I’m enjoying Vigil on BBC TV. The drama set aboard a nuclear submarine based on the Clyde being shadowed by Russian and American U boats serves as a reminder that nearly 70 years on there is still an unofficial Cold War being waged. The Russians still seek intelligence that would benefit them just as they were doing in the 50s when Peter Begg was developing nuclear propulsion for warships built on the Clyde. A leading criminologist told me about Occam’s razor when I told him Peter’s story; in other words that the simplest theory is the most likely. We still believe Peter’s disappearance was connected with his work and with the information he possessed about nuclear warships. The truth is still out there.
It’s September 1st – coming up to the 65th anniversary of Peter’s disappearance from the banks of the River Coe near the Clachaig Inn. Life and work mean further investigation can only proceed frustratingly slowly. During the summer my cousin Beverley met Stella Rimington, former head of MI5 and told her about our suspicions that Peter may have been involved in some kind of espionage. She put her in touch with the department that deals with requests from family members of a deceased person to know if they ever worked for the agency. Bev duly sent off the enquiry and we held our breath while waiting for the response. When it came and it was confirmed he had not been part of UK security services we were disappointed but not surprised. Given the amount of money Peter left, it was clear he could not have made it spying for Britain. Our strongest theory is still that he may have had connections behind the Iron Curtain and was passing information about the nuclear projects he was working on to the Russians. Will we ever know for sure? We go on…
I’ve just learnt that Peter’s close friend Eric Drew passed away at the end of 2017. He was the last link we had with Peter, the person who most probably knew him best of all and who we had hoped could tell us the most likely reason for his a disappearance. Eric often mentioned the theory he had that Peter could have tripped and hit his head while running down a boulder field as he liked to do. He talked about the triclunies on his boots that could have tripped him and left him unconscious up in the hills. But when we retraced the likely route Peter would have taken in September 1954 and spoke to the crofter who had helped search for him, we concluded that had that been the case, he would have been found. Willie said there were shepherds up on the hills with dogs on days in all weathers so some trace see of him would have be been found. So we discounted that theory. It’s a grim fact that bodies do eventually turn up.
Eric had kept the receipt from the Glasgow boot repairers who had fixed up Peter’s climbing boots for that last Friday when he hitched a lift to Glencoe after work. When we visited him two summers ago he showed us the tag that he had acquired amongst the few personal effects at Peter’s lodgings in Knightswood. He also told us that he’d tracked down the man who drove Peter to Glencoe that Friday evening ‘a passing man with a van’ but couldn’t remember who he was. We were very happy to have met and talked to him that afternoon two years ago. May he rest in peace.
I’m happy to hear that Radio Four have decided to broadcast Radio 4 Lost In Glencoe again on Monday 13th August at 2.15
Here’s hoping that, like last time, new listeners will offer information and insights they might have into this 62 year old mystery that we are still trying to solve. What happened to Peter Begg?
May 11th, 2018
There’s been a long hiatus in posts about Peter, largely because daily life and commitments have not allowed us the time we need to search for further clues about his disappearance. Since a woman contacted me last year with information about her mother’s friendship with Peter in Glasgow before he disappeared, we have been intending to search the Kew records office for further clues as to what might have happened. Two pieces of information have come to light that are significant: one is that the lady who worked in the office in Glasgow with Peter remembers MI5 combing the place after he went missing. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, this is not routine. So it would imply that there were suspicious circumstances surrounding his disappearance and perhaps fears that valuable documents or information might have gone too. Of course this is just speculation on our part, but the second piece of information also adds intrigue to the story. Peter was a young man of 29 when he vanished, but one of his possessions that he left behind was an expensive Oyster Perpetual Rolex watch. His friend Eric told he us he had the same model. Just this week I was told that it was customary for the military and special services to be issued with these watches. I would love to know more. Another reason I wanted to update this blog is that it’s still getting visitors nearly every day, so I’m hoping that somebody who reads this may be able to tell us more about the issue of Rolex watches to MoD personnel at that time, or about the YARD project in the 1950s and whether the information on it is now declassified.
Just this last week a lady has been in touch to say she’s been searching for information about Peter’s disappearance for many years. She says her mother worked at Yarrows Admiralty Research Department in Glasgow in the 1950s and that the pair were close. She has never forgotten him. She was most likely the ‘lassie crying in the office’ that Eric Drew referred to when he returned to work to hear the news that Peter was missing in September 1954. He was surprised, as he didn’t think she and Peter were particularly close. I will post an update soon, after I have spoken with her daughter to find out more. It seems that even after more than sixty years, the dust of Peter’s presence has never quite settled. He clearly touched many lives and has left so many people apart from his family wondering what became of him.
Two weeks ago I saw that someone from Canada had found my blog using the search term “Shelagh Begg”. Is there someone who knows the family reading this who can tell us anything about Peter? We’d so love to hear from anyone who remembers anything.
