Kindness. Again. (The Syrian refugee crisis)

The first collection. All of this was donated in just an hour or two (photo by Tom Hodgetts)

The first collection. All of this was donated in just an hour or two (photo by Tom Hodgetts)

Okay, I was way too quick off the mark with my previous post. Since writing it, the folk of Skye have excelled themselves in their kindness again.

You’d have to live on the moon to have not heard about the Syrian refugee crisis and the charities that have sprung up to help the people camped out in Calais.
Because of the weather and conditions over in France, the items that the migrants need are things such as tents, walking boots, waterproofs and tarpaulins -all things which are very much everyday staples for life on Skye.

CalAid has been the most prolific of the aid organisations so when I saw a donations drive being organised in Fort William and Inverness I asked them whether we could have a collection here in Skye and add it to theirs. The response was quick and I was put in touch with other people in the area who’ve made similar enquiries.

Long story short, we’re now deep in the middle of setting up donations drop-off points all over Skye and the response from local people has been overwhelming.
I was stunned to find so many other people who wanted to start up a collection and to see how many people were willing to donate every spare rucksack, tent, sleeping bag, etc etc that they had. A chap called Tom took the first car-load of stuff over to Inverness yesterday and within an hour or two he’d been given so much that he could barely close his boot.
The responses on the Facebook group, too, have been so quick and so staggering that it’s been an almost full-time job to try and keep everyone updated and informed.

The first donations packed into Tom's car and ready to go to Inverness (photo by Tom Hodgetts)

The first donations packed into Tom’s car and ready to go to Inverness (photo by Tom Hodgetts)

Aside from the collections, there are people here who want to go even further to help the refugees.
A man called Stuart wrote a letter to our councillors suggesting that we facilitate a programme here to help house and integrate the migrants.
Of course, unlike simply collecting aid donations, this is a political issue that not everyone agrees with (each person is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs). But seriously, if that’s not an example of ‘Highland Hospitality’ and just general kindness then I don’t know what is!

This whole tidal-wave of generosity is something I feel like I’ve witnessed here before; at the whale rescue when local people were keen to do everything they possibly could to help the effort.
Whales or people, there’s a spirit of charitableness up here that is really quite extraordinary.

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To see what we’re up to please visit the Skye & Lochalsh Volunteers For Calais Facebook page here:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/973882062670345/?fref=ts

Remembrance Day – A Solitary, Remote Memorial

I haven’t posted in a while because I have a couple of drafts to finish and I’ve been trying to keep the blog in neat chronological order.
However, today was a particularly meaningful day for me so I don’t mind waiving my rule to tell you about it.
It’s quite a long post (that may be a bit serious in parts) but hopefully it’s still a vaguely interesting thing to read…

Today I had planned to drive down to Portree where they hold a Remembrance Sunday service in the main square. Like most people, I always try to do something to acknowledge the day; it’s only a small amount of time to spend on reflection and it’s something that I think is important.
In the end I decided to pay my respects at a place closer to home that I’d heard of but never visited before.

Dawn on the Trotternish Peninsula by David Noten

Dawn on the Trotternish Peninsula by David Noten

I live on the Trotternish Peninsula and behind my house there stands a series of cliff-like rock formations that make up the Trotternish Ridge, a kind of backbone to this part of the island. The tallest part of this is Beinn Edra (a ‘Ben’ means a mountain peak. Like Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond and so on).

Towards the very end of WWII, on the 3rd March 1945, an American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ was flying over the Hebrides en-route from America to Italy. As it reached Skye it was caught in a thick fog and flew low to gain visibility. This is when it collided with the craggy rocks near the summit of Beinn Edra. All nine members of the crew were killed, eight of them instantly.

The remains of the plane have been left relatively untouched at the crash site on the slope of the hill facing towards Staffin. This is partly due to the fact that the area is only accessible via the East side over remote, boggy moorland.

I scoured the few blogs and websites that mentioned walking up to the site, saving their photos as location references. There are no paths and without an OS map or GPS co-ordinates I only half expected to find it. Also, as I left at 1pm (which only left me three or four hours of daylight to find it and get back) I didn’t have time to do much searching if I veered off-track.

A resident of Maligar

A resident of Maligar

I parked outside a farm in the hamlet of Maligar and began walking West across the heather.
The ascent was indeed as arduous as the websites had mentioned. Car-sized hillocks of peat were criss-crossed by wet bog. At some points the grass was solid but then with the next step it gave way to liquid and found myself in water past my knees. Heather covered holes which I slipped down often.

I cursed myself for not fuelling-up properly before I set out; I’d only had a couple of cups of tea and I felt noticeably weaker for it. A silly mistake, especially when I didn’t have time to take a break and catch my breath.
But as I stumbled over the bogs I thought of the crofters back in 1945 who had raced up the moor to try to help the crew of the B-17. Then I thought of the other people of WWII who were fighting on foot across wet ground that may have not been dissimilar to this.
With that, the attempt to get to the Beinn Edra crash site gained a little bit of meaning in itself; the physical effort I put in became a kind of small personal thank you.

