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The Fiend Of Far Fell
It was on the northern edge of St Mary's Loch, about
halfway along the shoreline between the eastern end and Tibby Shiel's
Inn that the first body was found. I can picture the scene in my mind
as the loch-side road is one I've travelled a number of times from
Selkirk through the hills to Moffat on journeys from Alnwick or Berwick
to Stranraer. It's a tranquil place, like a microcosm of the Western
Highlands that's drifted south into the midst of the lowlands almost to
the English border. The hills rise steeply on either side of the loch
enclosing the narrow valley and looming over it, sheltering it so that
more often than not the still surface of the loch is unruffled in the
silence of the glen.
The corpse was fully dressed, lying face down, the
head submerged in the water, the legs stretched straight behind it and
tied at the ankles to a stake driven into the small beach so preventing
the gentle waves from coaxing the body away from the shore. The man had
been hit on the head and garrotted with a hempen cord. The headlines in
northern papers on both sides of the border starkly proclaimed "Body in
the Loch", though south of Newcastle, where mentioned, it was relegated
to an inside page.
It was briefly sensational, helped along by
speculation without evidence - an 'underworld' slaying, a ritual
killing, even a drug-induced fantasy murder! None of them seemed to fit
the location - too far from a city for gangsters or fetishists or
druggies; a place separated by the cleansing powers of nature and of
wilderness from the excesses of urban humanity - or rather inhumanity;
a place of calm, of reflection, of restraint. When it was revealed that
the victim was seventy-two years old, the wilder theories melted away
and the theme of revenge with a whole variety of imagined motives
emerged. As the police seemed unable to make progress and had no
intriguing or helpful clues, interest waned.
Then came a second one.
The two deaths were immediately conjoined by their
circumstances and by their locations. Although they occurred on
opposite sides of the border, the distance between them was only some
fifty miles as the raven flies and the topographical features of the
surrounding landscapes and the manner of the crimes were so similar it
would have been perverse not to link them. The second victim was
seventy-one, a further connection perhaps? So in newspaper headlines
the killer became a serial killer. Scientists usually hesitate to
declare results represent a linear relationship and even three on a
close approximation of a straight line is regarded as thin evidence,
but journalists are not so timid.
It was this second crime that first brought the
matter to my attention. I was staying with Petronella at her home in
Ripon and noticed a copy of the Newcastle paper The Journal which she'd
brought back from a visit to that city a few days previously. Seeing
what had attracted my attention she remarked:
"Ah yes that item might be of interest to your
The headline proclaimed 'Victim of Bizarre Murder
found in Beauty Spot', and the article began:
"Climbers from Durham University introducing novice
mountaineers to the thrills of rock climbing on the pitches of Crag
Lough themselves experienced a less benign thrill, one of horror, when
they discovered a body floating face down in the shallow water at the
margin of the lough itself. The corpse had a head wound, neck injuries
and had been submerged in the lake. A police source said the death was
definitely being considered suspicious and an enquiry had been opened.
It was hinted that there were other unusual features of the death but
no further details have been released. It is understood that a car
found abandoned a short distance away had belonged to the victim."
I know Crag Lough and the cliffs that fall to the
edge of the mere. I scaled one of the pitches myself, many years ago
and under expert guidance! The rocks are outcrops of the Great Whin
Sill which straddles England from west to east, coast to coast, a
distance of no more than seventy miles at that latitude, and along the
crests of which the Roman emperor Hadrian had his eponymous wall
constructed to mark and possibly defend the northernmost frontier of
You may remember the furore yourself. The newspapers
plumped almost unanimously for the ritual murders theory. Accounts of
the 'threefold death' in pagan sacrificial rites were aired, the
propaganda of ancient Roman imperialism was resurrected, and the blame
for these modern deaths was placed unfairly but squarely on some
(unknown) contemporary neo-pagan cult. Some went so far as to conflate
that speculation with the unrelated phenomenon of gangs of elderly
bikers roaming the roads of the north presumably in an effort to
recapture the glory days of their youth. Wildly labelling them 'hell's
angels', some tabloids hinted at satanism and other sensational topics
for which the apparently ritual deaths provided the evidence.
It was after the fourth fatality (confirming their
status as serial killings!) that Hugo called me to say he would be in
London on the morrow, and inviting me to lunch.
"Her Majesty will pay," he announced perplexingly.
We met in a comfortable but not opulent restaurant.
