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Past Times

The day Dolly disappeared: Spean Bridge neighbours recall the disappearance of Aboyne woman Penuel Sheriffs

Susy Macaulay
Penuel Sheriffs, known as Dolly, went missing from Spean Bridge in October 1958.
Penuel Sheriffs, known as Dolly, went missing from Spean Bridge in October 1958.

It happened nearly 65 years ago, but the disappearance of a young mum from Spean Bridge still haunts those who remember it.

Penuel Sheriffs, known as Dolly and originally a Lawson of Aboyne, was married with two young sons when she seemed to disappear into thin air on October 4, 1958.

She lived in the now-demolished Auchindaul Cottages, near the railway line where her husband David ‘Sandy’ Sheriffs worked as a relief signalman.

She is currently part of a North Yorkshire police cold case review with DNA taken recently from her brother Jim Lawson to see if it matches that of ‘The Nude in the Nettles’, the body of a woman with some of Dolly’s characteristics found on a Yorkshire roadside in 1981.

The only picture available of missing Penuel ‘Dolly’ Sheriffs, from an Evening Express article a few days after her disappearance.

The case has bothered retired crane operator David Sutherland for years.

He now lives in Inverness, but had relatives in the area at the time and heard a lot of the talk that went on.

He said: “The case of missing Renee MacRae 18 years later had much more attention than Penuel Sheriffs ever had.”

He has asked followers on his Fort William Memories Facebook page if they’d like to see Police Scotland carry out a cold case review.

The idea has been greeted positively, despite doubts at the length of time that has passed.

Memories from those who were there

His post prompted memories from local people who remember Dolly Sheriffs, her boys and her husband.

The Great Glen Cattle Ranch at Spean Bridge, close to where Penuel ‘Dolly’ Sheriffs went missing in October 1958. DCT

Robert ‘Bobby’ Mathers was 20 at the time, and a worker on the Great Glen Cattle Ranch close by.

He has vivid memories of that weekend, including being called out to search the following day.

He said: “I wasn’t at work the Saturday she went missing, I was probably away playing shinty.

Pouring rain

“The next day, Sunday, it was pouring but we were all sent out to see if we could find Mrs Sheriffs.

“I remember Sandy Sheriffs appeared outside his door briefly, but didn’t take part in the search.

“He didn’t look worried.

“If it was me I would have got someone to look after the children and I’d have been out there searching.”

A scene from 1978 during the long-drawn out search for the remains of Renee MacRae. Image: DCT

And Bobby remembers another curious detail about the case.

He said: “He told police he had been on night shift and gone home to bed in the morning and when he woke up she wasn’t there.

“He said he decided to take his car and drive about five miles to the Highland Line quarry to look for her, which was an absolutely funny story.

“He said he thought maybe she had walked across the moor, although how anybody would imagine that somebody would do that in the rain, and then she would have come to the Highland Line quarry and he thought if he went round there he would pick her up and take her home.”

The events fuelled local rumours and hearsay.

Bobby said: “It was just too improbable she would walk across the moor to the quarry in the rain, leaving the boys in the house.”

Joining the police and public in the search that Sunday were forestry workers, Bobby remembers.

“The forestry used to dig holes so that they’d fill with water and if there was a fire they’d have a ready supply of water.

“I can remember them with grappling irons going through the pools to see if they could grab anything, but there was nothing there.”

Detective words to bulldozer driver

A few years later, Bobby remembers the local detective, known as ‘Roddy the Tec’ speaking to a local bulldozer driver.

“He was finishing off some work levelling mounds on the cattle ranch, and Roddy told him: ‘just keep your eyes open when you’re filling these drains if you see any bones or anything’.”

Bobby says he would welcome a cold case review.

“The case seemed very quickly forgotten about by the police. We always thought Sandy knew more about it than what he said.”

Alistair’s clear memories

Alistair Macgregor of Achnabobane Farm about three miles away was eight years old at the time, and also remembers the day of Dolly’s disappearance clearly.

He said: “My older sister Anne and I had gone fishing in the burn.

