The Gamekeeper Murders

On the 20th of  December 1883 an article appeared in our local  newspaper. It contained a few lines relating to an incident on the near lands  of  Lord Rosebery.   The headline was in capital letters  draped in black print. It read MURDEROUS ATTACK ON GAMEKEEPER. Poaching has  been a way of life around this neck of the woods for the lifetime of us all.  Miners found a way to challenge and contact nature or to furnish a bite for the  table. It was not in common for people to be charged with the crime and suffer  its penalties. To those who constantly avoided capture somehow earned a  unimportant reputation for skill and stealth. But to kill or injure for game was  alien to our very nature and negated any standing in our community.Roseberry House

On a early Saturday morning two armed men fired at three of Lord  Roseberry 's Gamekeepers near the Mansion House (right) some five miles from the small  village of Gorebridge. The gamekeepers were ambushed and shot bodily one after  the other. Unfortunately one man was seriously wounded and soon became in  despe rate need of medical attention.

Previously James Grosset head keeper and John Fortune had both suspected a spout of night poaching and to curtail this they met on a Friday night. At an  arranged rendezvous they met up with a well known rabbit trapper John McDermid and made their way in complete dark.  The three men headed towards the type of land and cover enjoyed by the pheasants within the  estate.

Around  three in the morning after a seemingly long wait, a gun shot was heard. The  sound indicated it was fired approximately a mile away and to the gamekeepers and fellow trapper just what they had hoped for. Making their way on a heavy  moonlight night when the ground was strewn with patches of  grey frost  could not have been better. About a half mile taken at a steady pace they heard  a second round reverberate through the night. But this time it was quite  near and the game party moved forward to find cover in some bushes. There they  could see two men armed with guns sauntering in their direction. It may have  entered the head game keepers  mind they had only sticks to use in defence  and had arrived in this situation without their usual pack of dogs. Without  hesitation they met them head-on and challenged the armed men.

One of the poachers cried out " Stand back"  while the other pointing a  finger to the left of the keepers said " Take that one and I'll do for the one  on the right". The first shot of the engagement rang out and found t he right  arm of Mc Dermid who on impact fell to the ground. The next shot struck Grosset  on the shoulder as he turned to help the fallen man.

A following blast hit Fortune in the lower abdomen and as he sank to the  ground he heard his companion Grosset ask if he had also been hit. Fortune  replied "Right through the heart".  On hearing the noise omitted by the  keepers a poacher aimed his gun at Grosset and fired. The shot luckily missed  its mark. The other poacher shouted to his friend "Load again quick and don't  let that ******* away". With some presence of mind Grosset seeing the seriousness of the situation ran for help, at the same time hearing they would  get him at the bridge not far from this place. Grosset now aware of their  plan changed direction, and soon found cover in the woodland leading to Edgelaw  Farm. (below left)

Edgelaw FarmIn the dark the two poachers looked down on the shot men and were  satisfied they had done their work, one exclaiming, "The ******* are dead  enough", before moving off toward the bridge to ambush Grosset.

On arriving at the farm Grosset gained the assistance of three workers and  returned to the place of ambush, taking with them a cart for the wounded. They  found the poachers had gone. Mc Dermid had made slow progress towards the Head  game keepers house. Fortune had managed to crawl 200 yards but his inj uries were  such they carried him rather than use the cart. While carrying him he began to  talk in a drowsy fashion saying, " You know me; we've had a dram together; and  you wont shoot me".  Fortune while being attended by h is wife hours later told  her,  "It was not Innes who shot me." 

But he didn't say who had at that time, yet  his son John telling his father of the two men in custody , his father responded  by saying, it was not Innes who shot but the other man.

A local farmer  sped to alert Dr Spalding, who made all haste to the house where the injured had  taken refuge. Caring for the wounded men Dr Spalding was  astonished to  find   Fortune appeared to sustain less injury than expected as his  pocket watch had taken the force of the blast. The watch had been protected by a  German silver case cover that had been completely shattered and subsequently  saved the life of Fortune. But with only a few pellets removed and 52 pellets  still in his side he was nevertheless in a critical condition. The local constabulary informed Edinburgh police  headquarters, who sent officers to assist in the affair. On questioning Grosser  they found he recognised one of the men responsible for the shooting. It  transpired he wa s a coal miner called William Innes of Stobhill known to many as  a poacher. He had that very day been shot in his own home accidentally and had  been transported to Edinburgh Infirmary soon after.

Police officers were  sent to investigate the wounded man. The theory banded by the police was Innes  panicking at a knock on the door jumped into bed wi th his gun and shot himself  under the right jaw. The second person involved was a Robert Vicars a miner  from Gorebridge who had been seen in the company of Innes not long before in a  local public hou se. He was arrested in the early hours of Sunday morning after  searching his house and finding a double barrelled shot gun. Grosser   recognised Vicars as one of the poachers, but this could not be confirmed by  Fortune as his conditio n could not allow this. Alas on Tuesday morning at  five forty five Fortune died of the injuries he received from the guns of Innes  and Vicars.

