A POIGNANT final letter from two elderly brothers who died in a suicide pact has revealed how they didn’t want to “die slowly in one of those horrible homes”.
Robert and John McIlwain, 73 and 71, were killed by self-inflicted shotgun wounds to the abdomen at their shared home in Lockerby Cottages, Gracemount.
The siblings – known as Bob and Jack – were in declining health and had earlier composed a heartbreaking last letter explaining “we just can’t go with this dreadful situation” as they struggled to “get a decent breath” due to lung disease. They were each battling pulmonary fibrosis linked to asbestos exposure, and were housebound when they decided to end their lives on May 29.
The McIlwains even asked for forgiveness for the “trouble” their deaths would cause close friends.
The tragic contents of the letter were read aloud at the joint funeral held yesterday, which saw around 70 mourners come together at Mortonhall Crematorium to bid farewell to the bachelors who “lived together all their lives and did everything together”.
Matching wooden coffins were carried into the main chapel to the strains of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by The Hollies played on a loudspeaker.
Minister Ray Bain told the congregation the McIlwains were “now beyond the reach of darkness and despair”.
He added it was impossible to “fathom the anguish of mind they went through” before deciding to end their lives.
But their good friend Stephen Speakman, 67, who had known them for seven years, quoted part of their hand-written letter addressed to him and his wife to “let you know they could not go on any longer.”
Mr Speakman added: “I used to go round very, very regularly and noticed they were getting worse and worse.”
The letter, understood to have been written down by Bob shortly before their deaths, read: “Jack and I both hope you can forgive us for all the trouble we have caused.
“We just can’t go with this dreadful situation. Life is no fun.
“Poor Jack just lies in bed, gasping for air.
“He can barely talk now. I find myself struggling for every breath. My legs are starting to go. We refuse to slowly suffocate and struggle to get a decent breath.
“You have both made life a lot easier for us. We just wish we had met you years earlier.
“We’re truly sorry for putting you to all this trouble, but we refuse to die slowly in one of those horrible homes.”
Neighbours said the McIlwains – who did not have any close family – had been increasingly frail in the run-up the tragedy.
Jack, who was partially disabled from birth by a hip problem, had been housebound for a number of years while Bob – who had cared for his brother – saw his own health faltering during the past 18 months.
Delivering the eulogy, Minister Ray Bain said they were “very likeable brothers and very devoted to each other”.
The service heard that Bob was born on February 4, 1941 and Jack on December 31, 1942.
Parents, Robert and Nora, lived in Clarence Street in Stockbridge when their first son was born, moving to Pilrig before the arrival of their second. Their electrician father, who died in 1982 aged 67, took the pair on trips to Germany and New Zealand leaving Bob with a lifelong love of “everything German”.
Mr Bain said: “They lived together all their lives and did everything together. They knew what the other one was thinking.
“They were good friendly neighbours – very private – but friendly.”
After both working many years ago for a petrochemical company, Jack was a self-employed engineer and fabricator who “did a bit of blacksmith work and crafted gates and railings”.
Bob, meanwhile, worked at the Gracemount workshops. The brothers were “keen golfers” and were members at Gogarburn Golf Club while they also belonged to the Masons.
They enjoyed watching golf on television, especially when the Open was contested.
But they also spent many happy hours consumed by a golf game they played through a console on their TV.
They were determined to “buy their own machine” after being impressed by Mr Speakman’s console during a visit to his home. The mourners heard how the brothers were big film fans and had a large collection of DVDs. Bob was also a “great reader” who was “always buying books”.
Nurses came to care for Jack at Lockerby Cottages, Gracemount, as his health declined, and tearful members of the nursing staff were among the mourners yesterday.
Mr Bain said: “Then Bob’s health began to fail, especially in the last few weeks.”
He added: “The tragic circumstances are still fresh in our minds. Why did this happen? How did this happen? I don’t think we’ll ever understand it in this world.
“We thank you that Bob and Jack are now beyond the reach of darkness and despair.”
Lockerby Cottages is a quiet leafy cul-de-sac off Lasswade Road owned by the Lockerby Trust, set up in 1894 for “distressed gentlefolk who had fallen on hard times”. The 16 semi-detached houses and two bungalows are occupied by 34 people. David Salmon, factor at Lockerby Cottages, said he first met the brothers in 2005 when they were kindly helping an elderly resident with her garden. They were asked to apply to the Lockerby Trust for a home and were granted one of the cottages a few months later.
Mr Salmon said the brothers “fitted into the community” and were a “great help” particularly when repairs needed to be carried out.
In 2009, he said Jack was finding it difficult to climb the stairs but “did not complain”. They had a stairlift installed and eventually Bob would use it too. In their last years, Mr Salmon said the brothers were unable to “tend their beloved garden but still took pleasure from observing the wildlife”.
He added they “always had cheery smiles and a twinkle of fun in their eyes”.
After singing the hymn Abide With Me, the chapel played He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother for a second time as the mourners departed for a reception at the Northfield House Hotel.
The McIlwains were both bachelors and worked as gardeners before retirement.
Police had raced to their home at around 5pm on May 29 where they discovered the bodies of the two men.
Armed officers and a police helicopter were deployed to the scene amid concerns of an ongoing firearms incident.
Neighbour Anne Parker, 83, previously said the brothers wanted her husband, Frank, 82, to witness them signing their wills a few weeks before their deaths, but it was not ready on time.
Mrs Parker believed the brothers agreed on a suicide pact so the other would not be left alone. She said: “I can only imagine they had planned it and that it was done out of love.”