The Ardlamont mystery: Tragic mistake or calculated evil?

THE GRUESOME events on Ardlamont Estate in 1893 should, on the face of it, scarcely have taxed the crime-solving brains of a moderately competent detective, let alone the skills of the man whose powers of reasoning and deduction inspired the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

Even without an eyewitness to the apparent crime it seemed an open and shut murder case: Wealthy young aristocrat goes shooting with his tutor and another companion, both with suitably dubious backgrounds. Shot rings out. Two men seen running from the woods. Aristocrat's body later found dead in woods with shotgun wound to head. Tutor previously persuaded his charge to take out two life insurance policies in name of tutor's wife. "Dodgy" companion disappears off face of the earth.

Guilty m'lud, surely?!

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Very few people will argue that it should have been otherwise. Yet despite the best efforts of the prosecuting authorities no-one was ever found guilty. Then again no-one was found not guilty. The uniquely Scottish verdict of "not proven" - available to juries when they are not satisfied of either the guilt or innocence of the accused - allowed the prime suspect to walk free. Everyone from the legal and criminal fraternities to the general public, fascinated by the case, were convinced a gross miscarriage of justice had taken place.

On trial for murder at the High Court in Edinburgh was Alfred John Monson. Among the witnesses for the prosecution was Dr Joseph Bell, the Edinburgh surgeon and forensic detective who became the prototype for fictional character Sherlock Holmes. He told the jury that, in his opinion, Monson had murdered Cecil Hambrough, the young nobleman. But for once Monson's renowned observances were ignored.

In 1933 Robert Churchill, who was for decades Scotland Yard's most senior firearms expert, wrote of the trial transcript: "It is more thrilling than anything Edgar Wallace [the British crime writer] ever wrote ... The evidence is 100% for conviction, so the jury were either blind or kind."

The 640-acre Ardlamont Estate is a chunk of spectacularly beautiful Argyll countryside, bordering the Kyles of Bute and close to the village of Tighnabruaich. On 10 August 1893, Monson took Hambrough, his pupil, for a day's hunting in an area of woodland on the estate. Monson, 32 years old, had been in and out of financial trouble most of his adult life but, two years previously, had secured the job as gentlemen's tutor after having been introduced to the Hambrough family by a London businessman.

The third member of the shooting party was one Edward Scott - real name Edward Sweeney - a bookmaker's clerk from London and friend of Monson. He had arrived at the estate a few days earlier. Only Monson and Hambrough were carrying guns; Scott was there to bag anything they shot.

Estate workers heard a shot, then saw Monson and Scott running to Ardlamont House carrying their guns. They were cleaning the weapons when the estate butler asked what had become of the young Mr Hambrough. He had shot himself in the head by accident while climbing a fence, replied Monson.

When the incident was reported, a member of the procurator fiscal's office from Inveraray was dispatched to the scene. He returned, saying it had been a tragic accident and that Monson would be in financial straits because of the death of his employer. When, two weeks later, Monson appeared at the fiscal's office to report that Hambrough had taken out two life insurance policies worth a total of 2000 only six days before he died, and that they were made out in the name of Monson’s wife, it turned the case on its head. After thorough searches of the estate and interviews with staff, Monson was charged with murder. Scott, now on the run, was named as his accomplice.

Nowadays forensic science would almost certainly convict Monson. Back in the 1890s the scientific advances we take for granted had not been made. Monson was defended by John Comrie Thomson, undoubtedly the best and most charismatic defence lawyer of the time. It has been suggested that Thomson was less certain of the innocence of Monson than his courtroom performance suggested, but he sowed sufficient doubt in the minds of the jury.

The verdict enraged friends of the 20-year-old Hambrough and for many years, on the anniversary of his death, notices appeared in national newspapers saying, "Sacred to the memory of Cecil Dudley Hambrough, shot in a wood near Ardlamont, August 10th, 1893. 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' saith the Lord."

Monson was jailed for fraud five years later but his name lives on in legal circles. In 1894 Madame Tussauds in London erected a waxworks effigy of Monson at the entrance to their Chamber of Horrors. Monson took exception, sued the company and was awarded one farthing (a quarter of a penny) in damages. The case, however, established the principle of "libel by innuendo" and Monson vs. Tussauds has been used to draw up defamation laws in many countries since.

Meanwhile, what really happened to the hapless Cecil Hambrough on the ancient lands of the Lamont clan remains one of Scotland's great unanswered mysteries.

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