Friday, October 30, 2020

The Little Ross Lighthouse Murder

 I was watching a film recently where two men were on an island, working on the lighthouse and one killed a seagull. There was lots of weather and long silences. I think the guy from the Vampire thing was in it but after the seagull met its demise I lost interest.


It reminded me of all those Swedish films where death comes to the door and asks for a chocolate biscuit, after a strenuous game of chess.

Lighthouses have always been rather intriguing buildings, lending themselves to crime fiction, and crime.  I’ve stayed in one a few times, a bit cramped but very high ceilings.

There is the famous Flannan Isles Lighthouse (Eilean Mòr, Flannan Isles, Outer Hebrides, Scotland) where the keepers vanished in 1900 never to be seen again.

Another Scottish Lighthouse became famous when one of the keepers murdered the other one. The island where the lighthouse is situated went on sale in 2017 giving rise to new interest to the tragedy. It took place in 1960, a murder that I doubt, well I hope, would never happen today.

Little Ross Island Lighthouse was the scene of the crime in 1960.

On that fateful day, 18th of August, a young boy called David Collin was out on his boat; he and his dad were going for a picnic to the island of Little Ross.

They set off from Kirkcudbright (down at the south western tip of Scotland) to explore the island. They pulled their little boat up onto the beach and noted there was no sign of life around the island, no sign of the lighthouse keepers, Hugh Clark and Robert Dickson.

It was David’s Dad’s day off from his job as bank manager in Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kir could bri). The lad was the sailor, the Dad was going along with him to enjoy some father and son time, a fine sunny day on the island while the weather forecast was good.

They did sense there was something different from the previous times they had visited the island. Usually one of the keepers would be visible going about their business, there would be a greeting, a wave, a shout of good morning, but on this occasion there was nobody around.

Being polite, they knocked on the lighthouse door just to say that they were on the island but there was no response so they went off to have their picnic in a sheltered spot. While they were eating, the wind caught the sound of a phone ringing, and ringing. It was left unanswered. Mr Collin thought it might be wise to check the cottages before they left Little Ross.

Here are the words of David Collin, a boy at the time, now a retired architect.

“My father eventually plucked up fortitude and went into one of the houses, in fact we both went into the house on the right, the principal keeper’s house. Everything was spick and span, neat, clean, tidy, beautiful – a budgie sing in its cage – no sign of anybody.

“My father went into the second house – I didn’t go in – but he promptly came running out and said: ‘Get help if you can, there is a man with an ailment in his bed’.”

They alerted another boat that they knew was lobster fishing nearby, and the crew came ashore. Together they entered the cottage and then the bedroom where they discovered the old man, lying in his bed with his head wrapped up in a towel. They knew he was dead.

They immediately contacted the police and then they waited.

Nobody was thinking that they had discovered a murder, they thought that it was an natural death or the result of some illness.

Three hours later, help arrived on the island

And it became evident that lighthouse keeper had been killed.

Later, it would be confirmed that Hugh Clark had been shot with a .22 rifle by his assistant Robert Dickson.

Dickson had gone on the run to Yorkshire but was caught and brought back to Dumfries for trial. He had prepared for his escape, stealing money but so little money it couldn’t have kept him going for a month.

Despite a defence plea of mental illness Dickson was convicted of murder and, as the law was in those days, he was sentenced to hang.

Many people were uneasy at the sentence as it obvious that Dickson was suffering from severe mental health issues, which were evidenced in his medical history. The judge directed the 15 man jury to a guilty verdict, and the death sentence. One of his arguments was that Dickson had the presence of mind to steal the money, and that indeed, he thought that theft of the money was the entire reason that the crime had been committed.

Others would argue now that it was a pitiful amount of money to kill for, and that there must be a degree of impairment in mental function if Dickson thought that the funds would last him any length of time.

The death penalty was then reduced to life in prison.

Dickson later   committed suicide in jail.

Later investigations have shown just how unstable Dickson was. He was in no state to be sent to work, and certainly not to a lighthouse. A hospital might have been a better idea.

It’s hard to think of any condition more unsuited to life in such a confined isolated environment.

As you probably know, many of the Scottish lighthouses were designed by the Stevenson family (of Robert Louis fame) and their family archive shows that they were responsible for the Little Ross Lighthouse design.



  1. The Stevensons liked islands! RL even died on one.

  2. What a sweet little building. What a tragic story.

  3. A sad story indeed. Did he ever try to explain why he did it? Certainly lighthouses make great settings for mysteries, as we all know from lots of examples. It has been sort of done now, though.

  4. What a treasure to find you making a Robert Louis Stevenson island reference on a Friday.

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