In more recent years my wife and I have evaded the temptations of holidays in the sun in favour of exploring areas of the United Kingdom as diverse as the furthest westerly point of the Isles of Scilly to the north-west archipelago of the Orkney Islands.
This suits our purposes. Neither of us have ever yearned to spend a week laying on a beach or battling for a lounger beside a pool. Our honeymoon was spent in Cyprus, where we did a little laying about and a lot of exploring – the white-knuckle ride of the Jeep Safari (they were actually Land Rovers) into the Troodos mountains being an unforgettable experience – and one we feel fortunate to have survived! When our girls were young their grandparents lived in a house perched on the side of a steep hill at the edge of the village of Claviers, Provence, France. Thanks to their hospitality and generosity we spent three holidays there – enjoying the sheer beauty of rural southern France uninfected by the trappings of tourism where the population of approximately 350 made us as welcome as family.
Wherever we travel we make sure we take, or hire, our own transport. This enables us to seek adventure, thrills and at times the bizarre by driving off the main routes, following the lanes and tracks to who knows where until we get there. Our girls, today all grown up with families of their own, fondly recall my response whenever one of them asked ‘Dad are we lost?’ to which I’d reply – ‘no we’re discovering somewhere new’.
We have discovered many things that were new to us, and among these we can never pass a memorial without stopping to read it, and later research more about it, largely thanks to Google but sometimes from persons local to the monument itself. This continues as a feature of our life and holidays, so this page shall remain live as we shall undoubtedly discover more.
We shall start this journey in Claviers where in August 2004 we happened to be holidaying in the village at the very moment it was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its liberation.
Claviers and the Resistance
This tale requires a little background explanation.
Back in 2004 my stepdaughter’s grandparents invited my wife, my stepdaughters, our daughter, and me to holiday with them where they lived at Claviers in the south of France. We ended up spending three holidays with them between 2004-2007 and always had a fantastic time.
Claviers was a modest village set in a quiet valley amid the Var highlands with a population of just a few hundred. Among them were Chris and Richard, my stepdaughter’s grandparents. Richard was a retired veterinary surgeon who spoke fluent French, enabling the couple to rapidly integrate into the gentle life of the unspoilt traditional French village.
During our first visit Richard mentioned to me that on the next day, 15 August, the village would be holding its 60th commemoration since the day it was liberated. Technically the village had been in the Free Zone, a zone not occupied by German forces, where it was controlled as a puppet regime by Marshall Petain, a Nazi collaborationist who post-war was sentenced to death for treason, commuted to life imprisonment. Despite that status, Claviers was home to a gutsy clan of resistance fighters who evidently, from anecdote and historical research, found German and collaborationist targets within their sights – and were to suffer for their successes.
My wife and I had previously strolled about the village and noticed an elderly gentleman, heavily wrinkled and as brown as a current, sitting outside the Circulaire (similar to a working men’s club). Every so often boys (children, not waiters) would go to him, take his empty glass from the table where he sat in the shade of a wizened tree, and return with it refilled. When inquiring, we were advised that he was the last surviving member of the local resistance, and for that he was treated like royalty. Given the modest size of the village the reverence in which he and his deceased compatriots were held was marked by one of the most incredible memorials placed amid the tree-shaded beauty of the Promenade du Montjolet.
I have always been interested in history and that of the Second World War in particular. I was initially confused by Clavier’s liberation date of 15 August 1944. Having discovered the answer it seems so obvious that I feel stupid not to have realised it. Everyone knows the story of Operation Overlord, generally known as D-Day, when the combined forces of the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy amid a hell of unprecedented proportions. Two months later, with the northern foothold established, the Allies launched a similar but rarely recounted assault against the southern coast – Operation Dragoon. As these airborne and seaborne troops advanced northwards, towns and villages were progressively liberated, which is why one municipality may celebrate its liberation on a different date to its neighbour.
For Claviers, being close to the coast, they rejoiced to the sight of Allied troops on 15 August, the opening day of Operation Dragoon in which the French resistance, by then semi-organised as the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), played a major part supported on the ground by special forces of the Office of Strategic Services.
When Richard suggested that he and I attend the parade and ceremony I was champing at the bit. Richard’s status as a vet, albeit a retired one, and his flawless spoken French, had earned him great respect in the village, including that of the Mayor. Unlike at home, I was to learn that in France the Mayor bears a near God-like power over his district.
