100 year old murder mystery
Published: 17 Oct 2013 05:051 comment
The mysterious Portencross murder which took place on Saturday October 18 1913 has never been solved.
The ‘News’ described the event as ‘a terrible and most mysterious tragedy’ to the occupants of the lonely cottage of Northbank, which lies immediately under the precipitous cliff of ‘The Three Sisters’.
The occupants of the cottage, who were sitting in the parlour with the lamp lit and the blind undrawn, were fired at with a revolver from the outside of the window from the outside through the window, two being wounded, and the third being killed.
The tenant was Mr Alexander Maclaren, who moved there in May 1913, with his wife, and his sister-in-law, Miss May Gunn, aged 49, who subsequently died.
Miss Gunn had visited West Kilbride that afternoon and was met by Mr McLaren at Ardneil farm road, about halfway between their home and West Kilbride. Both ladies were knitting in the room while Mr McLaren was reading to them but at about half past eight, during chapter 4 of a book, the reading was disrupted in a most tragic manner.
Several shots were fired out and the room was consumed in smoke. At the first report, both ladies rose to their feet with a scream, and Miss Gunn collapsed on the floor and said: ‘Alec, I am shot!’
Mrs MacLaren was also wounded, and was caught as she fell by her husband.
He laid her on the floor to protect her from any further shots, when he discovered that he himself had been shot in his left hand. one of his fingers being injured. The shot had passed through the book he was reading.
Mr MacLaren ran out calling his dogs but there was no trace of the assailant, and then ran off to the nearest house which was around half a mile away.
He repeated the story to the farmer’s wife and her husband, and both men proceeded to a mansion house, which had a rare commodity in those days - a telephone - to alert the police at West Kilbride.
A motor car soon arrived with paramedics but Miss Gunn, also known as ‘the beauty of Beith’ was found to be dead with a bullet through the heart.
Mrs MacLaren was shot through the back of the kidneys, but the wound was only flesh and she made a satisfactory recovery. Inspector Grant of Largs, who was in charge of the district, was at the scene of the tragedy on Saturday night and remained there almost constantly for the remainder of the week.
The ‘News’ reported: “No possible motive for the attack on the family could be surmised and there was no clue to the assailant. Almost immediately after the fatal shots were fired, Mr MacLaren came out of the house, but no one was visible. Traces of footprints were discovered at the window form which the shots were fired and in the garden and plaster casts of some of these have been made as a means of identification of the murder. It is conjectured that the murderer has crept close up tot eh window, and fired through it the glass being broken and a portion of the woodwork torn as if by the passage of a bullet.”
The ‘News’ stated that there was little doubt the intended target of the bullets was Mr MacLaren, An examination of the position of the chair and the marks of the bullet revealed the fact that it missed him just by inches. Had it been the smallest space higher it would have penetrated his thigh. The bullets were of large size and came from a powerful weapon.
“A striking circumstance of the shooting was thew sharp angle at which the shots must have been fired through the window. Owing to the fact that the window is situated in a right-angled corner of the cottage, the assailant of necessity had to shoot from the left hand side. The footprints confirm this fact. In order to avoid being seen while he took aim he had to shoot at an angle which allowed only about two inches of a margin between the walled side of this window and the perpendicular wooden support between the bottom panes.”
The story made national headlines as all sorts of theories behind the murder were speculated from robbery, to personal malice and insanity, but all such possibilities were ruled out.
Robbery was ruled out because the murderer failed to take advantage of his opportunity after Mr McLaren left the house, while personal revenge was also considered unlikely.
The mystery sparked investigations even as far as Canada as Miss Gunn had headed across the Atlantic and to live with another sister and brother in law and lived there for a number of years, and police investigations wondered if a spurned lover could have been to blame.
A large investigation was carried out in which the whole of Portencross and surrounding area was combed by detectives. Miss Gunn’s body received a post-mortem examination before being removed in a coffin and was witnessed by a handful of mourners on Monday afternoon including Mr MacLaren. The MacLarens and Miss Gunn were members of the Parish Church, where Miss Gunn’s funeral took place. Her coffin was covered in highland plaid..
The 'News' reported on one intriguing line of enquiry on November 1 1913: "One of the pieces of information supplied to the police was to the effect that on the day of the tragedy a stranger called at the farmhouse on the road leading from West Kilbride to Portencross in the afternoon and asked to be directed to Portencross. Some children who were on the road also noticed the man.
"A fairly complete description of the appearance of the strange was obtained by police, and for several days they have been trying to find evidence of his departure from the district. After their enquiries, police confirmed that the stranger had called at three farms in the district, some distance apart from another. In each case, he asked to be diverted towards Portencross.
"Curiously enough, while the police have thus been able to trace the stranger on his way to to the scene of the murder, the police have been unsuccessful in gathering information of him after the crime was committed."
As the 100th anniversary now passes on Friday, it would appear that the truth is no longer out there and the Portencross murder mystery of 1913 will remain forever unsolved.