John Archibald’s account of a spectacular fund-raising hike, with a group of Gurkhas, coast-to-coast across the Scottish Highlands continues.
Part 6 – Commando Country (contd)
The road wound its single track way along the side of the loch, bound on both sides by lichen covered drystane dykes. To the right lay occasional small, grass covered flatlands, some with deserted caravans or small huts, and beyond that the shingle of the lochside. We had entered a small forest of moss-clad birch trees and on the left, in a makeshift lay-by were some construction vehicles and three sturdy looking workers from the local council.
All were wearing midge nets in the still gloom. Can you imagine having to put in a hard day’s manual toil, stationary in one spot, while a monstrous regiment of insect-women devour you, mouthful by tiny mouthful, prior to making you surrogate father to innumerable insect-babies? I’ll bet that wasn’t on their Lochaber Council job description.
A gentle drizzle began to fall as we continued down the road, up and down, left and right. It wasn’t a particularly interesting section of the walk, although the open views across to a shrouded Ben Neviswere pleasant enough. Neither was it hard work. The metalled road however was hard on our tired feet. It was just a question of ticking off yet another of the 22 miles from Strathan to Spean Bridge, one at a time. At an average 3 miles an hour plus pit stops I estimated we would easily reach the Commando memorial by about 5.00pm, which was when we were scheduled to rendezvous with a reporter and photographer from the Sunday Times, courtesy of Temple.
Each person retreated into his own little world, hidden from view by the mosquito nets. There is something meditative about long distance walking. After several hours a gentle rhythm is reached, the mind quiets and looks in on itself. The mind isn’t blank; you aren’t thinking of nothing, rather you are focussing inwards on that calm place within. When a thought comes rushing into your head, as many do, often repetitively, adding to the mental clutter, it gets gently eased back again to leave the mind clear and calm. Plod, plod, plod, plod.
A natural order of walk had begun to develop. Sometimes I led because I knew the way and had the map. Sometimes Lal and Arjun would forge ahead at a good light infantry pace. Rajen and Kal were happy enough to bimble along in the ‘body of the kirk’ accompanied by Dugendra who had begun to suffer from a painful knee. Rajiv, when he wasn’t sprinting ahead to take video shots, spent most of his time a hundred yards to the rear tuned in to his MP3 player.
“Gari agari”, car ahead, shouted the leading Lal, the call repeated back down the line.
“Gari pachhari”, car behind, replied the trailing Rajiv a few minutes later.
Toot toot, went the cars as they passed, in recognition and encouragement. Two small faces with nosed pressed hard against the glass gazed out, eyes wide with curiosity. I could just imagine the conversation.
“Look Tyrone,Tracy. It’s thae Gurrrkas we heard aboot on the radio this mornin’!”
“Aye” quoth the monosyllabic Tyrone, wondering what the hell a Gurrrka was. Well, now he knew. It was a small person in a blue slicker suit and back pack with a net bag over its head.
We passed some cottages up the hill to our left just before Achnasaul that had now been taken over by Marine Harvest as a shore base for the fish farm off to our right in the loch. I started to explain all about theScotland’s salmon farming industry; how the hen fish were stripped of their roe and the cock fish milked of his sperm, how the small parr were brought on in freshwater tanks, eventually turning into smolts at which point they would be put into cages in one ofScotland’s sea lochs.
While the industry had been hugely beneficial toScotland’s economy, especially rural communities in theHighlandsandIslands, and while the price of salmon in the fish merchants and supermarkets had plummeted to the level where salmon was no longer a delicacy enjoyed only by the better-off, as with all industrial and agricultural undertakings there were environmental implications. In this case there was a mounting body of irrefutable scientific evidence indicating that the dramatic collapse in the wild sea trout populations of the west coast ofScotlandwas due to the effects of the fish cages dotted along the shores and estuaries, with a consequent collapse of the economically beneficial sea trout fisheries. In addition, escaped salmon would run the rivers along with the wild stock and lead to interbreeding.
Given that every wild salmon returns to the very same stream that it was born in, resulting in many, many genetically unique strains of North Atlantic salmon, one for every river where salmon run in fact, interbreeding was slowly killing off these unique ‘blood lines’. Something similar had happened inLoch Leven, near Kinross, once Scotland’s premier brown trout loch that used to host national and international fly fishing competitions.Loch Leventrout were famous to fly fishers the world over because of their deep powerful bodies and silver tinge.
The original predecessors of the brown trout that now swim in the Himalayan foothills ofIndiawere taken as young fish from Loch Levenover a century ago and transported by sea and overland in clay pots. When catches of Loch Leven brown trout began to wane in the 1970’s due to the effects of polluting fertilisers from the adjacent farmland, rainbow trout were introduced to maintain the viability of the fishery. As a result the true Loch Leven brown trout is a threatened species.
