Troubled past of lighthouse murder is recalled after island put on the market

The sale of a beautiful island has led to a retired architect recalling the fateful day he discovered the corpse of lighthouse keeper killed in one of Scotland's most notorious murders.

Little Ross Island. Picture: submitted
Little Ross Island. Picture: submitted

News that the island of Little Ross has been put on the market for £325,000 has led to a wave of publicity that has reawakened its troubled past. Almost six decades ago it was the scene of a crime that was to see a young killer sentenced to death.

For David Collin the memories are particularly personal as it was he and his father, Thomas, who stumbled across the victim’s body while on a day trip to the island off the Dumfries and Galloway coast.

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The pair, from Kirkcudbright, became caught in the glare of publicity after making the discovery and for a moment were even regarded as suspects.

Yesterday Mr Collin, 76, told The Scotsman that it was a beautiful August day in 1960 when they sailed to Little Ross to have a picnic.

Out of courtesy they made their way to the lighthouse cottages to introduce themselves to the keepers and were surprised there was no sign of life. They then heard the telephone ringing out in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage. To Mr Collin’s embarrassment, his father insisted on investigating.

“There was an elderly man lying in his bed, everything looked normal. But moving closer to him my father could see there was a towel wrapped on his head and there was blood on the towel,” Mr Collin recalled. “Our assumption was that he had fallen down the lighthouse stairs and the other keeper had left to get help, but couldn’t understand why he hadn’t come back.”

Mr Collin’s father phoned the police and the doctor – and then faced a three-hour wait until they arrived at 7pm. When the body was finally examined, a bullet fell out of the man’s left eye-socket.

They were to learn that the dead man was the relief keeper, Hugh Clark. He had been shot a close range by a .22 rifle wielded by the assistant keeper, Robert Dickson. Dickson had fled the island and attempted to make his getaway in Mr Clark’s car. He was eventually stopped by police in Yorkshire. Meanwhile, the various phone calls had been picked up by the linesman working on the phone system and the press were tipped off.

When Mr Collins and his father finally made it off the island late that night, they were ambushed by photographers camped on the quayside at Kirkcudbright.

“Kirkcudbright was seething with press people and our house was besieged all night and all of the next day. I suppose, we were the prime suspects in a sense. We were left very shocked by the sudden infamy and all the publicity,” Mr Collin said.

At the subsequent trial, the father and son were witnesses.

The High Court, sitting in Dumfries, was told Dickson had a history of mental illness, but he was still sentenced to death. Collin said: “To treat a mentally ill young man by tying a rope around his neck and dropping him through a trap door just seems completely astonishing to me.”

A couple of days before his execution date, Dickson’s sentence was changed to life-imprisonment. However, he was to take his own life a few years later.

Mr Collin’s fascination with the island has endured and he has written a comprehensive history of it. Life and Death on Little Ross is published by Whittles and will be available in October.