Chapter 15

When ‘General’ Toplis reached the remote Banfishire Highlands in Scotland on Tuesday, 1 June 1920, the strong probability is that he felt his road was winding uphill all the way, and certainly, in a strictly physical sense, he was right. Toplis was now in the area of the superlative: the highest, the loneliest and the loveliest. The sight that greeted him was not all that much different from the one that had so impressed another general, George Wade, when he first arrived to civilize the Highlanders after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.

One of General Wade’s main tasks two hundred years previously had been to provide adequate roads but, although it was named the Old Military Road, Wade had not given overmuch attention to the one on which Toplis walked, and sometimes cycled, towards Upper Donside on that hot summer day.

He was travelling in a south-easterly direction from Grantown-on-Spey, and just south of Tomintoul the road became a rough, narrow track over moors and mountains, and occasionally, wide expanses of desolation, but the overall impression was one of wild, intense beauty.

He dismounted and walked beside his bicycle, wearying feet negotiating the steep slopes of the mountainous area known as the Lecht. Its highest point, 3,843 feet up, looked down on the Rivers Don and Dee, the Gairn and the Avon, all in close proximity, each competing with the other in sheer magnificence and a wealth of boundless mountain scenery.

In a hollow to the south side of the Don was Gorgarff Castle, a former stronghold of the English in the far, upland country where countless pure, white streams cascaded down the mountain-sides to the rivers below. This castle had been acquired by the government after the Jacobite risings, and it was from here that government troops had continued attempting to cow the proud Highlanders into subjection long after the main battles had ceased.

That afternoon the outlawed Toplis acquired his own little piece of mountain property: the Lecht Shooting Lodge. By midnight, it was to prove an appropriate name. The bicycle which he propped against the timbered wall of the shooting lodge was to figure in subsequent police descriptions thus: tae pone ore Twenty six inch black enamelled frame with red pi lines (faint) 28 inch wheels, two lever brakes, rims and handlebars plated but rusty, black celluloid handle grips, left one minus end, small sized saddle marked C83. Manufactured by Lycett Saddle Co. Ltd., Birmingham, carrier attached with screw driver, ‘Edinburgh’ tyre on front wheel, well worn. Rear tyre recently repaired. Tool bag with celluloid name plate, but no name.

{The rider of the bicycle] Gave the name, George Williams, and his age as 30 years (looks younger) said he was American and that he was demobilized from Army some time ago, had American accent, about 5 feet 8 inches in height, slender built, small eyes, hair variously described as sandy, reddish fair, auburn, clean shaven, ruddy complexion, longish thin face.

Dressed in khaki trousers, puttees, light grey jacket and greenish or greyish felt Trilby type hat, carried white canvas bag, probably a kit bag. Ss sete eaee ah sala wit Toplis, now alias Williams, had exercised his considerable charm effectively when pedalling pennilessly through Tomintoul at 4 p.m. that afternoon. He had the punctured rear tyre repaired at a cycle shop, and when charged 2s., agitatedly searched through his pockets before announcing that he had lost £1. He then persuaded the repair man to lend him 5s., promising that he would pay the fee and repay the loan next day. With the 5s, he bought some bread and some milk which he stuffed into his kitbag.

The three-roomed, partially furnished shooting lodge was unoccupied, and Toplis entered by forcing open a window catch with his pocket knife. His luck was still holding. Across the length of Britain a string of witnesses were recalling more or less ruefully encounters with the country’s ‘most wanted man’. Back in Blaina, a mountainous district in Monmouthshire, police were assisting villagers in remembering a night three weeks before.

On 12 May, 1920, a prayer meeting was in progress at the tiny Salem Baptist Chapel, Blaina, when a light-haired stranger, wearing a muffler and carrying a trilby hat, tip-toed into the back pew and sat himself down between two deacons. He was handed a hymn book and got to his feet to join enthusiastically in the chorus:

‘Bread of heaven,

Bread of heaven,

Feed me till I want no more’

The timbre of his voice rang out above, but did not drown, the practised tones of the twenty worshippers in front of him, and they kept stealing backward glances to catch a glimpse of the new man in their midst. When the service finished fifteen minutes later, most of the congregation gathered round the dirty-faced young visitor, who apologetically explained that he was destitute and that he had walked from London where he frequently attended mission services in the Whitechapel area.

‘He was on his way to Scotland where he had been promised paid work in a Glasgow mission hall. Touched by his diffident tale, the worshippers volunteered a collection to help him on his way. Coins to the value of 7s. went into the upturned hat. When the police called at the chapel later, a member of the congregation remembered, ‘Now you come to mention it, I thought the dirt on his face was faked. He must have fairly plastered it on.

But the strangest thing I noticed was that as he was leaving he took a monocle from his pocket and put it to his eye.’

And at London’s Victoria station, a railway detective had spotted the ubiquitous monocle adorning a young gentleman about to go through the barrier for the night Newhaven-Dieppe boat-train. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he had accosted him. The man had pocketed the monocle and fled out through the station, dodging the taxi-cabs and away up towards Parliament Square. As an aid to bicycle riding in Scotland, however, Toplis had deemed monocle-wearing a little excessive.

