John and Robert McIlwain will be missed by those who knew them. Frail but friendly members of the local community, they tended their shared garden and even helped with that of their neighbour in the leafy cul-de-sac – at least while their health permitted. They were described as “good neighbours and good people”; and the floral tribute left outside their home read: “RIP Bob and Jack. Two lovely gentlemen. Its been a privilege to know you and call you friends. You will be missed by us all.” Residents in the beautiful street in the Gracemount area of Edinburgh said how the brothers, who were very private persons, would have been “shocked” by the arrival of armed officers and a police helicopter.
What was their story, of a simple life well lead, and a sudden, violent end that they saw as their only option?
The two brothers were aged 71 and 73 at the time that they died. Bob had worked with asbestos in his younger days and that had resulted in lung problems. He understood that treatments were very limited and also what the disease had and would do to him. Suddenly becoming more frail over recent months, he had taken to using his brother’s mobility scooter and was using oxygen for breathing problems related to his asbestos- related pulmonary fibrosis.
John had been disabled from birth by a hip problem, but could get around until his later years, when he became housebound, with his brother Bob looking after him. Both been keen golfers at one time, but their health had deteriorated over the years, becoming much worse about 18 months ago. Like Bob, John suffered from asbestosis, for which there is no cure.
A few weeks before their deaths, they had asked around at their neighbours, having no surviving family, to find someone to witness signing their wills. Said one of the neighbours, “Bob loved to look after his garden, and even helped with other people’s, including mine, but he wasn’t able to do that any longer because of his health. It was hard for him to give it up. He had to hire a gardener to do it for him. I last saw him on Tuesday and he just waved at me as he stood at his door.”
Both Bob and John were licensed firearm holders. A police source said: “We received a call from a man who claimed he was going to kill himself. When police arrived, two bodies were found in the house.” The two brothers were found slumped on top of a firearm, with gunshot wounds to the stomach, at around 6pm last Thursday (29th May 2014). Rush-hour traffic in the area was gridlocked for more than two hours as police closed off a one-mile stretch of nearby Lasswade Road, a main commuter route. A police helicopter was also called in to observe the scene from the air. Police denied any suggestion that one brother had shot the other, insisting that it was a double suicide and with no suspicious circumstances.
“I think it was a brave thing for them to do,” said another neighbour. “Bob knew he wasn’t going to get better and he saw what was ahead of him. It’s very sad and they will be missed.”
Anne Parker, 83, who lived next door to the brothers, said, “There was no evil in them, they were as good as gold. They were very thoughtful,” and added, “I can only imagine that they had planned it and that it was done out of love.”
John and Bob McIlwain lived at Lockerby Cottages is a quiet residential street off Lasswade Road owned by the Lockerby Trust, set up in 1894 for “distressed gentlefolk who had fallen on hard times.”
What do you think? Was their death justified? Should there be gentler options for folk who feel they want to end their lives in unbearable circumstances? Is the police furore a fitting end to what should have been a private affair, or even a good use of public resources?
Asbestosis (medical outline)
Asbestos Awareness (British Lung Foundation)
Pulmonary Fibrosis (NHS guide)
‘Gunmen’ headline (Daily Record)
What to do after a death in Scotland (Scottish Executive bereavement advice)
Send your views to the Holyrood Committee on the current Assisted Suicide Bill (intro)
Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill (Scottish Parliament)
Exit’s general legislative recommendations and principles
Warning: The result of a failed suicide attempt, frequently through inadequate knowledge of guns, can be horrific.
See for instance: this Neurosurgery page or this Wikipedia page, or this presentation on difficulties of non-fatal aftermaths.
Firearms suicide and attempted suicide is less common in the UK than in the USA.