While we waited for our food, Hugo informed me that our friend
Sebastian Sinclair had been promoted yet again, this time to commander
in the specialist unit he headed at the National Crime Agency, quite a
small unit it seemed, charged with investigating what might roughly be
described as "weird" crimes - ones not easily classifiable as terrorism
or organised crime or fraud, but uncommon enough to need a nationwide
territory to accumulate the expertise needed to tackle them. I
suspected they would be the sort of crimes that Sebastian might from
time to time be consulting Hugo about, in his capacity as a former Home
Office adviser in anthropological matters that were not themselves run
of the mill anthropology! My suspicion that Hugo's invitation to lunch
was not just a friendly meeting was strengthened. If Hugo was planning
to pick my brains on Sebastian's behalf that would explain his
reference to the Queen paying - not her personally of course, but her
government! Although I rather doubted that Hugo would actually make a
claim for expenses; not his style at all.
Having apprised me of Sebastian's elevation, Hugo
confirmed my supposition by confiding that Sebastian had requested his
advice in the matter of the so-called neo-paganist murders, for Hugo's
"Sebastian is surely not convinced by the 'pagan
revival' theory is he?" I asked.
"Says he has an open mind but the case has been
referred to his unit and he is anxious to get a result quickly before
there are further crimes. So he's not ruling anything out; wants to
know if I think it's credible."
"And do you?"
"Not the wilder fringes of it. I don't believe in
the biker strand. Bikers would inevitably leave their tyre tracks all
over it. There would be witnesses reporting sightings, and no doubt
hearings, of motorcyclists in the areas concerned, whereas in fact
there's an almost complete absence of material evidence and very little
in the way of witness claims at all, except for vague reports of
something grey glimpsed several times in the vicinities."
"Does it appear that the crimes were committed where
the victims were found?"
"Yes in the first case, no in the second, perhaps in
the other two. In the first assault, the bludgeon used seems to have
been a piece of broken fencing abandoned at the scene and similar to
other pieces of fencing close by. No weapons identified in the other
"I don't remember seeing that reported," I remarked
"No it hasn't been, and it better not be now
otherwise somebody will be in trouble and it might be you or I or even
both of us. Sebastian is trying to keep as many details as possible
from public knowledge to minimise maliciously false reports or even
copy-cat crimes. So I am relying on you to keep this confidential."
"Much better not to have told me then," I grumbled.
"Why did you anyway?"
"Well you do occasionally have off-beam ideas, see
things from an odd angle. I'm hoping you might be able to contribute
"There is one additional pointer to the neo-pagan
hypothesis. All the victims had grain in their pockets. You may recall
that in the discovery of the prehistoric Lindow Man, examination of the
stomach contents revealed a last meal based on cereal grains."
"Yes I do remember that. I was particularly
interested as the stomach contents of some bog bodies have been
examined by ESR - electron spin resonance - spectroscopy. A practical
application of ESR I can use in my lectures."
"Not an exact parallel of course but certainly
"In the original case," went on Hugo, "what appears
to have happened is that the victim was fishing, seated on a
fisherman's stool, with his rod stretching out over the water. His
murderer approached him, perhaps silently, perhaps with a remark, and
then suddenly swung the broken fencing pole with some considerable
force, striking a powerful blow to the head and stunning the fisherman,
so that he pitched forward. The blow was not what killed him. The fatal
injury was inflicted with a garrotte, a very unusual one made from
hemp. The victim's face was below the surface of the lake but he had
inhaled no water so there was no question of drowning.
"What is odd is that the crime shows a curious
mixture of premeditation and spontaneity, almost as though the
perpetrator was desirous of committing a murder but the choice of
victim was opportunistic. The criminal seems to have come prepared to
kill - witness the garrotte - but seized a local object - the fence
pole - to initiate the assault. There were no real footprints at the
site. Either they had been erased by brushing, or possibly the
perpetrator had worn cloths over his shoes.
" No prior connection between victim and perpetrator
has been discovered."
Prior to my meeting with Hugo I had checked out the
reports on the internet of the two latest killings, both in the English
Lake District. The murder in Wasdale on the shore of Wastwater closely
resembled the first one on St Mary's Loch. I've only visited Wasdale a
few times so can't visualise it so clearly. I don't recollect ever
seeing it in sunshine; my memories are wet and gloomy or sullen with
the promise of more rain soon. Seen from the lane along the northwest
side of the lake, the summits on the other side fall almost sheer into
the dark waters. Screes have swept the cliffs barren of all vegetation.
