Update, 2018-10-10: there has been a great discussion over in a thread I stated on reddit. Thanks to the visitors from reddit, and for the great discussion there!
Just over a year ago on 29th September 2017, Tony Parsons, a 63 year old former navy officer, undertook a cycle trip intending to travel 170 km from Fort William in the Scottish Highlands back to his home in Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, in aid of charity. This is a big undertaking for all but the fittest cyclists, not just in distance but also in elevation, let alone a 63 year old not in great shape. To complicate matters, Parsons started his journey after 4pm with sunset due only a few hours later.
The most obvious route to take between the two points is through the Trossachs via Crianlarich and Callander, which involves uphill climbs totalling around 1,240 m, or around 100 m short of the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Google Maps predicts the trip to take around 9 hours 55 minutes without stops, which implies an average speed of around 17.3 km/h.
Parsons never made it home, and was reported missing a few days later. At the time of writing, Parsons' whereabouts is still a mystery. The police have reportedly conducted numerous searches of the roads near to where he was last seen and where he was planning to go, and the summer has come and gone and no walkers or drivers have spotted his remains or bicycle should he have died somewhere along the way.
This case interests me because it is occurred in a part of Scotland I regularly visit because my family owns a cottage in the area. I am also a cyclist, and have cycled in the area, including once at night, on the same road he planned to take. Having read the inspirational sleuth work by Tom Mahood such as his "The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans", I thought I would attempt to piece together all that is known about Parsons' journey to see if anything stands out. Here we go.
The primary source of information in this case is Police Scotland's missing persons page for Tony Parsons. In combination with various BBC articles summarising the reports but also adding information on Parsons and his background, I have come up with the following timeline:
- 2017-09-29 09:30: Parsons leaves house in Tillicoultry and catches a train to Fort William, presumably via Stirling and Glasgow.
- 2017-09-29 16:10: Parsons' train arrives in Fort William and he reputedly departs on his trip immediately.
- 2017-09-29 18:00: Parsons is recorded on CCTV passing the Claymore Filling Station in Glencoe village, approximately 26 km from Fort William.
- 2017-09-29 18:58: sunset occurs in this part of the country.
- 2017-09-29 23:30: Parsons is sighted at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, around 39 km from Claymore Filling Station, and leaves south towards Tyndrum.
- 2017-09-29, after 23:30: an unconfirmed sighting of Parsons is made by a lorry driver around half a mile south of Bridge of Orchy.
- 2017-10-03: Parsons is reported missing by the police and enquiries and search efforts begin.
Here is additional information I have gathered given the information in the news and police reports.
Travel to Fort William
The West Highland Line to Fort William is a scenic but low traffic, single track train line. On Fridays like the 29th September 2017, there are four trains per day: the 05:48 sleeper service (arriving 09:57) and the 08:21 (arriving 12:09), 12:21 (arriving 16:09) and 18:21 (arriving 22:09) standard services. The only train Parsons could have taken would be the 12:21 arriving 16:09, which fits with the departure time from Fort William stated by the BBC News as 16:10.
It's unclear how exactly Parsons got to Glasgow to catch the 12:21 train, but having left home at 09:30 there would be plenty of time to cycle to Stirling (just over 1 hour from Tillicoultry) or take a bus willing to transport the bike (around 30 minutes), then catch one of the regular trains to Glasgow (every half hour, taking around 40 minutes).
The train journey to Fort William takes around 3 hours 30 minutes.
CCTV footage of Parsons at Fort William station has been released, showing him arriving around the time the 16:09 train should have arrived. According to the BBC, he was wearing "a blue, long-sleeved cycling top, a high-viz vest, fingerless gloves, beige combat trousers, a silver and grey cycling helmet and walking boots."
The route south of Fort William is a single carriageway parallel to a combined pedestrian and cycle path in places, allowing the cyclist to travel separately from the rest of the traffic. It is almost certain Parsons took this road, because he was later spotted at a petrol station on the route.
Claymore Filling Station
This video released by Police Scotland shows Parsons cycling past Claymore filling station at around 18:00, or about 1 hour 50 minutes after leaving Fort William. This puts his average speed at around 14.1 km/h, which is pretty good for a 63 year old on what looks like a mountain bike.
The timestamp on the video shows him travelling the length of the road in about 11 s. I estimated the distance in Google Earth to be around 37 m, giving him a speed of around 3.4 m/s or 12.1 km/h - still good, especially as this appears to be a slightly inclined surface on the way up to Glencoe valley.
Road to Bridge of Orchy
From the petrol station the only tarmac road to Bridge of Orchy is the A82 through Glencoe, a valley climbing through mountains from around sea level to 360 m over about 20 km - a gradient of about 5%. With a reasonably heavy mountain bike, with thick tyres, and being relatively overweight, the work required for Parsons to go uphill would have been much higher than on the relatively level road up until that point - I would guess somewhere in the ballpark of four times more to maintain a similar speed to the flat parts of the route. Presuming that Parsons did not suddenly boost his power output by four times to sustain his prior speed, he probably dropped to a quarter of his previous speed in this section of climbs.
