Murder – Stonehaven’s Claim to Fame

By Douglas Cusine

Stonehaven is not usually associated with violent crime, but in the second half of the19th century there were two cases in which the accused were charged with murder.

The better-known one took place at Mains of Urie in 1893, where a farm-hand, Robert Smith, shot and fatally wounded George McCondach and attempted to murder another farm employee. There is an obelisk in St. Cairan’s Cemetery at Kirkton of Fetteresso to McCondach. Smith was found guilty of murder, but under provocation and so, escaped the death penalty. He ended up in Sunnyside at Montrose.

The other case, in 1867, is less well known, but everyone who has studied Scots Criminal Law is familiar with the case, but not necessarily with its Stonehaven connections.

The accused was Alexander Dingwall who was heir to the estate of Rannieston, near Midmar. Rannieston House still exists. Dingwall and his wife, whom he killed, had serious problems with alcohol. They used to lodge with people, but their drink problems were such that a lawyer was appointed to look after their interests and that included advising the people with whom they lodged to restrict their daily intake of alcohol to a specified amount. One person, with whom they lodged, suggested to Dingwall that it was unwise to sell his loathing and his shoes and he reacted by burning his shoes in front of her and others.

Having been in a number of places from which he left voluntarily or was thrown out, he came to live with Thomas Fyfe and his wife in a house in Barclay Street, Stonehaven. It is not possible to identify the house because the Valuation Rolls do not reveal the address and by the time they started to do so (1870s.) the Fyfes had moved on.

On 31 December 1866, Dingwall went out drinking, was given his quota, but managed to persuade a servant girl to sell some of his clothes and from the proceeds, he bought more drink. He returned to the house in Barclay Street around 10pm. As it was New year’s Eve, My Fyfe gave the Dingwalls a glass of whisky. Mrs Dingwall went to her bed, and shortly after, Fyfe went to his.  Mrs Fyfe had gone across the Street to be with her sister who was about to give birth.

Shortly after going to bed, Fyfe heard a scream but did not react, as the Dingwalls frequently argued, most of the time over alcohol. Later he heard a groan and went to the Dingwall room where he found her bleeding and Dingwall said that he had stabbed her. He apologised to Fyfe for doing this in his house, as the incident might have had an adverse effect on Fyfe’s reputation.

Fyfe sought medical assistance and summoned his wife back. Dingwall admitted to Mrs Fyfe that he had done the stabbing. Mrs Dingwall survived, but only for a few days and died on 15 January 1867. Dingwall was arrested and, pending trial, was sent to Stonehaven Prison, located in what was the Sheriff Court building. (The former Prison had been in the Tolbooth.)

The trial took place on 19 and 20 September 1867 in Aberdeen with 2 judges and a jury—45 prosecution witnesses and 15 for the defence. Of these witnesses, the medical ones were crucial. At an earlier stage in his life, it was thought that Dingwall was insane, but he was examined by a number of doctors who testified to his strange behaviour, but none thought he was insane, bar the doctor at Montrose Asylum (Sunnyside), but it was held that he had based his view on inaccurate information.

In advance of the trial, Dingwall had lodged a defence of insanity at the time of the offence. (There is another plea of insanity, i.e. insanity in bar of trial, which means that if the accused is insane at the time of the trial, the accused will not be convicted, as the accused is not capable of giving proper instructions to the lawyers who are acting for him or her.)  If the accused is found to have been insane at the time of the offence, the accused will end up, not in prison, but in an institution for those with a mental illness, sometimes, the State Hospital at Carstairs.

When addressing the jury, the senior judge, Lord Deas, said that they should consider whether there were extenuating circumstances affecting Dingwall, e.g. was he in such a state of mind as to be responsible for his actions and was the crime murder, or something short of it? He then went on to describe culpable homicide as “murder with extenuating circumstances,” and the jury, who took only 27 minutes to come to a verdict, concluded that there were.

The accused was found guilty of culpable homicide, rather than murder, and was sentenced to 10 years’ penal servitude which had been substituted in 1853, for transportation to one of the colonies. Dingwall spent 25 months in Aberdeen Prison from 15 October, 1867, but  on 21 December 1868, he was sent to Dartmoor, and ended up in Woking Prison where he died in 1874. On his death, the estate at Rannieston passed to his sister.

Why is it that Dingwall’s case is known to every student studying Scots criminal law? The case established the doctrine of “diminished responsibility” even though Lord Deas did not use that term. It was first used in a case in 1936. The doctrine has been accepted in many other jurisdictions, but, in England, for example, it became part of the law only in 1957.

Unbeknown to many of its residents, Dingwall’s case is a claim to fame, or perhaps, infamy for Stonehaven.