It seemed a threatening place. Seen near to it becomes obvious that the
cliffs are neither absolutely sheer nor totally barren, but are nearly
The modus operandi was almost identical. The weapon
was not found. If it had been hurled into the lake with sufficient heft
then it was effectively lost forever as Wastwater is the deepest lake
in England, reaching well below sea level. There are neither myths nor
legends of prehistoric survivals lurking in its depths - nothing lives
down there. It is deeper than the regulations allow police divers to
venture. To search it would require specialised equipment and the cost
would be greater than the likely value of anything found.
The crime in the shadow of Blencathra was more akin
to that at Crag Lough, if only because the terrain seems more open
there, but the murders themselves are more or less identical at all
four sites. The body below Blencathra was anchored with its head in
Scales Tarn. The press were quick to seize on its proximity to
Castlerigg Stone Circle as further evidence of pagan involvement. To me
it seemed much more significant that both the victims were, like the
earlier ones, septuagenarians.
"Do you recall," remarked Hugo, "how, during what
you elected to call The Enigma of Poetic Injustice, you introduced me
to the world of small press magazines, especially those publishing
poetry? While browsing through a library collection of such, I came
across an annual printed listing of hundreds of such magazines from all
over the planet called, rather unhelpfully and certainly immodestly but
in fact precisely, Light's List. I say immodestly since it suggested a
presumption that everyone would know what it was, but I have to admit
it could not be charged with contravening the trades descriptions
legislation, since it was simply and indisputably a list compiled by a
man called Light. So its name made no claims to it being a complete
list of anything in particular, and avoided any excuses having to be
made about what it did not include."
"I am familiar with the publication," I said drily.
"I don't doubt it, given that you purport to be a
poet. The point for me is that many of the magazines listed were not
primarily poetry or fiction magazines but used poems and stories when
they pertained to their core interest. In particular there were a
number of pagan interest magazines listed and issues of these which I
found in the Northern Poetry Library in Morpeth led me to others with a
wealth of articles, letters and contact information for pagans. Of
particular utility for me were websites where I could easily and
conveniently read many more than were contained in the library.
"Perusing these it quickly became clear to me that
the overwhelming majority of people professing to practise paganism -
and even magic - were of a benign and peaceable nature. No human
sacrifice, no animal sacrifice even; in fact there was evident a
general desire to live in peace and harmony with the natural world. Not
a hint of malice. That is all in marked contrast to another magazine
genre, that of gamers where blood-thirsty violence is seemingly
essential! Of course Light may have discreetly omitted things he didn't
like although he does appear to have been all-inclusive (with the
exception of magazines promoting prejudice and fascism which he states
quite clearly he excluded). This conclusion was supported by a survey
of pagan internet sites. There are as you know all sorts of dreadful
and extreme interests catered for on line. Of course on-line
communities of whatever kind generally react far more quickly than
those serviced by printed communications so I concentrated my search
there for reaction to and discussion of the crimes being laid by some
at the door of neo-pagans. Both the crimes themselves and the
accusations were universally condemned and I found the abhorrence of
the first and indignation at the second equally convincing. I
recommended Sinclair look elsewhere for motive."
"Does he have jurisdiction on both sides of the
"He has full jurisdiction over police authorities on
the English side. It seems it's more a case of operating in conjunction
with Police Scotland on the other but I confess I find these
bureaucratic wrangles and tangles of limited interest even from an
anthropological point of view. Sebastian appears to understand the
extent and limits of his powers in what has long been debated territory.
"Fifteen centuries ago of course the Anglian kings
of Northumbria held sway from their capital at Bamburgh over most of
the lands from the Humber in the south to the Firth of Forth in the
north. As you know, much of this country is upland, whether called
hills or mountains or the more local fells and it's across this huge
area that the felon dubbed by the press 'The Fiend of Far Fell' has
been spreading alarm. The origin of his soubriquet is unclear. There
seems to be no specific fell named Far Fell, and it seems likely that
it arose simply as an allusion to his wide-ranging activities, more a
feeling than an actual place, coupled with the press's love of
"Hm! That's certainly interesting but I really don't
see what help I can be."
"Maybe you won't be able to be but then again
perhaps your subconscious will offer something. You always say your
best ideas come from there."
"Best fictional ideas. I'm not sure it's helped me
much with my work."
Two weeks went by during which there was one more
murder and no progress reported from the police. They were not
being given a very good press! The latest slaying was in
Kirkcudbrightshire across the Solway from Cumberland, on the shore of
Loch Trool in the woods of Glen Trool.
