Islay's tranquility shattered by first murder in 30 years

Cahal Milmo
Saturday 06 October 2007 00:00 BST

The island of Islay, known as "The Queen of the Hebrides" prides itself on its "friendly people, stunning nature and famous distilleries".

But a sense of shock was palpable in the Scottish community yesterday after police confirmed they were investigating a suspicious death that could be the first murder on the island for at least 30 years.

Peter Graham, 49, was found collapsed and bleeding in the street near his home in broad daylight, having suffered extensive head injuries which could not be explained by his fall three weeks ago in Port Ellen, the second largest settlement on the island of 3,500 people.

Mr Graham, who is understood to have been unemployed, was airlifted to hospital in Paisley, near Glasgow, but he lapsed into a coma with irreparable brain damage. He died on Wednesday night without recovering consciousness and a post-mortem examination was yesterday "inconclusive". Further tests have been ordered to try to determine whether he suffered a violent death.

A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police said: "We are treating the death as suspicious. We are still looking for witnesses who saw the deceased in the three days before his death. Our inquiries will continue until we know what happened."

For an island where crime is almost non-existent – the last significant incident on Islay was an attack on its police station by a distraught husband whose wife had an affair with a serving constable – the killing has left many of its citizens stunned.

Across the entire Argyll and Bute region that includes Islay, the robbery rate last year was 0.15 offences for every 1,000 people – some 12 times lower than the national average. The last suspicious death on the island, famed among birdwatchers for its colony of Barnacle Geese, was in the late 1970s.

Robin Currie, a Liberal Democrat councillor for the island, which is 25 miles long and 20 miles wide, put it succinctly: "Crime is not something we are used to here."

Mr Graham was found at about midday on 20 September on the pavement near his home in Corrsgeir Place, a cul-de-sac of bungalows and modern houses on the edge of Port Ellen, a picturesque village on the south coast of Islay overlooking Loch Leodamais, the island's main deep water harbour and ferry port.

Initially, police were not called to the scene because it appeared Mr Graham's injuries had been suffered as he fell to the ground. It was not until doctors examined the 49-year-old, who had a history of heavy drinking, and found he had suffered multiple headwounds that the death was declared suspicious.

Carl Reavy, who runs Ileach, the island's award-winning newspaper, said: "It's extremely unusual for anything of this nature to happen here. The last time there was anything like this was a woman who died in suspicious circumstances at least thirty years ago.

"The only crime we get here is the odd petty crime. The school got broken into a couple of years ago but that's about as bad as it gets. Islay is where people come for some peace and quiet."

Detectives stationed in Oban have spent the last fortnight on the island trying to piece together the train of events which led to Mr Graham's death.

Detective Inspector Charlie Henry, leading the investigation, said: "Inquiries are at an early stage to establish exactly what happened to this man. He was found on the street near to his home and it is unclear at this time how he came about his injuries."

A source said last night that police were pursuing a "positive line of inquiry" in connection with Mr Graham's death. The source said: "If there is a murder investigation, then we would be hopeful that it will not be a long-running inquiry."

In Port Ellen, residents voiced a hope that their peaceable existence, reliant on tourism and Islay's six whisky distilleries including such famous names as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bowmore, would be rapidly restored.

One islander said: "If it was deliberate then we want whoever did it to be caught quickly and allow us to get on with our lives."

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