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Angus Blue Learns Gaelic


Tha Aonghas Gorm ag Ionnsachadh Gàidhlig

by Allan Martin

First published in iScot magazine issue no. 60, February-March 2020.

Of course, Gaelic buffs will know that the title actually means ‘Blue Angus is Learning Gaelic,’ but I’m sure you get the point.

DI Blue sat in his office on the ground floor of Oban Police HQ, considering the passing of the Reverend Dr. Zedekiah McGillivray, who had suffered a fatal cardiac infarction some four days previously. There seemed nothing amiss about the old man’s passing – he was after all seventy-six years old, and had been recovering from a serious chest infection, which had seen him hospitalised for three weeks. As a former minister, he received a respectful obituary in the Western Gazette. It pointed out that he had been one of the foremost members of the True Presbyterian Church of Scotland (Reformed), and had been Moderator of the General Assembly of the TPCS(R) for seventeen years, from 1985 until 2002. The writer referred to his many publications, including his major work The Idolatry of the Organ, in which he argued strenuously against the use of music in worship. In this magnum opus, based on his 745-page doctoral thesis for an online American evangelical university, he persuaded himself, and possibly his readers, that all references to musical instruments in Scripture were to be interpreted as metaphorical condemnations of the employment of music in orgiastic forms of pagan worship.

Dr. McGillivray’s death would not have been a matter for police involvement at all, had it not been for the complaint made by his daughter, a Mrs Jessell, a former army nurse, who’d come up from Paisley to Dalmally to look after him at home after he’d been discharged from the hospital. He seemed to be making a good recovery during the first week she was there. However, two days into the second week, just after a visit from his GP, she had found him in a bad way. He was gasping for breath, had clutched her arm tightly, and his final utterance, as reported by Mrs Jessell seemed to be “Ah’m oan a goonie.” Perhaps he simply meant “I’m on a goner,” a recognition that his end was imminent, or maybe there was some more obscure meaning, known only to himself in his last moments. He lost consciousness completely, neither Mrs Jessell nor the paramedics in the ambulance she summoned could revive him, and he was dead before he could be got back into hospital

Mrs Jessell’s complaint was that his GP, a Doctor Smeet, had not reacted quickly enough to what must have been a substantial change in her father’s condition. He had visited Dr McGillivray only an hour before the collapse took place, and, when he came out after a lengthy examination, assured Mrs Jessell everything was fine and her father was now sleeping. Rest was essential for a man of his age, he added. It was only because she had looked in on her father a few minutes after the doctor had left that she had been able to be with him during his last moments. She now felt the doctor should have seen the heart attack coming, and was too careless in his examination. She took the matter to the police simply because she did not know to whom such matters should be normally referred. As well as giving her details of the medical complaints procedure, the uniformed branch in Oban passed the matter to CID as a matter of routine. There seemed no case for a Fatal Accident Inquiry, but it was worth making a few inquiries, especially as the deceased had died at home.

Superintendent Campbell passed the matter to Inspector Blue, who duly interviewed Mrs Jessell, and the GP, as well as the hospital staff who had treated Dr. McGillivray. Mrs Jessell had clearly been very much affected by her father’s death on her watch, especially as he had seemed on the mend. She was not taken with Dr Smeet, and described him as “arrogant and smug.” Blue could understand her opinion when he met the doctor, a tall and white-haired man in his early sixties, of an austere and unsmiling countenance. Nevertheless, he seemed to know what he was talking about. He had treated Dr McGillivray for many years, and could see no issues with his death. “He was an old man who’d just been through a very draining infection. I was actually surprised he made it back home at all. This kind of relapse after hospitalisation is entirely normal.” Mrs Jessell’s point was that if it were so entirely normal, why wasn’t Dr Smeet on the lookout for it. As a criminal investigating officer, Blue, as a matter of habit, could not avoid considering any criminal aspect to Dr. McGillivray’s passing. Yet the only debatable point seemed to be Doctor Smeet’s level of vigilance.

While speculating on these possibilities, Blue’s phone rang. The screen showed ‘Sup Campbell’ – not the soup but the Detective Superintendent.

“Good morning, Sir, How may I …”

“My office, Inspector, whenever it’s convenient.” That meant right now.

Angus sat facing the chief across a gleaming expanse of mahogany. He had often wondered if it were simply a veneer, but dismissed the thought, as he always did. The chief was not a man for veneer. On a ceramic mat before each of them sat a small cup of coffee, of the highest quality. The chief was indeed a connoisseur. Not only of coffee, and indeed, also of whisky, but of men. And women too, of course. He was also perfectly organised. Before him on the polished darkness of the desk’s surface lay only a magazine. Unusual, thought Blue, Campbell was not normally a man to leave a magazine on his desk. He could not see the title; it lay face down, as if the desk itself were ingesting its contents.

