is his early life in Aberdeenshire that provided – or so Nilsen himself claims – the psychological trauma that marked him out as a murderer later in life. Born to a Scottish mother and a Norwegian father the year the Second World War ended, Nilsen's family life was rocky from an early age. When he was just four, his father, apparently a drunkard, walked out leaving him without a male role model. Instead, he came to idolise his grandfather, Andrew Whyte. But when Whyte died two years later, it had a profound effect on Nilsen. Not only had he lost the only father figure in his life, but his mother forced him to view his gran father's dead body without telling him beforehand what he would be doing. Nilsen claims that the incident triggered a profound sense of loss and a lifelong fascination with corpses.

It was not the only one. At the age of eight, Nilsen nearly drowned and was revived by an older boy who exhibited sexual interest in him. This, Nilsen has claimed, impacted on him so much that his 4,000-page autobiography, which he has attempted unsuccessfully to have published several times, is entitled Memoirs of A Drowning Boy.

Mackenzie is sceptical as to just how much of an impact these incidents may have had. "It's open to interpretation," she says. "It's said by some that he has greatly embellished an awful lot of what happened. How much actually took place and how much was in his imagination – obviously nobody knows that but him."

By the time Nilsen was jailed in 1983 he had killed at least 15 men. Working in a London job centre after 11 years as a cook in the army, he lured his victims, most of them homosexual men he picked up in gay bars, to his homes in north London, his first in Cricklewood, and his second in Muswell Hill. There he would strangle them with a tie, and often drown them as well, before keeping their corpses in his bed or on a chair for company. Then he would cut them up, keeping parts of the remains in different areas of the flat, and several of them under the floorboards. Some parts were burnt, others were flushed down the toilet. Occasionally he would boil their heads.

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Brian Masters, who wrote Killing for Company, the definitive biography of Nilsen, describes him as "mad in his soul. He can make a cup of coffee and eat a slice of toast with the head of somebody bubbling a few inches away. If madness is anything, that is it."

When Nilsen's crimes were finally uncovered, after drain cleaning company Dyno-Rod was called to his building in Muswell Hill to investigate a blocked drain and found human flesh, his cold confession shocked even the most hardened policemen.

Former detective Peter Jay, who arrested Nilsen, still remembers the experience: "You are sitting with him in your office and you are just looking at him in disbelief all the time. Because what he was telling us he'd done did not seem to go with the man who was sitting there."

One of those interviewed in the documentary is Betty Scott, Nilsen's mother, now 88 years old, who still lives quietly in Fraserburgh. Her life has been overshadowed by the acts of her son. "I am always thinking about Dennis," she says. "Whenever I go through to my bed and I think about things from the past, Dennis is always there."

She says the nature of her son's crimes still horrify her. "I could not believe he had done that. Seeing the person growing up and seeing him admit that was like two different people."

And she says she's haunted by thoughts of the victims' families. "I always think about them – how they must feel. I have always thought about the families and what they've gone through because of what Dennis had done."

She also talks about how overwhelmed she felt at the time by the press attention. "I had all the newspapers but that didn't bother me. It was my son I was interested in, not them."

"I think she's become accustomed, over the years, to press coverage and I'm not sure it's always been a good experience for her," says Mackenzie. "But there was no way I would have gone ahead without approaching her because it's her son and her life is directly affected by it."

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Psychologists are still split over Nilsen, who remains in prison in Yorkshire, a rapidly ageing man who turned 64 yesterday, with no chance of parole. Some claim that he knew what he was doing, others believe he was entirely insane, or affected by the heavy amount of alcohol he was imbibing at the time of the crimes. But whether he is sane or not, there is still the question of why, so many years on, we continue to find an individual like Nilsen so fascinating. In the past, Nilsen has made his own opinion on other people's curiosity about his life clear.

"I am always surprised . . . that anyone can be attracted by the macabre," he said. "Their fascination with types . . . like myself plagues them with the mystery of why and how a living person can actually do things which may be only those dark images and acts secretly within them."

"I think it's a psychological fascination," concludes Mackenzie. "You can dismiss these things and say they're just too horrible to contemplate, let's forget about it, lock them up and throw away the key and not face it. (But] I think it's much better to accept that whether we like it or not, these things do happen in life, and to ask why.

" People like him are incredibly rare and so you want to ask that question."

• Dennis Nilsen – In Love With Death? is on at 9pm on Wednesday 25 November on BBC Alba

• Dennis Nilsen was convicted in 1983 of six murders and two attempted murders



Born in Strichen, near Fraserburgh, on 23 November to a Scottish mother, Betty Scott, and a Norwegian father, Olav Magnus Moksheim, who adopts the surname Nilsen.


Parents divorce.


Nilsen's beloved grandfather dies and his mother, a strict Roman Catholic, demands he view the body. Nilsen later claims this incident scars him for life.


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Joins the British Army and becomes a cook in the Catering Corps. Serves in South Yemen, Cyprus, Germany and the Shetlands.


Leaves the army and serves briefly as a police officer before joining the civil service and moving to London.


Kills his first victim, Stephen Dean Holmes, on 30 December by strangling him with a necktie and then drowning him in a bucket of water.


Kills an estimated 15 victims, some of whom have never been identified, many by strangulation and drowning. He often dismembers his victims after death, eventually burning them or flushing them down the toilet.


Nilsen is arrested in February after dismembered flesh is found in the drains of his Muswell Hill home.


Sentenced to life imprisonment on 4 November


Gives a televised interview from prison.


Brings a judicial review over a decision not to allow him to publish his autobiography, The History of a Drowning Boy. He is awaiting an appeal on this decision at the European Court of Human Rights.


Denied any further requests for parole.