I’m home for Christmas, with a whole week to go before the celebrations begin. My end of term marking is complete and the research paper I’m writing can easily be progressed here in Dumfriesshire, away from the distractions of London and the university world.
I tell myself all this, but my deeper reasoning says otherwise. This early arrival for the holidays is really about avoiding a repeat of last year.
I’ve written before on that particular episode. I’d reached home late on Christmas Eve to find an empty house. Within a few minutes the dinner table somehow became a meeting place for three long-dead Nobel Laureates, who proceeded to unveil a plan for global peace and harmony. A plan which was then summarily thwarted in disastrous circumstances. I still haven’t been able to take it all in and I am hoping beyond hope, that elements of those inexplicable events from a year ago won’t resurface this festive season.
So it’s reassuring when our first family evening together proves pleasantly free of drama. Over cottage pie and dad’s home-grown broccoli, my increasingly left-leaning retired parents take me through the political chaos at Westminster, egged on by my socially aware and climate activist younger sister. Three Prime Minister in a matter of months, governmental incompetence still everywhere to be seen, strikes wherever we look. It can’t all be blamed on COVID or Putin’s war in Ukraine. Likewise, there’s our over-reliance on oil and gas, the return of coal mining and the lukewarm approach to COP27 from the latest incumbent in 10 Downing Street. Not forgetting the Supreme Court decision about an independence referendum for Scotland. It’s a long list.
To my relief, no one mentions the Nobel Laureates.
Next day, I wake to the hesitant dawn light slanting across my bedroom wall. I pull on some old clothes and head out with our ageing spaniel for a moderately brisk walk before breakfast. The sharp, clean air of Nithsdale hits my lungs. It never disappoints. My feet crunch on a thick layer of riming frost. A red kite loops languidly overhead, eyeing the ground for carrion. For the umpteenth time I thank my stars to be back in south west Scotland, this hidden region of drumlins, forests, beaches, lochs and rivers. A place for deep thinking, leisurely days in the open air, and perhaps (one day) romantic entanglements.
But for now, none of these should tempt me. After breakfast I am straight into my small study bedroom. It sits above the kitchen, and is always snug.
I open up my computer. It’s the moment that both daunts and exhilarates any writer. The blank screen. I type in my title: ‘Missing Persons in Britain Today’. It’s going to be a critical review of what is known about the 170,000 people that disappear in the UK every year.
The day goes well. I take it easy on the coffee, eat a modest lunch and by late afternoon have set out my introduction and the purpose of my paper. The study of missing persons is a developing interest of mine and my plan here is to summarise the literature and then describe the trends and patterns, as well as what is known about the experiences of missing people and their families, and the kind of support they need. It’s one of those hidden social issues that doesn’t really grab people’s attention – until they have direct experience of it.
Satisfied with my day’s work, I cook pasta for dinner and then we all settle down to watch an episode of The Crown. It’s an unexceptional evening of easy contentment.
Next morning everyone is bustling about. I’m the only one home for the day. As the house goes quiet I settle back to my work. Then in the hallway the letter box flaps. It’s too early for the post. I wander down to check. An Amazon envelope is on the mat. The kind that contains thin books or musical scores. Bending to pick it up I see that it’s been repurposed and is heavily sealed with parcel tape. I turn it over. In an elegant antique script, speaking of centuries ago, it’s addressed to me and where the stamp should be, someone has written the words ‘by hand’.
There are no calligraphers among people I know, but I take the packet through to the kitchen and open it with a sharp knife. Inside is a small set of papers, evidently of considerable age. I extract the contents carefully and lay out the various sheets on the kitchen table. There are three handwritten letters, apparently original, and two very faded newspaper cuttings. Each one carries a date. As a researcher would, I arrange them into chronological order. They are all from the late 1770s.
14th February 1778
To such as it might concern
By my own hand and guided by that of the Lord God Almighty, I set out here the dreadful truth concerning the disappearance of Agnes Brown, lately of the Parish of Kirkmahoe.
