Anyone who has ever renovated an old house knows it involves a bit of archaeology. Who installed this ceiling fan? Why are the walls insulated but not the ceiling? What lunatic placed a light switch inside the shower? Old houses are a grab-bag of choices made by previous owners, some perplexing, others delightful.
Clarke Elsby knows this well–he directs a team of technicians for Richardson & Starling contractors in Dumfries, Scotland.
But imagine Clarke’s surprise when one of his workers, Kris McChesney, pulled out an old fireplace from a listed house in Lover’s Walk, Dumfries, and discovered a perfectly preserved letter in a bottle from 1982 behind the fireplace!
Often, when people seal messages in bottles within walls and floors and ceilings and whatnot, they leave only the simplest of messages–just a name and date. One such discovery recently took place also in Scotland, in Edinburgh, when a 90 year old man was “reunited” with his father via an 83 year old message in a bottle discovered in the walls of a 1930s building (that story here). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Scotland is a beautiful land, full of surprises.
For example, just a 10 minute walk from the Kirkpatrick’s house in Dumfries is this house, where Robert Burns spent the final years of his life:
But, back to the story at hand…
“We all thought it was simply a forgotten wine bottle that was disposed of many years before,” Clarke told me, speaking of the moment of discovery. “Kris passed the bottle to me, at which point we saw a piece of paper rolled up inside! We couldn’t get it out and I was concerned we may damage the paper so I used a long screwdriver to pop the bottom of the bottle off and the note fell out intact. There was an excited atmosphere in the room,” Clark said.
When the paper came out of the bottle, the Richardson & Sterling crew were delighted to find a detailed, thoughtful, fascinating message. “We were all in awe after I read the note out aloud,” he said.
The crew was a bit overwhelmed by the note at first, but immediately felt a sense of urgency–a need to trace the note to its origins. Who was J. Kirkpatrick? Was he even still alive?
Clarke took to the web to seek out Mr. Kirkpatrick and any family he may have. It wasn’t long before he found Kirkpatrick’s daughters on Facebook.
“Of course they thought it was some kind of prank,” Clarke said of his initial attempts to contact Karen and Linda. “It was difficult tracking them down as one of them was married,” Clarke explained. “I tracked their cousin down on a Facebook page called ‘Old Dumfries’. They were somewhat overwhelmed–especially Karen Kirkpatrick. They were both extremely thankful and said many a person would have disposed of the letter. The strange thing is my wife to be is called Karyn and my mother is called Linda just like the daughters. My mother’s maiden name is also Clarke like one of the sisters’ new maiden name. That’s where I got my name!”
Mr. Kirkpatrick’s daughter Linda told Scottish Construction Now: “Richardson and Starling made great efforts to contact us through social media and, at first, we thought it was a wind up. But when we read the letter it was so emotional for us both.”
Linda’s sister, Karen, spoke to the Scottish Daily Record about Clarke’s team’s discovery. “My phone was going off all the time and when I finally answered my friend asked if I had seen Old Dumfries Facebook page,” Karen said. “I went on straight away and I just broke down when I saw the letter. I was in bits. I knew the letters were there and I remembered. My dad renovated it over the 30 years he was there and every time he would write these notes with what was happening in the world and hide them in bottles wherever he was working. I know that there will be so many more. It is sad because my parents aren’t here to see it. They would have loved this.”
Sadly, according to the Scottish Daily Record, “Jim passed away after a long battle with dementia in 2004 while mum Martha passed away last year”. As many know, losing a parent to dementia is like losing them twice–once to the disease and then again at death. For Karen and Linda, receiving this note must have been like not only reconnecting with their father, but with their true father, as he was before dementia.
“I enjoyed every moment,” Clarke told me via email after he had gotten to meet Karen and Linda and deliver their dad’s note. “It was lovely to be in the fortunate position to provide the daughters with information passed on by their late father. The daughters were extremely thankful, however, I did continuously remind them that I really hadn’t done much, and that anyone else would have done the same. ”
Maaaaybe, Clarke, maybe–but I’m afraid some people would keep the note to themselves, not wanting to share something that is obviously a treasure. To me, Clarke’s work in tracking down the daughters and delivering the note speaks of a good heart and the exact sort of kindness that represents the best of Scotland and, really, humanity.
Clarke’s story and Mr. Kirkpatrick’s bottle got me thinking–Clarke’s crew must often have the chance to hide messages in bottles in buildings they work on. I had to know if they did that kind of thing!
“We do have many opportunities to hide bottles,” Clarke told me, “However, I’m not sure hiding messages in our clients’ walls would go down particularly well (haha).”
So…not a flat out “no,” right?!
Perhaps just to keep the mystery alive, Clarke ended his email to me with an enigmatic statement.
“I, however, may have already hidden a bottle,” he said. “Watch this space!”
Oh I’ll be watching, Clarke! Maybe when I’m 93 and still blogging about this stuff, someone will drop me a line to say they have discovered your hidden message in a bottle. If that happens, I’ll post it here 🙂