A re­mark­able cairn and its doughty builder

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

LAST week I drove across to Lochailort to meet a re­mark­able man called Jimmy Mac­Don­ald, who was putting the fin­ish­ing touches to a very spe­cial cairn com­mem­o­rat­ing 13 men who died when their plane struck a nearby hill on De­cem­ber 21, 1967.

Jimmy, who now lives on Skye, has spent most of his work­ing life as a shep­herd, stalker, ghillie and ace dry­s­tone dyker at Lochailort, Ach­nacarry, Mo­rar and Meoble, and re­mem­bers vividly when the RAF Shack­le­ton of 206 Squadron, RAF Kin­loss, crashed on the lower slopes of Creag Bhan be­tween Lochailort and Loch Mo­rar, killing ev­ery­one aboard.

The plane was tak­ing part in an anti-sub­ma­rine train­ing ex­er­cise off Tiree, fly­ing by in­stru­ments co- or­di­nated through the Mo­ray radar con­trol cen­tre. The cap­tain, Squadron Leader Michael McCal­lum, and first nav­i­ga­tor, Flight Lieu­tenant Bruce Mackie, had been warned of a weak cold front with low tem­per­a­tures above 8,000 feet and of the on­board, untested stall-warn­ing sys­tem.

In ad­di­tion to a nor­mal crew there were two pas­sen­gers, Harry Har­vey from RAF Kin­loss and Iain Ma­cLean, who went along for a jolly. The air­craft took off from Kin­loss at 12.30 and climbed to 8,000 feet. It had con­tact with Scot­tish air traf­fic cen­tre at 12.59 be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing from the track­ing sys­tem five min­utes later.

The RAF board of in­quiry con­cluded the most likely cause of the ac­ci­dent was that the route took it through a weather front where there were se­vere ic­ing con­di­tions slightly worse than those pre­dicted in the weather brief­ing with the freez­ing level some 2,000 feet lower than ex­pected.

The air­craft had ac­cu­mu­lated ice on the pro­pel­lers and un­der­sides of the wings and tail planes. As the crew were fly­ing the out­ward leg of the flight the air­craft would have been heavy and its power-to-weight ra­tio meant that there would not have been much power re­serve avail­able from the en­gines to over­come drag caused by ic­ing.

The air­craft’s speed had fallen too low due to the ice build-up and it even­tu­ally stalled while still fly­ing at around 8,000 feet. It then went into a ver­ti­cal dive from which it never re­cov­ered, ev­i­denced by the scar on the hill­side.

It was com­pletely de­stroyed on im­pact and im­me­di­ately caught fire. Two of the en­gines re­mained more or less in­tact while the star­board en­gines were wrecked. One of the re­duc­tion gears was re­ported to have been found nearly 300 yards to the east of the site, hav­ing been flung there by its own in­er­tia.

An­gus Cameron, a county coun­cil road­man from Glen­finnan, was work­ing near Arieniskill, about a mile be­low, when he heard two loud ex­plo­sions and saw a bright flash. He rushed down to In­verailort Cas­tle to in­form Mrs Cameron-Head who, straight away alerted the po­lice and res­cue ser­vices and sent her com­pan­ion, Miss Bar­bara Mack­in­tosh, rac­ing to the site.

Mrs Cameron-Head, who had been sta­tioned in the area as an am­bu­lance driver with the com­man­dos dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, fol­lowed but from what the ladies saw they soon re­alised there was noth­ing they could do.

In an act of public spirit­ed­ness and gen­eros­ity for which she was well known, Mrs Cameron-Head, for a pro­longed pe­riod, turned her home over to the RAF air ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion teams and crash guards. For this, she later re­ceived the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

This year is of course the 50th an­niver­sary of the crash. In keep­ing with the late Mrs Cameron-Head’s phi­los­o­phy, and be­cause he felt it the right thing to do, Jimmy set about re­build­ing the tem­po­rary cairn which had all but dis­ap­peared from the site in the win­ter frosts and high winds. No mean feat given the spot lies al­most 1,000ft up a hill­side – too steep for any all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle and reached only by a boul­der strewn, bracken- cov­ered, path which skirts along the west side of the Allt Na Criche from Arieniskill to the wa­ter-shed.

But, as Edgar Al­bert Guest, the English-born Amer­i­can poet wrote, ‘Some­body said that it couldn’t be done’, but he with a chuckle replied, ‘that maybe it couldn’t, but he would be one who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried’.

The only source of suit­able stone lay a mile away at the bot­tom of the track. Equipped with a small ruck­sack and a stout pair of boots, the in­trepid Jimmy set about lift­ing as much as he could carry on his back for the jour­ney up the hill from Arieniskill un­til he had al­most a ton of it on site.

The dry-stone cairn is now fin­ished and in­cor­po­rates stones from the pre­vi­ous one with small pieces of wreck­age gath­ered around its base. It is capped with a thin layer of ce­ment into which Jimmy has em­bed­ded a wooden cross and 13 pieces of white peg­matite care­fully chis­elled from a boul­der by the side the path. That is one for each man who died on the side of Creag Bhan: Michael McCal­lum, Ter­ence Swin­ney, David Evans, Bruce Mackie, Ralph Fon­seca, Mal­colm Jones, John Verner, David Har­ris, Michael Bowen, Charles Matthews, Ken­neth Hurry, Harry Har­vey and Iain Ma­cLean. RIP.

Picture: Iain Thorn­ber

Jimmy Mac­Don­ald putting the fin­ish­ing touches to the cairn.

Picture: Chris Bryant

Mrs Cameron-Head of In­verailort OBE.

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