It happened late in 1855 when the Crimean War was in progress. Dr. Watson of The Hall, Burnopfield, engaged, on a temporary basis, a young assistant named Stirling. The young doctor was awaiting his call-up for service in the army. During the short time he was in Dr. Watson's employment his undoubted ability and cheerful personality won him many friends in the area. On Thursday, 1st November, 1855, after he had been at Burnopfield a little more than a week, he somewhat surprised Dr. Watson by not putting in his usual daily appearance at the surgery, after visiting patients at High Spen. As he did not appear on the Friday, Dr. Watson assumed that he had received his call-up papers for the army and had returned to Scotland.
During the weekend, however, his assistant's parents arrived from Scotland, and demanded an instant search for their son, as the mother had had a vivid dream in which her son had been murdered in the woods by two men
A search was made for the doctor and on the following Tuesday his body was discovered in the wood, where the road bends sharply at the end of Smailes Lane, which part has been renamed Stirling Lane, in memory of the young doctor. He had been shot by some person(s) lurking at the corner of the lane; his throat cut and his head and face battered by the butt end of a gun. While busy at this work, the murderers kept clapping their hands and shouting, imitating the setting of dogs onto game to drown his cries for help. This was affirmed by people working in the fields near the spot, at midday on the fatal day. His watch, ring and lancets had been taken from him, and his body deposited in a deep declivity where it was discovered, some say by his father. One eye-witness at the scene described how his hands were tightly clasped together and filled with grass, as if he had undergone a terrible struggle for life.
A large reward was offered for the apprehension of the killers. At first there appeared to have been no motive, but later it was thought to have been a case of mistaken identity. It was conjectured that Mr. John Errington, a farmer and innkeeper, who kept the Bute Arms at High Spen, was expected to pass down Smailes Lane about noon this day to pay his rent to Mr. John Bowes at Gibside. He was much in general appearance like the doctor, and the men, with their vision partly obscured by the bushes, were certain he was their man. They fired, and so the doctor received the bullet meant for the innkeeper.
This was a great shock to Mr. Errington, when he heard of his narrow escape, and it was many months before he would venture out of doors, especially at night. It was said that not being a very robust man, he never recovered from the shock, and died at a comparatively early age.
Two men were arrested on suspicion of the murder. One was named John Cain, better known as "Whisky Jack", who kept an illicit still by the banks of the Derwent, and the other, Richard Ryan, a blacksmith of Winlaton, and they were remanded to the Summer Assizes of July, 1856.
After a protracted trial of circumstantial evidence, a verdict of not guilty was returned. It was said that eleven jurymen were for a verdict of guilty, and one, reputedly a Quaker, against. It has also been said that this juryman was bribed, but others have it that it was well known who killed the doctor. Be that as it may no one was ever convicted of the murder.
The remains of Dr. Stirling were laid to rest in the churchyard at Tanfield, and his resting place is marked by a memorial stone erected by his bereaved parents on the right of the main entrance to the churchyard. At the time of the murder Rowlands Gill was a thinly populated area. Only the old farm-house at the Smailes was very prominent, with cottages dotted here and there and the Towneley Arms standing on the turnpike down the road. It was ten years after the murder when the Derwent Valley railway opened up the area. The name derived from Robert Rowland who owned lands here in 1621, and Gill, being the old north country name for river.
According to the News of the World in the last century, the spinney where the doctor's body was found was said to be haunted for a few nights every year by two ghosts which were always seen together. People passing by at nightfall heard frantic cries for help, succeeded by ghastly groans, and saw peering through the bushes at them two white faced figures with gleaming eyes. The spinney got such a bad name that as soon as it was dark, people gave it as wide a berth as possible. Whether the figures were any of Whisky Jack's colleagues endeavouring to keep their stills a secret, we do not know, but the theory was once put forward that two brothers who spent much time in the woods collecting species of moths may have been mistaken for the haunting as they went in search of insects at night.
Whisky Jack was a well known character throughout the north east and it is well worth it here to give a few notes on his rather hectic and extraordinary life.
John Kane, or "Cain", was born in Norfolk, the son of a gardener in 1797. It was here that Jack learned his first lesson on how to deceive His Majesty's Revenue, as his father had quite a sideline as a smuggler. On having some trouble with the authorities he left the district and for some years followed his gardening career, travelling throughout the country. On the Borders he fell in with some illegal whisky distillers and after a while he became the owner of a still. He made his way to the banks of the Derwent in the 1840s. Many stills found in the neighbourhood of Shotley Bridge and Berry Edge were attributed to him.
In the year 1846, he had a narrow escape from the law when Police Sergeant Waters and an excise officer waylaid him near Ebchester, with two barrels of whisky on the back of an ass. When the two officers grabbed the ass, the two barrels fell into the road, and in the confusion Jack made his escape. The police, knowing that Jack's still would not be far away, made a diligent search for it but before they could find it, Jack had retrieved the worm and had begun operations in the Guards Wood. Later he received twelve months imprisonment for operating a still at Greenside.
Jack and his companion were acquitted for the murder of Dr. Stirling, but this was not the end of the matter as there was an attempt to drive him from the neighbourhood. Mr. Joseph Cowen, (who evidently believed in his innocence) took him into his employment as a gardener, and for thirteen years he faithfully discharged the trust placed in him, being very highly thought of by the people of Blaydon and Stella. The effects of his roving life began to tell upon him, and in 1868 he was disabled by rheumatism, and believing a sea voyage to a warmer climate would be beneficial, he sailed to Australia. He remained there for a few years before returning to Blaydon. On September 10th, 1879, Jack died in Hexham workhouse at the advanced age of 82 years and his remains were interred in Hexham cemetery.