As I continued to wax lyrical I noticed that the boys’ eyes had begun to glaze over. I couldn’t imagine why? Perhaps it was hunger. We had arranged to meetTemplefor a late lunch stop and I was relieved to see the cheery face of white van man hove into view as we rounded the corner at the head of the loch. A padded seat in a dry van is a better option than a cold, hard rock or soggy heather patch any day, particularly as it offers the chance to shed sweaty waterproofs, if only for a few minutes, and apply new, or in Lal’s case, additional, first aid dressings. His feet were a mess and I was concerned that if things did not improve he might be unable to make it all the way. Ha! What did I know? Some advice – never underestimate a Gurkha.
The taste of food taken al fresco, but especially after hard graft outdoors, has a resonance that stamps itself on your consciousness, sometimes forever. Many years before, as a callow youth about to enter University, I had gone on a hitch hiking, camping and climbing holiday to the north-west coast of Scotland with two school friends, Roddy McDonald and John Main. After many more miles walking than anyone had envisaged or intended, after four days on the road we eventually fetched up, knackered, hot and sore, in the small fishing port of Lochinver. We purchased essentials; milk, bread, cornflakes, lager, in the village store then, on a hot, dry early evening found our weary way to the narrow, tree-lined track that led south, up the hill behind the village, and onwards to Glencanisp Lodge and the iconic mountain of Suilven, the Sugarloaf.
In the clear, evening sunshine the mountain, probably the most photographed inScotland afterBen Nevis, stood proud and beautiful. A mile further on and just off to the left of the track we sighted a heathery knoll that looked west, over Lochinver and out over theMinch as far as theOuter Hebrides. The hills of Lewis and Harris were bathed in that golden, late summer, ethereal light that is unique toScotland. It was a wonderful campsite. We pitched tents and then dragged ourselves off the knoll and across the track down to a small wooden bridge next to a ford over the sedate and peaty River Culag that drained Loch Druim Suardalain into Loch Culag before rushing and gushing downhill to drain itself into Lochinver harbour just outside the front door of the Culag Hotel. We sat, feet dangling over the warm, dry planks of the bridge. The lager was sipped, slowly, delicately, as if it was the finest of champagnes while we gazed at the stunning vista that lay before us. Having deposited the milk in the cool waters we returned to the tent, and given the arrival of the evening midge hordes and our fatigue, we hit the sack early and slept the sleep of the just.
The next morning we woke, bursting for a pee, to another sunny, cloudless sky. We ambled stiffly down to the bridge for breakfast. The morning sun to our rear picked out distant Hebridean details unseen the night before. The cornflakes, fresh out of the packet, were crisp and tinkled as they landed in the metal mess tin. The milk was cool and fresh. The sprinkled sugar lay white and sparkly on the flakes. Reader, let me tell you that, to this day, I remember every crunching sensation, every explosion of taste, texture and temperature of that first mouthful of cornflakes. And the next. And the one after that, until there was no more and I was sated. Thank you Mr Kellog, thank you, a million times thank you … but I digress.
The ham and cheese sandwiches, with obligatory brown pickle, were slightly squidged but delicious nonetheless, as were the ensuing potato crisps, chocolate biscuit, apple, and Dairy Milk bar that followed. Truly, an army marches on its stomach. I had expected to loose weight during the trek, but if the first two days were anything to go by, that was going to be a forlorn hope. The Memsaheb was, rather optimistically I thought, expecting me to return home with a body like Linford Christie, but she hadn’t been banking on my lunchbox being bigger than his. Once again she was destined to be disappointed in me.
But time was getting on and we needed to be on the road. Crossing the bridge that spanned the River Arkaig, running west bound for Loch Lochy, we turned left into the grounds of Achnacarry, the ancestral home of Lochiel, the Chief of Clan Cameron. The present castle is a Scottish Baronial style home dating from 1802, although the Chiefs of the Clan Cameron have maintained homes at Achnacarry since 1665. Since 2004, Achnacarry has been the home of Donald Angus Cameron of Lochiel, XXVII Chief of Clan Cameron. The name Achnacarry is derived from Scottish Gaelic field (achadh) of the (na) fish-trap/weir (caraidh).
We weren’t the first distinguished visitors to Achnacarry. Queen Victoria, on a Royal Visit on Friday, 12 September 1873 wrote that,
“As you approach Achnacarry, which lies rather low, but is surrounded by very fine trees, the luxuriance of the tangled woods, surmounted by rugged hills, becomes finer and finer till you come to Loch Arkaig, a little over half a mile from the house. This is a very lovely loch, reminding one of Loch Katrine, especially where there is a little pier, from which we embarked on board a very small but nice screw steamer which belongs to Cameron of Lochiel.”
