A remarkable cairn and its doughty builder
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.
Jimmy MacDonald putting the finishing touches to the cairn.
Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort OBE.