Parsons was next spotted in Bridge of Orchy, 39 km away from the petrol station, at 23:30, a full five-and-a-half hours later. It is likely he struggled with the hills in Glencoe, and may have been running low on energy having already cycled 50-60 km. He may have walked his bike up some of the more challenging hills, explaining a huge drop in average speed to around 7 km/h.
From Bridge of Orchy
Parsons was seen in Bridge of Orchy at the hotel, where he may have stopped to enquire about accommodation or ask for directions and/or refreshments. He was seen departing south along the A82 towards Tyndrum. This was his last confirmed sighting.
According to the BBC News article regarding the police appeal made on the one year anniversary of his disappearance, there was an additional, but unconfirmed sighting of Parsons by a lorry driver on the road approximately 0.5 miles south of Bridge of Orchy. This is the route someone would take if they were leaving Bridge of Orchy towards Tyndrum. Of note is that 0.5 miles south of Bridge of Orchy one passes a junction towards Glen Orchy: a winding, single track road through forest to the west, in the wrong direction for Parsons. The sign does not suggest this route goes anywhere close to Tyndrum or the south.
The next town on the road Parsons was reportedly travelling is Tyndrum, about 10 km away. There are two routes to get there from Bridge of Orchy: by the A82 he had reportedly left Bridge of Orchy on, or by the West Highland Way. The A82 is of course paved and reasonably busy, at least during the day. The West Highland Way is not paved but this particular section is certainly cyclable; indeed, I have cycled it by mountain bike and it would be easy for even an unfit individual. The way goes parallel to the A82, above the road but displaced from it by 500-700 metres. While this particular route to Tyndrum is not advertised on road signs heading into Bridge of Orchy, it is possible that a mapping program suggested this route instead of the main road as it is definitely quieter. The West Highland Way route goes roughly parallel to the A82 for around 4 km until it skirts to the east at Auch and crosses a bridge before rejoining the road at the top of a hill above Tyndrum.
If Parsons was still following the route home by this point, he would have passed through Tyndrum. Unfortunately, despite the presence of a few CCTV cameras in Tyndrum potentially recording him passing the village on the A82, the police have made no mention of any such evidence. It is possible that he was not seen on CCTV due to the darkness, or field of view of the cameras, or if he passed through Tyndrum on the West Highland Way, which avoids the road and probably also its cameras.
It seems likely that Parsons died somewhere on his route after leaving Bridge of Orchy. Given that neither a body nor the bike has yet been discovered despite extensive search, I suspect that he died in a secluded place: either one which is far from pedestrians who would likely discover remains (such as hill walkers and those travelling the busy West Highland Way in summer), or near to the rural parts of the A82 in a place where traffic is unlikely to stop.
Other possibilities exist of course, such as intentional disappearance, suicide or a hit-and-run attack, but I feel these are less likely for various reasons. Parsons had discussed this trip with friends and family, and was doing it for charity. If he wanted to disappear, he wouldn't have told people where and when he was going. Suicide is also unlikely given that Parsons' train journey took him past Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy towards Fort William: why would he cycle back the way he came if he had intended to go somewhere south to take his life?
An incident with a car or lorry is more likely, but the roads we know Parsons took and likely intended to take were reasonably well trafficked even at night and I find it unlikely first of all that someone would do such a thing (accidentally hitting a cyclist on a dark, single carriageway in a rural location late at night will probably not lead to a big punishment), but also that there would be enough time to either hide the body and bike or pack it into a vehicle before another motorist passes. Furthermore, most drivers on these roads do not travel at full speed. The road has frequent bends, dips and runs close to bodies of water and hill edges; getting discovered and getting medical treatment after an accident out there will take a long time. Most sane drivers drive cautiously and with high beams engaged in the pitch black of the Highlands. It is likely that they would have seen Parsons in his high-visibility vest.
September 29th was after the main tourist season in Scotland, but the roads would still have been busy on a Friday with tourists heading north for the weekend. I have cycled in the area around this time of year and there is plenty of traffic even in the evening. Sunset on the 29th was at 18:58, so Parsons would have spent the majority of his ride in darkness; and it really gets dark in the Highlands: the rural roads are not lit, and houses are very sparse. Only the Moon provides some light which, on the 29th, was about two-thirds full, perhaps giving enough light to see silhouettes of trees and mountains against the sky, but not much more.
My family has a cottage in the area, in which I have set up a webcam for monitoring the weather. The timelapse from that day shows the conditions: grey, overcast, drizzly. In particular, raindrops appear on the fence from 16:00 in the video, and last until darkness falls around 18:30. Note that the camera is not sensitive enough to see in low light. Also note that the timestamp on the video shows UTC time, so local time is one hour ahead.