“Angus, I’ve just had a communication from the higher reaches. They’re concerned about our facility in the Gaelic language. I’ve been asked to nominate officers who have a command of the tongue. I see from your file that you took a course once.”

“Yes, Sir, but …”

“Quite, quite. The crash course in Gaelic for Police Officers at Tullyallan. Nevertheless, it’s a start, from which you’ll need to build. We need Gaelic-speaking officers in every branch of our activity.”

Another fortnight at Tullyallan wouldn’t go amiss right now. He remembered they’d learned some basics of the language, and a few phrases useful to police officers. Like ‘A bheil an càr seo agaibh?

“What did you say there, Angus?”

“Oh, sorry, Sir. A bheil an càr seo agaibh? Is this your car, I think it means. One of the phrases we learnt. I seem to remember also ‘Tha duine a’ goid mo chù’ A man is stealing my dog. We never got as far as the past tense.”

“Good, good. Well, you remember something. That tells me you’re the man for us, all right.”

“When is the course, then, Sir. I’ll need to …”

“No need for all that Angus. You can do it in your own home. And it won’t cost Police Scotland a penny. Duolingo, that’s the way forward.” He turned the magazine over. “iScot magazine,” he announced, “This month’s issue,” and opened it at a page marked by a Harris Tweed bookmark. “Take a look at this.” He slid the opened magazine over to Blue.

“Salted Gannet is not Expensive” read the heading, but the article was an enthusiastic review of the Duolingo Gaelic course, launched the previous November. Blue read the review and passed the magazine back to the super. He tried to sound positive. “Yes, it looks quite interesting, Sir.” He’d been looking forward, even for a few moments, to a couple of weeks learning and leisure at the Police College.

“Take it from me, Angus, it works. I’ve used it myself, to polish up my Italian for our cruise this Spring. You’ll relish it, I assure you. We’ll have you visiting all the Gaelic medium schools in no time.”

Back in his office, Blue put the McGillivray case to one side, and looked on his laptop for Duolingo Gaelic. Apparently it had been launched the previous St Andrew’s Day, and already 200,000 learners had signed up. People on social media seemed to be raving about it.

He signed up himself, chose the name ‘Oban Blue Cheese’ as his ID, and took the little test that he was presented with. He soon found himself on level 1, faced with a number of units: Intro, Phrases, Food, Feelings, Personal Details, Clothes, Pets and Weather. He was presented with simple questions, with lots of repetition to drive in vocabulary and structures. His success rate in answering was good, and that made him feel confident and gave him a sense of progress. Frequent fanfares, as part or all of a unit was completed added to the positive feel. He also saw that Oban Blue Cheese had been placed on a Bronze League, alongside other learners studying many different languages. By doing a bit more than he had intended each day, he got into the top ten, and at the end of a week was promoted to the Silver League. He had admit it was very cleverly designed.

Pronunciation of Gaelic was the aspect of the course at Tullyallan that he’d found most difficult, as well as relating the sound of the words to the apparently baroque spellings, with two or even three vowels clustering together to make a single sound, or sometimes no sound at all. There were frequent opportunities to hear the words on the screen, and there were dictation exercises too. Hard work, but, he had to admit, rewarding.

It would be useful, he thought, to talk to another Gaelic speaker, perhaps try a little conversation. He thought of Inspector Moira Nicholson on Islay; her husband Alasdair was a native speaker. But he wasn’t sure he’d be able to cope at that level. He had a great-aunt on Jura, but that would be the same. Then he remembered. Of course. Alison Hendrickx could speak some Gaelic, and she wasn’t a native speaker. She’d done an introductory course at university. It helped her understand the place-names, she’d said. And he had to admit that it was a good excuse to talk with Alison on the phone.

She sounded pleased to hear from him. “Hi Angus, how are you doing?”

This was his big chance. “Glè mhath, Alison, ciamar a tha thu fhèin?” Very good, Alison, how are you yourself?

Glè mhath cuideachd, tapadh leat. I’m good too, thanks. Are you learning the Gaelic then?”

Tha. Tha mi ag ionnsachadh Gàidhlig air Duolingo.” After that he lapsed into English and they chatted about the course.

“Well,” said Alison, “Now that you’re started you’ll need to get yourself onto a face-to-face course with a tutor, so you can get more conversation. I might even talk with you myself now and then.” Now there was an incentive to learn more. “I take it you’re still managing to put in a bit of time at the police station too?”

That led into a discussion of the McGillivray case, and he mentioned the curious final words of the great preacher. “Ah’m oan a goonie.”

“Where did he come from?” asked Alison.

Blue tried to remember the obituary. “Mull, I think.”