Agnes Brown, a spinster age 25 years, resided in the above parish with her parents. They being sickly and impoverished, she cared for them as an only daughter, placing always their welfare above her own. Yet she also took in sewing and mending, sold eggs from her own fowls and was adept in horticultural matters, producing copious quantities of potatoes, kale, raspberries etc. Thus she fed her family.
Her soul was fed each Sunday, whereon she attended her local Kirk without absence or lateness. Each night she read the word of God to her parents. She prayed by her bedside and followed our Lord in all her daily works. She stayed aloof from idle gossip, transgression and sin. Her life can be considered blameless and worthy.
Yet on the night of 24th December 1777, as she made her way to a service of thanksgiving for the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, our Sister Agnes disappeared and has never been seen again. Her parents, left bereft, are inconsolable and with no one to maintain their bodily needs, will soon depart for the alms house in Dumfries.
Yet there is no evidence that this shocking disappearance of a Christian soul has provoked any response from the worthies of the parish. The constable has conducted no enquiry into the matter, the minister has made no reference to it from the pulpit, and indeed the gentlemen and landowners of Kirkmahoe and its neighbouring parishes have taken no action to resolve the issue by using their considerable material resources.
Agnes Brown may be alive, but is presumed dead. Her loss to our community has gone un-mourned by its gentlefolk. By this missive I call upon those capable of such an enquiry to ascertain the truth of this matter and thereby seek to assuage the suffering of her parents and the deep sorrow of all those who knew her.
Perhaps our newly established Dumfries Weekly Journal might take some interest in this lamentable story?
I remain, etc
Andrew Robson, Schoolmaster, Kirkmahoe, Dumfriesshire
15th May 1778
THE MYSTERY OF A MISSING KIRKMAHOE WOMAN
Readers of this Journal will no doubt recall the letter of Andrew Robson, dated 14th February 1778 concerning Agnes Brown of the Parish of Kirkmahoe, who disappeared on the night of 24th December, last. Since that time we have been unable to ascertain any word of the missing resident. Meanwhile, we must report the sad demise of her parents, both of whom departed this world within a few weeks of leaving Kirkmahoe to enter the Dumfries alms house. It has been said that Mr and Mrs Brown succumbed to overwhelming sorrow and grief following the mysterious disappearance of their daughter.
We invite anyone knowledgeable about the whereabouts and condition of Agnes Brown to contact this journal at their earliest convenience.
31st September 1778
Your notice in the Dumfries Weekly Journal, concerning the disappearance of Agnes Brown has reached me here in the Maritimes some months after its publication. I write, unable to give full comfort to those distressed by the story but to shed some degree of light on the mystery. Indeed it is an account most touching and perplexing even by the standards of the turbulent times in this region.
I have it on good authority that when Agnes Brown left her home in Dumfriesshire she made her way to the port of Liverpool and took ship to Nova Scotia. Here she stayed for some weeks in a refuge for the indigent poor. She was heavily with child and gave birth to a baby boy, to whom she is most tenderly disposed.
Recently, and with the good offices of a local Minister of Religion, Miss Brown has found employment within the respectable home of a town merchant and his family. There she is helped to care for her child, and also undertakes light domestic duties for the household.
I have recently visited Miss Brown at her new place of residence and found her polite, grateful and diligent in her manners and behaviour. She speaks nothing of the infant’s father, but seeks in every way to be a good mother to her son, who appears well cared for and nutritiously fed.
Beyond this I can add no more, and in her best interests must forfend to reveal further details of her whereabouts.
I remain therefore, etc
William MacDonald, Office of the Provincial Secretary, Halifax, Nova Scotia
1st March 1779
Dear Mr Robson
It pains me most deeply to write to you, though a sense of respect for myself tells me I should. You well know the terrible wrongs you did to me in the summer of 1777. It was in shame that I fled from my home, heartbroken to leave my ailing parents, who were soon to die on removal to a place for the sick and poor.
