The Murder of Margaret Cairns

The murder of Margaret Cairns is a story we told on our Halloween Takeover of Verdant Works, back in 2016. This tragedy happened in Playfair’s Entry, an old street off Hawkhill in the west end of Dundee which is long gone. It seemed everyone had a different version of events, and in the end, there wasn’t enough evidence and the jury found James Moren not-guilty of murder.

Dundee Courier, Tuesday 19th December 1899



The tragedy which took place in Playfair’s Entry, Hawkhill, Dundee, was fully investigated yesterday, when James Moren, labourer, stood on his trial in the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, on a charge of murder. The charge against Moren was that on 30th September 1899, in the house in Playfair’s Entry, 10 Hawkhill, Dundee, then occupied by him, he assaulted Margaret Cairns or Croll, spinner, residing there, knocked her down, and struck her on the head with a meat cleaver or other sharp instrument, and did murder her. Lord Young was on the bench. The Solicitor- General and Mr J. Wilson, advocate, prosecuted, Mr Al. Agnew, procurator-fiscal, Dundee, being also present, and the prisoner was represented by Mr George Watt and Mr A. Duncan Smith, advocates, instructed by Mr A. Blairford Smith, solicitor, Dundee.

The prisoner, a little, thick-set man, with a heavy moustache, bore himself throughout the proceedings with evident composure. There were no sensational features in the case, which was woven round a coarse, drunken carousal, ending in death.


Ann Cairns, Playfair’s Entry, Dundee, the deceased’s sister, was the first witness. She stated that on the evening of Friday, 29th September last, she found her sister in Moren’s house beside the accused and Mrs Moren. Deceased was sober, and there was no appearance of wounds about her face or head. Witness asked her to come downstairs to bed, but she refused, and witness left the house. During the night she heard a noise proceeding from prisoner’s bouse as if stools and chairs were being knocked about, and also a man’s voice, while she heard her sister saying, “Eh, dinna dae that.” The noise continued for about two hours. In the morning, about half-past six, her brother, James Cairns, came and told her that her sister was lying dead in Moren ‘s house above.

Cross-examined by Mr Watt, witness said her sister had known the Morens only three days before her death. She denied ever having been charged with assaulting her sister. She had been put into prison by tenants for “axing” her rent – (laughter’) – but she and her sister had always been on the best of terms. In answer to Lord Young, Mr Watt said the defence was that the witness assaulted her sister.

Q.— Did you ever say that you would kill your sister before Croll, her husband, would get the benefit of her money?

A. — No; I did not say that. I did not come here to tell lies and damn my soul.

James Cairns, labourer, Playfair’s Entry, Dundee, deceased’s brother, stated that she was married to a George Croll last spring, but they did not get on well together, and three days after the marriage she came to live with her sister. On the afternoon of Friday, 29th September, after half-past five o’clock, he saw the deceased in the company of prisoner and Mrs Moren at the foot of the stair leading to Moren’s house, and Mrs Moren pulling the deceased up the stair against her will. His sister was very, very sober. All three of them went into the house. At ten o’clock he went to bed and between one and two o’clock in the morning he heard a noise as of a person falling heavily on the floor of Moren’s house, and as of furniture being knocked about. He also heard low moaning and cursing and swearing in a man’s voice. The noise lasted for fully half an hour. At half-past six a knock came to his door, and on opening it he found Moren who said. “Come away and take your sister out of my house or I will throw her in the ‘midden.’ ‘ Prisoner never said she was dead, or anything to that effect, and witness made no answer. Moren returned about a quarter to eight, and repeated his last remark, this time adding that she was dead. Witness then went out and wakened his sister Ann. He afterwards went up to Moren’s house and found his sister lying dead on a little bed near the fireplace with two wounds on the back of her head. She stayed in his house on Thursday night, and there were no marks or wounds on her at that time.

Cross- examined by Mr Watt, witness said he had not been on good terms with the deceased on account of her marriage with the man Croll, but Ann and she had been very fond of each other, although they “might have had a word at a time.” When the woman Moren was pulling her upstairs the deceased was quite sober – ” as sober,” he added to counsel, “as you are at the present time.” (Laughter.)


Lord Young — You are behaving with great impropriety.

Witness here interrupted, and Lord Young continued — ” Stop, sir. You are behaving with great impropriety.”

Witness — She was quite sober.

Lord Young— Attend to what I am saying, or you shall suffer for it. You are behaving with great impropriety and have done so in your manner.

Witness —Well, it was…

Lord Young— Stop! You must speak with more respect to the counsel and to others, and not use that gesture with your hands which you are doing. Now, answer more quietly, and much more distinctly, and your testimony will have more credit with this jury and with others if you do so. I am not disputing the truthfulness of your evidence, mind.

Witness — God forbid I should tell a lie in a murder case.

Lord Young — l have no reason to think you would.

Witness denied having ever used violence towards the deceased. Had he struck her she would have had every policeman in Dundee after him, as she was very passionate. Annie Halkett, 54 Polepark Road, step- daughter of the accused, stated that on Friday evening, 29th September, she called upon her mother, who married the prisoner sixteen years ago. She found the pair quarrelling. He knocked his wife down, and she flung something at him while he flung the fender at her. Witness called the police. The police came and bathed the wounds on her mother’s head caused by the accused. She took her mother away. The police found the deceased on the floor in a drunken sleep and left her there with the accused. That would be about eight o’clock.