I was spending a few days in Yorkshire with
Petronella and I'd told her what Hugo had related in connection with
the fiend of Far Fell. I hadn't forgotten it was confidential but I was
confident Petronella would keep it to herself. One day when we felt
like a drive somewhere, Petronella suggested we visit Hugo. I rang him
and he was agreeable. She drove us up the A1 to county Durham and the
medieval castle his college leases from an impoverished peer for a
peppercorn rent, in return for them keeping it fairly warm in winter
and weatherproof the whole year round. It uses it as accommodation for
about a hundred second year undergraduates along with a few members of
staff, one of whom is Hugo. As the car scrunched to a stop outside the
main entrance to the castle itself, I was surprised to see Hugo
"Hello," he said. "I've just had a call from
Sebastian so your arrival is quite timely. He says he'd value my
opinion on what may be another 'fiend' killing."
"May be? Is that just Sebastian's usual caution or
is there some real doubt?"
"He didn't elaborate but he certainly sounded
tentative. I imagine that's why he'd like my opinion. Are you
interested in coming?"
"Did he invite us as well?"
"Not explicitly but he didn't prohibit you
accompanying me and I had told him I was expecting you any minute."
"North Northumberland, a place called Duddo, near
"Yes, I take it you know it?" I nodded.
"There you are then. Your local knowledge could
prove invaluable." I felt sceptical about that but turned to Petronella.
"I should think it must be about an eighty mile
drive. Are you happy with that?" She smiled.
"I certainly am. It sounds interesting."
"We'll go in my car," said Hugo, "in case it gets a
bit rough - the country that is, I'm not expecting any other sort of
trouble!" he hastened to add.
Hugo drove up the Durham motorway past Washington
and round Newcastle, crossing the Tyne on the city by-pass. Twenty
miles further on, just north of Morpeth we veered left onto the A697
for Coldstream. This was a slower road but far more pleasant: a climb
up onto the moors that protected Rothbury, with the Cheviot Hills to
the west, then over the watershed into the rich farming country of the
Vale of Glendale; just a few small villages and miles and miles of
varied countryside as the Cheviots guided us ever north for some thirty
Just north of Milfield we turned off the Wooler to
Coldstream road onto the B6354, passing Ford and Etal to the hamlet of
Duddo. There we turned left on a narrow lane signed To The Stones. No
more than a quarter of a mile along this we came across a collection of
patrol cars and crime scene vans along the verge on either side of a
gateway leading to a harvested field. Hugo pulled up just beyond the
group and we got out and walked back.
There was a police constable standing at the field
gate. Hugo showed him his home office accreditation and the officer
contacted Sebastian on his radio after which he indicated a length of
police tape stretching away across the field alongside a path which ran
by the hedge towards another, distant gate.
"Keep to the left of the tape please sir," indicated
"Right," said Hugo, and we set off on the stubble
side of the tape away from the path. Fortunately the ground was still
dry after the glorious summer we'd had and we were all wearing walking
There was no sign of the stones from the lane but I
had visited them before and knew that although the land was only gently
undulating, it was enough to conceal them from a distance. We walked
the half mile to the second gate and from there we could see the summit
of the low hill and there at last was the circle.
We plodded up the slope towards it but did not
venture within. The Duddo stone circle is not a monument on the scale
of Stonehenge; it is not grand, not imposing, not overpowering. The
individual stones are each only six to seven feet high and the diameter
of the ring only thirty feet. Its name has varied over the centuries as
the number of stones has varied, following the fall or re-erection of
the odd boulder. At present it is a ring of five stones, human in
scale, intimate and incomprehensibly comforting. I never fail to feel
soothed, protected and healed when I come here. As a scientist I cannot
explain that; as a human being I do not try; I simply accept it
gratefully. In the year after Helen died, every so often on impulse I
would drive up here from Durham just to stand for a while in the ring
of silent stones. It is a place where it is possible to believe that
life is more than it seems.
The stones are irregularly shaped, deeply grooved
vertically from four thousand years of weathering, like large hands
their fingers grasping at the breeze, reaching from the land towards
the sky. Often when I have been here I have been alone but never
lonely. It is a place where solitude is welcome and welcoming. From
where we stood just outside the perimeter of the circle there were no
buildings or roads visible, no traffic sounds to be heard. The only
signs of human activity normally visible from there are the harvested
fields, the hedgerows and the stones, but that day there were as well,
crime scene technicians in white making a finger tip search of the area
around and within the ring. We stood outside it in a taped off square.
Looking between the nearer stones to those on the other side of the
henge I could see the figure, of a man apparently, seated with his back
leaning against one of the slabs, his head bowed forward on his chest
as though dozing. He looked comfortable and peaceful in the afternoon
sun. I didn't need telling he was dead. It felt so obvious. It seemed
to me a good place to die, in contact with the earth, in the pure air,
beneath the wide sky, enclosed by the protecting stones, as though
welcoming his body's return. I can understand why a man would choose it
as the place to breath his last and I had no doubt that this was a
suicide and that it completed a pattern.
