Josna Rege

13. Paradise Lost

In 1980s, Britain, Childhood, history, Music, Nature, places, Stories on March 7, 2010 at 8:14 am
Scotland (on wikitravel, photographer: Daniel Stockman)

Scotland (on wikitravel, photographer: Daniel Stockman)

Cousin Jacky, Andrew, and I were in the Scottish Highlands with 20-month-old Nikhil, picnicking in a secluded glen on a perfect summer’s day in July. I was in a state of bliss as we traveled down the songlines of The Road to the Isles:

Sure, by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go,
By heather tracks wi’ heaven in their wiles;
If it’s thinkin’ in your inner heart braggart’s in my step,
You’ve never smelled the tangle o’ the Isles.

And now here we were, in the tangle of the heather with Baby Nikhil, taking a wee rest on the way to Mallaig and the ferry to the Isle of Skye. Andrew had already discovered wild blueberries on the banks of the burn that sparkled down the glen. Jacky had pulled off her shoes and was cooling her feet in the clear water. Nikhil was beaming like a little Buddha in the midst of all this beauty. Paradise.

Suddenly out of nowhere came an ear-splitting roar, louder than anything we thought possible, and then louder still. Jerking my head up the valley, I saw an incredibly low-flying military aircraft heading straight for us at tremendous speed. I flung myself over Nikhil to protect him from the sight and the sound, and as it swooped and swept over us, we felt that we were being strafed. When it was gone, leaving a cloud of foul exhaust in its wake, we managed to remain calm so as not to frighten Nikhil, packed up the picnic, and got back on the road. But our former peace could not be recovered.

I have since learned that many locations in the Highlands, including the valley where we had picnicked unawares, were and continue to be regular practice sites for low-flying (even “ultra-low-flying”) supersonic Royal Air Force and NATO aircraft, and that these practices were particularly frequent in the mid-1980s when we took our trip to Scotland. Decades of civilian complaints have been to no avail, as the RAF insists that the practice is militarily necessary.

At the time, I raged against the RAF and vowed to write a letter to The Times; before long, though, in accordance with the song, the far Cuilins were putting love on us again. We traveled on over the sea to Skye, where we enjoyed a rare 36 consecutive hours without rain, with Nikhil prancing down the peat-covered Cuilins like a lamb. Apparently the number and frequency of these low-flying military exercises has been reduced somewhat since the end of the Cold War; but for me, the song’s sentimental image of “pluck[ing] bracken for a wink on Mother’s knee” now evokes not only golden slumbers but a bombing raid.

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  1. This is very fascinating. I can only surmise that those low flying planes in question might have been Jaguars (which are renowned for their ability to fly real low). In an effort to somewhat moderate the strong sentiment that this event has seemed to invoke in you; I’d like to quote a funny incident about Jaguar Pilots. This story goes back to the First Gulf War. Two Pilots were flying very low (ca 16 feet) over the Iraqi Desert when they suddenly saw a few camels and Bedouins gathered around an oasis. The control tower caught this message over the radio;

    Pilot 1: “I see people, fast approaching in 8 secs”
    Pilot 2: “Should we fly over them or under them?”

  2. Thank you, Pinu, for reintroducing some humor! I know this one was a bit gloomy. But boy, was that plane loud! Since then the Ministry of Defense has started posting times and places of these low-flying supersonic practices, but in 1986 (no internet) and as tourists, we were completely unaware of them. I noticed while looking up this phenomenon yesterday that The Lonely Planet travel guide to Scotland now has a warning about them, so they are still a jarring experience for travelers to these remote and beautiful places.

  3. hi , yes it was quite a shock when that noise appeared so suddenly, so loudly and literally out of the blue – totally unexpected and out of context

    jo, andrew, do you also remember nikhil pointing at the car in the car ferry to skye [ now a toll bridge, although islanders have been complaining about the toll, so not sure if toll now relaxed] with the desending deck , and as the car disappeared from view – ‘car down ‘ he said.
    I can still hear the tone of his voice – and then when we were talking a few days later about our return from skye to the mainland, he was obviously wondering if the same transport method was going to be employed, as his comment was ‘car down?’

    What a lovely trip we had – apart from the long trip back in the car ….

    such lovely stories jo …love jacky

  4. I’d completely forgotten these details, Jacky. You were so patient with us fussy new parents–and you had a big exam to get back to, as I recall. x Jo

  5. Goodness!
    Took some relief in this well-turned line: “…with Nikhil prancing down the peat-covered hills like a lamb…”

  6. That must have been really horrifying!

    • It was, Kristin. I got a tiny glimpse of what life must be like for people who have to live with the constant fear of bombing raids. It leaves you shaken to the core and with a feeling of utter insecurity. There’s a little video on youtube of a man sobbing in the aftermath of the same low-flying plane experience, and that was just how I felt, though I was more angry because of the baby’s exposure to such a potentially traumatic experience.

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