Killer blow to island life as Lewis mourns Liam Aitchison

On an island that hasn’t witnessed a murder case in 43 years, the death of vulnerable teenager Liam Aitchison has left people reeling. Dani Garavelli and Iain Maciver ask if this is the end of an era of innocence for a community where doors never had to be locked

L IAM Aitchison hadn’t been living in Stornoway on Lewis for long, but already he’d made an     impression. To some he was a     symbol of everything that was going wrong with the town; one of a group of youngsters who drank and got into trouble. To others he was a boy from a difficult background who had moved from South Uist in search of work; a “crazy diamond”, who – despite getting caught up in a few juvenile scrapes – was doing his best to make something of himself.

What seems to be in little doubt is that Liam was vulnerable; at only 16, he was living an unsettled existence, picking up work on fishing boats and dossing on people’s couches. On 22 November it is believed he had been dropped off near the home of a family friend, a friend he had hoped would give him a bed for the night. For some reason, Liam didn’t make it to the front door; his body was found in a disused military store at the far end of Stornoway Airport’s runway in the village of Steinish a week later. He had been the victim of a savage attack involving blunt and sharp weapons.

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Liam’s murder – the first the Western Isles has seen for 43 years – has shattered a tight-knit community of around 9,000, where residents like to boast they have no need to lock their doors at night. “It’s so rare that there’s a shock, a terrible shock to the whole community,” said Father Roddy Johnson, Stornoway’s Catholic priest.

But it has also exposed fault lines; between young and old; between long-time inhabitants and incomers. As detectives and journalists descended from the mainland, residents were forced to re-evaluate the town in which they live and acknowledge there are dark forces in their midst.

Writer John MacLeod, who lives in Lewis and knew Liam, says there is a palpable fear and a sense that an era of innocence has ended; that a place of safety has been irrevocably changed. “There’s a feeling that there’s a stain or shame attached to the community – that it has somehow been defiled,” he said.

Fr Johnson, of Our Holy Redeemer Church, added: “You feel angry about what’s happened, directed to those who committed this terrible act and a guilt maybe that all of us collectively should’ve done more to help Liam and those like him.”

In the days after the body was found, the island’s young people took to Facebook to vent their anger. “Whoever did this should rot in hell. I would happily put them there myself,” said one. Another said the culprits should be thrown to the dogs, adding: “It’s making me sick thinking someone could do that.”

Their anger is complicated by the thought that those involved may have lived in the heart of the community. In particular, the townsfolk have watched in horror as the house of a local family has been stripped by forensic officers in white boiler suits, face masks and disposable gloves, and the drains outside prised up as part of the search.

Several other properties and, it is rumoured, a fishing boat, have also been raided. Indeed, some of the online commentators have had to come to terms with the fact that the names circulating in connection to the attack feature on their Facebook friends list.

However, Liam’s death has also demonstrated the islanders’ capacity for solidarity in the face of adversity. When TV chat show host Matthew Wright poked fun at the killing on The Wright Stuff, saying “There’s been a murder” in a fake Glaswegian accent, while comedian Charlie Baker, added: “It’s the longest-ever episode of Taggart,” hundreds complained.

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After Liam’s father Norman described the pain of hearing his son’s death belittled in this way, they set up a Facebook site “Report the Wright Show to Ofcom”, which attracted more than 1,000 followers.

“Sometimes in situations like this it is good to have a focus for your anger,” one local said.

At the last count there were 60 officers working on the Liam Aitchison murder case. The last time Stornoway saw a police inquiry on this scale, Harold Wilson was in power and the Beatles were in the charts.

In 1968, 80-year-old crofter Mary Mackenzie was found battered to death and her money stolen in her croft at Brue on the west of Lewis. A neighbour, 21-year-old George Macleod was accused of her murder but a jury found the charge not proven after questions were raised about the police’s handling of evidence.

Since then, there have been a handful of suspicious deaths, including that of Murdo Macdonald, who died after suffering an attack at the hands of three men who beat him in his caravan in 2006. The men were originally accused of murder, but the charges were later reduced to serious assault. But there has been nothing to compare with the killing of Liam, which – it is said – has all the hallmarks of a premeditated attack.

Compared to other areas, the Western Isles, which has a population of just 26,500, has a low crime rate. Recorded crime fell by 43 per cent between 2007 to 2010 to just 625 offences. At the same time – like most towns in Scotland – Stornoway has its problems with drink and drugs. Last year tough new bylaws, combined with CCTV, made it more difficult to drink on the streets, which has stopped crowds of young drinkers congregating in the town centre after the pubs shut. However many say drinking has merely shifted to house parties.