The ceremony began with a short but reverent procession from the centre of the village to the memorial, adjacent to the pétanque court and the Circulaire. A small section of French infantry was lined across the road, bearing FAMAS rifles with bayonets fixed, adorned in battle dress with the embellishment of kepis and flamboyant aiguillettes over their shoulders. Some wore medals but having little knowledge of French military decorations I was unable to identify their service. It was a hot day for sure, but I was a little surprised that one of the soldiers stepped out of the line, removed his kepi, and took shade under a tree during the readings. Words were spoken, little of which I could comprehend, but the sight of some elderly residents shedding tears were enough to appreciate the tone and significance of the content. Wreaths were laid and a rousing chorus of La Marseillaise capped a moving moment in history that I felt very fortunate and privileged to have experienced. Throughout all of this I noticed that the lone flagpole was bedecked with four flags - the French Tricolore, the Union Flag, the Canadian Maple Leaf, and the Stars and Stripes of the USA. All looked resplendent in the warm afternoon breeze – except that the Union Flag was the wrong way up.
With the formalities over, the pétanque court, which was filled with tables and chairs, was opened for business where copious volumes of wine and nibbles of every possible variety were laid out for the enjoyment of all. For my benefit Richard explained some of the words I had been unable to decipher before announcing that he would introduce me to the Mayor. The Mayor was a charming gentleman, impeccably turned out with a bearing that fitted a man of his standing. When Richard advised him that I had been especially keen to attend and pay my respects and had served with the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, the Mayor jested in perfect English ‘you should have come in your uniform’.
The Mayor asked me what I thought of the ceremony. I remarked upon the stunning memorial and its placement overlooking the valley, and that I was touched by what I had seen. As we were getting on well over plentiful wines, when he asked me if there was anything we do differently at British commemorations I couldn’t help but reply that at home we’d have displayed the Union Flag the correct way up. In an instant his eyebrows narrowed. He questioned me, to which I explained that the thicker white stripe, formed of the saltire of St Andrew and St Patrick, should be uppermost at the staff. He appeared severely miffed, turned aside, and called out to someone. A gentleman came scuttling across from the tables, as I looked rather awkwardly at Richard, the Mayor grasped the chap literally by the earlobe and with an unnecessary volume blurted out words that Richard later advised me were an admonishment followed by instructions to correct the error. He then turned to me and with a genuine look of gravity and sincerity said ‘Monsieur, please accept my apologies as Mayor’. It’s rare that I am stuck for words, but it took me a moment to consider before replying that I was appreciative of his concern and thank you.
It's a small but significant memory of a memorial where I always stopped to pay my respects in subsequent visits to the village. The memorial itself was sculpted and inaugurated in September 1991. Featuring a young girl as a symbol of the resistance she beholds the patriotic flame of France in memory of the brave volunteers of the local resistance, and in particular of three who lost their lives continuing the fight alongside Allied troops, ironically on the day following the village’s liberation.
As Chris and Richard have returned to the Isle of Wight in their approaching dotage, it may be that we shall never again visit Claviers. But its people, and their proud maintenance of unblemished tradition and village life, shall forever remain in my heart as a place where we and our children were safe, happy, and content for many weeks of our lives as a young family. And, as in many parts of Europe and at home, for that we remain thankful to those who bravely resisted the Nazis.
Google Maps extract of Claviers with the location of the monument to the resistance.
Draguinan and Operation Dragoon
Following on from the above, when we revisited in 2006, my wife and I had an opportunity to go exploring without the girls who were being entertained by their grandparents for the day.
We headed off to Draguinan, a much larger commune with a population around 40,000 some 30-minutes’ drive south from Claviers. Whereas Claviers sits in the Var highlands, heading south is to rapidly descend into a flat expanse on the route to and through Le Muy, past wide-open fields of the River Argens valley which, in the summer of 1944, were liberally planted with Rommel’s asparagus – hundreds of wooden stakes placed to hinder glider landings (if you’re ever in the area the small but packed Musee de la Liberation in Le Muy features fascinating exhibits, run by two enthusiastic and helpful local chaps).
At Draguinan, to be fair to my wife who allows me plenty of opportunity to explore my interests, we did a little sightseeing, shopping and got a bite to eat, before proceeding into the École d'application de l'artillerie, the French army school of applied artillery, where, with passports duly checked, you are free to wander inside the camp and visit the Musee de L’ Artillerie. The museum is a must for any military history enthusiast and includes several outdoor displays of artillery pieces in addition to a well-stocked and presented indoor facility (I’m writing this 17 years since the events described so it may be worth checking that the museum remains open if considering a visit).
After spending some substantial time in the museum, we took a short drive to the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial. Passing through the gates we were enveloped by the pristine last resting place of 851 American soldiers of the US Seventh Army who lost their lives during Operation Dragoon.
The cemetery was hastily established just four days into Dragoon and is today in the care of the American Battle Monuments Commission. At the foot of a hill clad with cypress, olive, and oleander trees, the 12.5-acre site is divided into four perfectly presented plots arranged around an oval pool, each with its own small garden. At the head of the layout is the memorial, embellished with the Angel of Peace clutching her infant child below which the inscription reads – We who lie here died that future generations might live in peace.
