Family Secrets

Dunstaffnage Castle
OK, even before it burned, the old pile was no Dunstaffnage Castle.
Families all have secrets and events which they would rather keep under wraps and behind closed doors, so imagine my surprise when I discovered a relative of mine had been convicted of a major crime and dealt with in the harshest possible way. Walter is his name and his crime involved fire and general malicious conduct. My family has had time to recover from the shock and shame of it all—helped in no small way by the fact we have had 283 years to get used to it.

Walter the Fifth of Boquhan and Branshogle was convicted at the circuit court in Stirling, Scotland on the 29th of September 1729 for setting fire to his neighbor, Bontine’s, estate.

My father, with his natural Scottish curiosity, went to the court and obtained copies of the transcript of the original trial. Written on vellum the papers were in the earliest boxes kept by the court. It told a sorry tale of great damage being done to the estates of Bontine and intrigue and dark dealings. Walter, upon conviction, was taken to the tollbooth (the city jail) in Scotland’s capital city. Edinburgh, in 1729, was not the cleanest of places and I suspect, the tollbooth was probably a fair reflection of the general standards of hygiene, for the day.

Inverary Prison, Scotland
Inverary prison
Walter, obviously, felt the same and wrote to the court officials requesting the opportunity to pay his own passage to Virginia. The court representative replied reminding Walter that his conviction involved deportation to the Virginias, never to return “upon pain of death”—this means the death penalty, if he was silly enough to try to find his way back. In a fit of what appears to be meanspiritedness, the official denied his request and Walter languished there for about 8 months before being transported to America.

The situation was not helped by the fact even if Walter’s wish had been granted he could not have paid for it, as all his considerable wealth and lands had been transferred to Bontine, under the laws of the day. The trail runs cold from there, but now retired, Dad was a criminal lawyer of high repute and no little skill. He showed that Walter could not have committed the crime as he was in Aberdeen, buying horses, on the night in question and there was no way he was able to make it back (there was no Acela in those days) to the scene of the crime at the time the witnesses said it all happened.

Scotland of yesteryear was a harsh place when it came to justice and the fact that people were seen in the vicinity, wearing the colors of Boquhan and Branshogle was enough to see him staring through the bars of the tollbooth, waiting for the next ship to Virginia. 

The temptation to dig deeper into all if this, is strong. Firstly, a wrong would appear to be waiting to be righted. Secondly, there is much folding green stuff involved which may have been, wrongly, taken from my family’s loving grasp. (I have already made some money back as this story was optioned by the BBC, many moons ago.)

The final question is, of course, what happened to Walter upon arrival in Virginia?  I have more than a passing interest in that, as I now reside in Virginia—legally, I may add. Virgin Atlantic’s frequent flying programme, to my knowledge,  does not include a deportation service. What could be waiting? The fifteenth President of the United States was the Democrat James Buchanan. He was born in 1791, and Boquhan was the old Scottish name for Buchanan…you just never know!

Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.


  1. Le French Book

    How interesting! Family secrets are great fodder for books (well, and keep a good number of therapists in business too). I translated an interesting panel discussion last year in Toulouse (France) at a crime fiction festival. The title was Family Secrets, and authors included the American Thomas H. Cook, the Swedish author Gunnar Staalesen (some books translated in UK), and French author Sophie Loubière (not translated into English yet), all of whom write books full of family stories, some from their own lives, others not, that come back to haunt the protagonists. This theme seems to be really common in crime fiction (I’m translating a book right now by Sylvie Granotier that has that too), but I never get bored with it, seeing how varied and interesting/inventive the actual secrets are.

  2. Lois Karlin

    Well now. We may well have been cousins. Stirling – and Duntreath – figure largely in my family history. Lots and lots of family secrets, enough to keep me going the rest of my life if I want to use them as fodder for mysteries. You’re right, all family closets, if we dig deep enough, are full of skeletons.

  3. Dirk Robertson

    If we are cousins then it means you are related to Audrey Hepburn, but that is another story…….!

  4. Dirk Robertson

    The American, Swedish and French writers might have the right idea. I sit there coming up with ideas from my imagination whilst I have ancestors like George Buchanan who though a top flight scholar (1506-1582) still found time to make exciting enemies in Paris and tangle with the Inquisition on the subject of religion. It seemed this involved much jail time, torture and general fleeing across Europe. Fantastic.

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