It has been years since I last drove into Steinish village and I must steel myself to quit the car. Walk out onto that rank pasture.
The perennial Lewis wind blows off the moors, over grey Broad Bay, hissing and murmuring in the thick band of birch and pine and hazel between this bleak spot and the nearest houses as, just after four, light fast fades.
The crime scene was bulldozed years ago. Police Scotland tape no longer flutters. Cheap bouquets on fence posts are history. It takes time to get my bearings, but soon I find all that remains – broken slates, scraps of render, amidst thick, yellowing weeds.
In the abandoned Dorran cottage that then here stood, 16-year-old Liam Aitchison of Lochboisdale, South Uist, was done to death with blunt and sharp implements in the small hours of Wednesday, November 23, 2011.
It took them ages. His nose broken. His jaw smashed. Deep defensive wounds on hands and arms. In all, he was stabbed 20 times, two of the blows severing arteries.
Liam had fallen so far from adult attention it was almost a week before anyone even realised he was missing. And no one in those cosy homesteads, just the other side of those whispering trees, heard anything as he fought for his life.
Weeks earlier, the Uist teenager had reached Stornoway for an embarrassing court appearance and new beginnings. He thus, unwittingly, walked into his own murder. And I delivered him.
It was Tuesday, September 27, 2011. I can date it precisely because I was returning from Free Presbyterian communion services in North Uist, which were on the fourth Sabbath of that month. I should have left on the Monday, but my own minister was taking the last service that evening and I owed him a hearing.
The lad by the slipway for the Sound of Harris ferry asked me for a light. He was dark, stolid and, I thought, about 20. When learning he, too, was Stornoway-bound, I offered him a lift. Aboard, he vanished – as was his wont – to charm some girls. But, on the long drive from Leverburgh to Stornoway, as he petted my wee dog on his knee, Liam Aitchison shared his life story.
You’d have liked him. Warm, assured and funny. Evidently bright. He spoke of a dreadful upbringing – a broken home, parents with – uh – vulnerabilities; a stepmother never referred to by Christian name – without bitterness.
I was disconcerted to learn he was only 16. Worried how flippantly he spoke about drink and drugs. And his starstruck words of a new Stornoway pal, Jonny Mackinnon – himself to be in court that autumn; who promised to be his best mate in prison. A notorious local thug.
Anyway, Liam and I became Facebook friends. Chatted occasionally. On two occasions I met him in Stornoway, when he hailed me with vast enthusiasm.
He had a vexing tendency for scrapes: one October weekend fortunate to escape serious injury in a Lewis car crash. (The girl sitting on his lap was not so lucky.)
On November 8, Liam messaged me about his quest for a job. I did not handle it tactfully, for his comeback was tart – ‘i wasint askin for muny i was just askin for advice.’(Spelling was never a strong point.) I suggested we meet for a meal the following week. I would make notes for a respectable CV.
Likeable as Liam was, I kept wary distance. Thirty years my junior, he already had convictions for petty crime – a rascal, however good-hearted, I really didn’t want turning up at my house at inopportune hours. But I could at least have given him some cash-in-hand gardening work – and wish I had.
We finally met on the evening of Wednesday 17, at HS-1, an informal Stornoway eatery. The first I’d seen of him in weeks. I struggled to hide my shock.
He had lost weight. Looked tired, haggard. Something evidently worried him; and how evasive he was where he was staying. He had scars on his left arm from that car prang – he had, he said, gone through the windscreen. Body odour made me suspect he had been sleeping rough.
Liam ate with great enthusiasm – a bowl of soup, a buttered roll, a big helping of chicken korma and rice. To my surprise, he declined pudding. (I learned, subsequently, that he had no sweet tooth. Much preferred a well-dressed salad to dessert.)
He ate like a fisherman – quickly, head tilted, forking food into his mouth. I asked about his court appearance: he had been charged with “impeding” an emergency worker. Oh, he said, he had never showed. Jonny had told him not to; to wait till next Wednesday instead, so they could be in court the same day.
That infernal Jonny Mackinnon again. Whatever was his hold over Liam? I took abundant notes. Despite his dyslexia, his educational record was good – six strong Standard grades. He could play the guitar, the drums, even the pipes. A keen, enthusiastic cook. Had even been a member of the Scotland Youth Parliament.
The convictions apart, the biggest problem was his age. Local hotels were the best chance, but licensed premises hate hiring anyone younger than 18.
Afterwards, Liam seemed anxious, eager to shake me off. Hung close to the wall, like a hunted animal, as we walked up Bayhead. Finally, he scampered away up New Street, keeping to the shadows, head bowed, hood up.
I never saw him again.