Sebastian noticed us and came over and stared at
"I didn't ask you to bring your gang as well," said
Sebastian somewhat grumpily.
"I didn't bring them, they came. We were all
together when you called and I had no authority to prevent them coming
along! Anyway, I'm sure they'll keep out of your way and they might
have some useful ideas; we are all scientists after all."
Sebastian sighed and rather reluctantly acknowledged
"Alex," he nodded.
"Nice to see you too Sebastian. This is Petronella.
She's at the Science Reference Library." Sebastian greeted her with a
better grace, then turned once more to Hugo.
"On the face of it this doesn't look like another
victim of the Fiend. No obvious signs of inflicted trauma, death seems
most likely due to either natural causes or to poison,
self-administered or introduced by trickery. The autopsy should decide.
We are well away from water here so it is obviously not a three-fold
"So why did you invite me here?" asked Hugo.
"I had a feeling," admitted Sebastian. "It may just
be because it appears to have occurred here within Duddo Stones,
a neolithic site. It is the pagan connection again. Despite there being
no other overt similarities, I have a conviction that it is an event in
the same series, perhaps even the final one. "
"You think he was the killer of the others?" queried
Hugo. Sebastian shrugged.
"There is a farm near here that has a licence to
grow hemp for fibre production; we're within the area where the crimes
have been committed, admittedly well off its centre but still."
"It is difficult to resist the association of
ideas," acknowledged Hugo. "Any idea how the deceased reached the site?"
"We've found a bicycle in a ditch alongside the lane
bordering the field. I would assume he walked from there up to the
stones. It's only a quarter of a mile or so."
"A bicycle suggests he lived somewhere around here."
"I think so," agreed Sebastian. "I've already had a
photo taken - we'll get a better likeness of him once he's in the lab.
We've had the preliminary one duplicated and a number of officers are
visiting farmsteads and cottages in the vicinity. We'll widen the area
if we have no luck. Berwick and Wooler are the closest places of any
size. It'll obviously take longer to canvas them door to door so we'll
try a mug shot on local television as soon as possible, and maybe in
the Berwick Advertiser but that's not out until Thursday and I hope
we'll have something before then. And we have this as well."
He held out a plastic sleeve containing an A4
printout and Hugo took it.
"It looked as though he had been reading this when
he died. It was in his lap with his hand resting on it."
Hugo read the beginning of it.
"Wind turbine for Duddo Stones. Protesters claim
turbine at local beauty spot and ancient monument will bring little
benefit in return for destroying a tourist attraction and compromising
an important archaeological site."
"You don't think he committed suicide because of
"Might have been the last straw, but I doubt it was
the underlying reason and it does seem strange just when he seemed to
be spreading his activities to south west Scotland. There are many
lakes or lochs there, a fact which seemed to promise more of these
"I might be able to get an identity more quickly
another way than the door to door - worth a try I think," suggested
Hugo looking at the print-out thoughtfully. "May I have one of those
photos?" Sebastian handed one over
"Come on," said Hugo to Petronella and me. "Let's
leave Sebastian in peace with his crime scene."
The three of us piled into Hugo's car and he drove
us (too fast as usual) along the narrow but fortunately mainly
straight, country lanes into Berwick, explaining as we travelled that
the printout had pencilled in the top right hand corner lib 30p.
"It's a bit of a gamble," he admitted, "but that
could have been short for library 30 pence, a note to himself that he'd
printed it out at a public library and it had cost him thirty pence.
Berwick is I fancy a little nearer than Wooler so I think asking there
might save a bit of footslogging, and it won't take long."
He found a parking slot (he always can) just outside
the fortified town's eastern ramparts and we re-entered the town via
the Cow Port and followed Walkergate to the public library above social
services. It was a newish purpose-built two storey structure. I
remember when it was housed, totally unsuitably, in an old school,
different categories in different assorted rooms. It wasn't easy to use
then, but it reminded me of libraries of my youth which were often in
such make-shift premises. The new facility was a single large open-plan
space, extremely light and airy but lacking any quiet secluded areas
where one could browse (or drowse!) undisturbed by others.
We went up to a counter and Hugo showed the
librarian the photograph of the man in the stone circle.
"Unfortunately this man has just died and he had
nothing on him to identify him. We are trying to find out who he is. Do
you by any chance recognise him?"
I could see she did.
