Friday, 11 May 2012

Balquhidder Bomber Crash

Whitley Bomber Crash Balquhidder Glen 1940
On the 24th November 1940 about one o'clock in the morning a Whitley Bomber crashed in Fhathan Ghlinne (the ringed glen) just over the top of the hill from Balquhidder Glen. The plane had left Ardoyne in Ireland on coastal command patrolling the Irish west coast and had become lost. 

My father, James Fergusson better known as ‘Jimmy Muirlaggan’, had been out till late that night and on his way home saw a glow in the sky but it was a bitterly cold wet night with poor visibility and he did not think of a plane crashing in the hills.

Whitley Bomber wreckage in Balquhidder Glen 1940
Next morning he and his shepherd were out on the hills checking the sheep, my father on Muirlaggan, and Angus Robertson the shepherd, heading for Tuarach, came across a man trying to cross the river between Lochs Voil and Doine. Unfortunately Tuarach house was unoccupied and the man was trying to reach Monachyle where there were people living. He had a plank of wood and was hoping to swim the deep channel when Angus found him. Having ascertained that the man was British and that he was Sgt. Hamilton the rear  gunner of a plane that had crashed on the top of the hill, Angus tried to help him back to Muirlaggan but he was too weak to walk far so Angus ran the three miles to the farm to get a horse to collect the gunner and bring him to safety.

Someone from Muirlaggan went down to the Post Office in the village to send a wire to the police and by the time my Father came off the hill much later in the day he was met by a policeman who asked if he had seen a plane or survivors on the hill. The police wanted my father to turn round and climb the hill again looking for the plane or survivors but he insisted on first speaking to Sgt Hamilton who was lying on the couch in Muirlaggan kitchen being looked after by my father’s housekeeper. From Sgt Hamilton my father knew exactly where to look for the plane but by this time it was after three  o’clock  and darkness was falling. Joined by another Constable and some specials they all set off to climb the four miles to where the plane had crashed but they found no more survivors . The police Sgt had instructions that if the plane was found someone had to stay on guard all night, but my father would not allow him to stay in the bitter cold and lashing rain and quite forcibly brought him back to Muirlaggan having guaranteed that no-one would interfere with the plane in the night and that he would surely have perished himself if he had stayed on the hilltop all night.

The Police, joined by ten men from the Air Force all stayed at Muirlaggan that night and set off at first light next day. My father and Angus had two horses with pack saddles to bring the bodies down to a waiting Army truck .

Sgt Hamilton’s account of the flight to my father was that the plane had left Ardoyne on their mission although the wireless operator and the observer were strangers to the rest of the crew and that one man had gone up for a joy flight (sic). The observer lost bearings then the wireless failed so they got completely lost . Having flown over Glasgow thinking that it was Belfast and that they were over the sea they flew low over Aberfoyle coming north before turning west straight into the hillside about fifty feet from the summit. The tail broke off and Sgt Hamilton had to crawl along the wreckage to get out. The front of the plane went on fire with the rest of the crew inside. As soon as it was light he climbed to the top of the hill where he could see the glen and Lochs Voil and Doine . Thinking that he was looking at the Lakes of Killarney and that he could be interned he decided to risk coming down the hill to rest in Tuarach house before attempting to cross the river to Monachyle. 

The guns were salvaged by the Air Force at the time , the bombs that were on board were set off in the hills and the propeller was later  taken to the Forestry Commission’s small museum in Strathyre, now moved elsewhere, possibly to the air museum at Scone. All the remaining parts have been removed over the years.  Further information gleaned much later were that the Whitley bomber crew was Sgt Barnfather, Sgt Westoby, Sgt Curtis,  Sgt Perfect, Sgt Hamilton (the survivor) and P/O Whitsed whose relatives came over from South Africa in 1990 to ask me if they could see where the tragedy had taken place.

Postscripts to this story;
                                                                                                                     
Fhathan Ghlinne my father’s correct Gaelic spelling of the area not as now spelled on OS maps. Sgt William Stanley Hamilton disappeared after he left Muirlaggan and has never been found to my knowledge. The other airmen were buried in Grangemouth. Some say that the plane left from Aldergrove  airfield in Ireland but Sgt Hamilton said Ardoyne in his statement to my father.

The photographs were sent to me by Mr Forshaw who had been to the crash site some time soon after the accident.

LETI: Catriona Oldham, who wrote this account of an event that may otherwise have been forgotten, still lives at Muirlaggan in Balquhidder.  Alongside her husband Lawrie, Catriona  runs Muirlaggan's Lochside Cottages and caravan holiday accommodation in BalquhidderVoil. Catriona has also written for the Loch Earn Tourism Initiative website about Clan Fergusson and her families presence around Balquhidder for generations. 

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