Probably the most famous visitors to Achnacarry however were the men of the Commandos, many of whom trained here during the Second World War. Following Sir Winston Churchill‘s instruction to form a “butcher and bolt” raiding force as a means of continuing the war against Nazi Germany after the evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, a format for the new force was put forward by Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke (Royal Artillery, but we’ll forgive him that), Military Assistant to General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He penned his proposals on 5 June 1940, just two days after the Dunkirk evacuation, which was approved three days later at a meeting between Dill and Churchill. Dudley Clarke proposed the name “Commando” after the raiding and assault style of Boer Commando units of the Second Boer War. On Churchill’s orders the units were to be armed with the latest equipment and were to launch an attack at the earliest opportunity.
Initially raids were made by comparatively small numbers, of short duration and at night, later growing in size and complexity. The Commandos were formed and operated in secrecy and produced a demoralising effect on German coastal forces while achieving celebrity status among the British public comparable with that attached to fighter pilots. As the war progressed Commandos operated increasingly in the role of shock troops, sometimes up to brigade strength and sometimes in conjunction with infantry.
Each ‘Commando’ was initially responsible for the selection and training of its own officers and men. Commando troops received extra pay from which they had to find their own accommodation. They trained in physical fitness, survival, orienteering, close quarter combat, silent killing, signalling, amphibious and cliff assault, vehicle operation, weapons (including the use of captured enemy small arms) and demolition. Live ammunition was used at all times during training, which resulted in some casualties, and some damage to Achnacarry itself – probably some squaddie venting his displeasure at the high heid yins responsible for such a draconian regime. Many officers, NCOs and trainee instructors initially attended various courses at the all forces Special Training Centre at Lochailort, the ruins of which we had passed on our way to Mallaig. A substantial Combined Operations amphibious training centre was also established at Inverary Castle, on Loch Fyne, and in 1942 the specific Commando Training Centre was established at Achnacarry.
The first Commando attack was made by 120 men of No.11 Commando/Independent Company commanded by Major Ronnie Tod on the night of 23 June 1940. The attack, code-named Operation Collar, was an offensive reconnaissance on the French coast south of Boulogne-sur-Mer and Le Touquet. It was not very effective except in respect of its propaganda value. The only British injury was a bullet graze to Dudley Clarke’s ear (Clarke was there as an observer), while at least two German soldiers were killed.
A second and similarly inconsequential attack, Operation Ambassador, was launched on the German occupied island of Guernsey on the night of 14 July 1940, by men drawn from H Troop of No.3 Commando under John Durnford-Slater and No.11 Independent Company. The raiders failed to make contact with the German garrison.
Over the following months intensive training continued and after a number of cancelled operations, a major raid, Operation Claymore, was launched on the morning of 3 March 1941, by No.3 and No.4 Commando on the practically undefended Norwegian Lofoten Islands. This raid successfully destroyed fish oil factories, petrol dumps, and 11 ships, capturing 216 Germans, and recruiting 315 Norwegian volunteers. Most importantly one of the German Enigma encryption machines that the code breakers at Bletchley Park were trying to crack was also seized during this operation leading to significant advances in the Allies’ ability to decipher German radio signals.
My father, a young public health inspector in Musselburgh before the War, had been commissioned into the Royal Scots, had subsequently volunteered for the Commandos, was billeted and trained at Achnacarry and joined No. 4 Commando in time for the Lofoten Islands raid. His Troop had been given the task of destroying the town’s sewage and drainage system, which they did by lifting the manholes that ran down the middle of the main road and dropping in explosive charges. He obviously so impressed the Military hierarchy with his detailed knowledge of drains, mains and pipelines that they subsequently posted him to East Africa as a Staff Officer on the East Africa Command to look after the public health infrastructure in the Army’s camps and barracks there. It wasn’t all bad news however, for it was in Kenya that he met and married my mother, a Nursing Sister in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.
I was keen to show my Gurkha colleagues where my father had been billeted, however the castle and its surrounds were not open to the public although the Clan Cameron Museum, located on the grounds, ‘welcomed visitors’. So we went to be welcomed. Joan Robinson, whose family had been dairy farmers in Teesside and who had moved to the area 12 years previously, greeted us warmly. She had been intending to skin the seven of us for the admission fee, but when I explained who we were and what we were doing and asked whether, in the circumstances, she could see her way to letting the lads have a free ‘look-see’, she kindly acquiesced (I was getting the hang of this by now). She drew the line at free pamphlets however and when Rajen picked up a flyer she asked for the 50p, bless her. Rajen, who like the Queen, did not carry money, promptly returned the offending piece of paper.
Catch up with Gurkhas in the Mist – a coast-to-coast walk across the Highlands