Now, the extraordinary life story of Francis Metcalfe, a Scottish soldier who served in World War One before embarking on a series of high-risk and often criminal exploits as he sought to rebuild his life and finances, is being told in a new book, The Nearly Man, by Mark Bridgeman.
Metcalfe’s dizzying story travels from the trenches of the Somme to a war mission in the Arctic Circle, where he befriended explorer Ernest Shackleton, to a farm in 1920s Ireland where he was shot at by the IRA.
He goes on the run to the South of France after money goes missing from Menzies Castle in Perthshire, where he was employed as a factor, with Metcalfe slipping away to Marseilles.
His disappearance sparked the first national manhunt to be broadcast on BBC Radio and ended with his arrest in a Paris hotel and six -weeks confinement in the city’s La Santé Prison as he awaited extradition back to Scotland, where the case was not proven against him although he went on to commit several frauds, including against his own family.
But despite it all, the story of Francis Metcalfe remains largely unknown.
Mr Bridgeman, of Aberfeldy, first came across Metcalfe when writing his first book, River Runs Red, which documented Perthshire’s crooks and dark deeds through time. The author found himself pulled into Metcalfe’s almost unbelievable world as he tracked the Scot’s adventures – and misadventures – across several continents.
Mr Bridgeman said: “What drew me to write about him is that biographies and books like this tend to be about people who are very successful or have an amazing talent, or a kind of supernatural ability.
“I found this guy refreshingly ordinary. Most of us could have been this person. He was this ordinary guy who lived this incredible life.
“If we had lived when he lived, would we have made the same decisions as Metcalfe did?
“He was nearly a successful criminal, but he wasn’t. He was nearly a war hero, but not quite. He was nearly a great adventurer, but he wasn't. My mission is to make him not nearly famous, but really famous.”
Born in Banchory in 1893, Metcalfe joined the South Lancashire Regiment aged 21. Two years later, he was gassed at Ypres and then survived The Somme, where he met writer John Tolkien in the trenches.
By 1918, Metcalfe was in the Arctic Circle after volunteering for the North Russian Expeditionary Force to fight the Bolsheviks. He escaped death several times, suffered mental fatigue and deep pains in his chest before catching Spanish Flu and spending weeks in recovery on a hospital ship.
Docking in Leith in 1919, he chose not to return home to the North East but instead headed for London, where he lived well in hotels on military back pay before moving to Essex. He left in haste with unpaid lodgings and went to County Galway for work, his life taking another dangerous turn as he sought to get on track. But that never quite happened for The Nearly Man.
The Nearly Man, by Mark Bridgeman, is published on Thursday and is available to pre-order now.