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Past Times

Can you help Mariana from Brazil find her mum’s Nairn penpal?

Mariana's mum Claudia corresponded with Donald Finlayson of Queenspark, Nairn in 1959/60. reports.
Susy Macaulay
Brazilian academic and florist Mariana Menezes (centre) is trying to trace Donald Finlayson (left) from Nairn who corresponded with her mother Claudia (right) in 1959/60 when they were teenagers.  Image: DCT Design/Mariana Menezes/John Wilkie.
Brazilian academic and florist Mariana Menezes (centre) is trying to trace Donald Finlayson (left) from Nairn who corresponded with her mother Claudia (right) in 1959/60 when they were teenagers. Image: DCT Design/Mariana Menezes/John Wilkie.

From the other side of the world, a Brazilian florist is trying to track down her late mother’s Nairn penpal.

Mariana Menezes, from São Paulo, found letters from a young Nairn lad by the name of Donald Finlayson among her mother Claudia’s possessions after she died.

Donald and Claudia Sá Rego Ribeiro de Menezes, then living in Petrópolis, were 13 when they started to correspond in 1959.

It was common in the days pre-internet for schools to have a penpal programme, although we don’t know if this is how Donald and Claudia found each other.

Mariana got in touch with the P&J to see if we could help her track Donald down.

Donald Finlayson who corresponded with Claudia Menezes from Brazil in the 1950s and 60s. Pictured here in the garden of his home at 32 John Street Nairn.  Image: Mariana Menezes

Fortunately his letters reveal quite a lot about his family and life at that time, so we’re hoping our readers might be able to help.

Donald’s birthday was May 18, as he reveals in his first letter to Claudia, dated June 23, 1959.

He gives his address as 32 John Street, Queenspark, Nairn.

Delightful letters

His delightful letters have somewhat erratic punctuation, which we haven’t changed.

He writes of his family: “I have two sisters and on brother, all older than me.  Their names are Isabel Ena and John. My brother John is in the Royal Air Force and comes home 5-6 times a year, my sister Ena is married and lives in the outskirts of Nairn, my other sister is a district nurse and she also comes home 5-6 times a year.”

The letter also reveals Donald had a Pekingese dog, Fugee, who was ten years old and only had one eye.

Claudia at the carnival in Petropolis in the 1950s.  Image: Mariana Menezes .

He tells Claudia about his hobbies: “I have many hobbies, the ones I like best are swimming for we are near the sea, and a new swimming pool has just been reopened just lately.

Donald’s hobbies show a glimpse of life in Nairn, 1959

“Stamp collecting is another I have a stamp album and quite a lot of stamps, football, I have seen Brazil play England on the television you have a marvellous team, I also collect records as we have record player in the house, I am quite fond of nature, I also like camping and go for long hikes or walks.”

He also tells Claudia he is in first year at Nairn Academy, “and there I am taught English, Art, Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Geography, Technical History Science, Music and Athletics.”

Claudia at her college graduation in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. Image: Mariana Menezes

There are many intriguing glimpses of social history in Donald’s letters to Claudia.

Message boy job for Nairn youngster

The following month he told her: “I have been very busy lately as I have had a job as a message boy since the school got its holiday a few weeks ago.

“Nairn has a lot of holiday people from the cities just now and our Home Holiday week began last Wednesday when we had a show of people dressed up in funny clothes and a man crowned our Queen.”

Coming from Brazil, Claudia would have recognised all the signs of a carnival with any luck.

Musical taste

In the next letter, Donald reveals his musical taste: “Last week I bought some records with the money I earn for working every day after school. I bought ‘I am going to get married’ by Three Bells by the Browns and Peggy Sue got married by the late Buddy Holly, they are very good.”

Claudia in the 1970s. Image: Mariana Menezes.

We learn more about Donald’s relationship with his brother John the following year.

Donald wrote to Claudia: “So glad to have heard from you, my brother has just gone back to the RAF as he has been here a week.

Donald at the fair in Inverness

“I had lots of fun, we went to Inverness which is a nearby town, it had a lot of amusements, dodgems, waltzers, slot machines and shooting stalls.

“My brother won two poodles at the shooting but I’m afraid I wasn’t much use, but I won a jam dish at a stall where you pick out the names of film stars and if you get the right one you get a prize.”

Strange prizes to modern eyes, one can only hope the poodles weren’t real and Donald’s mum was chuffed with the jam dish.

Donald’s Highland granny

Next we learn a little about Donald’s Highland granny.

“I have been away on my holidays. Did you go on holiday at Easter. I went to my Grannies at a small country village which I like very much, it is away up in the ‘Highlands’ (where ancient houses are).

“I enjoyed myself very much searching for old pieces of pottery or weapons. When I came home I went a picnic with a friend of mine, to another old place nearby, it is an old castle with two huge towers and three walls still standing we climb up the walls pretending to be enemy capturing the castle. Have you any old places like that?”

Later that summer Donald tells Claudia he has been on holiday at Loch Ness.

Longing for her photo

Charmingly, he precedes this letter with: “I hope you got my photo I am longing for yours.”

He sends her some photos of Loch Ness, “where I went for my holidays with my tent and another boy, for a week, we enjoyed ourselfs very much going hikes and sleeping by the huge loch running through Inverness-shire. We camped at a small village called Dores a few miles away from Foyers on the postcard.”

Can you help Mariana and track down Donald?

Mariana was heartbroken after the death of her mother during the pandemic and would be overjoyed to trace Donald or members of his family, and perhaps even discover the other side of the correspondence, Claudia’s letters to Donald.

Claudia, pictured here in the 1990s, worked as an anthropologist with indigenous people in Brazil.  Image: Mariana Menezes

She said: “My mother was a very interesting character, she was an anthropologist committed to the cause of preserving the rights of indigenous people from Brazil, especially with the group Xavante, where she researched for her PhD.

“During the 1980s she became director for the Native People Museum at Rio de Janeiro, called Museu do Índio.

Claudia worked with many native tribes

“During this time she was able to expand her activities and encompass many native groups from Brazil.

“She also worked with the Aboriginal people from Australia and with the Lummi group from the United States.”

Claudia in 2010. Image: Mariana Menezes

Claudia loved to travel, and took Mariana with her at every opportunity.

Huge inspiration and a love of Scotland

Mariana says her mother was a huge inspiration to her.

“I ended up studying social sciences because of her, which in Brazil includes anthropology, sociology and political science.

“She loved Scotland and had the opportunity to visit the country.

“Many years later I became a huge fan as well and recently started studying Scottish Gaelic but I’m on beginner’s level.

“I’m totally in love with the language although I find it very challenging.”

Mariana works as a florist at weekends. Image: Mariana Menezes

Mariana works as a researcher during the week, and as a florist at weekends.

She added: ” I have some books on Scottish flowers and am at awe at its wild beauty.

“I also read and reread The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, and her poetic and yet raw perception of the relationship with Cairngorms.”

Can you help Mariana in her quest?

If you can help trace Donald Finlayson or members of his family, please email us at

And if you have your own penpal story, please feel free to write to us about it here.

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