Where there are so many graves, crosses, and Stars of David, it is overwhelming to contemplate the human loss, it being so great. I took some photographs and on returning home researched a few of the names I captured. Such as that of John W. Clark of Washington, Private of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Team, the Battling Buzzards. The 517th were activated at Camp Toccoa in the mountains of Northeast Georgia in March 1943. By the time Pte Clark and his comrades dropped from 180 C-47 Dakota’s into a zone to the west of Frejus occupied by an estimated 30,000 Germans, they were already battle tested from the campaign in Italy.
The pathfinders jumped around 03:30 on 15 August, most missed their drop zones, rapidly followed by hundreds of dummy parachutes and ground-striking rifle simulators featuring firecrackers to create confusion among the enemy. The remainder of the 517th, an element of a composite airborne division, were spread across a wide swath of the ground by 05:00. Only 20 percent of the division arrived within two miles of their intended DZ. Despite the odds against the organised and established defences of the German units, the men of the 517th made stirring progress on their objectives, assisted in some by a chance encounter with units of the British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade.
Over the course of the following three days their action threw the Germans into chaos, convoys were attacked and prevented from reaching the beachheads, lines of communication were cut, and strategic towns and villages captured, including Le Muy, Les Arcs, La Motte and Draguinan. At an unknown point in the middle those furious actions Pte Clark lost his life. Rest in peace.
Google maps extract of Draguinan, with both the Rhone American Cemetery and the Musee de l'Artillerie.
Tommy of Seaham
In addition to being an accomplished house decorator, my wife Sharon is highly creative and has turned her hand successfully to more craft and art techniques than I can remember. Among the most popular of her materials to use is that of sea-glass, i.e., broken glass that has been tossed around in the shoreline for sufficient time to become smoothed and ground into various shapes.
The Isle of Wight possesses some suitable areas for collection, but through contacts with likeminded souls in a related Facebook group, Sharon was advised that one of the best sources in the United Kingdom is the beach near Seaham, in the northeast of England. Accordingly, when we planned to visit Scotland in 2019 a few days stop off in County Durham was included on the way up. This enabled us to also spend some quality time with two of my sisters that reside in the area.
The story behind the mass of sea glass along the whole stretch of Seaham Hall Beach goes back to the days of the local glass manufacturing industry. Among these the Candish Bottle Works was among the largest, operating in the town from 1850 – 1923. At the end of each working day the end-of-day glass and waste was liberally discarded into the sea. Allegedly when the industry finally ceased, all remaining glass was disposed of the same way - a final top-up of the 73 years of waste. Throughout the manufacturing years, and since 1923, the discarded glass has been dragged by the current and repeatedly washed back and forth on the tide. Seaham’s particular appeal for glass hunters is the Holy Grail of sea-glass, the ‘multi’s’, i.e., glass of multiple colours. When we first arrived, Sharon wasted no time to get on the sand. I was amazed at the number of people slowly meandering about the entire stretch of this mile of coastline staring at the ground and joked that it was like a scene from The Walking Dead.
Whilst supportive of Sharon’s interests, it’s not a passion I share, so armed with my backpack off I went with a drink, snack, and map to explore the local area. I’m not usually inclined to head into built-up areas but having never been there before I decided to wander into Seaham town, following the beach southwards until ascending the steep path up to the B1287 North Road and continuing under a greying sky with a calm North Sea to my left. The sea view was briefly broken by a row of transverse cottages at Bath Terrace, but as I passed them, I gazed upon Terrace Green, a beautifully manicured area of lawns and garden, a little larger than a rugby field, and in the middle was a war memorial accompanied by an enormous metal soldier in greatcoat and helmet.
Tommy and the Cenotaph, photographed in 2018, as seen when passing the corner of Bath Terrace looking south. Five years later, in August 2023, we stayed in a cottage built into the rear of the old police station on the far right, and opened the curtains each morning to the sight of Tommy caught in the rising sun of a new day.
I immediately recognised the sculpture, known as Tommy, from photos seen on the internet, but I had no idea where he was located until that very moment. As I walked over a class of primary schoolchildren were sitting on the ground looking at Tommy and were clearly enthralled by whatever their teaching was telling them as they made sketches of the iconic memorial.
Tommy, officially titled Eleven-O-One, in reference to the first minute of peace when the Armistice came into force on 11 November 1918, is a steel construction exceeding one-ton in weight not attributed to any individual soldier, but to them all. Tommy’s rusty red patina only adds to the authenticity of time and memorial as this resting soldier looks to the ground in quiet reverie clutching his service rifle. Tommy was originally installed temporarily but Seaham folk became so attached to him that they raised in excess of £100,000 to purchase and display him in perpetuity.
It is a stunning piece of work by artist Ray Lonsdale and sits above a time capsule containing a letter written by its creator, children’s artworks, war remembrances and a victory medal.