Your letter to the Dumfries Weekly Journal was deceitful and deliberately misleading in its veiled attempt to accuse others when the reason for my departure was you alone. How you could provoke such a calumny lies beyond my comprehension. You in whom I placed my trust, you who had been my teacher and guide.
Since my arrival in the Maritime province of Nova Scotia, I have been fully engaged with securing the means to survival for my son and myself. The kindness I have been given at the hands of strangers has done much to assuage my sense of injury at your malfeasance. Yet no degree of compassion directed toward me can erase my soured and bitter memories of you Andrew Robson. I can only hope that one day, guided by our Lord Jesus Christ, I will find it within me to forgive the hurt you have caused me and my family.
There is much unrest here in the Maritimes, but as my strength returns I am preparing to settle here and to take some part in the life a young country. Only then will I be able to cast off the shackles of the old world and the disgrace that you brought upon me.
I pray that this letter may cause you to seek forgiveness from God for all the wrongs you have done. Until such time, be assured that your ungentlemanly actions against me will continue to haunt your every waking moment.
23rd August 1779
BODY FOUND ON THE SOLWAY MERSE
The body of a man has been found on tidal foreshore close to the estuarine channel of the River Nith. The deceased is thought to be one Mr Andrew Robson, age 54, lately schoolmaster of Kirkmahoe. The body appears to have been in the water for some days and the pockets of Mr Robson’s overcoat were heavily weighted with stones from the shore.
There is every indication that Mr Robson deliberately ended his own life, by drowning. Time in the water rendered a short missive, contained in an envelope, to be illegible. An engraved watch enabled the body to be identified. The Procurator Fiscal has been informed. Mr Robson appears to have no next of kin.
I read through these materials at least half a dozen times. I find myself provoked by their content. It has a curious affinity with the topic I am researching and it is located in my own local parish, albeit some 250 years ago. How and by whom have these documents been sent to me? I examine the package carefully inside and out, but find no clues as to the sender.
Needless to say, I struggle to return to my own endeavours concerning the disappearance of people in contemporary society. These aged documents are compelling in their story. I feel an urgent need to find out more. To test their veracity, to complete this unsettling account and discover its conclusion.
For the rest of the day I carry out a series of Google searches. Some are of distracting interest, but all are entirely fruitless in terms of my quest.
Next morning, I abandon my desk before coffee time and head into Dumfries and the Ewart Library. Its archive contains a varied set of local records. I’m hesitant in explaining my questions to the archivist. She is patient and friendly, but has perhaps heard more than a few crazy search stories in her time.
Only one lead opens up. I quickly establish that the Dumfries Weekly Journal did indeed begin publication in 1777. Some of its early content has been placed on micro-fiche. For the next two days my review paper on missing persons is abandoned. Only one such individual is now the object of my enquiries: Agnes Brown.
But Agnes is elusive. Within the columns of the Journal, I can find no evidence of the letters or the newspaper notices that have been sent to me. My eyes strain at the screen, willing one of the documents to appear, but after several sessions of headache-inducing, neck-hurting scanning, I admit defeat. Between the relevant dates found in the documents there seems to be no evidence that any of the material I have been sent was ever published in the Dumfries Weekly Journal.
All of which leaves me with a sense of puzzlement bordering on paranoia. I return to my research article, but can’t focus. Surely it’s no coincidence that my Amazon package arrives just as I embark on an academic discussion of missing persons? What can it mean? I am getting hints of last year, when elements of magical realism crept into everyday life and our otherwise pragmatically-oriented household.
When 24th December arrives, the snow has returned. It falls steadily all through the day. Truly, it’s a white Christmas. With the single track down to the village now almost impassable, and mindful of the dangerous spot where last year a car left the road and crashed dramatically into the Pennyland Glen, we all elect to walk to the annual carol service. It will be fun to cut through the Maryfield Wood, over the neighbouring field and then into the Barony Kirk.
