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The day dangerous double killer Donald Forbes escaped from Peterhead Prison

The headlines in the Evening Express when notorious and dangerous killer Donald Forbes escaped from Peterhead Prison on August 30 1971.
The headlines in the Evening Express when notorious and dangerous killer Donald Forbes escaped from Peterhead Prison on August 30 1971.

“This man is considered dangerous” was the sinister warning relayed across the north-east when double killer Donald Forbes escaped from Peterhead Prison.

Once dubbed “Scotland’s most dangerous man”, police were on high alert as an urgent manhunt was launched 50 years ago today.

Forbes was serving life in prison for two murder convictions and an attempted murder, after being reprieved from his own death sentence.

Donald Forbes’ mugshot in the Evening Express.

As most Peterhead residents were unwittingly tucking into their breakfast, violent killer Forbes was quietly slipping over the prison wall.

Police patrols and sniffer dogs were deployed across the Blue Toon when a length of rope was found dangling from the prison wall near the governor’s house.

But by the time the alarm was raised around 8.30am, Forbes had already been on the run for two hours.

Who was Donald ‘Ginger’ Forbes?

Trawlerman Donald Ferguson Forbes was said to have had a troubled upbringing and been no stranger to violence in childhood.

Of no fixed address, Forbes – also known as Ginger – was only 23 when he was sentenced to death by hanging for a brutal murder in Edinburgh in June 1958.

Forbes killed night watchman Allan Fisher in a robbery gone wrong at a fish factory in the city’s Granton area.

The watchman had spotted Forbes skulking about the factory and confronted him armed with a bottle.

Forbes’ heinous crime made headlines in the Evening Express in Aberdeen.

But Forbes overpowered the 67-year-old and savagely beat him over the head with the bottle, leaving him for dead before nonchalantly heading to the pub.

Charged with murder, he was later described in court as a psychopath by a psychiatrist.

And in September 1958, Forbes was found guilty of murder at the High Court in Edinburgh, where judge Lord Wheatley sentenced him to death.

The execution was set for October 16 at Saughton Prison, Edinburgh.

Escaped the noose

Cold-blooded killer Forbes made headlines up and down the country, and there was widespread interest when he was sentenced to hang.

But by the late 50s, capital punishment was falling out of favour with the public.

Forbes played to the crowd – he made an impassioned, eleventh hour plea to the Scottish Home Department for permission to marry his sweetheart who was pregnant with his second child.

With just days to go, permission was granted. Condemned man Forbes married 22-year-old Rita McLean, of Inverness, in the prison chapel.

Exterior of Saughton Prison, Edinburgh, in 1955. Photo by ANL/Shutterstock

He became the first and only person on death row to marry in a Scottish prison.

Portrayed as a troubled man who would be dead before meeting his unborn child and reuniting with his devoted young wife, the public begged for his mercy.

Amid a high-profile public campaign, Scottish Secretary John Maclay relented and Forbes’ death sentence was replaced with life imprisonment.

Forbes never met his baby, which only lived for three days, and his marriage lasted just months, but the sob story got him off the noose.

Ginger strikes again

Forbes was released on parole in May 1970 having not even served 12 years.

Within seven weeks he killed again.

Forbes was at the Duke’s Head pub in Leith when a fight broke out outside.

The brawl didn’t involve Forbes, but he went out, coolly drew a blade, knifed 21-year-old Robert Gilroy and stabbed his 25-year-old brother Charles Gilroy to death.

The pair had been out celebrating the birth of a new baby in the family that very morning.

Donald Forbes’ mugshot after his second killing.

Their anguished mother Jane gained a grandchild and lost a son within a few hours of each other.

Witnesses described how red-haired Forbes calmly went back inside to finish his pint.

Two months later he was back in the same dock in Edinburgh and it took only three hours for the jury to convict him of murder and attempted murder.

This time Forbes gained no sympathy with the public who wanted him to hang, but the death penalty had been banished, and he was once again sentenced to life in prison.

Murderer in their midst

Less than a year into his stint as a maximum-security inmate at Peterhead Prison, Forbes made a bid for freedom on August 30 1971.

Guards reported seeing the 36-year-old when the cells were opened at 6.15am, but his absence was not discovered until 8am.

Prison officers guarding the big steel gate of ‘A’ Block at Peterhead Prison.

In a search of the grounds, guards found a rope dangling over the wall near the governor’s house.

Forbes’ escape coincided with the retirement of Peterhead Prison governor Alex Angus, knowing the governor’s house was empty, it’s thought he escaped through the garden.

Within minutes a search and recapture plan was deployed, police and tracker dogs swarmed the jail and roadblocks were set up from Aberdeen to Inverness.

