John and Duncan McPhail – A case of fratricide and suicide?

This paper contributes to the ancestry of Catharine McPhail the first wife of fisherman, Duncan McTavish.  It puts forward the idea, the deaths of Catharine’s brothers John and Duncan may have been a case of fratricide and suicide but administrative structures in the judicial system render the evidence obscure and ambiguous.  The medieval treatise on dialetic, explained by St Augustine, 354-430 – “Obscuritas or ambiguitas – hinders the hearer from discerning the truth in words”.  Unfortunately, for compassionate and economic reasons, this meaning had currency in Scotland, 1871. [1]  

The deficiencies and ambiguities in the evidence surrounding the decease of John and Duncan McPhail create a nagging doubt, their deaths may be a case of fratricide and suicide.  A reader might infer that Duncan is responsible for John’s injury and subsequent death even though the timeline suggests otherwise.  Robert Shiels argues the Procurator Fiscal’s investigation into a “sudden” death was not a forensic investigation.  The investigation was constrained by administrative processes aimed at minimising the cost of an inquiry and, consideration of the embarrassment and shame the deceased’s relatives might endure in the pursuit of truth.[2]  Pragmatic?  Perhaps not?  Determining which of the primary sources accurately reports John and Duncan’s deaths requires weaving individual explanations into a narrative where the evidence is “verifiable, plausible and expendable”. [3]

A small paragraph in the Oban Times, Saturday 4 February 1871, offers the most coherent explanation for the McPhail brothers’ deaths, there is no inference a third party was involved nor mention of an accident, just sudden death, brought on by drinking hard:

‘Two brothers, named Macphail, slaters in Oban, died suddenly this week. Duncan, the younger died in Morven, but he and his brother were buried in Kilbride. It is alleged that both had been drinking hard.’ [4]

Duncan died on 28 January 1871, three days before his elder brother John.  Duncan’s cause of death “(Supposed) Severe cold 14 days” is perplexing.  He died on the Beach at Morven, during one of the coldest winter months, affected by king frosts.  Was that on purpose?  Any rational person with a severe cold would not be on a beach during one of the coldest winter months unless befuddled by alcohol or guilt.

Irregularities appearing on Duncan’s death certificate: time of death is not recorded, a medical practitioner did not certify the cause of death and the death, was registered, 14 February 1871, seven days after the requisite eight days in which to register a death. [5]  The informant, Alexander MacCallum Haggart, Lochaline, was not present at the time of death and his relationship to Duncan is described as “acquaintance”.  Who found Duncan’s body?

John died at his home on 1 February 1871, his injuries laid bare in the death certificate, a wound in the head two days.  Who found John’s body?  An inquiry by the Procurator Fiscal, Inveraray, amended the cause of death: loss of blood and exposure to cold having (illegible) large quantity (could be) whisky as certified by G Macgillivray, M.D. Oban. [6]  There is no mention John’s head injury was accidental, self-inflicted or the deliberate act of a person or persons. There had been a king frost the week John died and, the day Alexander McTavish registered his uncle’s death, Friday 3 February, the thaw set in.[7]

The location of Duncan’s death distances him from any involvement in John’s decease and conflates an argument the brothers were drinking together.  Arguably, in an impulsive moment of anger, fuelled by alcohol, after delivering John’s fatal injury, Duncan fled from Oban to Morven, a place where he had connections and felt safe.  John may have been found in a close, outside a public-house or in his own home, the morning after.  Conversely, if the brothers were drinking together at Morven, it seems unlikely, although not impossible, John made it back, on the ferry, nursing a serious head wound and drawing attention to himself. 

Moreover, it does not make sense that Duncan, supposedly suffering from a severe cold during one of the coldest winter months, would risk death from hypothermia by remaining on the beach rather than sheltering in a warm home. [8]  The timeline of the brothers’ deaths, Duncan on 28 January and John’s head injury presumably sustained between 28 and 30 January absolves Duncan from any involvement in John’s death.

Referring to Duncan as “the younger” in the newspaper articles, may imply that his conduct is forgivable.  Presumably, John played a formative role, both as brother and as a father figure, during Duncan’s youth.[9]  On reaching twenty-years, John is enumerated as head of the household in the 1841 census with sisters Catharine and Ann, brother Alexander and younger brothers Archibald 12, Duncan 10.

The words “but he and his brother were buried in Kilbride” can be interpreted as reuniting the brothers in death despite the violent circumstances surrounding their deaths.  If this is a case of fratricide and suicide, there is every reason to believe the McPhail-McTavish family, wanted the significance of the affection between the brothers to resonant louder than the tragic circumstances surrounding their deaths.  From a forensic psychiatric perspective, Dominique Bourget and Pierre Gagné argue characteristic patterns of fratricide and suicide “… in most cases are alcohol-related, impulsive, and unpredictable until the moment they occur”.[10]

While this interpretation is open to critique, whatever occurred between the brothers is a reminder of the brutalities emanating from a drinking culture. It is argued the deficiencies and ambiguities in the evidence surrounding John and more particularly Duncan’s death, demonstrate the Scottish system for investigating sudden deaths prevent a true account of the facts.

