#228 – The Fairy Lochs, Shieldaig near Gairloch

The Fairy Lochs

(Some images will zoom – Left click to zoom in, use browser return arrow to go back)

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.

The route, taken clockwise (The flag indicates the memorial described in the text)

Part of Wester Ross, including the Fairy Lochs walk, Slioch and the mountains of Torridon

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.

Setting out from Shieldaig ….

…. the route crosses moorland ….

…. before gaining height ….

….to arrive at the Fairy Lochs

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 rocky plateau of the Fairy Lochs ….

…. a peaceful and tranquil place

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.

*   *   *   *   *

Consolidated B-24H Liberator

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 first impact was on Slioch before crashing 20 kms west at the Fairy Lochs

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.

The crash site and memorial plaque

Closer view of the crash site ….

….and a view of the detail on the memorial plaque

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.

Aircraft debris in one of the small lochs

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.

More aircraft debris – the dogs give an idea of scale

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.

Looking back to the crash site, and the small cliff above

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.

*   *   *   *   *

One of several small lochs that make up the Fairy Lochs ….

…. collectively named ‘Lochan Sgeireach’ (The Rocky Lakes)

One of the small outcrops surrounding the lakes

Border Collie ‘Mist’ by one of the cairns on the return route

Starting to descend ….

…. heading towards Loch Braigh Horrisdale

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.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

About Paul Shorrock

I've been mucking about in the mountains for longer than I care to mention. I started out by walking my local hills, then went on to rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Still doing it, and still getting a buzz. I'm now sharing the fun, through my guided walking business (Hillcraft Guided Walking) and by writing routes for other publishers, mainly Walking World and Discovery Walking Guides. Just to make sure I keep really busy, I am also currently a member of my local mountain rescue team.
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7 Responses to #228 – The Fairy Lochs, Shieldaig near Gairloch

  1. Andrew says:

    22, unbelievable 😦

  2. I didn’t even know about those Fairy Lochs, even though I’ve been in that area a few times, never mind the crash site.

  3. Very enjoyable read, man. I’ve always wanted to find that crash site too, I didn’t imagine it would be as interesting as it looks though, what with the remaining wreckage. Maybe next time I’m in the area I’ll hike for it. This has been the best read on the Highlands I’ve found here, thank you for sharing it.

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