Twist in the tale of the nice writer next door

Most communities react badly to having a murderer in their midst. John Arlidge reports on the Highland village with a difference
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Portmahomack, the eastern-most village in the Highland county of Ross-shire, is a typical Scottish fishing community. Four hundred people eke out a living catching prawns, lobsters and scallops in the waters of the Dornoch Firth. There is one shop , one red telephone box next to the beach and one school. In the graveyard all deaths are local.

Until last summer, the only people who knew its name were fishermen and the handful of tourists who use the caravan park each year. But last August all obscurity was lost. A newspaper reporter had uncovered Portmahomack's best-kept secret. One of its most respected residents was a murderer.

Anne Perry, 56, moved to Portmahomack in 1989. She adored Ross-shire's barren wilderness, and when a friend bought a house in the area she abandoned her home in Suffolk and headed north to join her.

In an area where outsiders, often known as "white settlers", are treated with suspicion or worse, Miss Perry's easy-going manner helped her to settle in. Soon, she was so content that she persuaded her 83-year-old mother, Marion, to follow her.

The two women lived together, Anne writing best-selling Victorian detective stories, Marion hoping against hope that her daughter's increasing literary success would not draw attention to her past. That hope proved forlorn. "For 40 years Anne and I had managed to keep our secret," Marion Perry recalls. "But on that morning we knew the game was up."

The film Heavenly Creatures, which opens in Britain tonight, relates how on 22 June 1954 in a Christchurch park, 15-year-old Anne Perry - then known as Juliet Hulme - helped her best friend, Pauline Parker, 16, to murder her mother by crushing her skull with a brick. One of the most sensational trials in New Zealand's history followed. In it, counsel for the prosecution alleged that the two girls were lesbian lovers and had coolly planned the murder so that they could live together.

They were convicted and sentenced to be detained "at Her Majesty's pleasure". But after five years in jail the authorities gave the pair new identities and released them on condition that they never see each other again.

When news of the film appeared in a Scottish tabloid last August, residents of Portmahomack at first dismissed the report. Then Anne and her mother confirmed the details. A stunned silence descended on the village. With memories of the Jamie Bulger murder still fresh, the two women feared they would become the victims of a hate-filled backlash similar to that directed at the two-year-old's killers and other notorious British murderers such as Myra Hindley. Worse, they thought they might be forced to move to yet another new home.

But instead of chanting mobs and egg-spattered windows, Anne and her mother began to receive cakes, followed soon afterwards by what Marion Perry describes as "virtual love letters which I will cherish until my dying day". The offerings came from local people who were moved by Anne's frank admission that what she did was "wrong, very wrong". She had admitted her guilt, made amends by serving her prison sentence and got on with her life. That, they reasoned, was good enough for folk in a place like Portmahomack.

David Wilson, 40, a solicitor who lives in the village and works in the nearby town of Invergordon, spends Wednesday nights in the Caledonian Hotel bar, drinking the local Glenmorangie whisky. He explained: "At first there was an overwhelming feeling of astonishment - that someone among us, someone so welcomed, a devoted Mormon who gave out hampers to old people at Christmas, could be guilty of matricide. But then almost as quickly folk began saying, `Och, it was 40 years ago in another hemisphere. The lassie has been in prison and has had to move from place to place. She fits in here. What business is it of ours, what good could be achieved by raking up the past?' "

The sentiment is shared by the fishermen who gather on the pier each afternoon to study the swell before sailing east past dolphins and porpoises to Tarbat Ness to empty their lobster crails. Jim Mitchell, 39, said: "Perhaps if she had been born and bredhere it would be different but, for me, there is no question of trying to make her some kind of hate figure. We've made a decision to welcome her and her mother and that is all there is to it."

Finlay Munro, 70, a chain-smoking local academic who wrote the official history of Portmahomack at his home on Rockfield Farm, said: "Like many places in the Highlands, people here have a strong sense of privacy. Historically, fishing villages like ours have attracted visitors. We are used to people passing through and we take each one as they come. If someone arrives, they leave their past behind them. We don't like to pry. And if, as in Anne's case, we find out something curious, we are understanding people. If she does not bother us, we certainly won't bother her about her past."

Apart from a few mutterings about Anne cashing in on her notoriety, she and her mother are thrilled by the local reaction. It has convinced them that the move to their adopted Scottish home will be their last.

At her 18th-century converted farmhouse on the outskirts of Portmahomack, Anne said yesterday: "I have never sought to hide. I have never run away from the past and I have no intention of doing so now. People in Portmahomack are fine, loving people. Their response has made my mother and I more happy than ever to stay. Portmahomack is our home."

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