When Liam moved from his home in Lochboisdale, South Uist, the largely Catholic island at the southern end of the island chain, it was in the hope of gaining steady employment.

A talented musician, with six Standard grades under his belt, he had plenty to offer. By all accounts an affable lad, he made new acquaintances, including John MacLeod, with whom he struck up a conversation as they waited for a ferry in September. “He was engaging, smart, funny, had quite a back-story, a strong handshake and was eerily old for his years,” said MacLeod, who spoke to Liam on the street on several occasions and met him for dinner to discuss writing a CV six days before he went missing.

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But Liam also had a tendency to get into scrapes. In October, he was travelling in the back seat of a Chevrolet Matiz hatchback with a 15-year-old girl on his lap when the vehicle careered off the road, leaving the girl seriously injured.

The driver, who had been drinking, was later fined £1,000 and banned from driving for 18 months. Liam, who needed a large number of stitches to his face, got involved in a drunken skirmish with a paramedic. He had been due to appear in court for sentencing in connection with the incident on the day he went missing, but did not show up.

One taxi driver, who did not want to be named, said he had feared Liam was falling in with the wrong crowd. “He was in my car a few times when he was in the company of people who I knew were involved in some shady dealings,” he said.

The last time MacLeod saw Liam, he says he seemed low. “He had visibly lost weight in these weeks; looked rather flat, tired,” MacLeod said. “He picked at his food; inexplicably declined pudding. ‘I’ll Facebook you,’ he said; but he didn’t; nor – after that night – did he touch Facebook again; and his mobile stayed stubbornly locked on voicemail.”

What Liam was doing in the days running up to his disappearance is unclear. It has been suggested he had been staying with friends in Carloway on Lewis for several nights before making his way back to Stornoway.

He was last seen outside the main branch of the Co-op in Macaulay Road at 9pm, and by a taxi driver, who dropped him on Anderson Road, Plasterfield, not far from the home of his father’s friend.

However, there is some speculation he was invited to a party. Liam was reported missing. His body was found a week later by a volunteer member of the Stornoway coastguard, in the isolated store, which is a legacy of an era when Stornoway was a Cold War staging post for Nato air forces.

At first described only as a suspicious death, it hit residents hard when police revealed Liam had been murdered. “It was like I was having a heart attack when it was confirmed on the radio,” said housewife Mary Maclean. “It’s thumping a bit now because I’m talking about it. I was going, ‘Oh no. This can’t be happening here.’

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“I didn’t know him, but nevertheless I feel I wanted to reach out to him and his family. What can you do, though?”

Others see the crime as part and parcel of the islands’ decline.

“I remember some years ago being shocked at hearing we have heroin users in the islands,” says Neen MacKay, house manager of a sporting estate and part-time broadcaster. “That is now something that is a part of our culture, unfortunately. Just looking back at what happened in our courts over the years, most of what they dealt with back then was breach of the peace and drunk driving. Today it’s murder.”

Since Liam Aitchison’s body was found, police have worked tirelessly, carrying out door-to-door inquires, examining CCTV footage, carrying out fingertip and metal detector searches.

They have appealed for anyone who saw three youths wearing hoodies who are believed to have been in the Steinish area in the early hours of Wednesday 23 November, to come forward.

As they work to catch those responsible, Liam’s family continue to mourn his loss. Outside the disused RAF building, one bouquet from his father Norman and sister Natasha bears the message “Liam, Shine on our crazy diamond. Love Always.”

At a memorial service at Sgoil Lionacleit, the school on Benbecula he attended until last summer, childhood friends wept, while Lochboisdale neighbour and councillor Gerry Macleod, said: “We knew Liam as a toddler and saw him grow up. People are shocked and very saddened. particularly as it happened to someone so young.”

On a Facebook memorial site, friends post their tributes. “You were the brightest star in the sky,” says Ellie Swan. “You were a great guy, Liam. You’ll be in our hearts forever,” says Megan Louise.

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As a mark of respect, residents of Steinish cancelled the switching on of their Christmas lights which was due to take place on Friday. But as Stornoway tries to come to terms with the murder of a young man who lived in their midst, it is MacLeod who strikes the most poignant chord.

“Let’s remember that this was a lad disadvantaged in many ways in the race of life, but who had worked hard in the Pollachar Inn and on four fishing boats, had earned six Standard Grades, was a drummer in Uist Pipe Band (and who could play a bewildering range of instruments, especially enjoying the guitar), completed the John Muir Award in 2009, had sat in the Children’s Parliament, and was a keen cook who made a mean Thai curry,” he writes. “Not a ‘ned’, a ‘chav’, a ‘loser’ or a statistic – a young man worth meeting; brimming with such potential for life – but such as we will never know, for it will never now be lived.”