THE SANDS OF TIME REVISITED

Following his article ‘Beyond The Angels Share’, our man in the Highlands, Ian Murray, who used to be the District Inspector for the force at Aberdeen has dusted off his scrap-book once again and has taken a look at the theft of whisky from Aviemore. An account of the theft was originally published in an edition of THE JOURNAL in the 1960’s under the heading ‘THE SANDS OF TIME’. But this particular account is told through the pen of Ian.

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Aviemore is a small village in the Highland region of Scotland. In the 1960’s it was transformed into one of Scotland’s major inland resorts. It is best known for being a ski resort, as the Cairngorm Mountain is not too far away. The village can see up to 250,000 visitors in the winter months for the skiing. Today, there is still a railway station which is situated on the main Inverness to Perth railway line. Until Doctor Beeching yielded his axe Aviemore was an important railway junction for the Highland Railway to Forres and the Great North of Scotland Railway to Craigellachie, and the North East of Scotland, along with the main line to Inverness and Perth. The fact is that Aviemore would not exist without the railway influence. In the nineteen fifties it was a very close knit railway community. The Strathspey Heritage railway to the Boat of Garten and eventually Grantown on Spey runs from Aviemore.

This is my account which concerns the theft of a complete barrel or Hogshead of whisky whilst in rail transit, which has a most interesting sequel to events incorporating a most interesting tactic which I used on numerous occasions with outstanding success.

The true position was this; Aviemore came under the Aberdeen Sub-Division. Aberdeen is around 2 ½ hours by road from Aviemore a round trip of five hours. The District police contingent at Inverness were around 40 miles distant. Overall policing of Aviemore came under Aberdeen. The officers based at Aberdeen were responsible for railway locations such a Fort William, a location that required a road journey of around 150 miles. No direct rail link. As I pointed out to the Senior officers at the Scottish Area Headquarters in Glasgow, during my period in charge at Aberdeen, we were expected to cover an area the size of the Netherlands with a handful of police officers, who required in many cases a full eight-hour shift to travel to and from points under their jurisdiction, an almost impossible task.

In the early years of the nineteen fifties a unique theft occurred in the Highlands of Scotland at Aviemore. I refer to the theft of an oak barrel containing 54 gallons of whisky (under bond) whilst in rail transit from a Speyside station to Glasgow (General Terminus).

Initial suspicion for the locus of this most audacious theft, centred on Glasgow. However approximately two years after the theft ‘The Sands of Time’ revealed that the Hogshead had been stolen at Aviemore. The circumstances surrounding this discovery were set in motion by a railway guard, attached to the Aviemore workforce. He was known locally as DODGER MCBAIN. As events unfolded the nickname DODGER was perhaps highly appropriate.

MCBAIN, reported discovering the empty Hogshead, buried in a wood adjacent to the Forres to Aviemore Junction branch line, at a point near where the branch line terminated, near to the Aviemore ‘Up’ freight yard. The spot where the Hogshead was discovered was circled by broken cups and glasses, evidence that those responsible for the theft (and no doubt many others) had congregated there to partake of the stolen spoils.

The theft of the Hogshead of whisky from an open wagon in rail transit was, and remains unique in the annals of railway crime. To remove a Hogshead of whisky weighing between two and three hundredweight was in itself a remarkable feat. It was patently obvious that railway employees were involved and that the Hogshead had been stolen from the open wagon as the local Speyside freight was halted awaiting clearance to enter Aviemore ‘Up’ Marshalling Yard. Shades of ‘Beyond The Angels Share’ featured in my previous article.

During the course of the investigation a Customs and Excise Officer said to me “These are wonderful people; but the cunning and ingenuity that they will display to secure a dram is unbelievable”.
Approximately two years after the theft the Stationmaster at Aviemore contacted the Force at Inverness to report that a pair of gloves were missing from the station lost property office and that he strongly suspected that DODGER MCBAIN was responsible. The then Detective Constable based at Inverness travelled 40 miles south to Aviemore where he duly interviewed the suspect on the completion of his duties as guard of a freight train. It must be remembered that there was no evidence to point to MCBAIN being responsible for this relatively minor theft. Not surprisingly he denied all knowledge.

However the investigating officer was not entirely convinced that MCBAIN was as lily-white as he made out. There was insufficient evidence to apply for a search warrant, so the officer decided to adopt a tactic recommended by the then Chief Constable – W.O. Gay. (In my view perhaps the best Chief Constable that the force ever had).

The tactic was as follows: – when the suspect denied responsibility the investigating officer would say “So that you can be eliminated from our enquiries would you be prepared to allow me to search your home and any outbuildings?”. In the majority of cases the suspect having placed himself in a position of credibility, gave permission for the search. However, Mr Gay was a highly experienced police officer, and he instructed that whenever and officer decided to adopt this tactic he make an entry in his pocketbook to the effect that permission for the search had been given of his own free will, and that this entry was then signed by the suspect.

When the search of MCBAIN’S dwelling was carried out around thirty items of property (stolen in rail transit) was recovered. I may add that the gloves were not found. MCBAIN later appeared on citation at Inverness Sheriff’s Court, was fined and as normal practice dismissed from the railway service.

The Guard’s journals for the local freight train conveying the Hogshead in question had been destroyed. However who would bet against DODGER MCBAIN having been the train Guard? Sadly no one was ever arrested for the theft of the Hogshead.

The Police Officer, who dealt with MCBAIN, used the W.O. Gay tactic on several occasions during subsequent policing with considerable success. The tactic was never challenged in court, but I feel that this may have thrown up a most interesting stated/decided case.

 

Extract from the April 2013 edition of History Lines (No. 44)