“Quite often old folks, as they near the end, revert to what they knew as children. I’d say he wasn’t speaking some sort of Glaswegian, it was more likely Gaelic. Just repeat it for me.”

“Something like ‘Ah’m oan a goonie.’”

She repeated it to herself a few times, trying to give different intonation to the various words. Then there was silence for a while. “I think he might have been saying ‘Tha mo thòn a’ guineadh’.”

“What does that mean?”

“Er, my bottom is stinging, actually. But that doesn’t sound very plausible. Maybe it was something else. Lots of Gaelic words can sound similar, especially to someone, like his daughter, who possibly doesn’t know the language.”

“My bottom is stinging. Thanks Alison. I’ll get back to you.”

Not being a medical expert, he needed to consult someone who might make sense of that. He phoned Pat Kelley. She’d been a senior ward sister at Lorn and Islands Hospital, the state-of-the-art medical facility built on the southern edge of Oban in 1995, until her retirement in 2015, and Blue had tapped into her very extensive knowledge base several times in the past. As a senior nurse she was not only medically competent, but had great experience in the way in which medical conditions affected people, and how they reacted. She knew illness as a human, as well as a medical, condition. She lived in a flat now, not far from the CalMac terminal, and welcomed the inspector. “You’ll be wanting a coffee, Mr. Blue. I would offer a drop of the hard stuff, but I’ve a feeling you’re on duty. But least you’ll be having a scone. You’ll not be thinking of going away hungry from my door.” After fifty years in Scotland she’d not lost the Irish lilt.

“Yes, and yes, Pat, thank you.”

Over coffee and a warm scone (with butter, jam and clotted cream) Blue explained that he wanted to know if she could make any sense of Alison’s translation of the minister’s final words.

“You’re thinking there’s something not right about it, is that it?” asked Pat.

“I wouldn’t quite say that. I just want to eliminate the possibility.”

“Well, now, here’s the thing. It seems to me he’s getting over the infection just fine. And I still know the folks at the hospital. They’d not be letting him out there if he weren’t recovering well. He’s making progress over the next week. Then, suddenly, he’s dead. And there’s only one thing he wants to tell his daughter. Not ‘I love you’ or ‘Give my love to the kids’ or anything like that. No, he’s saying, you know, my bum is really, and I mean really, sore. Do you happen to know, was he suffering from haemorrhoids now?”

Blue had to admit he didn’t know.

“I don’t suppose it matters that much. If he was used to pain in his rear, he’d hardly be commenting on it with his last breath, now would he? No, I’m thinking this was a sort of pain he wasn’t familiar with.”

“Could someone have stabbed him?”

“That’s unlikely. It wouldn’t kill him, and the bleeding would have been noticeable right away, to his daughter and the paramedics too. No, if I were really wanting to look for something not quite right here, I’d be thinking that maybe he’d not long previously had an injection in a place no-one would think of looking. Maybe a pretty big one too, to put it to the front of his mind, like.”

“What would be the point of that? A sedative maybe? The doctor said he was sleeping when he left.”

“No. The fact he had a heart attack soon afterwards gives me another idea. Let’s just say for argument that somebody wanted to do away with him, but make it look natural. One way is to give a big injection of potassium chloride.”

“You mean, like in weedkiller.”

“Yes, the same stuff. But a large amount, injected intravenously, will trigger a fatal cardiac arrest. It’s what they usually use in executions by fatal injection. In the case of executions, though, three drugs are administered one after the other, each of which by itself could be fatal. First there’s a barbiturate-type anaesthetic, like sodium thiopental – that renders the victim unconscious. Next they’ll put in a powerful muscle relaxant – that’ll be paralysing him. And finally our old friend potassium chloride stops his heartbeat. End of story. With the executions, of course, it all happens very quickly, usually within about seven minutes. But then, that’s the point of it. But dying from potassium chloride alone, well, that might take a while longer. You see, Angus, it only works properly if it’s injected right into a vein, so that it runs directly to the heart. People who try to kill themselves with it often fail, either because they take it by mouth, which causes a lots of tissue damage but won’t necessarily kill them, or they inject, but miss the vein. Are you still with me?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Well now, the other thing is that it needs a big injection, not just a pin-prick.”

“How much?”

“Maybe 50 or 60 ml. That’s as much liquid as a double whisky. And take it from me, that takes a lot of injecting. If someone’s up to no good, the area between the scrotum and the anus would be a good place, because there are accessible veins there, and, let’s be facing it, who’d be looking there for marks of injection. But of course you can’t be injecting that much in that sort of place without the patient noticing. So if this old fellah was murdered, someone probably gave him a bit of a sedative, then flipped him over and finished the job. Then tucked him up again. If it were me, I’d then be off pretty sharpish, so I’m somewhere else when death occurs.”