The desire not to be a drain on England’s financial resources as well as protect relatives from public humiliation, shows how different outlooks influence an interpretation of truth. [11]

Duncan’s connection to Alexander MacCallum Haggart probably evolves from Duncan’s relationship to Peter Haggart, the superintendent of masons at Achranich estate, Morven from 1854 to his retirement in 1870.[12]  Haggart a native of Perthshire, lived on Achranich estate and during its redevelopment period and was responsible for employing tradesmen.  There is every reason to believe Duncan may have worked at Achranich estate during Peter Haggart’s tenure.  In 1861 he is enumerated as boarder in the home of Isabella Cameron, widow at Morven.  Moreover, the 1864 Valuation Roll for Oban shows P Haggart, Mason of Morven as the proprietor of the house in High Street, Oban where Duncan McPhail, slater resided.[13]

An initial impression of the information Alexander McTavish supplied for John McPhail’s death certificate strengthens the belief that kinship ties between the McPhail-McTavish families remained strong following Catharine McPhail’s death (before 1859). 

For instance, while no baptismal record exists for John McPhail, his age of fifty-seven, provided by Alexander, corresponds with a birth date around 1814, a year after the marriage of Donald McPhail and Ann (Isabell) McColl and two years before the birth of Catharine. On the other hand, the McPhail family were established in Oban before the end of the eighteenth century, and John McDougall, Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages, may have relied upon his personal knowledge to assess the age of John McPhail. 

But why was Alexander McTavish the informant?  Death certificates have not been located for Archibald and Alexander McPhail.  Perhaps, as one of the last surviving male descendants of Donald MacPhaile and Isabell McColl that responsibility fell to Alexander.

Copyright rests with Sarah Baird, and due acknowledgement must always be made of the use of any material contained in, or derived from, this paper. Citation: “Sarah Baird, “John and Duncan McPhail – A case of fratricide and suicide?”, 21 August 2020.”


[1] Finn Collin, ‎Uffe Juul Jensen – 1995, Danish Yearbook of Philosophy Vol. 31 – Page 157: accessed google books 23 August 2020 https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/Danish_Yearbook_of_Philosophy_Vol_31/PjCAj1YCwcUC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=obscure+and+ambiguous&pg=PA157&printsec=frontcover

[2] Robert Shiels, The Investigation of Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian Scotland, Dundee Student Law Review, Vol. 5 (1+2), No.4, 7-8:13-15.

[3] Rosalind Smith, Dark Places: True Crime Writing in Australia, JASAL, 8, 2008, 17-18.

[4] The Oban Times, 4 February 1871.

[5] https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/statutory-registers/deaths

[6] 1871 MCPHAIL, JOHN (Statutory registers Deaths 523/ 14), National Records of Scotland; digital image, (https://scotlandspeople.gov.uk: accessed 13 December 2019) : 1871 MCPHAIL, JOHN (Statutory registers Corrected Entries 523/00 001 34) (RCE), National Records of Scotland; digital image, (https://scotlandspeople.gov.uk : accessed 13 December 2019).

[7] The Oban Times, 4 February 1871.

[8] Wilcoxon, Rebecca, Lorren Jackson, and Andrew M. Baker. “Suicide by Hypothermia: A Report of Two Cases and 23-Year Retrospective Review.” Academic Forensic Pathology 5, no. 3 (September 2015): 462–75. doi:10.23907/2015.051 : “Hypothermia deaths are frequently accidental and associated with impairment by alcohol, injuries, mental illness, or natural disease. Hypothermia as a method of suicide is unusual, with only nine case reports in the scientific literature hypothermia deaths may represent intentional injury, and suicide as a manner of death should be considered in all cases.”

[9] 1841 MCPHAIL, JOHN (Census 523/ 9/ 9) Page 9 of 19, National Records of Scotland; digital image, (https://scotlandspeople.gov.uk : accessed 24 January 2020).

[10] Dominique Bourget and Pierre Gagné, Fratricide: A Forensic Psychiatric Perspective, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online December 2006, 34 (4) 529-533. Analysis of data over a ten year period in Quebec, Canada (1994-2003): “Consideration of the potential importance of substance use in sibling homicide is underscored by our finding that 60 percent of the fratricides involved alcohol. Alcohol and other drug use are implicated in the commission of many crimes, including homicide.”  http://jaapl.org/content/34/4/529

[11] Rosalind Smith, Dark Places: True Crime Writing in Australia, JASAL, 8, 2008, 22.

[12] Philip Gaskell, Morven Transformed a Highland Parish in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, London, 1980, 62: 89.

[13] 1864 MACPHAIL, DUNCAN (Valuation Rolls VR006500002-/67, OBAN BURGH) Page 67 of 107, National Records of Scotland; digital image, (https://scotlandspeople.gov.uk : accessed 12 December 2019).

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