‘And in the privacy of the shooting lodge from which the rich set forth in season to comb the near-by grouse moors and deerland, such affectations were superfluous. Toplis settled down to sleep away the rest of the first day of June. The chill of the Highland night awakened him at about 9 in the evening in a small room dominated by a large, open fireplace. He had been sleeping on a large, thick tartan rug in front of the empty fire, because, as he had found, the lodge did not have a bed.

The furniture, though sparse, was of grand design, including three George II walnut armchairs and a Louis XVI giltwood writing table. Toplis smashed the chairs on the stone floor, threw the pieces into the fireplace, and followed them up with the writing-table drawer. He then lit his distinguished wood fire and, undressing to his khaki trousers and puttees, flopped down again on the hearth rug. The expensive wood smoke gave off a luxurious aroma as it drifted up the wide chimney into the cold night mountain air.

A Badnafrave farmer, John Grant, saw that column of smoke as he walked home after a hard day shearing sheep on Upper Donside. Grant knew the lodge was supposed to be unoccupied in the laird’s absence. The smoke meant only one thing – trespass on the master’s property. Without hesitation he walked past his house and two miles along the mountain road to the Altachbeg home of the laird’s gamekeeper, John Mackenzie. The two men then walked a further two miles to fetch the only policeman in this entire Highland area, Constable George Greig of Tomintoul. All three then walked back to the shooting lodge, arriving there in the dark at midnight. They found the door locked and the gamekeeper let them in with his key.

The partly dressed Toplis slept on before his expensive fire, a candle fluttering fitfully beside him on the floor. Constable Greig prodded him awake with his boot. Toplis, flat on his back and snoring loudly, was shaken and startled when he looked up at the three figures towering above him. But, with supreme mental effort, he concealed his sense of shock and went on the attack.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded.

Greig, a solid, slow-thinking Highland bobby, was thrown by the audacity of the question. It did not occur to him to retort that that was precisely what he wanted to know about Toplis.

‘I apologize for disturbing you, sir. But you’ll understand the laird’s away. And you appear to be an unauthorized visitor. Can Task you for your name and address?’

Immediately Toplis realized that his questioner had to be one of the few policemen left in Britain unable to recognize him from the photographs and detailed descriptions littering the land. Or maybe he had reached this remote part ahead of the hue and cry. Or again, maybe it was simply that the candlelight was too meagre for features to be distinguished.

Whatever the reason or reasons, Toplis blessed his luck and decided to go on bluffing. He got up and started to dress. As he put on his shirt, jacket and hat, he assumed an American accent to reply, ‘My name is Williams, George Williams.’ Then he saw Greig looking at his khaki trousers and puttees and explained, ‘I’ve just come out of the army and I’m in the middle of a hitchhiking holiday, so if you don’t mind I’ll be on my way now.’

Mackenzie, who had been looking round the room, suddenly whispered to Greig, ‘The furniture. He’s burned the furniture.’

At last the ponderous Greig had something hard to go on.

‘The visitor had committed a crime, a recognizable, positive crime, Meanwhile Toplis had been manoeuvring himself between the three men and the open door as he stuffed his shaving gear into his kitbag. He pulled the trilby hard down over his eyes and started to back towards the door. Greig moved in his direction, and began to say, ‘I’ll have to ask you to accompany me…’

He did not finish the sentence. The hand which had been depositing the shaving gear swiftly re-emerged from the kitbag clasping a gun. His first shot got the policeman in the neck, and he fell to the floor on top of the candle, blood from the wound trickling on to the rug. But before Greig’s falling body had snuffed out the candle, Toplis had shot Grant in the belly.

Still without uttering, and now shooting blindly in the dark, Toplis aimed a third shot at where the gamekeeper had been standing. But he missed Mackenzie, who had thrown himself flat on his face on the floor. Toplis rushed out into the blackness, leaped on his cycle and, as he pedalled furiously down the mountain track, the prone Mackenzie could hear him loudly singing the popular wartime song:

Good-byee. Don’t sigh-ee, ns Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee.’

Toplis had known for some time, as he noted in his diary, that he was doomed and would face the gallows if he was ever caught – knowledge which perhaps had finally unhinged his mind.

Mackenzie waited until the sound of the singing had stopped echoing between the mountain peaks, saw that his friends were both unconscious and bleeding badly, got up and started running madly to Tomintoul for assistance. After he had gone, Greig and Grant both regained consciousness, one lying half across the other, the blood of each staining the floor. They dragged themselves to their feet and, holding each other up, stumbled through the darkness down the stony, one-and-a-half mile pathway to the village of Blairnamarrow. On the doorstep of Dr Black they collapsed again, unconscious.

Next day, Greig and Grant reached the Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen, and the start of a slow recovery, just as Toplis was being given a lift into the same city in a local minister’s car. He had sold the bicycle at Strathdon for £1 and hitch-hiked the rest of the way to Aberdeen. The parson remembered his passenger as a man with little to say, a man who carried a kitbag and wore a monocle.