It was a Wednesday in late August and we were in Scotland, meandering along the harbour footpath in the small village of Arisaig. I stopped at a stone plinth - a memorial in the shape of a parachute - and read the inscription: It had been blessed by no less than the Pope (the Pope?) - to ‘Czech agents who trained here in Arisaig in 1941-43’(?) Beg pardon, agents who trained HERE ??. I had read somewhere about the operation to assassinate Heydrich, the brutal Nazi overlord of wartime Czechoslovakia, and wondered if it had anything to do with that. At a corner of the harbour there was a tourist shop and lurking in there were some books about local history. I thumbed through a book and quickly found out that the memorial was indeed for the agents who killed Heydrich. I was gobsmacked that they should have been here in Arisaig, in this remote outpost of the empire. But then, reading on, I discovered to my utter amazement, that the famous Violette Szabo had also trained in this area (In 2016, the song ‘Gibraltar Farm’ on my album ‘Bubbles’ was written about her. Click here to read the back story).
Delving a little deeper revealed that the wartime headquarters of SOE (Special Operations Executive) had actually been Arisaig House. Arisaig House? What a coincidence! That house – actually a stately home now turned into a hotel - just so happened to be across the road from where we were staying! I had never heard of any of this before, and yet there I was staying a stones throw from where all this drama took place!
The books went on to explain:-
The area around Arisaig was critical to the paramilitary training of some 3,000 agents, and with only one access road, was easy to seal off as a Special Protected Area, and keep secure from unwanted attention. Although it had the advantage of remoteness and distance to keep prying eyes away, it was also convenient for legitimate visitors to reach, as it was served by a railway line. Security was rigorously maintained, with even locals being required to have passes for movement into and out of the protected area.
A few days later I visited Arisaig House: Walking into the big stone foyer, right there on the wall, framed in pride of place, was Violette Szabo’s poem – the one written by cryptographer Leo Marks and sounding for all the world like a love poem when really it was a secret communication tool for her to use. I looked at it for ages, while Violette strode past, uniformed and stern, in the corner of my mind’s eye.
I was excited by the amazing history of the place and the peculiar divine convergence that had placed me right in the middle of it. I felt led straight away to write the song ‘The Eyes of Lochaber’. It was penned on a Saturday and on the Sunday it was aired on Carol Kelso’s early morning radio show in Fort William - the fastest turn-round ever!
(Here's the piper learning the melody). The song speaks about the people of Lochaber, with their heritage of clan loyalties and tight lips that had long served to defend them against all comers. It was effective in keeping the Germans from ever getting wind of the what was going on during the war, as it was two centuries earlier, when a man with a price of £30,000 on his head (Bonnie Prince Charlie), was successfully hidden during the Jacobite rebellion, which incidentally began on 19 August, my birthday! (In 1745, £30,000 could have made a canny Scot a billionaire by present day standards. Even so, no such canny Scot came forth.)
Fast forward to mid October and we are moving to Arisaig! That is the plan but the accommodation arrangements are not finalised. In fact they are in a holding pattern. We have lost contact with the lady who was renting us a chalet.
On a phone call I learn that the manager of Arisaig House, upon hearing about our situation said: ‘What a shame, they could have stayed at the holiday cottage here!’ Pardon me, did you say Arisaig House?
My ears prick up immediately. A few phone calls later and we had arranged to stay at the cottage named ‘the field of the mother church’.
more to follow…