The Shocking Inverness Murder of David Cumming

Inverness Murder

While walking around a graveyard just five minutes from our house we stumbled upon a mysterious and fascinating gravestone!  The grave of a young man who died in 1861 at the age of 24.  Sitting close to two touching stones commemorating the rest of his family.  Why did David Cumming have his own, larger tribute?  The clue lies in the shocking inscription. Was he the victim of a rare Inverness murder?

To The Memory Of

David Cumming

House Carpenter Inverness

Aged 24 Years

Who Was Found Dead in Rose Street, Inverness

On the Morning of the 1st December, 1861

In circumstances to excite suspicion

that death had been caused by violence

The shocking inscription

Chapel Yard Cemetery

Chapel Yard Cemetery is an ancient graveyard enclosed with high stone walls in the centre of Inverness.  There is a plethora of old and interesting graves peppered around the large site.  None however is so intriguing as that of David Cumming. 

Chapel Yard Cemetery

The 19th century gravestone describes the violent Inverness murder of this young and industrious Highlander.  Who wanted him dead?  Were they caught?  Who immortalised his gruesome end on stone?

We had all these questions and more after finding this unique marker.  Luckily a quick google search of David Cumming brought us to a fantastic podcast called Stories of Scotland, which along with a bit of additional research, allowed us to learn all about the fateful night when young David Cumming met his end. We highly recommend you check out this podcast if you have an interest in Scottish history. Like our blog, it is hosted by two highland lassies and has won awards for its humorous but informative content.

Listen to the podcast here.

19th Century Inverness

So, what was Inverness like during David Cumming’s short life? Inverness was a rapidly growing town in the 19th century.  Industries such as shipbuilding, rope making and sail making were all prevalent in the bustling town. The Caledonian Canal was built in 1822 and the Railway stretched its way to Inverness in 1855. The castle we see today was built between the years of 1834-1846.  Iconic Inverness buildings such as St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Town House were also built in the 19th century.  However, many buildings in the town still had thatched roofs and clay floors.  The Inverness we know today was beginning to take shape, but it was still a vastly different time.

Who was David Cumming?

David Cumming was a “House Carpenter” in Inverness. He was reportedly a bright and studious boy who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a house carpenter. (As opposed to a ship carpenter).  David was employed by a local joiner named Mr Mackay and had been working at a Tomatin site in the days before his death. 

On the day of his death David walked from Tomatin to Inverness to enjoy a few pints with friends before visiting his parents. The long walk from Tomatin would have taken several hours in the bitter cold, but David was apparently in good spirits as he collected his £1 pay packet from his employer’s wife.  David used his hard-earned cash to treat himself and enjoy a few pints with friends.  At around 11pm he bid farewell to his pals on Church Street. However, he was never seen alive again. Little did he know he would soon be the victim of a rare Inverness murder!

The fact that David had walked all the way from Tomatin to visit his parents suggests he was a very family orientated man. Sadly after examining the gravestones of David’s parents that are situated right beside their beloved son, we learned that his mother died just the year after this tragic event. After losing three other children in her lifetime we have no doubt that she probably died of a broken heart.

The Graves of David Cumming’s Family

The walk from the town centre to Shore Street where David’s parents lived should have taken less than ten minutes, but shockingly David’s journey was cut dead on Rose Street where he met his grisly end.  Who on earth would have wanted to kill this likeable, hardworking highland lad?

The Murder

David’s body was found early on Sunday December 1st, 1861, by Mrs Fraser of 27 Rose Street.  Mrs Fraser had gone to her garden at 7am that morning to investigate a disturbing groaning sound. She shrieked in horror upon the discovery of the barely alive and bloodied body of David Cumming.  When her cries for assistance went unanswered, she dragged poor David’s body into her house.  He passed away from his injuries shortly after.  The large gash by his temple the likely culprit. Shockingly, David was stripped naked apart from a solitary boot and a pair of socks. Everything was pointing towards a shocking Inverness murder.

A Bloody Trail

Now, forensics weren’t as they are today, however it didn’t take long for the local police to ascertain where the crime had taken place. A distinctive bloody trail and set of footprints led the police to the garden of 35 Rose Street. The perpetrator hadn’t even bothered to cover their tracks.  All evidence pointed to David being beaten to death with a hammer before being dragged across to poor Mrs Fraser’s house where he would eventually succumb to his injuries. The site of his murder is just a stones throw from the distinctive Rose Street Foundry. Rose Street Foundry was an industrial facility established in Rose Street in the 1830s. It has now been restored into a modern and popular bar!