"I recognise you," she retorted. "You've been in
here before asking questions of my colleagues about customers."
"I admit it," he said, "but only for good reason."
"No doubt, but you must realise we can't reveal
information about users to just anyone who comes in. May I ask who you
"Of course, quite right," responded Hugo. He fished
his Home Office ID card out of his top pocket and proffered it for
inspection. I had seen this docket impress police officers so I respect
it as powerful magic, but the librarian was made of sterner stuff. She
gave him a quizzical look as she returned it.
"It's out of date," she said. I grinned. Rather nice
to see Hugo nailed! Although a bit inconvenient just now, I reflected.
"I know," sighed Hugo. "I just can't seem to find
the time to go into the office. Luckily there's no fine for late
Fortunately the librarian proved not to be a
stickler for dates.
"He does come in here," she said, "although he
rarely borrows a book. He mainly reads the papers and uses the computer
terminals." Hugo nodded.
"His name is Ian Yarrow. He lives in a cottage on
the south slope of Dod Law, in one of the old shepherd's cottages
"Can you tell us which one?"
"I think there are only two or three. They aren't
numbered I believe."
"No bother. I'm sorry he's dead. He didn't say a lot
but when he did he seemed pleasant enough, though he sometimes looked
as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. See you
later." She turned to the next customer.
"What did she mean 'See you later'?" asked
"It's just something they say up here. Like
'Cheerio' or 'Ta-ra' elsewhere."
Once we were outside I turned to Hugo.
"I thought you were supposed to have returned that
"True. As I said I just keep forgetting. In any case
I'll probably get a brand new one any time now, with Sebastian being
promoted to commander."
We left Berwick by the A1 south. Almost all journeys
in the north of Northumberland involve the A1 at some point but not
because it's fast but because it is the main north south route, which
is a pity because it is in fact rather slow, successive governments
having spent as little as possible on it, regularly promising to dual
it before elections and as regularly forgetting to do so after them.
Just a few miles south we turned west onto the lane to Wooler, the more
direct one that runs through the small village of Doddington. On the
outskirts of the hamlet, by the 'bonny Dod well' I directed Hugo onto a
roughly metalled track up onto the lower slopes of Dod Law, and ending
in a small car park.
"We'll have to walk the rest of the way," I said,
and we all got out.
The path towards the top of the law was broad with a
gentle gradient, its springy turf kept short by the perpetual hunger of
grazing sheep. The breeze blowing down from the upper slopes was fresh,
smelling of bracken, and warm and soft. There were few trees even on
the lower slopes and the view westward across the Vale of Glendale to
the Cheviots and the clustering lower fells, was wide and exhilarating
beneath an egg shell blue sky without a cloud from horizon to horizon.
On a far hill the pure white spheres of a mysterious installation
rested lightly in the heather.
At one point we halted briefly, gazing at a flat
slab lying amongst the ferns. On its surface the enigmatic diagrams
known as cup and ring markings had been deeply incised by prehistoric
artists thousands of years ago. Despite much study and even more
speculation they still remain unexplained and without interpretation in
terms of modern thought.
Once over the ridge we could see three cottages. The
nearer two had wind turbines and looked in reasonable repair, perhaps
holiday cottages. The furthest away was not far enough for distance to
conceal its evident dilapidation. It was thither we made our way. To
one side of it was a grey van. Despite its apparent desertion we
approached with circumspection and stood looking at it. Hugo decided on
"Anyone at home?" he called. Silence confirmed our
impression. He called again more loudly, and then opened his rucksack
and took out a packet of disposable gloves, extracted a pair and pulled
He went to the door and knocked with his knuckles,
still without response. He pushed it and it moved a few inches inward,
seemingly grating on a stone floor. He pushed harder, making enough of
an opening for him to be able to crane round the door and see within.
He shouted again with the same result as last time. He pushed the door
wider and bent down to retrieve something from the floor. He
straightened up and withdrew, some envelopes in his hand. He examined
"They are all addressed to Ian Yarrow. It seems
certain this is where he's been living. I'm going in to look around. If
any of you want to join me please remember it's likely there will need
to be a full scale forensic examination of the place so don't touch
anything. Just look. If you see anything that seems significant, tell
"What are you hoping to find?" asked Petronella.
"Don't really know. Just some clue as to his motive,
I suppose. Perhaps a note if we're really lucky!"
"I doubt if Sebastian would appreciate all of us
clumping about in there," I objected. "He invited you to assist him but
he didn't seem very welcoming when the rest of us turned up."
