Murder Most Criminous (Volume 1): Mackcoull and the Begbie Mystery (intro)

March 26, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism.

The following is the editors’ introduction and the first few paragraphs to the case “Mackcoull and the Begbie Mystery” in volume 1 of Murder Most Criminous.

Editors’ introduction:

The murder of William Begbie is one of the most famous in the long history of crime in the city of Edinburgh. Like today, the name of the victim is mentioned far fewer times than the name of the man most people believe did the deed. The crime hangs in history because it was never legally solved.

William Begbie was a porter for the British Linen Company at Leith. His job consisted of, among other things, regularly taking money from the branch office to the head office of the bank in Tweeddale Court. On November 13, 1806, a small child stumbled over his body at the entrance of Tweeddale Court. He had been stabbed to death and robbed of more than £4,000. The murderer had done the job quickly in the midst of busy city traffic and had disappeared into the High Street flow of people just a few steps away.

A long and extensive search ensued, but it was 1820 before a James Mackcoull, also known as Captain Moffat, was arrested. Unfortunately, he died in prison before being brought to trial, so the evidence against him — which was abundant — was never tested in court. The murder remains, officially, unsolved.


All great cities have their mysteries, their unread riddles of crime, which alternately invite and baffle the ingenious investigator. Edinburgh, despite her relative respectability, is no less rich in such criminous conundrums than are her Scottish sisters.

If pride of place in this connection belongs properly to Perth as the scene of the inimitable puzzle known to us as the Gowrie Conspiracy, Edinburgh is a good second with the enigma of Damley’s death in the tragedy of Kirk o’ Field. Glasgow, too, can boast her meritorious specimens, though the protagonists are neither of such high degree nor so historically important. Many have set forth to tackle, in Mr. Willet’s word, the attaching mysteries respectively associated with Blythswood Square, with Sandyford Place, with Queen’s Terrace,[1] and after much healthful exercise of their wits have returned from those excursions no wiser than they went.

On this lower plane of Art, to adopt De Quincey’s nomenclature, Edinburgh can also show some notable examples, one of which I propose here briefly to examine. The fact that the problem is unsolved and insoluble may induce the reflective reader to protest, in adaptation of Bums’ familiar lines:

“I doubt it’s hardly worth the while

To be sae nice wi”—”Begbie.”

[1] The three mysteries referred to are the case of Madeleine Smith, of Mrs. McLachlan, and the murder of Miss Gilchrist, For the last, Oscar Slater suffered imprisonment.


During March and April 2022, the first volume of this series is being offered to readers at a special ebook price of $1.99. It can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook platforms. Paperback and hardback editions of this work are also available.

Volume 2 in this series, which will include the Oscar Slater case, is due out later this spring.


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