Air Crashes in the Galloway Hills
By Barry Donnan
The Galloway Hills are located in the south-west of Scotland and are renowned these days as a hill-walkers paradise due to their remoteness and the splendid diversity of the upland terrain. The hills form part of the Southern Uplands and the high ground contains the wreckage of numerous aircraft, dating from the interwar years through to the late 1970s.
Southern Scotland's highest peak The Merrick 843m (2,766ft) is the highest in the area and is rightly described by one outdoor writer, "as the monarch of the southern Highlands".
The Merrick is my local hill and its start point is just four miles from my back door. Over the years I've stood on its summit trig point in rain, snow, sleet and fairly recently during a winter storm when the temperature was minus 15, with the wind gusting to 60/70 mph, as Storm Jorge battered the country.
The highlight of my walking calendar is an ascent onto the Merrick during mid-summer to watch the sunset from its elevated position. Quite a breath-taking experience as the sun drops behind the rugged peaks of the Isle of Arran, bathing the rugged south-western coastline in a golden luminescence. Often, I descend back to Glen Trool under a clear twinkling sky (the area was designated as a Dark Sky Park in 2009) and the only sound is the wind blowing across the tops of the conifer plantations.
In the winter of 1307 King Robert the Bruce and his small band of supporters used these hills as a place of refuge, frequently moving through the valleys and onto the higher terrain to avoid numerous English cavalry patrols searching for them. Bruce eventually adopted highly successful guerrilla warfare tactics and skilfully used the steep terrain above Loch Trool to ambush a patrol by rolling a volley of rocks and boulders onto the men far below.
Despite being massively outnumbered this small victory allowed Bruce to move northwards, and fight once again, eventually turning the tide of the wars in his favor. Bruce is highly regarded as a skillful tactician who used the natural landscape and terrain to his advantage again later in his career.
A granite monument on the northern shore of Loch Trool stands on a rocky ledge commemorating the Battle of Glen Trool (1307) and was erected by locals in the summer of 1929.
As a dedicated hill-walker I have explored the area for well over thirty years and have developed a deep love and affinity with the landscape and the area. In 2014 I moved to Glentrool Village within Galloway Forest Park, which allows me unlimited access to a rather beautiful and unspoilt corner of Scotland all year round.
One of my interests as a historian is in people who have lived or are intertwined with the upland environment and of course the stories that lie behind it all down through the ages.
Six groups of hills form the Galloways, and I have focused initially on the Rhinns of Kells, which is a 17km ridge and its highest point Corserine, which has witnessed a number of air accidents over the years. One well documented accident in particular highlights the hazards posed by these hills to aviators, and also the difficulties faced by rescue and recovery teams.
Well over 40 aircraft have crashed here over the years, although the exact figure is likely to be much higher. In my spare time (and when studies allow) I have been researching a significant number of other air crashes that have been forgotten about for one reason or another.
Aviation first came to Galloway, on 10th August 1913 when a Maurice Farman MF7 from 2 Squadron Royal Flying Corps landed at Cults Farm, Castle Kennedy, creating huge interest. Local schools were closed, and special trains were also laid on to mark the unique occasion. Later in 1941, the landing site was designated as RAF Castle Kennedy.
In 1917, a Sea Scout Zero airship operating from the Royal Naval Air Station at Luce Bay, suffered complete engine failure while on patrol. Strong south-westerly winds blew the craft some twenty miles towards the high ground of the Galloway Hills. The pilot crash landed the airship on Larg Hill, south of Loch Trool. The crew were uninjured. The airship was stripped down on the exposed hill-side and was taken to a nearby farm by horse drawn sledges. This incident was likely the first documented air accident in the Galloway Hills.
On the 9th January 1939, Avro Anson L9153 took off from Prestwick to conduct a night navigation exercise. The aircraft was flown by three members of the RAF, and a civilian wireless operator. During the flight the aircraft became unaware of his position and the navigator contacted Renfrew airfield for clarification. Shortly after, radio contact was lost, and the aircraft and its crew were reported missing.
Early the following morning, William McCubbin, a hill-shepherd who lived in Backhill of the Bush, in the isolated Doon-Dee valley under the Rhinns of Kells range, noticed a plume of black smoke rising from Meikle Craigtarson. The Meikle is a huge protruding western spur of Galloway's second highest hill, the mighty Corserine (2,671ft).
Backhill of Bush is remote even by today's standards and is often mentioned in local mountain literature as one the remotest dwellings in the whole of southern Scotland. (Image 4).
McCubbin walked up the extremely steep spur, taking over an hour to reach the plume of smoke. The Anson was completely destroyed, and the four aircrew had been fatally injured. He then set off down the hill-side to inform the authorities about the location of the wreckage. This must have taken considerable amount of time, as it was roughly six miles to the nearest roadhead, through rough terrain.