His positioning must have been by deliberation that if Tommy were to look up, he would be gazing upon the town’s Cenotaph, presumably erected shortly after the First World War. Unusually, the Cenotaph carries no names of the fallen. This was amended in 2018 by the addition of a cliff top fence skirting the eastern edge of Terrace Green. Constructed of many panels each of which bear up to 23 metallic poppies bearing the name, rank, number, regiment or corps, and date of death of over 900 local men and women that have lost their lives in service from 1914 until the present.
All things considered, Terrace Green, with its manicured garden, Celtic Cross topped Cenotaph, Tommy, and the field of metallic poppies, represents a stunning collective of commemoration, and reflects favourably on a locality and its people that shall never forget.
Google maps extract of Seaham, with the location of Terrace Green.
Above, Beyond and Below – the Seaham miners’ mural
Since discovering Seaham and Tommy when we first visited in 2018, it has become an annual event (lockdown excepted) to stop-off in the area on our way to Scotland.
In 2023 we left the Isle of Wight in the last week of August, a little later than usual and one that ensured our arrival in Scotland on the 30th afforded our first experience of the notorious midges which we had so far avoided with trips scheduled for mid-September into October. On this occasion we spent just two days at Seaham before heading across the border, and again Sharon was avidly searching the beach for sea-glass.
I decided to venture deeper into the urban sprawl of Seaham and found myself wandering around streets of traditional terraced cottages set back from the coastline and harbour. It was a truly beautiful day as I meandered with little purpose but to experience what else this modest coastal town had to offer.
The residential area features a broad mix of the old and the newer standing in stark contrast in close proximity. As I headed south along Sophia Street, I glanced to my left at the junction with Caroline Street to pause and decide which direction to take.
My eyes were instantly drawn to a mural on the side of an isolated structure across a lush green communal lawn. I was compelled to cross the grass and take a closer look.
What I was gazing upon was a fantastic and vibrant mural by artist Cosmo Sarson. Titled Above, Beyond and Below, the work is a tribute to the miners of the town produced in the style of a trade union marching banner. The original artwork was by Jamie Holman, reproduced and massively upscaled by Sarson in summer 2020. The work was commissioned by East Durham Creates, an art organisation that focuses on connecting people to their own sense of place.
Although neither the mural or adjacent description make direct reference to a colliery, it is to the men and their families that worked on and survived the local pits since the 1840’s to which the work is dedicated. The fact that this modest town supported three local pits, Seaham, Dawdon, and Vane Tempest, explains the extensive and complex harbour, now largely unused, which was once the departure point for thousands of tons of coal. Of those pits, all were all closed by 1992, ripping the heart out of the area, a sad fact repeated in many communities across the country during the painful Thatcher era.
The Seaham pit led a chequered existence in which literally hundreds of men, and boys as young as 13, were to lose their lives. The worst event occurred on 8 September 1880. 164 lives were lost by, and following, an explosion that rocked the entire system, rendering the cage entrapped and many men and boys beneath ground. Many perished in the initial explosion, but some died while waiting rescue. How heartbreakingly poignant is it that some left brief messages of love, including one scratched into the side of a tin mug expressing love for wife and children. One of those lost had survived a similar event in the same pit nine years earlier when 26 of his colleagues died. The Victorian era safety record was as dismal as descriptions of the working conditions to say nothing of the dozens of horses and donkeys living a gloomy subterranean existence, never experiencing the warmth of the sun on their backs until dead.
As important as coal was to the development of our nation, the method of its extraction was inhumane, and despite substantial safety improvements remained a gruelling and arduous task for those that accepted it as a means of raising their families. I have nothing but respect for the men of the coal industry celebrated in the mural.
Having photographed the artwork my interest was raised by the building which bears it. The front elevation with its four pilasters represents a stoic grandness in the shape of the Volunteer Arms. Now a coffee bar, the former public house was once buttressed on either side by the dwellings it dwarfed amid Frances Street, which no longer exists. In addition to being a bustling hive for local revelry the licensed premises was also the unofficial club for the men of the local artillery brigade, hence the Volunteer. Unfortunately, it was closed during my visit, or I would have entered, albeit for a cup of tea in preference to coffee. I have been unable to deduce why this solitary structure was permitted a continued existence when Frances Street was levelled in 1952 to make way for modern housing. Regardless, the building stands with the posture of a memorial to the artillerymen of Seaham, many of whom perished in conflict.
Collie and Mackenzie
The Isle of Skye has been our destination for more than one protracted period, and I daresay we shall return again. It is a magical and in places daunting example of Scotland at its greatest – I could write for hours of its appeal. But for now, reflecting on an example of daunting, I shall turn attention to the Black Cuillin mountain range, and a memorial erected in 2020 celebrating two special gentlemen.