Rose street foundry pub
Rose Street Foundry is now a modern bar!

The damning evidence didn’t stop there! While searching the cabbage patch of number 35 the police Superintendent Sutherland found David’s remaining wages, a watch, and a necktie that he had just treated himself to. A paltry sum to be killed for. Upon further questioning and probing the police were also able to retrieve David’s bloodied and soiled clothes from the locked shed of number 35. Surely the residents of number 35 were responsible for this Inverness murder!

An Unlikely Suspect

So, who exactly lived in number 35 Rose Street and which one of the family was ultimately responsible?  The house was occupied by a local Stone Mason, Nicol Ferguson, his wife Catherine and his two daughters Elizabeth and Catherine.  On the night of the murder the oldest daughter, Isobella Judge, was also in the house. It isn’t known why she wasn’t with her husband on that fateful night.  

At the time of the murder Rose Street wasn’t exactly the most affluent area of Inverness and the Nicol family were notorious for their rowdy behaviour and loud arguments. On the day in question several neighbours bore witness to an extremely loud altercation in the early hours of the morning. And one member of the family’s voice was distinct from the rest. 

Originally Nicol, Catherine and Isobella were all arrested, however based on the testimony of neighbours only one of them faced trial.  The voice that was heard begging for forgiveness in the early hours was the voice of the perpetrator.  That voice, surprisingly, belonged to Isobella Judge! Was Isobella’s hand really responsible for this Inverness murder?

The Trial Begins

The trial began the following May with 22 year old Isobella the sole defendant.  A huge number of witnesses were called to the stand by the defence as they attempted to paint the picture of a drunk and disorderly David Cumming.

One such witness was Helen Gellion- the Inn Keeper from Gellion’s close.  It was custom for bars to be named after their female Inn-keeper during this time and amazingly Gellion’s pub still operates today. It is in fact the oldest pub in Inverness! Hellen Gellion lived from 1812-1898 in Inverness, and her gravestone can also be found in Chapel Yard Cemetery!

Gellions Bar: The Oldest Pub in Inverness

Gellion’s pub was both a bar and hotel at the time.  There would likely have been a spittoon trough in the middle of the Victorian bar, and straw scattered across the floor to help absorb all the muck that came off the workers boots. Indeed, my mum told me that some Inverness bars retained these features right up until she started drinking in the 1970s!  She fondly remembers ordering a pint “of slops” when she was drinking on a budget!

The Gellions as it is today

The Gellions was likely the last place that David Cummings ever had a drink before he left at 11pm on that fateful night.  It might appear that David was being sensible and turning in early, however at the time 11pm would have been last orders, due to The Forbes Mackenzie Act (1853), which closed Scotland’s pubs at 11pm on weekdays and all day on Sundays.

Victorian bars were known for being in the town centre and a place where the working-class men would gather to stand around and drink on a Friday night after a hard week’s work.  This environment often led to rowdy behaviour and in the 20th century some pubs began to move to the suburbs in a bid to attract families and a gentler clientele.

A Shocking Verdict!

The testimony of witnesses, including Helen Gellion of Gellions bar reported that David was very drunk that evening. Shockingly, this information led to Isobella Judge receiving a very lenient sentence!  The court decided that they couldn’t prove whether the blow to the head or exposure to the cold- exasperated by David Cumming’s drunken state- was responsible for the young man’s death!  Isobella admitted striking David over the head and pled guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated assault. She received a meagre 18 months in prison!

David Cumming’s Final Steps

A Permanent Reminder

The short sentence that Isobella Judge received didn’t come close to atoning for the death of David Cummings. A fact that wasn’t lost to his friends and colleagues of the time.  They were livid at this injustice and wanted to make sure that no one ever forgot the brutal nature of his untimely death.  They erected the unique gravestone to remind Inverness of what happened that awful night!

After stumbling upon their poignant reminder, I would definitely say they succeeded in what they set out to do!

If you want to read about another fascinating Highland graveyard click here.

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