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After our outing to Corrie Mhic Fhearchair (see post #227) I was itching to get in a longer day on a crossing of Beinn Eighe, but we had planned to head further north, so that would have to wait for now. Our Scottish trip in May had been based round a few locations that we might (or might not) visit, but we also had plans to meet up with friends John and Miv along the way. Slightly nearer at Gairloch were our other mates, Richie and Babs, so north it was.
Having a Border Collie is one way of guaranteeing a decent length walk every day, but in Scotland our daily dog-walk had the bonus of fantastic mountain scenery. If we have fun walking ‘Mist’ then Richie and Babs must have three times the fun with their three Collies, ‘Caizer’, ‘A.J.’ and ‘Maisie’. So, with four dogs and four humans ready to go, we were heading for the Fairy Lochs near Gairloch.
The Fairy Lochs are said to take their name from the small hill of Sìthean Mòr which translates as ‘Big Fairy Hill’. Small in this case is a mere 225 metres above sea level, so the climb wasn’t going to set pulses racing. We set out from Shieldaig, just a few kms south of Gairloch, and headed across moorland by muddy tracks before we started to gain height and found ourselves at the Fairy Lochs.
The small summit of Sìthean Mòr is the highest ground for miles around, and marks the northern point of a low plateau of hollows and small lochs. It’s a peaceful and tranquil place but one that has at least one sad story to tell – on 13 June 1945 a B-24 Liberator aircraft of the USAAF crashed here with the loss of fifteen lives.
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The B-24 Liberator was a highly successful heavy bomber used by the United States in WW2, and although the B-17 Flying Fortresses was better known, the Liberator was produced in greater numbers than any other aircraft before or since, with over 18,000 being built. The aircraft involved in the accident was returning to the USA via Prestwick in Scotland, followed by a staging post in Iceland, and was routed over Stornoway in the Hebrides, but for reasons not established, the B-24 took a course over Wester Ross on the mainland.
The full story is not known, but it has been speculated that an engine fire occurred during the flight. What is known though, is that the aircraft struck the summit of Slioch, losing part of the bomb-bay doors in the impact. However, the B-24 was still airworthy and continued flying west for another 20 kms (12½ miles) until it reached the Fairy Lochs.
It appears that the pilot, First Lieutenant Jack Ketchum, was trying to crash land the damaged aircraft on what probably appears from the air to be fairly flat ground – it was certainly a better bet than the nearby mountainous peaks of Wester Ross. In reality though, it’s a confusion of small lakes, grassy hummocks and rock walls. The B-24 must have slid along the plateau before impacting with a small cliff – the crew of nine and six passengers were all killed in the crash.
Luck can sometimes be fickle. There was no need for the aircraft to have been there – WW2 had finished a little over a month earlier, and aircrews were being repatriated to the USA by sea. However, Ketchum and his crew were given the chance to return sooner by ferrying a B-24 back to the US, so they must have jumped at the chance to be home early. Another six airmen took the opportunity to hitch a ride back.
Luck can be useful, but being good at what you do is sometimes more important. Although only 22, Ketchum had 33 combat missions behind him and on two occasions had been declared as “missing in action” after crash landing, once in Belgium and another time in Russia, but Ketchum and his crew always managed to get back to base. He was an experienced and skilful pilot and he and his crew were considered to be veterans. This time, being good wasn’t quite enough, and their luck ran out at the Fairy Lochs.
The crash site has been treated with respect over the years, with much of the aircraft left in place and not looted by souvenir hunters as in more popular areas. This respect is partly due to the location being relatively off the beaten track, but the site is also unusual in that it has been declared a war grave, and so deserving of extra respect. The names of those who died are included on a memorial plaque mounted on the rock wall where their journey ended.
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Rather than heading back the way we had walked out, we made a small circular route by continuing southwest towards Loch Braigh Horrisdale, where we picked up a good track heading back to the vehicles at Shieldaig. Richie and Babs were heading on to John O’ Groats (we did try to talk them out of it!) but we were only going just past Ullapool to the hills of Assynt – we had an appointment there with Stac Pollaidh.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock