Man cleared in ‘go home’ race row on Lismore

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A pensioner on the Isle of Lismore has been acquitted of racially abusing a Zimbabwean-born university professor by telling her to go home during lockdown last year.

Jeremy Gilchrist, 70, of Port Ramsay, was cleared at Oban Sheriff Court on March 9 in an incident involving Professor Francisca Mutapi, 52, who was staying at a holiday home on the 10-mile-long island.

Ms Mutapi is an award-winning specialist in infectious diseases at Edinburgh University, whose husband is Professor Mark Woolhouse OBE, an expert in the topic and an advisor to the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 group.

She told the court that she, her husband, their teenage daughter and her daughter’s friend travelled to Lismore around March 21 2020 to visit their holiday home for a ‘weekend’ and planned to return to their main residence in Edinburgh.

But Ms Mutapi told the court they were ‘caught’ in lockdown and believed they had complied with the guidance by staying put in the cottage, which is near Gilchrist’s home.

After an incident on April 13 when Ms Mutapi and her daughter had jogged past with earphones in while exercising and not heard Gilchrist’s calls, a flashpoint occurred on May 30.

Ms Mutapi told the court that as she jogged by she became aware of him ‘gesticulating’ and when she stopped to say hello, he had told her to ‘go back home’.

When she replied it was her home, she said he began shouting: ‘This is not your home, you don’t belong here.’

Ms Mutapi described her ethnicity as ‘black Zimbabwean’ and regarded his comments as meaning either go back to the cottage or go back home to Africa.

She said she felt ‘angry, attacked, sad and shocked’ as Scotland had been her home for the past 25 years and the holiday home had been in her husband’s family for 40 years.

She said Gilchrist had never made such remarks when he had seen her with her husband, so she decided to report it to police as he had singled her out as a woman on her own, she said.

But Gilchrist’s advocate Alan Gravelle said Gilchrist had simply meant go back to Edinburgh.

Mr Gravelle also asked Ms Mutapi why she had not told police that her daughter’s friend had travelled to Lismore but then left during lockdown to return to her parents.

‘I didn’t think the friend’s presence was relevant,’ replied Ms Mutapi.

She further denied Mr Gravelle’s suggestion that the racism complaint had been made to ‘silence legitimate criticism’ about their visit which had intensified after a national newspaper report in April slammed her husband for being on Lismore.

Gilchrist, a retired fruit grower, was subsequently charged by police with acting in a racially aggravated manner intended to cause alarm or distress – which he denied.

Giving evidence, the court was told that due to Covid, a neighbour of his with cancer had NHS treatment cancelled and subsequently died.

Gilchrist, who also has type-1 diabetes and a partner with disabilities, insisted his comments were not about the complainant’s ethnicity and denied being racist.

He disputed having used the words: ‘this is not your home’ and claimed he had simply asked her: ‘Why are you still here?’

‘They shouldn’t have been there and I had a right to ask why they were there,’ Gilchrist told the court. ‘I was concerned about the virus being brought to the island. It was about keeping people off the island for our safety.’

Prior to the incident, Gilchrist had also had reported a different second home owner to the police but was told there was ‘nothing’ officers could do.

He had consistently raised his concerns with the island’s Covid group, posted on Facebook and raised them face-to-face with other second home owners who had ‘not enjoyed’ hearing it, Gilchrist admitted.

Mr Gravelle said his concerns represented many on the island about people having fled the cities to holiday homes and the risk of introducing coronavirus to remote communities. Home to under 200 permanent residents, fears were rife about food shortages and the absence of NHS staff for its elderly population, while Lismore community leaders had also been warned to prepare for fatalities, the court heard.

However, Procurator Fiscal James Dunbar said Gilchrist had set out to ‘confront’ Ms Mutapi with aggressive behaviour and that she represented ‘one second home owner too many’ for him.

Sheriff Patrick Hughes told Gilchrist the trial had not proved his behaviour had been criminal or racist; it was clear he had become ‘obsessive’ about Covid.

The Sheriff said the accused had behaved in an ‘obnoxious and deplorable’ way.

Mr Hughes said it was unacceptable to have people being shouted at in public places and in front of children. He warned Gilchrist there would be ‘severe consequences’ if there were any repeats.

Sheriff Hughes told him: ‘If you, or anyone else, had concerns regarding breaches of Covid regulations, those concerns must be reported to the authorities and left with the authorities to be dealt with.’

Gilchrist declined to comment at the end of the hearing.