IN this second of a four-part series on infamous unsolved Scottish murders, I am going to write about a truly baffling case which remains officially open 110 years after it happened, as there is no statute of limitations that applies to homicide.

Often referred to as the Portencross Murder, the killing of Mary Speir Gunn in the tiny North Ayrshire hamlet of that name shocked Scotland in the autumn of 1913. No-one was ever arrested or charged with the crime and although several theories have emerged as to the identity of the killer, the passage of more than a century means there is no evidence extant that could prove the murderer’s identity, not even via DNA analysis.

The police files on this mysterious case have long since been lost, and the infamy of the murder is only known to the public because journalists and history writers such as myself continue to find it fascinating. As ever I will confine myself mostly to known and verifiable facts but this time will admit to some speculation.

In May 1913, retired farmer, Alexander McLaren, usually known as Alex, and his wife Jessie, née Gunn, moved into an isolated cottage at Portencross, a hamlet on the coast near West Kilbride and not far from where the Hunterston nuclear power complex would be built decades later. Joining them at Northbank Cottage was Jessie’s sister, Mary Speir Gunn, a striking woman who in her younger days had been known as the Beauty of Beith. It may or may not have had something to do with the story of her death that she retained her good looks at the age of 51.

The National: Mary GunnMary Gunn (Image: n/a)

McLaren had been a baker and then a manager in the iron and steel trade. He moved to Port William in Wigtownshire where he built Ebenezer Hall to allow him to practise his evangelical form of Christianity, then to Taynuilt in what was then Argyllshire. McLaren ran the local Post Office and took up farming.

Mary went to work on the farm but was not enamoured of the hard labour involved and soon accepted the chance to join her other sister in Canada. She took a lover in Saskatchewan, but the affair came to nothing She had a relationship while in Saskatchewan, but this ended and she returned to Scotland and moved with the McLarens to Portencross.

Alex McLaren was by now 60 and his wife 61. Proving he was finished with farming, McLaren sold his sheep at a public auction for £100.

On the morning of Saturday, October 18, 1913, Mary Gunn set off for the shops of West Kilbride, just over two miles from Northbank Cottage. Knowing when she was due to return, McLaren went out to meet his sister-in-law. During their walk home, they met a stranger and briefly talked to him. The events of what happened on that tragic night have never seriously been disputed. The police never doubted McLaren’s account, which was corroborated by the evidence of his sister.

At about 8.30pm on a rainy evening, the McLarens and Mary were in the sitting room. Alex was reading aloud from the novel At Sunwich Port by WW Jacobs, with the two women enjoying his laughter-inducing account while they knitted. There was no alarm given by the two dogs near the house when suddenly a shot was fired through the lower pane of the main window. It shattered the glass, smashed McLaren’s left index finger, and went through the book he was holding.

READ MORE: A battlefield, a priest and the death of King James III

The killer blow

TWO more shots rang out, with the bullets later being found in the armchair on which McLaren had been sitting. Further shots were fired, one hitting Jessie in the back.

The killer’s attention turned to Mary, who was shot twice, the second bullet entering her heart (try as I might, I cannot find a record of where the other bullet struck her.) She cried out, “Alex, I am shot,” collapsed on to the floor at the fireplace and died very soon afterwards. 

McLaren had shouted, “floor, floor, Mary,” but the warning had come too late. The Beauty of Beith was dead at the age of 51.

A newspaper report of the time stated that McLaren had thrown himself on top of his wife to protect her. When it was clear the shooter had disappeared, he ran out of the house but saw nobody.

He let loose his two dogs from an outhouse but they showed no sign of hearing or seeing anyone. McLaren then ran to the house of neighbouring farmer Alexander Murray for help. But he had no telephone so McLaren and Murray ran up to Auchenames House, the home of William Adams, a local laird who knew them both. 

There being no telephone in the nearest police station at West Kilbride, Adams called a friend who lived in the village and they ran to the police station and also alerted the local GP, Dr More.

Two police officers and the medic jumped into a car and quickly made their way to Portencross, encountering McLaren and Murray on the way. Arriving at the murder scene, they found Jessie McLaren in considerable pain and her sister dead on the floor. 

The investigation began even as More was treating Jessie’s wounds – she would later have a damaged kidney treated at Kilmarnock Infirmary. More also pronounced Mary Gunn to be dead. She lies in an unknown grave in Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis where other members of her family were buried.

