Professor emeritus David Wilson

THE M74 and then, almost seamlessly, the A73 weaved its way through the unassuming slopes of the Southern Uplands of South Lanarkshire, all the time criss-crossing a still youthful River Clyde, and bringing me ever closer to home.

Well, not quite “home”, as the latest Covid-19 regulations meant that I couldn’t stay at my sister’s house in Carluke and so I had to book into the hotel in New Lanark – a World Heritage Village.

If ever there was a way of measuring change between 1973, the year that Margaret McLaughlin was murdered and now it has to be New Lanark.

Founded in the 18th century to harness the power of the more mature falls of Clyde, its mills were still operating until 1968 but, after these closed, the village was on the verge of being destroyed. The trust that would allow it to be maintained, restored and developed to become one of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland, was only formed in 1974.

By then George Beattie had been convicted of Margaret’s murder and had started his life sentence.

In July this year I published a book about this murder in my home town of Carluke called Signs of Murder, which I spent two years researching and writing – mostly at the insistence of my sisters and their friends, who had never accepted George’s part in Margaret’s death.

It didn’t take me long to realise that they were right.

George had been fitted up for a crime that he didn’t commit and the person who had led the investigation – Detective Chief Superintendent William Muncie, known by the press as “Scotland’s Top Detective” – had played a central role in ensuring that the wrong man had been convicted.

My research would reveal that not only did Muncie withhold evidence, but he also suffered from “confirmation bias” so that he ignored evidence that would have exonerated George at the time, and dismissed out of hand a much more likely suspect who was being informally interviewed at Carluke Police station on the evening that George was charged.

For legal reasons, I did not use the name of this more likely suspect in the book, but unimaginatively called him “John Smith”. However, I did let Police Scotland have sight of all of my research, with the appropriate names, addresses and other details which I had anonymised in the book, several months before publication.

If we hadn’t been in the grip of a pandemic, I would have launched the book at Carluke Library and then participated in various literary festivals discussing issues surrounding the case. Covid-19 has meant that I have had to make do with a Facebook Live event for Carluke, a number of radio interviews, online book festivals and answering the many emails that have come my way since publication.

Several people, for example, worked out for themselves who “John Smith” was and one woman wanted to share her story about his “stalking” of her in the town, which had led to his being sectioned. Another woman described for me his “troubled life” and his history of mental illness.

However, most surprising of all, an email reached me from Bob Alexander – Margaret’s fiancé in 1973, who was working in South Africa at the time of the murder and who had to fly home as soon as he heard about what had happened. Bob’s email wanted to correct a mistake that I had made, but his admonishment sparked a series of telephone conversations to discuss other aspects of the book and fill in some of my knowledge gaps, and now Bob had agreed to meet me in Glasgow.

At my suggestion he was even prepared to go public about what it was that he wanted to say about Margaret, his brief meeting with Muncie and his “nagging doubts” about George Beattie’s guilt that had crystallised into something much stronger as a result of reading what I had written.

On the telephone Bob had given me the “back story” to his relationship with Margaret, which I had never before been privy to, as I had taken the decision not to approach the McLaughlins (or indeed the Beatties) with a view to interviewing them for the book and therefore had to rely simply on what had been reported in the press.

Margaret and Bob met in Easter 1971 at The White Elephant disco in Sauchiehall Street, which was destroyed by a fire in 1977 and then later re-opened as the Roseland. They danced and chatted and then Bob drove Margaret and her sister back to Carluke in his Lotus, although he admitted to me that he might have been wary of offering the lift if he had realised just how far Carluke was from Glasgow.

Bob described Margaret as a “good-looking girl, and extremely thoughtful and honest. She fitted in closely with my family and I think that I fitted in with her family too.”

One thing led to another and they got engaged in June the following year. Bob went to South Africa for work in February 1973 and the plan was to find a house, come back to Scotland in October 1973 to get married and then take his new wife back with him to Africa. Margaret’s murder on Friday 6th July put an end to those plans.

Margaret was repeatedly stabbed on her way to Carluke railway station where she was going to catch the train to Glasgow to meet with Bob’s sister to write wedding invitations.

Bob was advised of Margaret’s death by a journalist in South Africa who worked as a “stringer” for an English newspaper on the Monday and by Wednesday he was back in Carluke. He was given a message that Muncie would like to speak with him and, on the telephone, Bob explained to me:

“I was surprised that I wasn’t asked to meet him at Carluke Police Station but at a pub (The Railway Inn). I went there with Eddie – Margaret’s brother. We pushed open the pub door and Muncie was at the bar, glass in hand, holding court with about four of his colleagues.

He said to me, ‘we’ll catch him soon and wrap this up quickly’ and with that I turned and left the bar. I was only in there for about a minute. I thought that he was arrogant and pompous. It was a major murder investigation, but the police were drinking at Lunchtime. Of course they did wrap it up, only they charged the wrong person.”

