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Strange Tales from Scotland
A dark night at Beaufort Castle


The night was very dark, but from the deepest of the darkness, the shadow of the trees on the opposite bank, came the sounds of the dragging of the nets and the handling of the boat, by men who spoke not a word. Suddenly, the two young men broke the night air with their challenge across the river, "Who the hell are you?"

They could get no answer, and then they blazed with their guns, with the unfortunate result that three at least of the offenders were peppered with shot. One, a very decent man called John Fraser, was shot by thirty or forty pellets over the head and face, and he was injured in the left eye so severely that the eye had to be removed, and there was a danger to the other eye, and so of complete loss of sight. The circumstances were these.

Two sons of an American millionaire had fired by night at a party of Scottish gamekeepers, peppering them well and blinding one to the loss of one eye and to the danger of another. On this kind of superficial view, Scotland was ablaze with the wrath and Mr Phipps’ two sons, who were implicated in the transaction, were arrested.

Behold then a telegram! It was from my clerk asking whether I would accept a retainer for the two young millionaires. It may give people some idea of the efficiency of Scottish criminal justice when I mention that the offence was committed on July 5th of the year 1905, and the investigations were complete and the trial took place at the High Court in Edinburgh in the following month, the trial taking only one day and concluding on the evening of August 29th.

The case was as follows. The Phipps family who had Beaufort Castle for about eight years, were tenants not only of the shooting but also of the right of angling on the River Beauly. This fishing was one of the finest in Scotland, and the right over one or two pools cost Mr Phipps Senior, over 2,000 per annum.

One evening his two sons, strong and handsome specimens of vigorous manhood, heard voices on the river and they suspected some outrage was being committed — that, in fact, this valuable fishing pool, known as "The Silver Pool" outside the very windows of the castle, was being dragged with nets. They accordingly rallied forth armed as described, by way of the gun room and to the river bank.

Beaufort Castle
Beaufort Castle

Mr Phipps Senior asked me to come to Beaufort Castle—and this I did so as to see for myself the place of the affray. I went to that most beautiful residence on the banks of the River Beauly, and there I was conducted from the hall, down the stairs to the gun room. I then was told that it was from this gun room that the two young gentlemen, having heard sounds of dragging salmon in the river, had emerged on the river bank, and that each of them in passing through had taken his gun and a pocketful of cartridges.

There was little else to see except the bank of the river, on the opposite side of which a dark group of trees—which I might easily conceive in the dim evening light would throw an extremely dark shadow—attracted my attention. It turned out that it was in that very shadow that the shooting took effect.

The next part of the story is peculiar. There turned out to have been six men engaged in the operation of dragging the pool. Who were these men?

It sounds incredible, but they were actually the servants of Lord Lovat, the proprietor of the river and fishings and castle, and they were engaged in dragging the pool in the river with nets, the angling on which by rod yielded their master more than 2,000 of rent. But the wonder does not stop there, for they were not poachers in the ordinary sense—that is, for their own profit; they were all respectable men, and they were deliberately dragging the pool so as to keep up the average of fish caught in the river for the credit of the river and the estate, and the fish caught in the net—forty in number in the last haul—were not sold for their own profit, but they were taken and put into the estate account, number and value complete.

As the situation developed before the Jury, the case took a very different aspect as one might suppose, but still stranger things were to happen…

As the trial proceeded, I shall never forget the entry of Fraser, the injured man, into the Court. He was guided to the witness-stand and gave his evidence perfectly quietly. It was my duty to cross-examine him, and he in no way fenced. He was asked by me and afterwards by the Judge why he did not answer the call across the river. He admitted he knew it was young Mr Phipps that called, that Mr Phipps had for years been his friend, and that he was young Mr Phipps’ own fishing attendant.

But it then came out, as was by this time suspected, that so far as concealment from the Phipps family was concerned, the whole matter was literally a deed of darkness in which these men were engaged; they had not hinted to anybody about the netting expedition.

The head keeper with five other men under his orders, of whom Fraser was one, had proceeded to the river. Fraser’s position was the humble one of having to obey his head keeper’s orders. Upon the keeper being pressed for some kind of reason for his conduct, he put forward the theory - for which there is a good deal in fishing circles to be said - that the pool was too crowded with salmon to be in a healthy condition and that dragging would do it good. The difficulty about this was that if it was to do the pool good for angling they might at least have informed Mr Phipps or some member of his family.

As it was the six of them began their operations, forty fish were caught, and three men went off with the forty fish to the nearest ice-house, and three were left, one of whom was Fraser, another Robertson, and a third whose name I forget.

When the young gentlemen emerged on the river side, they went to the waters edge, called across, and getting no answer, fired.

This seems very dreadful, but the defence adopted the line, which the Bench accepted, that the number of shots indicated no desire to injure but merely to scare the men from the river, and Lord Ardwell on the Bench charged the Jury that scaring in that sense was a good means of getting poachers to abandon their enterprise and leave their nets, which could then be impounded. All this was a difficult line of legal country; and one had to pick their steps with care.

The next fact - a somewhat crucial one - now emerged. The ordinary breadth of the river at the point of fishing was a hundred yards, and to fire across that distance with an ordinary fowling piece would have been a noisy and innocuous proceeding. The river, however, was very low, and as it happened, at that particular point where the accused emerged from the door of the castle on the river bank, its breadth that evening had narrowed to a space of forty yards. In the dark the men had advanced on to the water’s edge before they fired, and the case was that their firing was a scaring operation, and that there was no real recklessness about it, as the assumed breadth of the river would have made the whole proceeding harmless…

[Ed: According to two independent sources in Beauly, the building next to the Lovat Estates Office, acquired by the Phipps family, was subsequently donated to the town. Known as the Phipps Institute, it serves as a community hall and library.]

Henry Phipps & his future bride
Henry Phipps & his future bride

Henry Phipps (1839-1930) was a capitalist and philanthropist. Henry Phipps, Jr., the son of master shoemaker Henry Phipps and his wife Hannah, from England, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 27 Sep 1839 and grew up in Pittsburgh. In 1845 the Phipps family moved to Allegheny City, PA where they became next-door neighbours of the Carnegie family from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. Henry started as an office boy in Pittsburgh and formed a lasting friendship with Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), then also an office boy.

Phipps became a partner of Carnegie in the development of iron and steel manufacture and contributed to their association, the financial genius to raise and control the capital necessary to their progress.

On 6 Feb 1872, Henry Phipps married Anne Childs Shaffer, the daughter of a Pittsburgh manufacturer, by whom he had three sons and two daughters. Like Carnegie, Phipps became a well known philanthropist. He amassed $100 million and gave $7 million to charity. He retired in 1900 with more than forty million dollars and divided much of his estate among his three sons in 1912. Jay, his eldest son, built Westbury House on Long Island [American Heritage, November 1987, Rich Kids, by Barbara Klaw and Halcyon Days, by Harry N. Abrams, chronicle the lives of the young Phippses]. Westbury House and gardens are now open to the public.

Henry Phipps died 22 Sep 1930 at his estate "Bonnie Blink" in the Lakefield section of Great Neck, Long Island, survived by his widow, nee Anne C. Shaffer; two daughters, Mrs. Frederick Guest and Mrs. Bradley Martin, and three sons, John S., Henry C., and Howard Phipps. He was buried on Sept 24th at Westbury, L.I. (Protestant Episcopal Church of the Advent).

Thanks to Marie Fraser, Clan Fraser Society of Canada for this article.


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