As the nation pauses to remember its war dead, Sandra Dick finds maintaining Scotland’s 20,000 war graves is a neverending challenge
It was simply a training flight, not supposed to be as fraught with danger as a Spitfire dogfight or a Lancaster bombing mission.
And while it was at the height of the Second World War, the crew of the Avro Anson N9857 XF-F must have looked upon the journey from their base in Kinloss over the Highlands, across Cape Wrath and back, as little more than a routine outing.
They were in the hands of a highly experienced bomber pilot – F/O James Steyn, 23 years old and originally from Johannesburg in South Africa who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross just months earlier.
Take-off on the morning of April 13, 1941 was smooth enough. Before long, however, the temperamental Highland weather would close in. The little twin-engine plane, with ice forming on its wooden wings and a blizzard closing in, would be tossed, battered and ultimately beaten.
Its final resting place could barely be more remote. Almost 20 miles northeast of Ullapool, more than 2,000 feet above the nearest village, the little plane and its six-man crew plunged to the rocky surface of Ben More Assynt.
Snow covered the crash site and it would be weeks before the plane and its occupants would be found. Too challenging to remove the bodies, the six men were respectfully buried close to the summit with a cairn memorial to mark the spot which in 2010 was replaced by an inscribed granite block, delivered by helicopter.
The spot, says Iain Anderson, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s regional supervisor in Scotland, is just one of dozens of remote graves which he and his team meticulously care for, regardless of the distance and the difficulties of reaching them.
“It’s three-and-a-half hours' walk to the nearest road,” he says. “But that is the extent that we will go to. Whether it means travelling on foot, on bike or Rib to an uninhabited island – we look after every war grave.”
This weekend – as every Remembrance Sunday – it is images of the row upon seemingly endless row of white Portland limestone headstones that cover acres of foreign land that tend to accompany the haunting strains of the Last Post.
Yet as Anderson points out, there are 21,052 Commonwealth War Graves in Scotland – a number that, perhaps surprisingly, is increasing all the time – with some scattered among the most hauntingly beautiful and isolated spots in the country.
There are war graves that stand alone, the final resting place of a solitary serviceman, some perched on the edges of uninhabited islands with only the wildlife and crashing waves for company, on the fringes of deserted glens and, such as the poignant memorial to the six airmen, on windswept rocky summits.
Others cared for by the Scottish team include 261 Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves in Iceland and 61 located in the Faroe Islands.
On the Monach Islands, four miles west of North Uist, uninhabited since 1942 and where every autumn around 10,000 grey seals come ashore to mate, the remains of Lieutenant WA McNeill, a Royal Navy Reserve, rest alone.
He was one of 354 to lose their lives after the SS Laurentic sunk off the coast of County Donegal in January 1917 after striking two mines laid by a German U-boat. His body washed ashore on the lonely island, where he was respectfully buried and a CWGC headstone erected in tribute to his service.
Graves are found across the west coast islands. Closer to the mainland on Ulva are the graves of three Merchant Navy seamen. At Kilmore Cemetery at Dervaig, around seven miles southwest of Tobermory Pier on Mull, stand the distinctive granite CWGC stones of seven more servicemen – just a few of several war graves on the island.
Among the most challenging to reach is at Kilchoan Cemetery on the Knoydart Peninsula, a mile southeast of the village of Inverie. Inaccessible by road, it requires a boat trip from Mallaig and a long hike to reach the final resting place of Chief Stoker Albert Wall, one of 337 crew and officers lost in January 1942 when HMS Curacoa was accidentally sliced in half by the ocean liner Queen Mary as she steamed north of Ireland with 10,000 American troops on board.
Graves tended by the CWGC team are scattered across Jura, Islay and Iona, from tiny Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides to Harris and Lewis, Uist and Skye. Many, explains Anderson, are seamen whose lifeless bodies were washed ashore, some never to be identified.
In some cases, reaching an island grave to clean it or remove choking weeds requires a hair-raising ride on board a Rib and fingers crossed for good enough weather to make the journey.
“The Monach Islands are about as remote as it gets,” adds Anderson, who has visited Lieutenant McNeill’s grave, and oversees the maintenance of others at 1,200 locations dotted around Scotland.
“It is a lovely but very lonely place.
“There are many remote graves which are challenging to reach. And they are all checked as part of our regular work.”
That includes the single First World War grave at Stroma, the uninhabited island at the north tip of the mainland, two miles northwest of John O’Groats – final resting place of 21-year-old HMS Victory deckhand David Mason.
Further north still is Shetland then Orkney, at Osmondwall Cemetery on the Island of Hoy, on a slope overlooking a bay, where Anderson and his team take care of 42 First and Second World War casualties.
As well as maintaining the war graves of Commonwealth servicemen and, in increasing numbers, servicewomen who are regularly being identified as deserving the honour, the team look after the graves of Germans, Poles, French, Belgian and a single Russian servicemen all buried on Scottish soil.
In many cases, the war graves they tend may not be instantly recognised – rather than the cool, grey granite of most CWGC Scottish graves, the families of many of the fallen chose to inter loved ones in family plots.
Regardless, says Anderson, they are cared for just the same, with the same attention to detail and respect as the 1.7 million memorials and graves tended by the CWGC in more than 150 countries in the world.
The scale of that task is now being explored on a new CWGC website, fourcorners.cwgc.org, which explains the commission’s staff work in lesser-known cemeteries in often unexpected locations. Among the graves featured is that of the six crewmen who perished on Ben More Assynt.
Despite the passing of time, Anderson says relatives today are as appreciative as ever for the efforts of the teams which ensure the graves are kept in the best possible condition – especially those in hard to reach, remote spots.
According to Anderson, the challenges of maintaining some remote graves is overtaken by the importance of ensuring each one is never forgotten.
“It’s varied and interesting,” he says, “and it’s moving – because every single grave tells a story.”