Irish blame game?

BALLISTICS and forensic science were then in their infancy but the local police knew enough to judge that the .45 calibre bullets had been fired from a heavy revolver such as the British-made Webley or the American Colt. They also knew to secure the scene, even if they didn’t keep the press out.

The Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald described the shootings as “a terrible and most mysterious tragedy” and was able to give a full and comprehensive account of the scene, including the details that “innumerable fragments of glass lay inside the room while only one small piece was found outside”. 

The journalist speculated that “taking into account the position in which the murderer stood or knelt and the respective positions of the occupants of the sitting room, two facts become clear – the first is that it was Mr McLaren who was aimed at, and the second is the person who fired the shots was not only accustomed to handling a revolver but was something of a marksman”.

Two clear footprints were found next to the window and the inquiry began to focus on them. The police were able to ascertain the boots had been manufactured by the Halstead company. There had been speculation locally that Alex McLaren might have shot the women himself but the boot prints cleared him as he owned no such boots and his feet were bigger – and how would he be able shoot himself in the finger from several feet away?

Police came from other parts of Ayrshire and on the Sunday morning began to search the area around the murder scene. They found no further tracks, due probably to the heavy rain overnight.

The strange man encountered by Alex and Mary proved to be untraceable but suspicions did fall on a gang of Irish labourers working on local farms, as the shooting of people through a window was seen to be an Irish tactic during the pre-war Troubles there. 

They were all soon cleared, as was Mary’s Canadian lover, who was across the Atlantic when the killing happened.

The suspicion of a lovers’ tiff, however, did not go away. Was Alex McLaren caught up in a ménage à trois and did he want to remove one part of the triangle? There was no evidence of this whatsoever and the fact he had been shot at three times suggested he was innocent – and remember those bootprints.

The motive was at first thought to be robbery – McLaren’s £100 for his sheep – but there were no signs of forced entry. Detectives began to admit the trail was going cold, even suggesting the killer might have taken their own life.

Police then sensationally let it be known that their attention had switched to Glasgow and an arrest was imminent. They had been pointed in that direction by McLaren, who became convinced he knew the identity of the killer – his “friend” Andrew Gibson, proprietor of the Shore Boarding House in Portencross, and shoemaker with a thriving family business in Glasgow.

Local people gathered outside West Kilbride police station awaiting the arrival of the subject of the  “imminent arrest” but it never came.

It had been alleged that Mary and Gibson had been having a relationship which Gibson’s wife Elizabeth might have found out about. McLaren hinted such an affair had taken place but he never confirmed it after Mary’s death, perhaps to protect the good name of his sister-in-law and keep scandal away from the reputations of people known locally to be good Christian folk.

The police interviewed Gibson in Glasgow where had been staying on the night of the killing. His alibi proved unimpeachable.

There followed an extraordinary twist in the tale. McLaren told people locally of his suspicions about Gibson and included Gibson’s wife Elizabeth in his murmurings as someone who had “guilty knowledge” of the crime. Mrs Gibson promptly sued him for defamation – but withdrew the action before it came to court, with costs going against her.

Perhaps she thought she and her husband might well be identified as suspects – and don’t forget that in those days hanging was still the only punishment for murder.

My conclusion is that, for reasons unknown, McLaren was the main target and Mary and Jessie were collateral damage. If Mary was the main target, why did the killer did not hang around and complete the job, given that McLaren had left the house and gone some distance from it? Yet Jessie McLaren testified that no-one had come near while she stayed with her sister. And don’t forget those two bullets fired at but which did not fully penetrate Alex’s armchair.

The case made lots of headlines in 1913 but events the following year pre-occupied the press and public until 1918. McLaren died in 1916.

Five years ago, local historian and writer Stephen Brown published a book in which he examines the murder in detail and makes a strong and convincing case for the identity of the killer. I do not agree with his conclusion as I believe the police would not have been so incompetent as to miss some glaring clues as to (spoiler alert) his or her identity.

I will not name Brown’s “murderer” but, if you are interested, his book, Who Killed Mary Gunn?, is available on Amazon, with the Kindle edition currently priced at £2.95. It’s well worth a read.

For myself I can only conclude that this is an unsolved murder and will remain so. By comparison with other countries there are rather fewer unsolved murders in Scotland than elsewhere, but over the next two weeks I am going to tell the stories of the most infamous unsolved killings of them all, the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the late 1960s.