"I feel it would be useful for each of you to look
around too. Everyone has their own way of looking at things. You might
notice something or notice the absence of something that wouldn't
strike either Seb or me, or interpret what you see differently.
Policemen are specially trained to do that but the trouble is they can
sometimes end up only seeing the things they've been specially trained
to see!" I had heard this argument before.
Hugo got out the box of disposables and
offered pairs to each of us. We both accepted and then followed him
gingerly inside and stared about, somewhat aimlessly in my case. The
cottage was dingy and lacked any semblance of comfort. It was more like
a bothy than a home, though a single folding camp bed against one wall
was neatly made up as if he had planned to return. As usual when
entering an unfamiliar place I was drawn to the few shelves
accommodating books. They were mainly on topics relating to prehistory,
which didn't surprise me, but there were also some dealing with
depletion of resources and degradation of the natural environment.
There was no fiction. In fact the room in some ways reminded me more of
an office than a home, with piles of books and papers on most surfaces.
"Look at these," said Petronella. I went over to her
where she was standing by a stack of old newspapers. I glanced at the
top one. The headline was: GREED OF ELDERLY ROBS YOUNG. I scanned the
first few lines: 'A senior member ot the Government today blamed the
spending of public funds on heating allowances and bus passes for
pensioners for the cuts being made in school maintenance budgets and
the freezing of family allowances. He went on to say that cushioning
the elderly from the effects of the global financial crisis was harming
efforts to improve care for children.'
I carefully separated newspapers further down. They
all had headlines of a like kind:
Parties woo grey vote with guaranteed pensions
Pensioners take jobs from young;
and a whole series focussed on the NHS:
NHS beds blocked by 'living dead';
NHS overwhelmed by ancient patients;
NHS will collapse without decisive action to get
more elderly people out of hospitals, health
leading perhaps inevitably to a series of headlines on the 'Do not
resuscitate' controversy and the semi-apocalyptic 'Planet can't support
Hugo joined us.
"Examples of non-violent extremism," he said, "to
quote terminology employed with an entirely different intent. Insidious
vilification of the elderly, as of any easily identifiable minority is
an incitement to those susceptible to such suggestion. The old are no
longer useful, they are unproductive consumers of resources better
directed towards the still working sector of society. It is just a step
from 'do not resuscitate' to the deliberate culling of those
stigmatised as worthless. It's an age-old tactic, the setting of one
group in opposition to another to conceal the diversion of a large part
of the common resource to purposes that chime with party dogma but have
little or no relevance to the needs of the majority of the population.
It was a mainstay of the NAZI regime in Germany."
I tuned out Hugo's lecture and looked instead at a
print-out of something called Stone Circular (rather an appropriate
name I thought) and scanned it with interest. It appeared to veer
slightly to the left of the Guardian and didn't mince its words about
the 'right-wing gutter press' and the campaign it claimed it was being
waged to smear 'modern pagans' by alternately mocking them for their
inane and pathetic beliefs, and then accusing them of being murderous
conspirators who believed in human sacrifice like their ancient
predecessors and asking loaded questions like 'have these pathetic
modern imitators ambitions to revive the heathen practises of those
they copy?', and stopping only just short of openly accusing them of
being guilty of the three-fold murders of the elderly victims. Nor did
the editor of the Circular spare 'the once quality broadsheets, which
differ only from their more squalid brethren by being more mealy
mouthed in their libels'. The writer went on to remind the readership
that known three-fold death victims from ancient times had all been
relatively young men, hinting that they may perhaps have been willing
sacrifices, coveting the honour of bringing divine favour on the tribe,
and certainly not old and worn out.
Hugo was standing in front of the fireplace. On the
mantelshelf was a typical clutter of odds and ends including what
looked like a birthday card. He picked it up and opened it. He offered
it to me as though it might explain all. I read the message inside:
Happy 70th Ian, love Big Sis.
Petronella was looking at a pile of compact discs
beside a portable player.
"This is all pagan and new-age music," she said,
"and all apparently of a calming nature - an antidote to the effects of
violence perhaps." She moved on to a small pile of magazines and
print-outs from the internet, all with titles suggesting they were from
non-mainstream publishers and were concerned with aspects of paganism -
Pentacle, Raven, Moonstone.
"These magazines and websites are the sort the Prime
Minister probably would not approve of in the unlikely event he were
ever to see them," she said. "They promote a view of the world at odds
with approved religions, approved values, approved realities, diverting
peoples' energies away from approved useful activities like working,
consuming, generating wealth, and so on. The minorities who are
involved in them practically invite persecution and hostility by
following lifestyles many might regard as parasitic on society,
contributing nothing and deriding the majority who follow the
government's 'respectable' paradigm, invite that is in the way other
victims are said to invite trouble."