With a dangerous and unpredictable murderer in their midst, hundreds of commuters in the Peterhead area were stopped as police searched cars, vans and buses.

A description of the double killer and a photograph of him in his denim prison uniform was circulated across Scotland, and searches were carried out at train stations and harbours.

But while officers scoured the length and breadth of the country, Forbes was having a wash and a shave in an empty cottage nearby, cool as you like.

Six days on the run

With a killer on the loose, tensions were heightened in the north-east.

One man decided to take matters into his own hands and headed to Aberdeen armed with an air pistol in pursuit of Forbes, terrifying a cafe worker who called the police.

But by now, Forbes had evaded capture and was back home in Edinburgh.

He was on the run for days before police traced him in the same area of the city where he killed for the first time.

During an appearance at Aberdeen Sheriff Court in September 1971, it was revealed that Forbes had scaled the prison wall before breaking into a lock-up at the prison’s staff quarters in an attempt to steal a car.

Failing this, he headed to Clola where he broke into Church Cottages stealing clothing.

The trio of police officers who apprehended Donald Forbes in Edinburgh in the Evening Express in 1971, from left, PCs Bob Ferguson, Jim Wilson and Donald Innes.

By September 3, he had made his way to Auchnagatt near Ellon, where he stole a car from a farm at Mains of Elrick.

Forbes was spotted the following day in Edinburgh, his sixth day on the run when a routine description of blue Triumph Herald car stolen from a village in Aberdeenshire was relayed to local officers.

Police were still scouring the fields around Peterhead when the net began to close in on Forbes in Edinburgh.

On September 5, within 25 minutes of the message going out, and a “hair-raising” police chase in cars and then on foot, Forbes had been detained.

‘He is very loving’

Forbes was sentenced to an additional four years for absconding from Peterhead Prison, which he immediately attempted to appeal.

Unfortunately for the seasoned criminal, the judge who imposed the punishment was Lord Wheatley, the man who had sentenced him to death 13 years beforehand.

Forbes claimed at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh that press attention sensationalising his escape meant he got harsher treatment.

An internal view of Peterhead Prison in 1968 where the guards oversee the prisoners while they eat.

Forbes told the court: “Four years is an unheard of prison sentence for escaping.”

The judge, however, pointed out that Forbes had been convicted of three additional charges including dragging a police officer along the road during the pursuit.

His appeal was thrown out.

But Forbes’ notoriety as Scotland’s most dangerous man meant he attracted the morbid fascination of women who wrote to him when back in Peterhead Prison.

Donald Forbes and his new wife Alison outside Peterhead Registrar’s Office on March 6 1980.

One such woman was Alison Grierson, with whom Forbes struck up a romance via letter.

His cell was packed with letters and cards, and he was briefly granted leave to marry Alison at Peterhead Registrars on March 6 1980.

Speaking on her wedding day, Alison said: “Nothing can ever hurt me while I am with him.

“I certainly don’t think of Donny as a double murderer.

“I have been told in prison he keeps himself very much to himself. But I don’t know him as a prisoner.

Angry women mounted a demonstration with ”bring back hanging” posters outside Peterhead Registrar’s Office for the wedding of double murderer Donald Forbes.
“I only know him as he is with me and he is very warm, very loving.”

But the baying crowds in Peterhead certainly weren’t in the mood for romance, and dozens protested outside the registrar’s calling for the death penalty to be reinstated.

Within weeks Alison was pregnant with their son James, and treated as an outcast in Peterhead. She would move near whichever prison Forbes was sent to.

Mrs Forbes, aged 24, made a surprise visit to jail with infant James in October 1980 – ”Donald was absolutely delighted,” she told the Evening Express.

Scotland’s oldest drugs baron

When Forbes was eventually released from jail on December 8 1998, he was Britain’s longest-serving prisoner having been caged for 40 years.

Now aged 63, he and Alison got together again and he tried to establish himself as a taxi driver in Greenock, but his licence application was turned down.

The public were unhappy ahead of Donald Forbes’ release from prison.

Forbes was again ensnared by the lure of crime, and after a move to Glasgow became involved in the murky world of drugs.

In 2003, police raided his Royston flat after a tip-off and found a drugs factory in operation and £340,000 of class A drugs.

At the age of 68 Forbes was dubbed Scotland’s oldest drugs baron and found himself in court again where he was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

This time he did not escape, and the man who once terrorised Peterhead didn’t live long enough to be released.

Forbes died aged 73 on April 12 2008, handcuffed to his hospital bed, half a century after he stared death in the face as a condemned man.

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