A follow-up to Richard Wilson's article in last Saturday's Weekender

FEW causes celebres are as durable as the Oscar Slater murder case,

largely because of the histrionic challenge that it has presented these

80 years to the genius of the Glasow story-teller.

It will not go away. The reason is that apart from the fact that the

wealthy old woman was done to death in her own dining-room there are no

longer any hard facts to go on. Nobody knows, nor will ever now know,

who killed her. There may even be speculation about the man who didn't

kill her. As for the rest anybody's guess will do.

Of one thing one may be sure, that no significant number of years will

pass before another twist in the tale will give us the opportunity to

regurgitate all the guesswork and fiction that has become, and is likely

to remain, Glasgow's favourite parlour game.

Now and again one little fairytale gets itself discredited but there

will always be another to take its place. The latest ''anniversary''

allows one to re-examine the touchy case of Detective Lt. John Thomson

Trench, who dedicated himself to righting a miscarriage of justice and

suffered at the hands of his vindictive colleagues for his presumption.

His misjudgment was to point the finger of accusation in a direction

distasteful to the mores of the West End of Glasgow; not to mention to

the amour-propre of what in its day was the most ineffectual and

vindictive congregation of senior detectives on record.

By absolving Oscar Slater, Trench indicted another innocent. This was

a mystery that we lived happily with for more than half a century during

which time Glasgow created for itself a fascinating mythology and

invented a villain who informed the conversation even of such apparent

authorities as the late Professor John Glaister, on whom we rely for the

last word in forensic medicine.

On one social occasion he drew us to one side to inform us from behind

his hand of the true identity of the man who murdered Miss Gilchrist.

The confidence was couched in the established form of such

communications in these parts: ''Of course you know who really did it.''

And at that time we didn't really know but subsequent events have

demonstrated that we still don't know.

The prime suspect since 1914 was the late F. T. Charteris, an emeritus

professor of materia medica at St Andrews University. Though he was

probably the last person to be aware of what surrounded him, it was

Professor Charteris that Lt. Trench put the finger on.

This did nothing to diminish the good stories and rumours that

continued to decorate the Slater saga. The only saving grace was that

for 50 years it never occurred to any of our fellow media personnel to

put the crucial question to the man himself.

In 1964 our own wee brother, then a tactless reporter on the Daily

Mail, came across the case for his first time, along with all its

fictional adhesions. Not content to be fobbed off with the hearsay that

had satisfied the rest of us for so long, he simply went straight to St

Andrews and spoke directly to the professor who said, unembarrassed,

''Of course I was AB.''

The trouble was that up to that point Lt. Trench's precognition and

the evidence that he gave to the secret inquiry which was ordered by the

Secretary of State for Scotland in 1914 categorically named Professor

Charteris as the fleeing murderer whom the servant Nellie Lambie

encountered in the hall of Miss Gilrchrist's flat.

His guilt was formally discounted, but in an access of fine feelings

the official report of the inquiry was subedited and filled with

asterisks. The name of the professor was abbreviated to the random

initial AB.

This was generally identified as a gesture on behalf of the good name

of a Glasgow professional family of doctors, lawyers, and pillars of the


This superficial discretion delayed the straight answer that

eventually emerged from that visit to St Andrews, in which the professor

set straight some of those points which were, and have ever since,

remained obscure or improbable in the statement which in the end cost

Lt. Trench his reputation and his career when he was dismissed from the

force with ignominy.

Helen Lambie was reported at second hand to Lt. Trench of having gone

in a state of hysteria and agitation to the house of one Miss Birrell, a

niece of the murdered woman, when she said: ''Oh Miss Birrell, Miss

Gilchrist had been murdered. She's lying dead in the dining-room. I saw

the man who did it... I am sure it was AB.''

The professor had no hesitation in identifying himself and explaining

not only his presence at the scene of the murder but the conversation

which took place between himself, Helen Lambie, and the police.

There was an indirect family connection between Charteris and Miss

Gilchrist, his mother having been the widow of one of Miss Gilchrist's

brothers. News of the murder was transmitted by the police to Dr

Charteris with the advice to break it gently to his mother. As a young

medical practitioner who had no previous experience of murder cases his

curiosity induced him to go to the house.

Arriving there he found the police in the process of trying to elicit

from an hysterical Helen Lambie some description of the murderer whom

she had met in the hall. Confused and seeking an answer, the maid

blurted out: ''Oh he was kind of like Dr Charteris there.''

It was this which Miss Birrell reported as a direct quotation to Lt.


Although we may exclude the late professor from the remaining gallery

of suspects we still have another story which over the past half century

has improved in the telling. One circumstantial theory improved upon the

bald initials AB of the official report to provide them with a full

name and detailed identitiy.

Some comprehensive research has demonstrated that there never was any

such person, but we have long enjoyed a delightfully detailed personal

history of one Austin Birrell, a ''nephew'' of Miss Birrell and an

indigent relative of the victim. There were those who were prepared to

report meetings (over luncheon we believe) with him. To this from time

to time there has been added such relevant detail as that he was also an

alcoholic drug taker, an epileptic, and the owner and manger of three

brothels in Garnethill. They say that facts chiels that winna ding

but we will be reluctant to think that we have heard the last of Oscar