The Appin murder mystery, the historical 18th century event at the centre of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, may have been solved 150 years ago by another great Scottish novelist.
Flinders University’s Professor Graham Tulloch, an authority on the works of Sir Walter Scott, believes that Scott not only may have known the identity of the murderer, but also wrote a short story about him.
Stevenson’s famous novel centres on the unsolved 1752 murder of Colin Campbell, shot by an unknown assailant in woods on the west coast of Scotland. The murder of Campbell, who was the manager of lands forfeited to the British Crown in the wake of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, caused a hue and cry. Alan Breck Stewart, who in a famous sequence in Kidnapped hides in the heather from pursuing English soldiers with the fictional hero, David Balfour, was a real suspect in the murder, but escaped to France.
It was another local clansmen, James Stewart, who, despite his alibi, was convicted as an accomplice to the murder in a show trial and hanged.
In the course of his research for a new edition of Scott short stories, Professor Tulloch’s has put together three pieces of previously unlinked evidence that point to the murderer’s possible identity.
One is A Highland Anecdote, one of four stories submitted by Scott for the 1829 edition of a Christmas compendium, The Keepsake. Published later and separately, it was never included in Scott’s collected works and is little known.
Professor Tulloch said A Highland Anecdote tells the story of a character, Duncan, who is crippled by a stag during a hunt. The story also mentions Duncan’s alleged role as the perpetrator or accomplice in a “famous murder”.
Professor Tulloch says there also exists a printed letter of Scott’s that reveals he had not only met the man on whom he based the story, but that the murder in question was the Appin murder.
“On top of that, Scott writes in his journal that he has sent to the Keepsake’s editor the story of ‘Duncan Stewart’ and the stag,” Professor Tulloch said.
While literary detective work seems to have revealed the murderer’s name, the case can’t quite be closed – there are records of four contemporary Duncan Stewarts who might match the details given by Scott .
Professor Tulloch and research associate Dr Judy King have edited eight Scott short stories which will appear shortly in the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels under the title Shorter Fiction.