With a ridge of just 11km the Black Cuillin is best described as a compact mountain range, but a range it certainly is full of thrills and surprises – offering 36 peaks across its length, topped off at 992 metres of the Sgurr Alasdair. Mainly comprised of the basalt and gabbro that affords the range its foreboding darkness, the range is a challenging terrain for even the most experienced scrambler and climber.
We first experienced it in 2022 where an easy wander along the water course (Allt Coir a’Mhadaidh) that forms the living element of the Fairy Pools can be followed by a sympathetically laid footpath. Be warned, even outside of the summer season this destination is so popular that it can be cluttered with like-minded visitors, such that a car park with a capacity for 120 vehicles has been provided on the other side of the narrow road.
On a comical note, we encountered a couple on our way back – the lady’s attire would have been more appropriate for an Essex shopping mall than a trek across the glen. As they neared us, she asked ‘how much further?’, which was difficult to answer without knowing her intended destination. She clearly wasn’t enjoying herself very much, being a pink and fluffy fish out of water, she capped it off with ‘it’s all a bit samey’. After waiting a respectful distance before erupting into giggles, Sharon and I have since adopted this phrase for sarcastic use in any number of situations.
I digress. Our own experience was wholesome and fun, and our decision to continue beyond the prepared footpath wasn’t so much made as just happened without question. From here we picked our way through increasingly squelchy ground conditions, hopping from rock to tufts of heather and so forth, with every awkward step blessed by increasing amazement at the raw, very raw, beauty of the place to a soundtrack of crashing water on our right. As we advanced westward with the soggy ground rising and bare rock increasing and deer moving gracefully with ease across the landscape, we felt a sense of entombment between the tightening space formed of dark peaks on three sides that shut out the sun and discharged a dark and spooky dimness into the decreasing light. It was our first experience of a truly remarkable range.
We were by far from the first to have these thoughts and among some of the early explorers of the range were Professor Norman Collie and John Mackenzie. The latter was a Skye man, born in Sconser, in close proximity to the Cuillin hills. He first climbed the 966 metre Sgurr nan Gillean when aged 10. From there his life was inextricably linked to the peaks of his island home, where he became a popular guide in addition to undertaking some challenging climbs on his own account. Norman Collie’s background couldn’t have differed more. Born in Cheshire to a privileged upbringing funded by his family’s American based cotton investments he was educated in the Home Counties and, in time, became a Professor of chemistry in which he made some important contributions in the discovery of dehydroacetic acid before performing research that led to the first X-ray for diagnostic purposes.
Far from his laboratories Collie took steps to scratch the itch of a desire to be a mountaineer. Visiting Skye in 1886 he made two failed attempts on Sgurr nan Gillean before receiving advice from John Mackenzie who by then was recognised as Britain’s first professional mountain guide. The roots for a firm friendship and sharing challenges in the mountains was established.
Collie’s passion took him to many parts of the world, whereas it appears that Mackenzie preferred to remain at home and was described by a contemporary - He had the characteristics of the Highlander; the courtesy joined to self-respect that are the heritage of the clans. His accent to the end smacked of the Gaelic speaker. His features were strong and embrowned by weather. He wore the old style of short beard, whiskers, and moustache. Always alert, always cheerful, he was the perfect companion, but it was when the mist came swirling down on the wet rocks that his true worth was known.
Despite widespread climbing achievements, including the first ascent and winter ascent on Ben Nevis’ notorious Tower Ridge, Collie regularly returned to Skye and his companion to continue their impressive and when necessary, highly technical climbs of the Cuillin range. It was noted that during the era it was uncommon for two men from either side of the chasm of class divide to form such a bond - that they did is attributed to their shared humanity in addition to their joint experiences on the range. Their pioneering climbs have led the way for the many hundreds who have followed.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Collie and Mackenzie Heritage Group raised the possibility of installing a memorial to celebrate the men’s achievements on the Black Cuillin. It took them 17 determined years to raise in excess of £100,000 and make arrangements for the creation and installation of an outstanding sculpture at Sligachan, close to the hotel where the men stayed when planning their adventures.
We had passed the memorial several times but always found it too busy, until driving back to Dunvegan after a day exploring to the south of the island on 7 September 2023 when we stopped and were able to get a good look and enjoy the surrounding area. This was during the second of four weeks in Scotland, four weeks in which we experienced the most unexpected weather conditions. You don’t generally visit Scotland for the weather and can expect a certain amount of blustery wind and rain, but during those four weeks I only wore my waterproof jacket twice and, on most days, it was plenty warm enough to opt for shorts. I knelt on a rock at the edge of the River Sligachan and found, to my surprise, the mountain water that had travelled four or five miles from the range, had absorbed sufficient heat from the sun and rock surfaces to be comfortably warm.