“So who’d be able to do that?” asked Blue.

“It would need a good bit of medical knowledge and access to the right drugs. And the killer would need to be someone the victim trusts enough to permit medical procedures to be carried out on them. What better suspect than the family doctor?”

“The only other suspect would be the dead man’s daughter, Mrs Jessell. She has a medical background too. She could have administered the drug herself straight after the doc left. But if she hastened his passing, why come to us and raise the complaint?”

“Maybe she was afraid there’d be a Post-Mortem, and the drug would be discovered, so she wanted to implicate the doc right from the start. Is the body still intact?”

“Yes. The daughter wanted a fairly prompt cremation, but the old man had made it clear in his will that he wanted to be buried. He regarded cremation as equivalent to the funeral pyres of the pagans. Arranging a burial takes longer than a cremation, so he’s still available for a PM, if I can make a case for one.”

“What are you needing to do that?”

“Without a PM, we’ve no evidence of anything suspicious. A strong motive for murder would help.”

“Who’s for getting his money then?”

“Mrs Jessell is the only child. She gets most of it, apart from a few bequests to religious charities. He owned his house, so she’d get a tidy sum. People have killed for a lot less, believe me.”

“But if Mrs J. had administered the drug after the doc had left, I’d think he might regard the matter as odd. He might even ask for a PM himself. Could he have a motive for murder?”

“Seems unlikely. He’d known Dr McGillivray for a long time. And been a well-respected GP in this area for over thirty years.”

“Smeet. Now that’s an unusual name. I’m remembering a case we had at the hospital, the old one that is, over twenty years ago, the late ‘80s maybe. Parents whose child needed an operation, but refused to sanction it because their church opposed it. Was their name Smeet? Mind you, it might have been something else.”

“Give me a few minutes, Pat. I’ll see what I can find out.”

Blue phoned the station. Then had another scone, while Pat brought him up to date with all the things she’d been doing in the last six months, particularly her trip to New Hampshire to visit her daughter. She was going through the photos of New England in the Fall when Blue’s phone rang. He listened carefully to the caller, then expressed his thanks and rang off.

“Well Pat, you were right. It was the Smeets whose child died. Mrs Smeet died two years ago from cancer. And the church which forced them to refuse the operation was the True Presbyterian Church of Scotland (Reformed). And the leader of that church at that time was …”

“Dr McGillivray!”


“Did the Smeets leave the church after that?”

“No. Like many in such circumstances, they became more deeply involved, as if to justify what they’d permitted. Dr Smeet is an elder and also a member of the Inner Presbytery of the church. This doesn’t prove anyone did kill Dr McGillivray, but with two suspects with both motive and opportunity, it might give us enough for a PM.”

It did. And the post-mortem on Zedekiah McGillivray showed the presence of potassium chloride. So, a judicious injection had accelerated his departure from this life.

And there were two suspects. Both would now have to be questioned further. Blue decided to begin with Dr Smeet, partly because he hadn’t taken to the man, but mainly because he felt that revenge, if that’s what it turned out to be, was a more powerful motivator that financial gain. Dr Smeet was invited into the police station in Oban to be questioned. It wasn’t an invitation he could turn down.

Inspector Blue let the doctor wait an hour in the interview room, a place he wouldn’t be familiar with, whose bleakness was a foretaste of the prison cell that could be the next sojourn of the guilty. This time he didn’t need to mince words. “Dr Smeet, it’s clear from the post-mortem that Dr McGillivray was, shall we say, assisted in his passing. No, let’s put it another way – he was murdered. And we want to find his killer. There are two main suspects, and you’re one of them. So you’ll need to answer some questions. Here’s the first: did you kill Zedekiah McGillivray?”

“Me! No, of course not, I …” He fell silent, stared at the scratched surface of the interview room table. He was remembering the ninth commandment: thou shall not bear false witness. The lie had become sour in his throat; and the time for lying was past. He cleared his throat. “Yes. I killed him. I became the very hand of the Almighty, that shall cleanse the temple of the sinners. Through his power in our church, he made me and my wife complicit in his sin of murder, in the killing of our child. His was the voice of Satan in the garments of the priesthood. This was always my wife’s view, but it took much longer for me to see it. During her last illness, my eyes were opened, and I knew what I must do. She will rejoice from heaven at what I have done. And our church, our holy temple, is purified of one who was the very embodiment of evil.”

Dr Smeet never came to trial. The psychiatrists decided the deaths of his wife had finally unbalanced a mind which had spent years trying to deny what it knew deep down. He was assessed as not a threat to anyone, and committed to a low-security mental institution. Perhaps he would find a kind of peace there.

And Angus Blue persists with his Gaelic.