In any legal system, no matter how hard the prosecution and defense attorneys try, there will be miscarriages of justice, all the more bitter in cases of murder. Weak evidence, a witness whose truthfulness, character or occupation seem less than sterling, a single juror who doesn’t grasp the niceties of the difference between “reasonable doubt” and “beyond a shadow of a doubt”, one single, almost throwaway, contradiction of the victim’s known habits–all can bring a verdict that the public finds unacceptable, and shouts and mutterings of a miscarriage of justice, of jury tampering, or misconduct by one side or the other will forever break out at the mere mention of the case.
This ghost story, from the Scottish Highlands, tells of one such injustice–and of the single curious piece of testimony that brought it about.
Sergeant Arthur Davies was an Englishman, newly married, when, in 1749, he was posted to the Highlands of Scotland during the Crown’s attempt to break the will of the clans following the final attempt to restore the royal House of Stuart to the British throne–that doomed rising remembered in history as “the ’45” that ended when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters died by the thousands at Culloden.
The “bluidy Sassenachs” as Scots called the occupying troops, were almost universally despised. Davies was an exception; he was one of those men born to be liked even by his enemies, polite, friendly, honest, fond of children and animals. Although he never learned to speak Scots Gaelic, he soon learned to understand the lilt with which Highlanders spoke English, and they his middle-class Sassenach accent. He got on quite well with the vanquished Scots.
Unfortunately, Davies was also rather conspicuously well-to-do, at least to the eyes of the clans left crushed by deaths and heavy fines following the ’45. He wore a fine silver watch, two gold rings–one of which was instantly recognizable for its odd design–, silver buckles on knee breeches and shoes, and silver buttons on his coat.
Sergeant Davies was last seen alive on September 28, 1749. He and four troopers had been out on patrol when Davies struck out on his own, hoping to bag himself a Highland stag. He promised to rendezvous with them at a set point on their patrol, within a set time. He never made it to that meeting.
For three days, the British troops waited to see if Davies would return on his own, with some tale of being lost in fog, or injured in a fall, or laughingly carrying the stag he sought over his shoulders. On the fourth day they mounted a search and began questioning the Highlanders as to his whereabouts. They got no answers; the Highlanders appeared as clueless as themselves.
Nine months passed. Sergeant Davies’ bride, scarcely a wife before she was a widow, gave up hope of ever finding her husband alive and returned to her family in England. The rooms they had occupied, in a house owned by Michael Farquharson, one of the the local magistrates, were let to the sergeant sent to replace Davies, and the nine days’ wonder of Davies’ disappearance died away.
In June of 1750, a man named Alexander MacPherson came to call on Michael Farquharson. Farquharson was away on business, and so it fell to his son Donald to talk to MacPherson, who seemed frightened half witless.
MacPherson lived in a shepherd’s hut in the hills. He confided to young Farquharson that he had been visited, almost nightly, by the ghost of Sergeant Davies. MacPherson had known Davies in life, and said he looked much as he always had, but for a sad, troubled look on his face. Davies, he said, repeatedly told him that he had been murdered for his silver watch and gold rings and some guineas in his purse, and named his murderers as two local men, Duncan Clerk and Alexander Bain MacDonald.
MacPherson also claimed that Davies had told him that his body was buried in peat moss, a scant half-mile from where he left the troopers that September morning. He wailed, said MacPherson, Bury my bones! BURY MY BONES! until MacPherson was half-mad with fear. He told the ghost he was afraid and would not go seek the bones, lest he be accused of the murder himself, whereupon Davies, with an angry frown, told him to go to the Farquharsons, his former landlords, and tell them to find and bury him.
Donald Farquharson, Highlander though he was, was not impressed with this ghostly tale, and said so. However, to satisfy MacPherson, he agreed to go with him to the spot indicated by Davies’ spirit. They dug down only a few inches before they found a body still recognizable as Davies’, stripped of all the gold and silver he had worn.
The two dug a proper grave for Davies, laying him to rest and reciting a service of prayer and committal over him. They took his clothes back with them as evidence.
Strangely, no legal action was taken in Davies’ murder until 1754. His widow returned to identify the clothing taken from the sad body found in the peat bog as her husband’s. The testimony of several people proved that the wife of Duncan Clerk, named by the ghost as one of the killers, had been wearing that curious ring Davies had owned for some years now.
Alexander MacPherson was the prosecution’s star witness. In the four years since he had come, terrified, to Donald Farquharson with his story of ghostly visitations, that story had changed considerably. Now he deposed that he had seen the ghost only once, sometime in mid-May of 1750, at which time he had indeed gone out and found the bones himself, before talking to Farquharson. On his way home, after finding the bones, he had run into a man named Growar–a name never mentioned by the ghost–who had threatened MacPherson with exposure to the magistrate if MacPherson didn’t keep quiet about his grisly find. MacPherson said he had gone to the magistrate–not Michael Farquharson, but another named Shaw–and was told to keep quiet about the murder of Davies, lest the district get a reputation for harboring rebels. (Shaw seemed to think the two named killers were, far from merely committing robbery, up to some Jacobite plotting or other, and killed Davies because he ran up on them while they were plotting.)
During cross-examination, counsel for Clerk and MacDonald asked a seemingly innocent question: What language did the spirit of Sergeant Davies use when he spoke to you?
MacPherson replied dramatically that the ghost spoke as good Gaelic as I do myself.
And, despite further testimony that supported both MacPherson’s story and the guilt of Clerk and MacDonald, the jury brought back a verdict of not guilty.
For, the defense pointed out in closing, Arthur Davies had never learned to speak Gaelic.
That Clerk and MacDonald were guilty of murdering Davies, there cannot be much doubt, as attested to by several witnesses at their trial.
The defense, though, seized upon a single contradiction–he spoke as good a Gaelic as I do myself and created just enough reasonable doubt to convince twelve men to bring in an acquittal.
They say that, to this day, Sergeant Davies’ ghost still walks the Highlands. His body was never properly interred in a kirkyard; it still lies in the grave dug by Farquharson and MacPherson after they retrieved his pitiful remains from the peat. Worse yet, his killers became prosperous men off the gold and silver for which they killed him.
Somewhere out there, Sergeant Davies is still looking for justice. At this late date, it’s unlikely he’ll get it.
The story of Sergeant Davies is told by Michael and Mollie Hardwick in John Canning’s 50 Great Ghost Stories (1971) and by Dane Love in Scottish Ghosts (1995).
This story is very similar, by the way, to the West Virginia tale of the Greenbrier Ghost, but with a far less satisfactory outcome.