It was a worthy visit and having experienced some comparatively mild incursions into the Black Cuillin I have every respect for the pioneering spirit of Collie and Mackenzie and the many firsts they achieved in one of Britain’s most challenging environments.
Our 2022 visit to Scotland extended well into October, a little later than usual, for which appropriate clothing was required albeit that the weather was no worse than I’d expect at home on the Isle of Wight, only a noticeable drop in temperature marking the difference.
On 10 October we were cruising the A855 Isle of Skye coast road with no particular plan other than to see what we could find. It’s great to have days when we know exactly where we’re going, but equally we enjoy these days of freedom and meandering which often turn up little gems usually when probing off the main road down single width lanes and barely frequented tracks. These trips involved lots of stops, handbrake applied, coat on, get out and explore.
With the spine of the Trotternish Ridge splitting the archipelago to our right, we headed north past Kilmuir and Hunglader when Sharon spotted a sign for the Skye Museum of Island Life. Immediately my mind jumped back to the previous November. Former Ryde Fire Station Sub Officer Mick Penny, retired 1999, organises a veterans Christmas dinner every year and includes several of us young ones who were the nippers on the station during his final years of service. Every November I knock on his door and are invited in, subject to his inimitable bench-vice handshake, to submit menu choices for Sharon and I and hand over the requisite cash. This is no rapid transaction as a good session of yarning proceeds, reminiscing times gone by and discussing the present and future. In November 2021 I told Mick that Sharon and I were intending to go to the Isle of Skye in the following year, immediately animating his response – he too had visited and loved it. He mentioned the Museum of Island Life, describing it as one of his favourite activities.
At Sharon’s request and Mick’s recommendation I had no misgivings about swinging the car into the drive and parking. The museum was reasonably priced and rather than wandering through ornate halls filled with glass cabinets is pleasantly comprised of squat thatched cottages in the format of a Highland village of the bygone era of crofters. I agree with Mick that it’s a worthy visit to be able to wander about and absorb the authenticity of the hard but simple lives the crofters lived.
As we left the village museum and prepared to return to the car Sharon spotted a cemetery further up the lane - we mooched up the hill to take a look. Here, by complete chance, we located the grave and memorial to Flora MacDonald. Those who know the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, or have watched Outlander, will have grasped Flora’s historical significance, for those who haven’t, read on.
Following defeat at the Battle of Culloden (1746), Prince Charles went into hiding. While the Duke of Cumberland’s troops feverishly searched for the errant would-be king, the Prince relied on his loyal Jacobite supporters to spirit him away to Benbecula.
Flora MacDonald was not a supporter of the Jacobite cause and was married to a captain in the British Army, Allan MacDonald. However, being asked to assist by a Jacobite relative, Captain Conn O’Neill of Antrim, she did so, later stating it was an act of charity for the Prince’s welfare following the horror of the slaughter at Culloden. With passes for travel provided by her stepfather Hugh MacDonald, commander of the local pro-Government militia, Flora was permitted to travel to Skye with a party of sailors and two maids. One of them, and Irish spinning maid by the name of Betty Burke, was actually the Prince in disguise.
Although Skye was under a military lockdown and unsafe for the Prince to remain, the story of his voyage from the Outer Hebrides to Skye is the stuff of legend, marked in the lyrics of the Skye Boat Song written over a century later.
Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul, she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye
The voyage led to further passage to the island of Raasay and then to the mainland from where, on 19 September Charles left the country aboard the French frigate L’Heureux at a point on the shore of Loch nan Uamh, marked today by a cairn. The Prince was safe on mainland Europe where he remained until dying a broken man, deserted by his wife and his followers, in Rome on 31 January 1788.
Flora’s part in the Prince’s evasion from Government forces had been discovered. She was taken to the Tower of London and was permitted to live in incarceration outside the Tower, under the supervision of the Kings Messenger by the sympathetic intervention of Lady Margaret until her release under the 1747 Act of Indemnity. Among those who raised funds to enable her fresh start was Frederick, Prince of Wales to whom she expressed that her act of humanity for Charles would have been equalled by that for him had he required it. Flora was contemporaneously described as - a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and elegant presence.
With her husband, Flora emigrated to North Carolina where he commanded the Anson Battalion of the loyalist North Carolina Militia during the American Revolutionary War. British defeat cost them dear as all loyalist property was confiscated and he imprisoned. Flora departed Nova Scotia in 1780 and returned to Scotland, living with various family members including Major General Alexander MacLeod at his Dunvegan Castle home. She was rejoined by her husband, released from captivity, four years later. Compensation for what they had lost in North Carolina was poor, and the former captain turned to tenant farming at Peinduin on Skye. Flora died at Kingsburgh, Skye, on 5 March 1790.