It takes the four of us some time to find torches, pull on boots, tie up our scarves and then don an improbable range of head gear. Thus equipped, we set off.
The wood is quiet, all sound dulled by the fresh snowfall. Our torches rake over the silver birches, disturbing a barn owl as it lolls across an open space just ahead of us. Hereabouts had once been someone’s home, but now only a roofless bothy and some ruinous steadings remain, the slate and stone long since plundered for other dwellings.
I’m leading the way and looking to the path beyond the clearing, when to my right a small movement catches my eye. I turn and look in disbelief. A young woman in a long plaid skirt, heavy woollen coat and headscarf emerges from the doorway of the ruin. She calls out to whoever is inside: ‘I’ll not be long!’. Then, as my family gather close around me, and my sister grips my arm like an iron band, the young woman disappears swiftly around the back of the dwelling, only to return a moment later with two large bags. Apparently untroubled by her load, she sets off with strong steps, to the path beyond the clearing. Our nervous breathing sets up vapour clouds that hang in the torchlights as we watch her walk away.
I let out an involuntary cry. ‘Agnes! Agnes Brown!
The woman, stops, turns and looks back. Is that the shadow of a smile on her lips? Then she resumes her path and disappears into the trees. We run to follow her, but when we reach the edge of the clearing, the path has disappeared. It is long-since blocked by a fallen pine, now heavily covered with fresh snow. There are no footprints to be seen.
I sit through the Christmas service with few thoughts for the Nativity, the readings or the carols. My mind dwells only on Agnes Brown, who in just a few days has walked into my life and then out of it again.
We go home by the road, eschewing the Maryfield Wood and striding out as briskly as we can. I am first to reach our front door, and as I expected, there it is. Another repurposed Amazon package.
Again it is addressed to me in that elegant hand, written with a broad quill, in brown ink. It contains just one sheet of paper. A letter. I read it to myself and then to the whole family, standing dazed in the kitchen.
24th December 1779
Your report in the Dumfries Weekly Journal on the mysterious death of Andrew Robson has recently been brought to my attention. It is now two years since I left my home in Dumfriesshire to escape the clutches of this man. I regret his death and not least the implication that he might have been the deliberate author of his own demise. Yet I imagine past conduct did much to trouble the soul of this unfortunate example of God’s children. I may not be the only young woman who has suffered at his hands, but I give thanks that I was able to escape from him and to create a new life here in Nova Scotia.
I am now employed in the Beaulah Home for Women and Girls. Here we take in those who have suffered at the hands of others. We judge not, lest we shall be judged, and we provide Christian teaching and worthwhile activity for those who live with us in our small community.
Every one of our residents has fled their origins to seek help elsewhere. Most cannot bear to go back.
I write now to inform your readers of my safe domicile at the Beaulah Home. I have no plans to return to Dumfriesshire, where I no longer have any living relative. I am at peace here among those who love me and those who need my love.
That night of snow when I left Kirkmahoe is still vivid in the memory. But now on this date I pray and give thanks for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and through his life I find inspiration for my own humble acts of compassion directed to others who leave home, not knowing whence they may go.
I remain, etc,
Agnes Brown, Beulah Home, Halifax, Nova Scotia
We ponder the mystery of what has occurred.
There is the indisputable reality of the documents I have been sent. They are here in my hand. Then there is the apparition we all think we saw in the wood. Most of all there is the moral that links the two. It is a tale about a missing person, who triumphs over abuse and finds in the New World an opportunity to turn her own suffering into compassion for others. A woman who brings good to the world and takes in those who, like her, have been blown from their daily path by the actions of others. Someone who through her kindness helps restore others to a meaningful life, just as she was restored. However it came to my attention, it is the remarkable story of Agnes Brown.
We go through to the dining room for our traditional Christmas Eve meal of Danish smørrebrød, pilsner and aquavit. Glasses are raised in a toast. My eyes fill with tears as I look at the smiling faces of my mum, my dad and my sister. We all agree: Christmas can now begin.