"You're beginning to sound like Hugo," I chided.
"Definitely not an improvement."
She grinned and gave me a friendly punch on the arm.
Hugo was perusing another pile of computer
"It looks as though he selected his victims by
trawling sites available to him from the library facility or in
internet cafes. With a bit of judicious ferreting he would be able to
identify those that met his criteria, whatever they were. We all know
people reveal excessive and potentially dangerous amounts of
information about themselves on-line, including of course photographs,
on internet chat sites and blogs where anyone can access them. All the
men - they are all men - that Ian Yarrow collected data on and
eventually chose, seem harmless enough except to someone worrying about
consumption of resources. They are all unattached, with no obvious
family, few friends, no community involvement, all over seventy and of
course with no connection with each other or with Yarrow himself. They
all seem essentially blameless and therefore might be regarded as
suitable to be a worthy sacrifice, in terms of pagan beliefs - there is
no suggestion of death being a punishment for some misdeed. With what
he knew about them he could easily watch and wait until an opportunity
arose that suited his purpose, and if it didn't there was always
another potential victim.
"What seems possible is that Yarrow was interested
in paganism and absorbed pagan ideas and concerns at a rather
superficial level and that he was also concerned about the
'overburdening' of the Earth by increasing population. The everlasting
harping by politicians and newspaper columnists on the growing problem
of the old, making no contribution to the commonweal but consuming an
ever greater proportion of ever scarcer resources of food, heating,
lighting, health care, their needs competing with those of the young,
with those whose lives were just beginning and in whose hands would lie
the future of the race itself, on and on and on, could at some point
have caused this concern to became a kind of mania, finally driving him
to decide to do his bit towards resolving the problem by removing some
of those who had already enjoyed more than their biblical three score
years and ten. If it seemed like a drop in the ocean he might even have
thought about involving others in his scheme eventually. I suspect he
used the three-fold death not to shift suspicion onto blameless pagans
but because he felt it showed respect for his victims. Or maybe he
genuinely accepted the original supposed rationale with which our
remote ancestors imbued it. But when it comes to motives it's really
all just guesswork.
"Then he encountered that article on The Nightly
Telegraph blog spot which presented a different attitude, one for which
archaeological evidence provides definite support, that for neolithic
communities far from being seen as a burden, the aged were revered and
their passing mourned as any other member of the group - burial rituals
in particular, a number of demonstrably older people having been
interred with flowers and gifts of articles for their journey into the
spirit world. Some authorities theorise that the value of the old was
perhaps in their memories in ages before material records could be
kept, in their experience and wisdom, attributes we might with benefit
put greater trust in ourselves. It concluded by pointing the finger of
blame at government for promoting suspicion between the generations and
also of fanning prejudice against groups with beliefs different from
the majority. Passages had been heavily underscored in pen. Did he come
to believe he'd been made a fool of by politicians intent on
playing off sections of the community against each other; duped and
exploited by government propaganda and media sensationalism? Whether he
took his own life out of remorse or simply confusion is anybody's
guess, but I suspect it was triggered by that card on the mantle shelf
which not only reminded him that he himself was now into the alleged
selfish age, but that following his own logic his elder sister should
also be culled. Maybe that brought home to him the human aspect of what
he was doing, so my suspicion is it was a mixture of both."
"Yarrow," I said. Hugo and Petronella eyed me
"His name," I said. "It seemed significant in some
way and I've just realised why. It is the name of the valley in which
St Mary's Loch lies and perhaps its significance is simply the
coincidence of Ian Yarrow's name and that of the prehistoric stone
there, the Yarrow Stone. Maybe it was that which sent him along the
particular path he took when he became determined to do something about
We were all silent for a while until Hugo spoke.
"Do you recollect that slogan from the Second World
War: 'Careless talk costs lives'? That's an idea that has a wider
relevance than simply revealing sensitive information to foreign
agents. Talking carelessly - or indeed writing carelessly - to garner
votes or sell newspapers can have unintended but potentially dangerous
consequences for groups of vulnerable people."
"You mean irresponsible politicians and newspapermen
share some of the blame for what happened?"
"Yes. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword,
and when the pen is twisted it may conjure a twisted sword."
"I've never seen a twisted sword nor yet a twisted
pen," I said, "but twisted men to wield them abound."
"And twisted women," said Petronella softly. I
looked at her. Something in her voice suggested she spoke from
experience but her look was far away and I didn't pry.