A couple of weeks ago, my cousin Sandra, daughter of the last remaining Uncle on the Ayre side of the family got in touch to tell me she had been to see her father, and they had been talking about Peter Begg and his strange disappearance from Glencoe in September 1954. He had remembered that Peter had been learning Russian in the late 1940s. We have always considered that Peter may have connections there and that his disappearance may have been related to that.
As yet we have still not been able to establish what he was doing during the war. We know that he was serving aboard the Neritina in the Merchant Navy from a photo from 1949. The Neritina was built in Glasgow in 1943 and sailed from Loch Ewe to Murmansk in 1944 as part of the Arctic convoy delivering oil to Russia
Aboard the Neritina en route to Russia
This was a dangerous voyage for the merchant seamen as the ships were vulnerable to attack from U boats, but they were given a warm welcome by the Russians in Murmansk. The social club for allied forces in the town’s main square was a place where Russians apparently mixed fairly freely with sailors. We don’t yet know if Peter was part of one of these convoys, but the revelation that he was learning the language adds a whole new slant to the theories surrounding his disappearance. We will continue our search.
It’s been a month now since the programme, a drama documentary, was broadcast on Radio Four. I thought it would be interesting to write about how we went about making the programme and about the reaction it’s received.
The programme was a culmination of a year’s worth of research by me and my cousin Bev as we talked to the various people who remembered Peter or had known him. I worked with a great script writer Richard Monks who has written a lot of radio and TV drama. We met and discussed the Peter Begg story and I began sending him information and interviews and gradually we decided on a format on how to marry the facts with the fiction. We realised that nobody really knew what Peter was like. Eric’s description of his friend as ‘the life and soul of the party’ did not match others’, who described him as a loner. With so little to go on, it was hard for Richard to write the character, but in the end we agreed that he would provide Peter’s voice as a kind of narration and commentary on the facts, thoughts and opinions of those involved in the case. Depending on which theory we chose to believe as to why he disappeared, I thought ‘Peter’ could play with us, the audience a bit, tantalise us as to what he was really like and what might really have happened. And at other times he could sound regretful and sad for all the grief he caused to those left behind, as well as perhaps appear keen to put his family and his upbringing with a strong mother behind him by disappearing.
Richard wrote three versions of the script, adding a little back story about Peter’s time during the war, based on what we imagined he might have witnessed if he’d served in the Navy.
I wanted a Liverpudlian actor to be the voice of Peter, someone who understood the nuances of accent and how Peter would have sounded in the 1950s as someone who was upwardly mobile, keen to shed their working class Liverpool roots and spread their wings.
I approached Paul McGann, who as luck would have it, lives near to the BBC in Bristol, and he agreed to take the role. We met for coffee at the Clifton Lido one hot afternoon and chatted. He was really up for playing the part, having really engaged with the story. He is also really interested in family history and had traced one seafaring relative of his own to the Titanic. He came into our studio at the BBC at the end of August to read the part.
I asked my cousins, Diane and Bev to be there. Bev couldn’t make it, but Diane came and sat in on the recording. Peter was her uncle after all, and importantly, the programme had led to me getting in touch and meeting her for the first time. That meeting and the friendship that has resulted is part of the story.
Hearing Paul read the monologue Richard had written, lifting those words off the page and bringing the voice of Peter to life literally gave me goosebumps. He was fantastic. All that was left now was to mix his narration with the sound, music and interviews I’d been recording for months.
The result went into 45 minutes of Afternoon Drama on Friday 2nd September, 62 years to the day that Peter set out from Glasgow on his last journey towards whatever fate or direction awaited him. His empty tent was reported five days later.
The programme got a massive response. Listeners got in touch to say how much they’d been riveted by the story. Some had gone back and listened twice. One man started emailing me from near Perth asking to see case notes from the time, asking whether a forensic search had ever been carried out at the landlady’s address, what Peter’s relationship had been with her. He was so persistent and intriguing that I ended up ringing him to find out what his motives were. Turns out he was merely an interested party who was trying to make sense of some of the most baffling parts of the story. We chatted for about twenty minutes during which time he managed to almost convince me that Peter may have been murdered. “There’s a reason that there’s no body. Think of the Moors murders” and “Nobody staging their own disappearance would leave £40,000, even out of guilt”.
His theory is plausible. Maybe there is more to Peter’s story than meets the eye. This is why it’s important that we keep trying to track down any paperwork that might still be out there in the archives that will tell us where he was during the war and what he was doing. The Scottish Daily Record picked up on the story and ran a double page article
MAGGIE’S HUNT FOR TRUTH ABOUT MISSING MAN
I’m still hoping that someone who read this might come forward with information. Meanwhile I’m in contact with the town archivist of the tiny place on Vancouver Island in Canada where we discovered Yarrows set up a second Admiralty Research Department in the 1950s. Could Peter have disappeared to Canada with the girlfriend his mother didn’t approve of to work for the same company ? Watch this space…
I’d been waiting for the right moment to get in touch with Diane, the cousin I’d never met. I needed to tell her that I was making a programme about her Uncle Peter’s disappearance. I’d always believed that she didn’t want to know our side of the family. So it was with some trepidation after speaking with Kathleen, that Bev and I started to search for her. The number Kathleen had was an old one, but eventually we found her via her ex husband and children. We spoke on the phone. It was her birthday and she was thrilled to hear from the family she didn’t realise she had.
