Fiona Torbet and "The Grahams" - Disturbing deaths in the Scottish highlands

Views over Loch Duich Western highlands

Fiona Torbet, disappeared July 7th, 1993, Body Found March 1994, Inverinate, Western Scotland

On July 7th, 1993, Fiona Torbet, aged 62, went missing on a walking holiday in the Western Highlands of Scotland near Kintail, whilst staying in a local Bed & Breakfast in Inverinate. Her husband who had been away on a sailing trip reported her missing when she failed to return.

Fiona Torbet, previously maiden name Fiona Graham, was famous as the co-author of  "The Grahams" also known as 'lesser Corbetts' with Alan Dawson.

A Graham is a hill in Scotland between 609.6m and 762.0m high (at least 2000 feet and less than 2500 feet) that has a drop (relative height) of 150 metres or more on all sides. The hills now known as Grahams were first listed by Alan Dawson in "The Relative Hills of Britain", published in April 1992 as a list of hills called Marilyns. All Grahams are by definition Marilyns. Even more confusingly, at this stage, the Grahams were referred to as Elsies. The Grahams are now named after Fiona Torbet, who compiled her own list of 244 hills in the Scottish Highlands, published by The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine in November 1992. 

The Grahams Scottish highlands

After the list in TGO was published, Alan Dawson and Fiona Torbet got together to discuss the matter. They agreed that it would be unhelpful and confusing for hillwalkers to have two lists with similar lists of Scottish peaks. After some debate, they agreed to use Alan Dawson's list with some minor revisions and to use the name Grahams for that list. After Fiona Torbet's death in July 1993, Alan Dawson continued to use the name Grahams for his list. A book by Andrew Dempster covers them in detail.

The Grahams could be considered the ultimate challenge for those who love Scotland's hills - the ascent of all 720 Munros, Corbetts and Grahams. These smaller hills may not be as famous as the Munros, but they are often more challenging because they are a lot popular than the Munros & Corbetts, they're more likely to be below the cloud line and they frequently give panoramic summit views of their taller neighbours. There were 219 Grahams as of 1 June 2016. 

 Location of Grahams

Location of Grahams

Background to Fiona Torbet's disappearance

Fiona Torbet first began staying in Grianan House in Inverinate in the late 1980's with its spectacular views to Loch Duich. She used the Bed & Breakfast as a base for her regular hillwalking expeditions in the hills above Wester Ross. Inverinate is a small village on the north shore of Loch Duich in Kyle of Lochalsh. She returned time and again. The B&B was run by Zena and Donald McMillan Senior, with Donald junior helping around the house and garden. Fiona was last seen alive on July 7th 1993.

Grianan House at Inverinate Scotland

Fiona Graham married gynaecology consultant Dr Thomas Torbet on August 12, 1960. Apart from writing for magazines like The Great Outdoors, she had been trained as a musician in her younger days. Like her husband, she was also interested in sailing, and was a recognised yacht master.

Grianan House at Inverinate

She kept a detailed diary of all the climbs she made and what she saw on her hikes, including making corrections to Ordnance Survey maps.

Search effort

When she failed to return, Dr Thomas Torbet contacted the authorities.

In one of the biggest searches mounted in the Highlands of Scotland. A helicopter was hired to take aerial photographs of the entire area, the Royal Navy and a team of police divers was called in to search Loch Duich, Mountain Rescue along with the local Kintail team Search and Rescue Dogs (SARDA) and RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team. Over 400 hours of searches were completed by teams in Affric, Loch Mullardoch and around the local area. There were huge areas to search in remote areas and were carried on for several months after Fiona went missing. But the search team failed to find her despite this extensive effort. 

Police had been told by the B&B owners son Donald that she had left to start a new life. Many of her friends who knew her said this was not true. He told a story of how Fiona had driven from the guesthouse with another man, leaving her own car behind. She apparently told him she would return in a couple of days to collect her VW Golf. Other theories suggested she may have got disorientated or injured on one of her hills walks and failed to return. 

For nine months her husband and family wondered what had happened to Fiona Torbet, especailly as she was so experienced in the great Scottish outdoors. 