In many of the newspaper archives of Galloway air crashes, that I have examined, hill-shepherds like William McCubbin and others were often the first to spot anything unusual in the hills, and their local knowledge was also used to guide search teams in and out of the area. They played a pivotal role that has largely gone unacknowledged over the years.
News eventually reached the RAF officers at Prestwick airport that the wreck had been found. The nearest airfield to the crash site had the responsibility of recovery. Prestwick was fifty miles away. Flight Lieutenant David McIntyre hastily pulled together a stretcher party of forty men. McIntyre was no stranger to the mountain environment and challenging winter conditions.
In 3rd April 1933, David made aviation history with the first flight over Mount Everest in an open cockpit Westland Wallace bi-plane. As they flew towards the roof of the world, strong downdrafts pulled McIntyre's aircraft from 33,000ft rapidly downwards, before updrafts blew it back up again. This allowed them to literally skim just 100ft above the world's highest mountain, in freezing temperatures of minus 50, before returning to their landing strip in India.
McCubbin guided the recovery party of forty men back onto the hill later that day and were astonished to find another aircraft had crashed near the wreckage of the Anson. The Tiger Moth L6932 also from Prestwick had been searching for the lost Anson on the Kells range and flew down for a closer look when he spotted the burning wreckage. The aircraft hit severe turbulence and it impacted into nearby boggy ground. The aircraft was destroyed. Both crew were unhurt and managed to crawl out of the cockpit and then headed for Backhill of Bush.
McIntyre's men set off for the crash site to assess the arduous task that lay ahead of them. The conditions were atrocious on the hill-side. Winter daylight hours in Scotland are extremely short. It was already dark and well below freezing. Using hurricane lamps, the team waded through waist deep icy streams. Many were slipping on the ice, wearing ordinary shoes and thin dress trousers while their breaths froze in the winter air.
The decision was taken to walk back to McCubbin's small cottage and make the recovery of their flying colleagues the following day. Backhill of Bush was renowned for its hospitality, and the McCubbin's squeezed a few men into the cottage. Others slept in the barn outside. The majority, however, slept outside under their jackets. No doubt, it was a long and cold night overlooking the Dungeon of the Buchan.
Mrs. McCubbin cooked a breakfast for all the men before they set off once again. This time they managed to recover the deceased aircrew and began to stretcher them off the hill through extremely remote and boggy hill country. William McCubbin skilfully guided the party towards Loch Doon. There were no tracks, no paths. The men were exhausted. One or two collapsed but got back up and carried on. Eventually they made the road head where they met waiting vehicles. Their mission was over. Until the next call out.
With the onset of the Second World War, a number of RAF airfields opened on the periphery of the Galloway Hills. West Freugh, Dumfries, and RAF Wigtown lost a number of aircraft and crews. Wigtown in particular suffered heavy losses. Over a four-year period between 1941 and 1945 the Baldoon base lost twenty-seven aircraft with the loss of sixty-seven lives.
One senior officer said, "Being a training unit, Wigtown had many men with limited medical categories, which meant that the servicing personnel, all fit men, had to provide the rescue parties. This hindered routine maintenance and since there no specialised equipment, such as jeeps to carry the injured, the party size was based on 16 men per casualty to allow for reliefs."
He continued, "At the beginning of 1944 we were given a jeep and a four-wheel drive ambulance, but in practise they were of limited use because they could only get a shortish distance off the roads. I recall an Anson which flew straight into the side of Cairnsmore of Fleet. The scene of the crash was about four miles from any road and the bodies had to be carried up to the top of Cairnsmore before starting the journey back. Before they got to the road the men were so exhausted - it was two in the morning - I had to give orders to leave the deceased aircrew under the lee of a wall, and send out a fresh party in the morning to recover them."
Eventually a dedicated Mountain Rescue Unit was set up at RAF Wigtown in early 1944, one of only four in Scotland. There was significant collaboration between the base and their colleagues in RAF Llandwrog in Wales, who also operated near mountainous terrain and had set up a pioneering Mountain Rescue Unit. Wigtown also enlisted the help of an ex-member of the Alpine Corps, who trained the thirty volunteer members in skills, such as mountain navigation, coordinated search techniques and other necessary skills, allowing them to operate in this remote corner of Scotland.
The area continues to be used by fast-jet and rotary wing aircrew as a designated low-flying zone, which are cleared to 250ft and 80ft respectively. For those interested in learning more about the area, the old RAF Dumfries, is the site of an excellent Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum.
There is also the Solway Military Trail, featuring four trails including the above aviation museum.
Finally, if you visit the south-west of Scotland, be sure to pack your walking boots and spend a wee while exploring the beautiful Galloway Hills. You won't be disappointed!
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