David John Phillips was stationed in Orkney, a group of islands off the northern coast of Scotland, during World War I. He fell in love with a local lass named Catherine Isabella Coghill Johnston and brought her home to Wales as his wife after the war.
Catherine’s family lived on Bridge Street in Kirkwall, which is where the letter was discovered behind a fireplace in 1980. An article in Wales Online states: “It is thought the envelope may have been propped up on the mantelpiece ready for posting but slipped down the back unnoticed.” No one indicated why it took another 33 years for someone to give the letter to the Orkney Library, which launched the search for David’s descendants.
They found his granddaughter, Mary Hodge, who said, “It’s overwhelming to have a little piece of my beloved grandfather, after all this time.” David signed the letter to his parents Your Blue Jacket Boy and referenced sending them a handkerchief decorated with a picture of a sailor. Did he also mention Catherine, the girl he knew well enough to leave a letter for the post propped above her fireplace?
The least surprising aspect of this story is that it happened on Orkney, a magical landscape dotted with stone circles, neolithic settlements and heather, all framed by sea and sky. When I visited the 4000-year-old Ring of Brodgar—a circle of standing stones less than 10 miles from Kirkwall—I found a message of Viking twig runes carved into one of the monoliths. My father’s family came from Sweden so I could be a descendent of the traveler who left that note a millennium ago, a letter still “propped” on a lichen-covered mantlepiece.