Vicars was constantly under surveillance during his stay in hospital by the staff of Calton Prison and later taken to Rosebery House where he was identified  as one of the two poachers involved in the incident. Consequently both Poachers  were charged with Night Poaching and the more serious crime of Murder. Both  Grosset and Mc Dermid seemed to have recovered from their injuries enough for McDermid to identify Vickers as the one who shot him and Fortune, certain sure.  During the cross examination Mc Dermid had been show two different men and he  immediately stated that those were not the men.  Mc Dermid had suffered 38  pellet wounds on his right arm during a dressing of the wounds he began bleeding  despite all the doctor could do he died. Innes and Vicars we re again charged  this time with a double murder.

Vicars admitted he had not wanted to  go poaching that night but was influenced by a drunken Innes who was quite  prepared to shoot. This confess ion was shown to Innes who in turn confessed but  had stated he had not intended to seriously injure the Game keepers.  The  confession was signed by the prison Chaplin. Charged with Night Poaching Murder and Assault, by discharging loaded firearms.

In defence of Vickers a neighbour Mrs Pryde said, he had been in the house at ten in the evening, she had stayed up to three in the morning of the murder  with a tooth ache, and had not heard Vickers leave the house till five in the Morning. William Vickers son, Said his father went to bed around ten at night  asking his wife to put off the light as it was time they were all in bed.   William woke his father at five in the morning to go to work. Mr Andrew  Bernard had the habit of tapping the door to wake up Innes, on the morning of  the murder he walked in to find Innes carelessly inspecting his gun at about  5am. A fellow miner William Ramage heard a shot that morning and entered the  Innes house, to find his standing barefoot in the middle of the room holding the  discharge gun. Ramage took the gun from him and discharged the remaining shot  out doors. Innes said, the first shot had been caused by inadvertently knocking  the gun against the table.

Andrew Bernard had gone down the mine in the same  cage as Innes and his son . A man named Neilson Fowler a blacksmith saw two  men hurrying along a public road towards Gorebidge Village at half past five in  the morning but could n ot identify them as the accused although he was  acquainted with them.  The prosecution averred the action of the men  was concerted with the intention of discharging their weapons at the Gamekeepers, unarmed men and could only ask for one verdict that of guilty. The  evidence by the witnesses for the accused was considered not effective as the shooting had occurred at two in the  morning.       

Both condemned men were brave enough to admit their crimes through  confessions.  A reprieve was hoped for by a petition to the Home Secretary  due to the number of uncertainties in the case against them and they be given  the benefit of the doubt. The petition failed.

The trial ended in a majority verdict yet it could be said a very thin one where many disagreed with that stance. The judge addressed the prisoners. "I  will not use unnecessary words. The jury has found you guilty. In the way prescribed by law between the hours of eight and  ten on the 31st instance be hanged by the neck by the common executioner and may God have mercy on your souls."

Meanwhile near Old Bridgewell the scaffold was being prepared in a place of seclusion for later transportation to the prison. On the night before their execution Vicars deeply regretted his actions and the trouble it had brought his  family. One of the things he talked about was a warning to those who would carry  a gun and the terrible consequences. But it was too late for him and Innes.  After shaking hands with every one present on the day of their execution the prisoner sat down, within a few minutes the executioner tapped Vickers shoulder  and took him to be pinioned, Innes soon after. The scaffold was not far from  the condemned cells where the men could see the executioners wearing white  masks.  Both were hanged according to the Majesty of the law the ropes  straining only an inch or so. Hardly a tremble was seen only the expression of  two faces staring upward.  They were buried within the grounds of the  prison with their cloths on and covered with quicklime to dispose of the  evidence of judicial homicide.

It should be remembered around 1,500 memorials  in total were sent to the Home Secretary in the hope of a reprieve. Both denied  they had intentions to seriously injure the game keepers and to wait ambush at  the bridge for Grosser, to kill him.

Innes apparently had a habit of priming his shot gun and carelessly leaving it around the house where on one occasion his children were caught playing near  it in a primed state.  Vickers wife and children swore said he had not  been out that night. Both Vickers and Innes were considered to be harmless  according to one witness.  In a letter to the Editor of a prominent  news paper it said, I am inclined to think game would be safer without keepers as with them.

We must leave it to the reader to look into the case and draw their own conclusions, as there are so many facets to the story and trial. Although we  cannot wear 1884 spectacles we can read and build a picture of the  past.  

A post-mortem examination revealed Fortune had died of Peritonitis and Mc Dermid from loss of blood. 

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