“It was a terrible wet and windy day and after a bit we decided to give up and walked home.

“On the way my sister lost her rain-mate.”

Early lead

The lost hat blew around on the moor and became an early, if mistaken, lead for the police.

Alistair said: “The police spotted it and thought it belonged to Mrs Sheriffs, but it was my sister’s.

“Contrary to what some say, the police conducted a huge search at the time.

“I remember them going through our farm all the way to Achindaul.”

Aggressive nature

Alistair also remembers the rumours flying about, the common theme being Sandy Sheriff’s aggressive nature.

“People said he was cruel to her,” he said. “A cold case review is a great idea if they have the resources. It’s a Renee [MacRae] that hasn’t had the publicity.”

A scene at the Incident Room at Inverness HQ during the hunt for missing  Renee MacRae and her son in November 1976. Image: DCT

The incident caused shock and concern in the nearby tight-knit community of Torlundy, about three miles away.

Margaret Clark was around 10 years old at the time of the disappearance, and remembers the shock waves.

It was customary among local people, including Dolly, to get the 2pm bus into Fort William every Saturday, so when Dolly wasn’t on it on October 4, 1958, she was immediately missed.

Margaret said: “I would see her on the bus with her boys, chatting away together, the three of them on one seat.

‘Lovely woman’

“I thought she was a lovely woman, and I always sat near her because she always spoke to me.

“I remember she had dark hair and wore a hat.

“People found it strange and unusual that she wasn’t on the bus that day.

“Her disappearance was the talk of the community for months, a big thing in Torlundy.

“It was very sad.”

Every man out looking

Margaret recalled that nearly every man in Torlundy went out looking for Mrs Sheriffs, including her own father.

She said: “It was considered strange she never took her boys with her.”

Margaret added that while she had a liking for Mrs Sheriffs, she couldn’t say the same about her husband.

She said: “He was a strange character, as children we steered clear of him.”

Ewena McCabe was born a couple of years after the disappearance, but remembers her mother talking about it often.

Sad son

She said: “I used to get the school bus with one of the sons and he always looked sad, and I used to wonder if he missed his mum.

“He was older than me so I never actually spoke to him.”

Ewena’s family moved to Spean Bridge in 1958.

She said: “My mother did talk about two letters having been delivered on the same day just before Mrs Sheriffs went missing, but only one was found afterwards.

“My mother wrote a lot of letters which the postman picked up from the kitchen, so we think this is how she heard this.

“My sister remembers being in the car with our father as a child and if they passed the husband, our dad would say, ‘there’s Sheriffs’ in a way which made her sense all was not right, he was someone to be wary of.

A solitary figure

“He was a solitary figure and carried a haversack with his piece in it.

“The feeling was the wife suffered.”

In another mystery, there appears to be no missing persons case pertaining to Dolly Sheriffs registered with the police.

Police Scotland officers have at the P&J’s request been searching the archives for one and drawn a blank.

No missing person file

A police spokeswoman said that without a missing person file, and now facing a dead end, the only course of action to get a cold case review would be for Dolly’s family to register her as missing now, and it could be looked into.

She added: “Given the passage of  time it would be difficult and need a significant amount of information and evidence.”

North Yorkshire police’s reconstructed face of an unidentified murder victim found in North Yorkshire in 1981. She has some of Dolly Sheriff’s characteristics, so DNA has been taken from Dolly’s brother, currently being processed.

Dolly’s younger brother, Jim Lawson is waiting anxiously for the results of the DNA swab he gave to North Yorkshire police.

He said he’s pinning more hope on the DNA results.

He said: “It’ll be interesting to see what comes up in the DNA tests, it’ll give us a better answer.

“If it’s her, case closed.”

Retired crane driver David Sutherland who is seeking answers in the case of missing Dolly Sheriffs.  Image: David Sutherland.

Meanwhile David Sutherland said it was important to keep Penuel Sheriffs memory alive.

“In the Renee MacRae inquiry police kept at it.

“Every few years, with the help of the media, people were reminded and came forward with snippets until justice 46 years later was seen to be done.

“Local people knew who was the guilty party all along.”