I went to visit her a few days later and we got on right away. Like many children of divorced couples, she had felt forced to choose one parent over another, and had hardly kept in touch with her father, my uncle, out of loyalty to her mother Shelagh. She was fascinated that we were looking into her Uncle Peter’s disappearance and got out all the photos and items that he’d left behind to show me. It was the first time I had ever seen what he looked like.
There was his compass too. It had been found in the tent after his disappearance along with some clothing and food supplies. Diane had always been told Peter had died falling into a crevice, but after her mother’s death in 2002, her grandparents’ neighbour Kathleen told Diane that she believed Peter had had a girlfriend, a bus conductress, and that his mother Grace had not wanted him to bring her home. She did not think her good enough for her son. This was an intriguing new line. Could he have decided to elope with the girlfriend his mother did not approve of and to stage his own disappearance?
I told Diane that Bev and I were planning a trip to Glencoe a few weeks later at the beginning of July, and asked her to come. Amazingly, she said yes, and immediately booked her flight. So on June 30th, three of us cousins met up in Glasgow and set out on the trail of Peter Begg, picking up a fourth cousin who lives on the Isle of Seil on the way.
Our first stop was to visit Peter’s friend Eric. We asked him if he had known Peter to have any girlfriends in Glasgow. He recalled one who he said came from around the Anniesland Cross area of the city, but could not remember her name or much about her. “Was she a bus conductress?” I asked. “Might have been” was his reply, “that sounded familiar, but it was nothing serious between them” he said. “Would he have chosen to disappear?” asked Bev. “Not at all,” was the reply. It was frustrating. Eric was the only person who knew Peter well and he had been our last hope of getting real concrete facts and clues about Peter’s disappearance. We hoped he would have more answers. Instead, we were no further on with our search.
We went to Glencoe the next day and walked the route Peter would have taken. The tent had been pitched at a quiet spot just off the A82 about five miles out of Glencoe village close to the Clachaig Inn, a hotel and bar popular with walkers and climbers. Having walked the terrain, we came away convinced that he had not died there. We were certain that had he fallen on the mountain or into the river, some trace of his body or clothing would have eventually been found, but there had been nothing. And as the man from the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team told me, this was the only case where they had never found a body.
Our next stop was the police archive at Fort William. But there was no record at all of Peter’s disappearance. The police log book for September 1954 listed stolen sheep, traffic accidents, drunk and disorderly conduct, but no mention of the climber who had gone missing. We wondered if we would find pages missing from the book but before we got too suspicious about the lack of documentation, the archivist explained that a lot of records were destroyed thirty years ago, and that each police officer would have kept his own individual record book. It could be that this officer had simply not kept his, and the officer in question Sergeant Cameron was long dead. Another dead end.
We were not making much progress. However, a conversation with a lady at the Glencoe Visitor Centre reminded us of the elderly brother and sister who lived near the Clachaig Inn who remembered Peter’s disappearance. I had spoken to the lady, Doris, some months before having been told by the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Centre that her brother had been part of the search. I rang her again and asked if we could visit. It was almost as though she was expecting me to call and she agreed to see us the same day.
She and her brother Walter live in a small cottage near to the Clachaig Inn. They have been there pretty much all their lives. Walter and his brother Willy were mountain men, worked the land, looked after the livestock and wildlife. The conversation with Doris and Walter turned out to be the most surprising and productive of our trip.
Walter told us that the bus used to come from Glasgow on a Friday night bringing campers and climbers to Glencoe. It dropped them off at a layby near to the Inn. The bus left from Anniesland Cross. Remember – Anniesland Cross – where Peter’s girlfriend had lived. So might Peter’s girlfriend have been a bus conductress working on the Glasgow – Glencoe route on MacBrayne’s buses?
Then Doris dropped a bombshell. She told us she had worked at the Clachaig Inn in the 1970s and that she remembered a man staying there who said he was visiting from Canada. He had come down in the morning with his wife and as he was leaving, he had told her ‘My best friend went missing round here, and nobody looked for him’. Doris had challenged him, telling him indignantly that there had been a huge search for Peter, led by her brothers, but the man had just turned on his heels and left. What did he look like, we asked? What was his name? Doris couldn’t remember.
Then we showed her some pictures of Peter. “That could be him” she laughed “That’s not unlike him”
We were stunned. Here was a completely new idea – that Peter may have staged his disappearance, then some 25 years later been unable to resist coming back to visit the scene, curious to know how much of a drama it had been at the time. As yet, we don’t know where he was visiting from in Canada, nor whether it actually was him staying at the Clachaig in the late 70s, but it means he may have had a whole life away from those who knew and loved him in the UK, may have children and grandchildren who have grown up with a man whose past they know nothing about. The story and the search continue.