Scholars of Gaelic literature argue that the English-language version of events overstate and romanticise Flora’s role in the Prince’s escape and claim she was trying to win favour with both the Stuarts and Hanoverians. Regardless of the truth, and who today can really be sure, as a visitor to Scotland there is an undoubted reverence applied to the memory of Flora MacDonald, and her grave and memorial, over 230 years later, is cared for and often bedecked of fresh flowers.
Discovered by Sharon in the modern part of the same cemetery was a headstone dedicated to Lee Alexander McQueen C.B.E. When she pointed it out the name meant nothing to me at all, but as she was to advise me, he was a famous fashion designer who sadly took his own life aged 40, on 11 February 2010. As I was to discover despite being a born and bred Londoner he was passionate for his Skye heritage and his ashes were scattered here.
At home on the Isle of Wight the word Culloden means little but mention it in Scotland and it’s likely to evoke a passionate response. The battle that was staged on peat sodden moorland a few miles from Inverness as the final act of the 1745 Jacobite Rising in which the army of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was defeated by the forces of the British Government.
I had heard it said that the battlefield possesses a mystical quality and following our visit on 21 October 2022 I can attest to an indefinable but undeniable atmosphere. That day it had been raining hard but eased off as we prepared to venture from the visitor centre to the moor. As a little of the sun’s warmth broke through thin cloud the drenched earth surrendered water in the form of a dense mist that rose from the peat and rolled on the breeze as ethereal cannon smoke of days long gone. I snapped a photograph that captured the moment (above).
On that morning, 16 April 1746, the Jacobites formed up facing north-east (the same orientation as my photograph) on a morning that had also experienced heavy precipitation that cleared as the battle loomed. It was some time before the Government forces marched into view, receiving much verbal abuse from the Jacobites and as described by John Daniel, an Englishman serving with Charles’ army, their opponents were unimpressed – they continued proceeding, like a deep sullen river.
At 500 metres distance from the Jacobites the Government forces halted and artillery was threaded through the ranks to the front. But it was the Bonnie Prince’s guns that opened fire first early in the afternoon. The reply from the north-east was light, two to three minutes duration, or thirty minutes dependent on which account is read. As it ceased, Charles ordered his advance to begin, it was then that the Government batteries changed to canister shot augmented by stumpy coehom mortars from the rear. With little need to take aim with such rounds, the rate of fire increased dramatically from the initial bombardment. The Jacobite advance was further hindered by an attempt to anchor the left flank to an estate boundary, with the right advancing too far, causing fractures and gaps in the line and the loss of several commanding officers. Many fell but others continued until they were near enough to make a Highland charge at the Government left, but the boggy uneven ground leant itself to anything but a speedy assault. When Charles’ left attempted an advance, they too became bogged down. In the words of the Duke of Cumberland – They came running on in their wild manner… but the Royal Scots and the Pulteneys hardly took their firelocks from their shoulders. As the Jacobite attack floundered, those alive amid the dead and dying made off and Cumberland sent his men in pursuit, shooting hot on their heels.
Statistics following the battle are subjective, but most historical accounts agree that the 40-minute battle claimed the lives of up to 2,000 Jacobites and just 50 Government troops. It was a rout, and one that caused the collapse of the Jacobite cause.
Today the battlefield, in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is a barren and bleak place marked by the tragedy of a history not forgotten.
In 1881 a number of grave markers were placed strategically around the moor, easily accessible today via a network of unobtrusive paths. They remain there today. In addition, lines of flags indicating the positions of the opposing armies at the beginning of the battle allow you to ponder the ebb and flow of the moving troops while moving across the very earth they trod and wonder at how any man could have charged across such inhospitable ground in the face of unrelenting shot and shell.
A worthy visit that I recommend is preceded by a read of the battle to gain understanding of the land and who was positioned where to make your walk across the moor relatable. As described above, the 1881 stones stand as memorials, in addition to the battle monument, but the moor as a whole is an honour to the men who fought and died there and an education for all.
James Braidwood - Father of the modern fire brigades
I couldn’t possibly miss this memorial from this feature, no more than I could miss an opportunity to visit it when Sharon and I were spending a few days in Edinburgh in October 2022.
In popular culture the name of James Braidwood means nothing, but to firefighters across the world he means everything for he was the Master of Fire Engines of the first municipal fire brigade in the world and later became the first commander of the forerunner of the London Fire Brigade. Tragically it was his calling that led to his premature death in 1861.
Born in Edinburgh in 1800, James was the tenth child of Janet Mitchell and Francis James Braidwood, a cabinet maker. His early years were spent at the family home in College Street next door to the city’s university until, in 1810, the family established an upholstery firm in Adam Square, enabling them to relocate to a residence in Roxburgh Square.
