It’s easy to walk the length of Buchanan Street, Glasgow, and not fully acknowledge a single passing figure. Do we even take a glance at a face, hairstyle or attire, the label on the bag or the brand of trainers? Yet one of these blurred, almost invisible, entities could be one of the 30,000 people who go missing in Scotland each year.
Janet McQueen, 58, is one of these people. Described by Police Scotland as 'white, 5ft tall, of slim build with short black hair', she simply disappeared at around 10pm on 18 October 2016.
She had a daily routine: she left her house most mornings and got a bus to Shawlands – the Sir John Maxwell Wetherspoons’s pub – for a cup of tea and cake. Afterwards she often picked up prescriptions from the chemist and was seen in the James Tassie bar, not far from her home in Govanhill. On the day she disappeared she seemed to be distressed while on a bus in the afternoon. The bus driver contacted the police and she was taken home. She assured them that she would be visiting family at around 9pm that evening. She didn't. When she left her house at 10pm, she didn’t take her mobile phone or any money, and left her mini Yorkshire terrier – Palsy – in the house alone.
Police Scotland have interviewed more than 1,000 people and searched 610 common closes and several back courts. Despite trawling through 300 hours of CCTV footage, they have found no sightings of Janet. Two ponds in the local Queen’s Park have also been searched without result. Her sister Fiona remarked: 'It’s so out of character for her to disappear – she wouldn’t put the family through this'. Almost four months on, we are no closer to knowing.
Equally baffling are the cases of Peter Edwards and Shaun Ritchie. Peter, a 65-year-old pastor from Perthshire, was last spotted in Stonehaven – a place he isn’t thought to have known well – on 1 November last year. Originally from New York, he came to Scotland to work with the Perth Christian Fellowship. His nephew, who lives in Canada, made a Reddit post online which appealed for help and stated that his uncle had shaky hands due to an illness.
In 2014, 20-year-old Shaun Ritchie bundled into a van with several friends to go to a Halloween party at a farmhouse in rural Aberdeenshire. During the party something happened which caused his group of friends to split in two and run off into the wild. Shaun wasn't in either group, all of whom got home that night. He hasn't been seen since. Despite extensive police searches using high-tech radar equipment through nearby boggy land where his shoes were found, Shaun has simply disappeared. What exactly happened that night? Shaun was promised a job in the oil industry near to his home in Fraserburgh and is described by his dad as a typical young lad who was funny and enjoyed music. Could he be one of the 1% of missing people who are found dead?
So what does 'missing person' actually mean? The nationally accepted definition is 'anyone whose whereabouts are unknown and where the circumstances are out of character; or the context suggests the person may be subject to crime; or the person is at risk of harm to themselves or another'.
When a person goes missing in Scotland, the police are obliged to start an investigation at once. This involves an interview with family and friends to obtain information, followed by a risk assessment of the individual. Items which are taken into consideration include the missing person’s age, vulnerability in terms of behaviour, general and mental health, personal relationships, and routine. There is no clean-cut case – everyone has a different story, whether it be involved with depression, domestic violence, grief, loneliness, dementia, not being able to cope with financial difficulty and so on.
Of the 30,000 people who go missing in Scotland, around two-thirds are children and young people, most of whom return safely within 24 hours. But what of those cases which sprawl over years?
On 23 April 1976 a three-year-old boy – Sandy Davidson – was playing in his grandparents' garden in Irvine. He had the company of his younger sister and the family dog. The garden gate is believed to have been opened allowing the dog to run out, followed by Sandy. One theory is that the boy ran after the dog to a nearby river and drowned, and that his body was then carried off down river. But little legs can surely take you only so far without someone spotting you – especially in a residential area like Bourtreehill, Irvine. Police Scotland recently released an age progression image of what Sandy might look like now – at the age of 44.
Family and friends of a missing person endure unbearable and ongoing torment: 'where is he/she?'; 'what did I do?'; 'could I have done something?'. For every person who goes missing, around 20 people are immediately affected one way or another.
So what happened to Janet, Peter, Shaun and Sandy? Were they abducted or murdered? Or have they started a new life somewhere? Organisations such as Missing People provide detailed information. They also look for volunteers all over the UK. But the sad truth is that some missing people don't want to be found.
One thing is abundantly important: we should know their stories and not forget about them. The missing matter. They are just like us after all: people with lives; people with stories.