Set in stunning Scottish West Coast scenery on the freshwater Loch Maree, the hotel was (and is) perfect for anglers, fishers, and those looking for a quiet retreat...
But in the early twentieth century Loch Maree was a scene of horror that transfixed the entire nation.
On August 15, 1922, as shared in a lengthy profile on this case in Atlas Obscura, guests at the hotel began to feel quite mysteriously ill, with 8 people in total affected:
At 9 p.m., Dr. Knox returned to the hotel with a professor of medicine who was in Gairloch on holiday. The news from Mr. Robertson was grim. An hour earlier, Mr. Stewart had died, the other three guests were worsening by the minute, and now there were two more sick guests:
neglected Mrs. Anderson and a 22-year-old Oxford graduate, the beloved scion of an elite English family, who, despite scrambling a nearby mountain the day before, could move neither eyeballs nor tongue.
Before the doctors could do anything other than prescribe brandy and champagne, Knox was called to a cluster of huts nearby, the seasonal homes of the ghillies and other local workers. Here, Major Anderson’s ghillie, Kenneth MacLennan, complained of acute abdominal pain. Knox quickly prescribed a laxative, then rushed back to the hotel, where the Dublin woman expired just before midnight.
All night and over the next several days, they continued to suffer and die. Darting impotently from room to room, doctors bore witness to a near-uniform story of unstoppable decline: double vision, dizziness, droopy eyes and thick tongues, then a cascade of paralyses, from eyes and lips to larynx and diaphragm. Once they lost their speech, the patients communicated by writing, and when their
fingers failed, by crude flailing. Their limbs jerked wildly, and they clutched at their throats, unable to breathe, conscious to the end.
The reports of these mysterious, unconnected deaths shook the nation. Murder was suspected, and investigators were brought in to question hotel staff and others who may have been points of contact or have had motives for these deaths. More common poisons like belladonna were eliminated, and common food poisoning couldn't account for the symptoms the victims exhibited.
One universal point connecting all the suspects? Food.
The most likely meal? Lunch.
What, they asked the terrified cook, had she prepared for Monday’s
lunch? Just what she made every day, she explained: sandwiches, wrapped
neatly in paper packets for guests to take on their fishing, hiking, or
driving jaunts, or departures by train. On Monday, they contained jam,
cheese, leftover roast beef from Saturday’s dinner, and ham and tongue
from Sunday, which Mr. Robertson had carved himself. And, of course,
Suspicions aroused, the doctors interrogated the last surviving
patients. Via weak nods and gestures, along with elaboration from their
loved ones, the dying victims confirmed the doctors’ hunch. Over the
next several hours, a vivid picture of Monday’s deadly lunch emerged.
The potted meat was the suspect. The sandwiches made using potted meat were shared and sent around so that they affected multiple people. And what's more, potted meat was a very popular foodstuff at the time: "summer picnic tables and beach baskets overflowed with paste sandwiches." In order to prevent panic, investigators needed to determine the exact type of potted meat and what went wrong. A mad scramble ensued, looking for the tins or product that was so deadly. A buried sandwich was exhumed, and along with a retrieved container of Lazenby's potted duck meat, provided the clues that cracked the case:
Clostridium botulinum, reported the bacteriologist, had been identified in the sandwich and a single container of wild duck paste. Although the germ is found everywhere in soil and dust, under low-oxygen conditions like a sealed jar, its spores produce one of the deadliest toxins on the planet. When ingested, it attacks the nervous system with speed and ferocity, causing the illness known as botulism. First identified in Belgium in 1895, when three funeral musicians died from ham, botulism had never before been reported in Britain. These particular spores made quite a first: A pin’s head worth of the duck paste could kill 2,000 mice.
The culprit was pinpointed, but what was next and how to quell the public anxiety?
The government held an unprecedented juried public inquiry, at which, as one reporter put it, “every atom of evidence” was presented. Questioners grilled doctors and experts, Mr. Robertson and his cook, mourning guests, the confused herd-boy, and one dead ghillie’s old landlady, who
spoke only Gaelic. In the end, nothing and no one were found to blame. The Loch Maree kitchen was immaculate, its record and standards beyond reproach. And out of 700 glass jars of Lazenby’s potted duck per batch, produced for the past 35 years, only this one had been tainted. When,
how, and where the deadly spores had overtaken the meat would remain a mystery.
While it took 3 decades after the case to introduce expiration dates in the UK, the Loch Maree poisoning incident did create immense scrutiny and awareness of food safety.