Of the days that followed, I have two dreadful memories. One is the relentless drip, drip, drip of events. Only on Monday, November 28, was the alarm raised: posters appearing in windows asking for word of Liam Aitchison.
His body was found the following afternoon, by a local volunteer coastguard – Robert MacLean – in a derelict dwelling at Steinish. Only on Thursday did Stornoway police confirm it was suspicious. Only the next Monday was a murder inquiry declared.
The other thing was the frightful weather. Late in November, it broke and, until New Year, we were in near-continuous storm, as some 60 police officers descended on Lewis. As well as a great many journalists, some much more responsible than others.
The conditions even delayed the funeral: Liam Aitchison was only buried, amidst tempest, at Hallin cemetery in South Uist on New Year’s Eve, with his guitar. I imagined his derision at the white coffin.
From the start, the names of Liam’s killers were in everyone’s mouth and, on December 20 – the same day the local Roman Catholic priest and I held a memorial service, packed out with young people – Johnathan Mackinnon, 21, of Stornoway, and Stefan Millar, 20, from Carloway, were committed to trial.
Mackinnon’s home endured wrecking police search. As did the family car, and Millar’s fishing boat. There were fingertip-searches all over Steinish. Ditches, drains and even wheelie bins were checked everywhere.
But hard evidence was elusive. Neither Liam’s clothes – he had stripped to his underwear just before the onslaught – nor the weapons were ever found.
On Monday, June 3, 2013, Mackinnon and Millar were convicted of his murder and, later that month, they were handed minimum life sentences of 18 years without parole. Their appeals were dismissed in October 2014. Only then, as Steinish residents had since December 2011 besought, was that building bulldozed.
What befell Liam Aitchison, in the small hours of a bleak Wednesday morning in that Steinish shack, is hard to think on. Four of his teeth were found on the floor.
“In my eight-year career,” said crime-scene examiner Jody Busby, “it is one of the most horrendous scenes I have been to.” Yet so circumstantial was the evidence it is unlikely convictions would have been secured in England.
Only slight forensic evidence was led against Mackinnon – his blood was found in the Steinish building, and on one of Liam’s socks – and none at all against Millar. Nor was any motive for so brutal a killing presented, save the recollection by another fisherman that Mackinnon had once wondered aloud, in his hearing, what it would be like to stab someone.
The biggest problem? The timings. Liam Aitchison was last seen alive just after midnight on Tuesday, November 22. Not two hours later, Mackinnon presented himself at Stornoway’s hospital with a cut hand. Witnesses later said he cut it while partying with Liam and two girls earlier that night.
At the hospital, he was clean, calm, articulate and prosecutors never properly explained how, if he had really just killed Liam, he left such a blood-drenched scene, without a stain, cleaned himself up, changed his clothes and covered a considerable amount of ground on foot.
In 2016, Mark Daly, the respected BBC Scotland investigative journalist, was so troubled by the case that, with the youths’ co-operation, he began digging, quickly learning some islanders suspected someone else may have been involved. Someone so dangerous that even Mackinnon and Millar, languishing in prison, dare not betray.
Someone widely feared, says a local woman, by youngsters in Stornoway’s ill-secured homeless hostel back in 2011. A respectable man, a family man, a Mr Big, someone with a vehicle – but a killer, perhaps still at large in our community.
Daly’s endeavours led nowhere, however, after Millar and Mackinnon – by then confined at HMP Peterhead – withdrew co-operation in 2018 and refused to see him. Given this curious contentment with their convictions, he cannot believe them innocent but the prosecutors’ timeline of that night is problematic and Daly would not be alone in suspecting exactly what happened and exactly who was involved – all of those involved – are not yet known.
A motive? Engaging and amusing as he was, one can imagine the jolly, lippy, charming, popular – at least three girls afterwards claimed to be his true love – Liam grating on some. It’s been suggested he was killed for the enormity of nicking a small bottle of Mackinnon’s aftershave but recollections of all their public Facebook exchanges at the time – both killers most interested in when Liam would be back on Lewis – suggest premeditation.
He died, I suspect, because he knew something mortifying. Or was simply suspected of knowing it. Perhaps dire scandal involving someone of local clout, the whereabouts of a cache of drugs or some glimpsed sexual thing.
That no one disposed of Liam’s body – and there is nowhere in the kingdom where it would be easier dump a corpse than the lochs, bogs and sea-cliffs of Lewis – poses more questions.
His contemporaries, a decade later, have moved on. In the last year only six have posted comments on his enduring Facebook page – four on May 14, which would have been his 26th birthday.
Yet, had Liam been spared, grown up, settled down, I believe he could have made something of himself. He brimmed with potential for life but we can never now know for it can never now be lived. And, out there, somewhere in the Hebrides, a murderer may still be at large.
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