Parsons was wearing walking boots and had brought a rain jacket, which I think suggests he was at least prepared for rain, but his bicycle was improperly adjusted for his height and appeared to be a mountain bike, which would have added to the effort required to cycle long distances on tarmac.
With a plan to travel 170 km starting from 16:00 at the end of September, even travelling by car one would finish around an hour after sunset. The camera footage of Parsons is not clear enough to tell whether he brought bike lights, but I expect that he will have done so: without lights, it would have been almost impossible to see even the road directly in front of you, let alone for motorists to see you. Furthermore, a cyclist without lights in such a secluded but busy road would surely have been reported to the police.
In fact, I find the lack of motorist witnesses curious. Given the man's age, apparent fitness, and the strangeness of his presence as a cyclist on the dark roads late at night, this must have stuck in peoples' minds.
The police releases state Parsons was witnessed heading south out of Bridge of Orchy, which suggests he did not take the West Highland Way route towards Tyndrum. This route involves turning off the A82 just before reaching the hotel, heading away from the main road up a hill, and the sign on the road states only that the route leads to the train station and suggests nothing about a route to Tyndrum nor the West Highland Way. However, Parsons might have researched the route and planned to take the relatively well paved West Highland Way to Tyndrum this way, given that it is quieter than the main road and roughly the same distance. He may have first decided to try his luck at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel for perhaps a bed, a couch or a cup of coffee.
If he did take the West Highland Way, there is a chance he stayed on the way too long and missed the turn-off towards Tyndrum, near Auch. This would take you further into a valley between the hills of Beinn nam Fuaran and Beinn Dorain, and it would be a very long way until any civilisation would be encountered again. I think it is unlikely that he would have intentionally gone to the West Highland Way but unintentially continued too far on it; furthermore, the sound of the sparse traffic from the A82 would get quieter and tell you something was up.
Assuming he did take the A82 south from Bridge of Orchy, he would have passed a turn-off after about 1 km towards Glen Orchy. This is a single-track road to the west, and the sign on the road only states Glen Orchy and no further destination. Standing at the junction, it is not possible to see any lights that might indicate a house or shelter along this road. I find it unlikely that Parsons took this route.
Before arriving at Tyndrum, there is a junction on the main road turning towards Oban, to the west. This is well lit and signposted, and nothing on the signs would mislead Parsons into thinking it was the way to go. Furthermore it is possible to see the lights of Tyndrum at this point, and the appeal of civilisation and potentially the warmth of a hotel or hostel must have been great.
Parsons might have thought to catch a train along the way, but the last train south from Fort William would have been the Caledonian sleeper service at Bridge of Orchy at 21:35 - with the last regular service having departed at 18:58. With only 16 and 34 minutes to the stops at Tyndrum and Crianlarich, by the time Parsons got to Bridge of Orchy the trains were long gone.
I expect that the police have information that I do not, and have considered these possibilities. However, this is an intriguing mystery that I want to try to wrap my head around. I hope Tony Parsons is found alive and well, but it seems unlikely at this point that he will be.
None of the potential diversions Tony might have taken make sense to someone cycling the route, and I suspect that if Parsons had taken one of them and met his end, he would have since been discovered by a walker in the past year. Given that he has not yet been found, I suspect he met his end in a remote area near the A82 but far from pedestrian routes. There are some potential spots on the way to Tyndrum, but I am sure these will have been thoroughly searched in the days after the disappearance.
What remains seems less likely: he may have been mistakenly identified as having passed Bridge of Orchy, and instead veered off course anywhere between the petrol station, Glencoe and Bridge of Orchy. There are plenty of places where someone could meet their end and not be discovered for a very long time, including lochs and rivers.
Given that he started so late, and at the start of a weekend, I suspect that Parsons planned to stop somewhere on the route, but on the day didn't make good enough progress to get there. Judging from the small backpack he took, he probably did not bring any more warm clothes or bivouac suitable for sleeping outdoors. If he did stop somewhere outside, it is possible that he was exhausted enough to die from hypothermia.
That he did not stay in Bridge of Orchy at the hotel is a curiosity. He may have been trying to push on to Crianlarich, about 18 km south of Bridge of Orchy, to the hotel and hostels there. However, it seems likely that the hotel would have offered at least a couch in the bar for the night, even if their rooms were booked up.
The possibility remains that he made it past Tyndrum without being seen on CCTV. If that is the case, there are countless other places he could have died on the remaining 100 km to Tillicoultry. I suspect though that someone would have spotted the unusual sight of a 63 year old cycling in the early hours of the morning that we would have heard from more witnesses.
The case seems to remain open. I hope Tony is found, and his family are given some closure.