The serial: Largie Castle, A Rifled Nest Day 108
My regret is that I have found so little about him. No juicy letters or searching memoirs
When we as children fought and complained that we had been treated unfairly, begging Mum to intervene, she would say “life isn’t fair!” Only now, after finishing my research on Angus do I appreciate what she was thinking when she pronounced those words. Only now do I understand how hard it was for her when in the early 60s we stayed with Dad’s sister, Jean and her husband Roddy, then between British ambassadorial postings.
I loved to leaf through Aunt Jean’s photograph album in which, beside family snapshots she had illustrated in pen and ink scenes from her family life.
At the beginning of the war, Roddy, as a diplomat in the Foreign Office, was posted to Washington in the USA. To cross the Atlantic he, Jean and their three infant daughters boarded a liner that sailed unaccompanied and not as part of a convoy. In midocean, a German U-boat surfaced but fired no torpedoes at their ship.
After the war, Jean illustrated this frightening event in the wartime section of her album. Life isn’t fair, is it? Like the timbre of his voice, the cut of his jacket or his food preferences, I can only guess what Angus thought of his future.
When he wrote months before the Japanese invasion of Malaya, “after we’ve dealt with this wretched fellow Hitler,” did he conceive that the end of Empire was so imminent? Before he drowned, my uncle was aware that along with gaining an ancient Scottish name, property and castle, much had to be dismantled so the past could be distilled into something more essential and relevant. Neither the severely wounded Jock nor Angus could assume properly the role of laird or maintain their castles.
Jock pulled his down and Simon, who became owner of the Lockhart inheritance, sold his. Like crusader, Sir Symon Loccard, who held the key to the casket that contained Bruce’s heart, Angus failed. Waging battle 700 years after his ancestor, he also fought on foreign soil, confronting an enemy, not from north Africa but from Japan.
These two warriors may have lost but Loccard recovered from the battlefield Bruce’s heart and returned with it to Scotland, while Angus’s intended inheritance remained intact, going to Simon, who took over the Lockhart name, line and property.
This legality, rooted in feudalism, enabled a chain of hereditary incumbents to hold on to a property, as the survival of a name and family took precedence over the interests of any individual. As a result of Angus’s death Simon, his sons and daughter maintained the Lockhart line in major part.
It may be senseless to write about a lost man but I was struck by the fact that Angus was Mum’s favourite brother. Jock was much older and remote from her, while Simon, four years her senior, bullied her. Angus, seven years older, would intervene on her behalf. By all accounts he was kind, if not a bit dilatory in his correspondence while serving overseas. He took the trouble to write to Mum when she gained entry into Somerville College, Oxford and in his letter from Malaya two years later he is impressed that she is learning how to be a car mechanic.
With his medieval knightly ancestry was Angus an anachronism? His education, with its arcane language and practices, was hardly relevant to a man sent to an overcrowded island in southeast Asia to become chief-of-staff to some 3,000 men. Whatever else, his manner of speaking, choice of words and conduct were synonymous with loyalty to King and country. Both brothers took part in campaigns that lost spectacularly, Jock at the Fall of France and Angus in the Fall of Singapore. Both found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One lost his leg, the other his life and each lost his castle. This kind of destruction was not exclusive to my mother’s family. Up and down the country, old landed families were falling apart. Although the Largie Macdonalds and Lockharts forfeited their castles, they themselves failed to disintegrate or fade away. Dented though they were by the war they survived.
Unlike Jock with his casual brilliance, Angus was a good foot soldier for the Establishment. My regret is that I have found so little about him. No juicy letters, confessional diaries or searching memoirs. Just a few letters.
We will never know what he thought of his regiment and the part Britain played in the war. Because Angus took his secrets to a watery grave, we can only surmise. Did he have a girl? Was he a virgin when he died? How did he feel about his future after the war? Did he look forward to owning his castle?
The displays of courage by Angus and his “brother” officers in battle and their nonchalance towards danger, are to be applauded. No other fighting unit in the Malayan campaign earned greater respect than the Argylls but their bravery and disregard for personal safety had, in the end, its limits. Psychiatrists affirm that men and women, when put under duress, invariably break. It’s just a matter of time.
It’s not my place here to name the officers and men who cracked up, often many years after the end of the war. But there were many. Some suffered from years of depression. One or two even committed suicide.
Often the bravest were the most afflicted. Those who fought in the Malayan Campaign were indelibly damaged, particularly as so many were imprisoned by the Japanese, forced to build the Thai-burma railway. Kenneth Mcleod survived but for the rest of his life suffered from a number of ailments stemming from this period.
Perhaps the most poignant of letters I received during my search for Angus was from Catherine Butcher, daughter of Regimental Sergeant-major (RSM) Sandy Munnoch, photographed tramping through the mangrove swamps of Singapore island with Angus as adjutant and Ian Stewart, then the Battalion’s second in command.
Sergeant Munnoch survived imprisonment but at a relatively young age, while working as an instructor at Bradfield College, fractured his skull in a traffic accident. He died in 1956. After the British surrender, he was imprisoned at Kanchanabuli on the River Kwai in Thailand. In this prison camp he was ordered to cremate the bodies of men who had died of cholera. The cremations took place at night and afterwards Sergeant Munnoch would stand alone in the jungle to salute the dead men. When he returned to the camp the sergeant took the precaution of washing himself with Lysol disinfectant.
Although I was aware of the 60th anniversary in 2002 of the Fall of Singapore I had not then begun my research on Angus. But in 2003 I visited Hopie Maitland, Mum’s childhood friend who used to stay at Largie for lessons in English, arithmetic and French with governess Miss Harding.
Hopie knew all the Macdonalds and had explored their home from top to bottom, from boot-hole to Broonie’s room at the top of the castle. Before I left, I asked Hopie what had happened to Angus (at that time I knew next to nothing about him).
“Oh! It was so sad,” she said elliptically. “With all that disaster in the family,” I ventured, “why didn‘t the Broonie take better care of them?”
“Yes,” she said solemnly. “That’s what he was meant to do. But he didn’t, did he?”
© 2017 Mary C Gladstone, all rights reserved, courtesy of the author and Firefallmedia; available in hardcover and paperback online and from all booksellers.
On Monday we will begin to serialise The Green Year (Jute, Jam & Jiving through Dundee), the new novel by Dundee author Sandra Savage following the fortunes of the Pepper family.