When Britain's most wanted man was found in the Highlands

He was a blagger, a dandy, an army deserter and a murderer with Percy Toplis retreating to the far north of Scotland to evade capture in one of the most sensational cases of the 1920s.

Thursday, 31st August 2017, 5:39 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 12:03 pm
The bothy, now known as Percy Toplis Cottage, near Tomintoul. PIC: www.geograph.co.uk/Anne Burgess.

Descriptions of Toplis were circulated far and wide as he went on the run following the murder of a taxi driver in Kent in April 1920.

Look out for a man in a blue lounge suit, a fawn trilby hat and with a small moustache, the police said.

Also described as a sometime wearer of a monocle, his favourite greeting was listed as “hello dearie”.

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The bullet that hit PC George Greig after the fugitive was spotted near Tomintoul. PIC: TSPL.

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Toplis, who had a string of convictions and guises, many that embellished his military career, found refuge in the Cairngorms.

He went largely unnoticed, although suspicions were raised that a man playing the piano in an Inverness hotel one night was indeed the fugitive.

In Tomintoul, Moray, Toplis, posed as a “casual labourer on the tramp” as the manhunt continued, according to accounts.

Percy Toplis was shot dead by police after 44 days on the run. PIC: Contributed.

After taking up residence in the bothy, around two miles south of the village, he remained incognito until a plume of smoke was spotted coming from the chimney by gamekeeper John McKenzie.

What followed became known as the “Tomintoul Outrage” with McKenzie approaching the bothy with John Grant, a tenant farmer, and PC George Greig.

After being confronted, Toplis gave his name as George Williams, a recently demobbed American soldier.

The bullet that hit PC George Greig after the fugitive was spotted near Tomintoul. PIC: TSPL.

Then, without warning, he pointed his gun, a Mark 6 Webley, and opened fire on the three men, seriously wounding Grant and PC Greig.

While Mackenzie went for help, “Williams” calmly collected his belongings and cycled off towards Aberdeen, singing “Good-byee, don’t sigh-ee, wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee...”

Other accounts claim that, after reaching the road, he hitched a lift before catching a train to Kintore. After arriving in the city, he took a shave and a wash at a barbours in the city.

The shooting and subsequent escape became known as the “Tomintoul Outrage”. The Scotsman, on June 4, 1920, revealed that the “assailant... has been wandering the North Highlands for the past five weeks.

Percy Toplis was shot dead by police after 44 days on the run. PIC: Contributed.

“Some excitement was created in the Aberdeen district... when it became known that the man who committed the outrage at Tomintoul bore a remarkable resemblance to Percy Toplis.”

Toplis, meanwhile, headed south, probably in a lorry, stopping in Edinburgh to pawn his watch.

On June 5 1920, the most wanted man in Britain, dressed in military uniform, stopped at the base of the Border Regiment at Carlisle Castle where he was given lodgings without question.

The following day, he marched off towards Penrith, accepting a cup of tea from the daughter of a gamekeeper at Newbigging.

The game was up for Toplis on June 6, 1920, when he was shot dead by officers in Cumberland.

An earlier inquest of the death of taxi driver Sidney Spicer in Andover, Kent, who had been shot in the back of the head, found Toplis guilty of wilful killing in absentia - the first ruling of its kind.

There has been some disquiet over his conviction and death by police shooting.

After joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914, he served as a stretcher-bearer in Gallipoli, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and India

In 1978, two journalists, William Allison and John Fairley, published The Monocled Mutineer, celebrating his part in the six-day mutiny at the army camp at Etaples in the north of France.

Toplis’ supposed role was dramatised in the Monocled Mutineer television series with actor Paul McGann taking on the lead role.

Some have claimed he was framed for the murder of Spicer as a result of the unrest at the army base.

However Jaynie Bilton, a distant relation of Toplis, claimed in her book that her relative was nowhere near Etaples at the time of the mutiny.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, those who struggled with Toplis at that remote bothy near Tomintoul were commended for their bravery in 2015.

PC Greig’s grandson Alistair Greig, from Collieston, near Ellon, and Iain McAllister from Elgin, the surviving grandson of John Grant, collected the awards on behalf of their late relatives.

The bullet used to shoot PC Greig was found in the estate of a distant relative in Edinburgh in 2001.

No trace of any relatives was found for gamekeeper John McKenzie.