By the 1820’s fire had ripped the heart out of much of Edinburgh Old Town, and in some other districts, such that the Police Commissioners took on the responsibility of forming a brigade comprising 80 firemen. For their leader 24-year-old James Braidwood was selected.
With an education and work experience in surveying he was considered the most suitable candidate, but he also possessed advanced organisational skills. What made the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment the first municipal brigade was that it was not one based on the lines of the fire insurance brigades – that only attended fires for properties insured by their company. Much of the composition of Braidwood’s establishment were former insurance firemen, with experience of the tasks, but not of working for a large and complex organisation with crossovers and dependencies.
Braidwood divided the city into four companies, one in each of the firefighting districts, Red, Blue, Yellow, and Grey, with their engines both named and painted accordingly, e.g., Yellow Engine. Each district was accommodated in an engine house under the supervision of a Captain and Sergeant with appropriate helmet markings and badges to denote their rank and company. At that stage the firemen were not full-time professionals and were drilled once a week from 04:00 on Wednesday mornings so as not to conflict with their primary employment. Braidwood also saw the advantage of this providing for more training being done in darkness – as firemen would rarely be working in conditions of clear visibility.
As basic as it sounds today, Braidwood introduced two primary procedures that his firemen were to apply at fires – never enter a fire situation in numbers less than a pair (“Several of the firemen have at different times fainted, or become stupefied, from the want of fresh air; but as no one is ever allowed to enter singly, they have been, in all cases, immediately observed by their comrades, and relieved”),
and never walk into a smoke-filled environment but kneel or if necessary, crawl to respire the clean air close to or at floor level – evidencing Braidwood’s early understanding of what today is known as the neutral plane and subsequent over and under-pressure zones.
This enabled his men to follow Braidwood’s overarching doctrine that to extinguish a fire a fireman had to locate its seat and hit it hard with a sustained flow of water, rather than the time-honoured insurance brigade tactic of optimistically directing water into windows from the outside, most of which never reached the seat of the fire.
The combination of Braidwood’s organisational and administrative skills, aggressive firefighting tactics, perfected drills, and high expectation of equipment maintenance, led to the Edinburgh establishment achieving results never before seen in structural firefighting. When he wrote of his work in On the Construction of Fire-Engines and Apparatus; the Training of Firemen; and the Method of Proceeding in cases of Fire news of this first master municipal engines and his methods and success spread throughout the country. Three years later, with London feeling vulnerable and left behind in the race against fire, Braidwood was lured to repeat his achievements in the heart of England, leading to the forerunner of the London Fire Brigade, the London Fire Engine Establishment.
Braidwood achieved precisely the same in the capital and published further works that became the only written principles of the era available to the increasing number of superintendents of borough, town and parish brigades that were being formed across the country. Braidwood’s influence was, and in some cases remains, inexorable.
Even today firefighters and officers at stations in all corners of the nation still discuss operational availability of equipment, appliances, and persons as on, or off, the run, and at some point, every single incident attended will be subject to the declaration of a stop message – two simple second nature elements of Braidwood’s creation that remain with us.
His impact was immense, unsurprisingly his sudden and tragic death was the same.
On 22 June 1861 a fire started at Cotton’s Wharf on Tooley Street that was to last two weeks and cause over £2 million worth of damage to stock and structure and was rated as the worst blaze in the capital since 1666.
London Fire Engine Establishment were alerted at 17:00. James Braidwood arrived soon after and was inspecting the building of origin and issuing the men their brandy ration when at 19:30 a section of the warehouse fell outwards, crushing him beneath the debris alongside one of his firemen. It took his men two days to recover his body.
James was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington on 29 June (pictured - not my photo). Not all of his men could attend as the fire was still venting its fury on the wharves and warehouses of the Thames south bank. Nevertheless, the funeral and cortege were described contemporaneously to have resembled a state occasion.
Incredibly, given his historical and ongoing relevance to the service of fighting fires, no memorial existed until the unveiling of that pictured above in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square in 2008. Although many were involved in the project and fundraising, it is fair to say that it wouldn’t have happened at all if not for the determination and resolve of Dr Frank Rushbrook, former Firemaster of the Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade, who was 93 years old at the time of the unveiling.
"I am quite aware that many people object to the training of firemen; but it would be just as reasonable to give to a mob all the "matériel" of war, and next day expect it to act like a regular army, as to expect engines to be managed with any general prospect of success, unless the men are properly trained and prepared for the duty which is expected from them. Fire is both a powerful and an insidious enemy, and those whose business it is to attack it will best succeed when they have become skilful and experienced in the use of their arms.
To hold the branch is considered the post of honour; and when two engines are working together, I have sometimes difficulty in preventing the men from pressing forward farther than is absolutely necessary. This forwardness is not the result of pecuniary reward for the increase of risk, but a spirit of emulation is at work, and the man entrusted with this duty, if found drawing back, would be completely disgraced."