Further investigation

In March 1994 Muriel MacKenzie, from Glasgow, was on holiday in the area and came across a women's belongings in undergrowth. Not realising there importance, she alerted a forestry worker who immediately contacted the police.

The items had been concealed beneath willow trees near the Kyle to Inverinate road and over the winter months they had been covered by snow, but were exposed in the spring. 

The items included Mrs Torbet's handbag, purse, bank cards, her hillwalking bag -- and a single slipper. Still missing, however, was a large canvas holdall which was to prove significant later. The discovery changed the case from a missing-person inquiry into the hunt for a body.

Hunt for the body

Police began to use ground penetrating radar equipment to search the area around the Grianan House and also examined the property in detail in a search for clues.

On entering the guesthouse investigators were shocked to see it had been extensively redecorated and re-carpeted. Twelve hours into the search, during which time the team had even opened blocked-up chimneys, they had still found nothing.

Then, in a downstairs shower room, officers lifted floorboards in a cupboard and found the missing holdall with Mrs Torbet's name printed on the handles. Other materials found in a plastic bag included a slipper which matched the one found by the roadside.

Investigators quickly suspected the son Donald following Fiona's disappearance but he was able to to maintain the deceit over many months, repeating the same story over and again to police. He even complained in the press about police harassment when they returned to question him. His lies were sufficiently credible to convince his parents and temporarily throw police off his scent.

But Police were able find his fingerprints on the tape with which Mrs Torbet had been bound after using liquid nitrogen to separate the glue. 

Grianan House Inverinate

At this point Donald McMillan was detained on suspicion of murder. But still he kept the police guessing as to how he disposed of Fiona's body.

Eventually his devastated parents, unable to take the strain any longer, pleaded with him to co-operate. The following day he drew a diagram pinpointing the spot in the back garden where she was buried in a shallow grave, only yards from the B&B. The body was covered with firewood, coal, and sheets of metal near a wood pile. The body was trussed up and and the face was covered with bandages and parcel tape. It was subsequently identified as Fiona Torbet.

In a strange twist to the tale, police photographed Grianan House from a helicopter as they carried out extensive sweeps of the area while the Torbet case was still being treated as a missing person's inquiry. In the picture, Donald McMillan is seen standing in the garden beside a pile of logs, on the very spot where he had buried his innocent victim.

Donald McMillan's motive for murder was sexual. The 33-year-old former soldier, who claimed he wore women's underwear, had a fascination for older women which proved fatal for Mrs Torbet.

Police found pornographic magazines in the caravan where he stayed alone next to the guesthouse run by his mother. The naked models were rated with stars,  with the few pictures of women over 40 awarded high marks.

A letter was given to Fiona with whom he had struck up a totally innocent relationship during her regular trips to Inverinate and who was old enough to be his mother.The last entry in her diary, written on the night she died, read: ''Strange letter awaited me from Donald McMillan. Embarrassing to cope with.'' No trace of the letter was found.

McMillan served first with the Royal Armoured Corps in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and saw service in Germany and Northern Ireland. His career in the service was undistinguished and he left after serving six months in Army detention after going absent without leave.

At his trial in 1994, McMillan was convicted of Fiona's murder. In 2003, Lord Cullen, the Lord Justice-General of Scotland, told McMillan: "You had a fixation for older women and had sexual fantasies about them. It was a sexually motivated assault [on Mrs Torbet] and you must have subjected the victim to a terrifying ordeal. I consider in your case the appropriate punishment part to be 15 years." Donald died in prison in 2007.

Sources

https://www.rhb.org.uk/grahams/

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12696771.Police_dig_for_body_at_guest_house__10_month_hunt_for_doctor_apos_s_wife_returns_to_quiet_Highland_village/

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12687276.Murderer_bagged_by_hidden_holdall/

https://www.scotsman.com/news/ex-soldier-to-serve-15-years-for-murder-1-546571

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12687596.Hill_walking_claim_by_murder_accused/

Further Reading

Murder in the Glens Jean McLennan