Bob suggested to me that “reading the book was like a light bulb going off in my head” but, whilst his meeting with Muncie might have left him with “nagging doubts” at the time, he returned to South Africa and did not attend George Beattie’s trial. Bob received reports from others who were present and was assured that there had been “overwhelming evidence” against George, and so he didn’t think much more about the case, although Margaret was never too far from his thoughts.

Bob returned to the UK in 1975 and got married five years later. Several of Margaret’s family attended the wedding. He’s now 72 years old, happily married, a father and the proud grandfather of two boys.

I was obviously keen to discuss with Bob these “nagging doubts” about George’s guilt and so our telephone conversations became longer and more detailed on each occasion. Bob is an engineer – that most Scottish of professions – and so I quickly realised that he liked things to be calibrated and measured; everything needed to be fixed and precise. Sadly murder is rarely like that but I did my best to answer his questions, although always acknowledging that I did not have access to all of the information that I would have been given if I was conducting a cold case review on behalf of the police.

Nor did I trust anything that George is reported to have said in his statements which seemed to me to have been crafted by the police to frame him for the murder despite the fact that no forensic evidence whatsoever suggested that he was guilty. That’s an important point as Margaret had been repeatedly stabbed and her killer would therefore have had “signs of murder” on his person, as Muncie had explained at the time to the press.

I do not know if any forensic evidence still exists that could be re-tested.

Bob and I also discussed the lack of “psychological evidence” which would have pointed to George’s guilt. In other words, those people that George spoke to that night, and on the following morning when he returned from his work, did not notice that he was acting out of the ordinary – and Margaret’s killer would undoubtedly have been disinhibited – and yet he does not even mention Margaret’s murder until he returns to Carluke. In other words, he doesn’t realise that Margaret has been killed until he gets home.

Bob’s “nagging doubts” were becoming more stronger.

Eventually I also suggested to Bob that if he was to speak about these doubts publicly then that would add considerable weight to the campaign to have George exonerated. Bob said that he would discuss this with his family and then, having done so, he agreed to meet up with me in STV’s offices on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow, where he was to be interviewed by Sharon Frew.

Is it ever possible to judge what a person is going to be like by how they sound on the telephone? Bob confirmed a picture that I had had in my mind’s eye, but also immediately undermined it at the same time.

Bob arrived at STV looking well-groomed and professional, which I could have predicted given his background. He was wearing a blazer and an open-necked shirt. He had sandy hair and, whilst I recognised his voice immediately, he was slightly more hesitant than he had been on the telephone and obviously nervous. After all, he had never done a TV interview before and he was also breaking almost a half century of silence about the case.

What I didn’t predict was Bob’s vehemence and certainty.

When Sharon asked the obvious question about why had he had chosen to speak about the case now, he made some kind comments about the “compelling” narrative of the book and then replied: “A lot of lives have been ruined by this case – most obviously Margaret’s life was taken. However, George Beattie’s life has been ruined too and this is the last opportunity to put that right. I am convinced that George Bettie is innocent and that he was fitted up at the time – evidence was withheld and false evidence was presented at the trial. Police Scotland need to re-open this case.”

The measured and calibrated thinking of the Scottish engineer had been transformed into certainty and passion and Police Scotland say any new information will be considered.

As for my mistake that Bob had corrected in his first email?

In the book, based on two contemporary press reports, I had suggested that Margaret’s engagement ring had never been found and was probably taken as a “trophy” by her killer. In fact, as Bob explained, her ring had been given to him and he put it back on her finger before Margaret was buried as “it was a fitting thing to do”.

What had never been found was Margaret’s treasured charm bracelet.

When Bob told me this story for the first time I could not help but be moved by both the tragedy and the romance and, even now as I write these words, it is difficult not to remember a young, Scottish couple who were in love and on the verge of the rest of their lives. That Bob is now prepared to state publicly that the wrong man was convicted of Margaret’s murder and that Police Scotland should re-open the case is therefore a testament to his insistence that no more lives should be ruined and that George Beattie should be exonerated.

It really is the last chance for justice.

Signs of Murder, David Wilson, Sphere


The criminologist has named Les Jardine who lived on the route Margaret McLaughlin took to Carluke station as his prime suspect. Prof Wilson will name him in a new edition of his book on the case, Signs of Murder. Wilson said he confronted Jardine on his doorstep in Stonehaven. Wilson said that it was "the most nerve-jangling 10 minutes" of his life and that while Jardine denied murdering Margaret McLaughlin there were questions that remained.

Wilson said: "I'm not saying Les Jardine is guilty. I'm saying he was a far more likely suspect than George Beattie ever was."

The sister of George Beattie, who served more than 30 years in prison and continues to protest his innocence, said her brother was "fitted up" by the police.

Jardine, 71, has now died.