Ex-Sergeant Whyte said that on Saturday morning the prisoner came to him on the street and said he thought that Maggie Cairns was dead. He went to the prisoner’s house. It had the appearance of being newly washed out. The prisoner said he had wakened up out of a drunken sleep in the morning and took the deceased for his wife. There was blood upon her clothes, and also upon the prisoner’s wristbands and clothes. Constable Mearns corroborated and said that when Annie Halkett took her mother away the door was locked with the deceased inside. In the morning the accused told him that when he informed James Cairns that his sister was dead the latter said she had no business to be in his house, and “to put her on the ashpit.” There were two beds in the house, and the deceased was lying in one.

Witness stated that he also visited Moren’s house in connection with the disturbance on the Friday evening and that there were no marks on deceased’s face, but old scars. After lunch, Wm. Spence, detective in Dundee Police Force, was the first witness examined. He said the floor of Moren’s house had the appearance of having been recently washed. Witness found a meat cleaver in the house, on which was a spot of blood, and he identified this article, and also a hammer and a pair of tongs as those he found on Moren’s premises.


Professor Stalker, Dundee, read the report of the post-mortem examination. There were three wounds on the right side of the head and bruising on the left side. Death was due to shock from the wounds, which were caused by a sharp instrument. The bruising might be the result of a fall.

Cross-examined — None of the wounds separately would account for death. There was alcohol in the stomach, but that of itself would not have caused death.

By the Court — The wounds on the head might have been caused by a cleaver or by falls on a sharp niece of furniture. Dr William F. Foggie, Dundee, gave generally corroborative testimony, but did not think it likely that the cuts could have been caused by accident.


Mrs Moren (47), prisoner’s wife, was the first witness for the defence. She said that before removing to Playfair’s Entry, her husband and she had known the deceased for two years and had always been on good terms with her. On the Friday morning before the woman’s death the Cairns sisters were continually fighting. Ann bit Maggie’s lip and the latter was sitting on the stair when prisoner came home about half past twelve during the day. She asked for a half of whisky from witness’s husband, and he invited her upstairs, and sent for a gill and a bottle of “tuppeny.” There was more drink, and afterwards, when witness went to pay her rent to Ann — who was the landlady—they all went into Ann’s house and had more liquor. Along with her husband witness went into town to purchase provisions, became drunk, and remembered no more of that day’s proceedings.

Mrs Mary Ann Webster, 5 Small’s Lane, Dundee, said that on Thursday night about eight minutes to eight, while passing the gate leading to Cairns’ house, she saw James Cairns pushing the deceased, his sister, against the paling, and sticking a mason’s trowel into her mouth. Returning a few minutes later, she saw Cairns dragging his sister into his house, and heard the woman say, “Dinna kill’s.”

Mrs Falconer (30), 8 Milne’s East Wynd, Dundee, said she saw the deceased the Saturday before her death, with a black eye and her face scratched, which she said had been done by her sister. Later in the day witness saw deceased with a wound on the right side of her head when she said. “Oh, I am killed this time.”

Jane Anderson or Miller, 6 Milne’s Wynd, Dundee, examined by Mr A. Duncan Smith, deponed that when the police were making inquiries, she had asked if it was about the cut on Maggy’s head that witness had seen the previous Saturday. Ann Cairns replied “No,” that her sister was now dead, and that she (Ann) would be “lifted for the murder of her sister.”

Margaret Traynor (23), 5 Milne’s Wynd, Dundee, said she had often seen James and Ann Cairns striking the deceased woman. Mrs McWilliams (43), 8 John Street, Dundee, said she saw James Cairns pushing the deceased, and holding her against the palings between twelve and one o’clock the Friday before her death. Ann McIntyre or Brannan, Douglas Street, Dundee, testified to having seen the deceased on the Monday prior to her death with a wound three inches long on the right side of her head, and that Margaret said it was her sister Ann who had done that.

Dr Greig, Dundee, said it was quite impossible that the wounds could have caused death. If deceased had been a healthy woman she would not have died from shock from the wounds.

Lord Young -Then those wounds could not have caused the death of a healthy person, but could have caused the death of a drunken person?

Witness — Yes. In answer to Mr Watt, witness said the immediate cause of death would be shock from wounds received while the woman was in an unhealthy condition due to alcoholic habits, or starvation, or anything that would lower her system. The circumstances were quite consistent with death from alcoholic poisoning, and the injuries could have been caused by her falling against a sharp edge.


The Solicitor-General said that after hearing the evidence he would not be warranted in asking for a conviction on the capital offence, but he submitted that the evidence was sufficient to justify him in asking them to find the prisoner guilty of the offence of culpable homicide. The jury, after a short absence, returned a verdict of not proven, and Moren, amidst applause, was liberated. He left the Court bowing his acknowledgements to judge and jury. On his arrival at Tay Bridge Station, Dundee, in the evening he was met by a small crowd of friends, who congratulated him on the verdict.

– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.


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