Rough moorland

Rough moorland

Eventually I neared the craggy top of the hill and I started seeing the formations that matched those in the pictures saved on my phone. I scanned the hill but only saw rocks.
Still, this was definitely the right place, I just needed to get higher. I forgot about my tiredness and shortness of breath as I concentrated on getting to the site.
Suddenly, right in front of me there was (something which I now know to be) an engine supercharger; a corroded but generally intact part of plane machinery.

The first piece of wreckage, an engine supercharger (I think)

The first piece of wreckage, an engine supercharger, underneath the crags where the plane hit

I crouched down and put out my hand to touch it. As my fingers touched the cold metal I burst into tears.
I don’t know why, it’s only a lump of scrap, after all. Maybe it had something to do with the way it had been misshapen by obvious force. Maybe it was its unnaturalness on the hillside. But it was almost instinctive and I know for certain that I wont have been the only visitor to have responded in this way.

From there I began to see the other fragments. Everywhere.
Huge bits and tiny pieces. Initially camouflaged amidst the rocks they now appeared in all shapes and sizes. I now understand the officials you see on the news wandering aimlessly through crash sites; here is no centre to pick through, the remains are literally scattered everywhere.
With this, a kind of sicky feeling dawns on you as you realise the level of violence an impact must have to do this. The only mercy here is that such a massive impact would have meant death was swift.

Scattered wreckage

Scattered wreckage

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Most of us have only, thankfully, experienced crash sites on tv. Reporters and eye-witnesses seem to always describe the wreckage as ‘crumpled’ or ‘twisted’. Today I learnt that this is entirely accurate.
The remnants are unsettling, I think, because their odd shapes are a visual memento of savage force overpowering a familiarly strong material. Their crushed and bent bodies reminded me of those soft metallic pie/tart cases which you can scrunch in your fist when you’re finished with them.

Crumpled wreckage

Crumpled wreckage

All in all, it was a moving place to visit, moreso than I had anticipated. Somehow the age of the incident had not softened the power of the crash site. Perhaps it’s because there was so much of the wreckage still there. Perhaps it was something to do seeing it on Remembrance Day…

There’s also a memorial plaque up there, simple but smart. I’m glad that there is something other than twisted metal as a reminder of the aircraft and its crew. I put my paper poppy through a hole on the post to show that someone had been up to pay their respects.

The memorial plaque

The memorial plaque

Pieces of other poppies alongside the weathering metal

Pieces of other Remembrance poppies alongside the weathering metal

I noticed a few other poppy remnants as I climbed up to an engine just under the rock face.
As I got closer I saw that someone had attached a small wooden cross to it. It was greying with age and whatever had been tied to the middle had weathered away leaving only string. I wondered who had left it and what it had said.
Reaching for my notepad I wrote out a few appropriate lines of one of the few Remembrance poems I know, one by Dylan Thomas called ‘Death Shall Have No Dominion’, and tucked it in behind the cross. Being on paper it would quickly disintegrate but for the moment it was my little tribute.

The engine with the cross

The engine with the cross

With the sun dipping behind the hills it was time to turn back; I couldn’t risk trying to cross the boggy moor in the dark.
Just before I left I took some pictures of the wreckage against the backdrop of the rosy, sun-tinted landscape. There was something strange, wrong almost, about the juxtaposition of something so sad and tragic against something so pretty. It’s a cruel outcome where the crew never even saw it, they only experienced its savagery.
But still, there’s a peace up here that I hope does the airmen justice. The entire crash site is a memorial that today had a tranquility which belied it’s tragic history. It was a special, heartbreaking place to visit and the men who lost their lives there will certainly be remembered in my mind for many years to come.

A panorama over the crash site looking out over Staffin towards the mainland

A panorama over the crash site looking out over Staffin towards the mainland

A beautiful view with tragic memories

A beautiful view with tragic memories

In Memory Of:

Paul M. Overfield (pilot)

Leroy E. Cagle (co-pilot)

Charles K. Jeanblanc (navigator)

Arthur W. Kopp (radio operator)

Harold D. Blue (engineer)

John H. Vaughan (gunner)

Harold A. Fahselt (gunner)

George S. Aldrich (gunner)

Carter D. Wilkinson (gunner)

The upper part of the debris field

The upper part of the debris field

To anyone who would like to know more about the accident and the people who tried to help please take a look at this archive page from Remembering Scotland At War:
(Beinn Edra accounts start about halfway down the page with the first article titled: ‘Tubaist Bheinn Eadra/This Terrible Accident Happened’)
http://www.rememberingscotlandatwar.org.uk/Accessible/Exhibition/209/War-comes-to-the-crofters-3-Buaidh-a-chogaidh-air-na-croitearan-3-

Red moor

Red moor

Just a final note: As I walked back down to the car I crossed a section of the moor covered with rusty-looking grass. Under the deep pink of the sky the whole landscape looked a deep red colour; a Remembrance poppy field red. As I stopped to find my camera a flock of tiny songbirds swooped over me and followed the curve of the slope behind towards the crash site. A fitting, fleeting memorial I thought to the men who lived and died in the skies.

Death Shall Have No Dominion -Dylan Thomas

Death Shall Have No Dominion -Dylan Thomas