So I took a risk, and it seemed to have worked out fine. And that’s when I should have gone straight to university, off the back of a successful warm up in Cambridge, but all my friends were taking a year out, so when it came to filling out the application form, I did the same.
Demob happy, I headed North, to enjoy the rest of the summer in Scotland. There were parties and some fishing and shooting, and lots of discussions amongst those who had just finished the compulsory part of the education system about what they were going to do next.
The lucky ones were those who just knew exactly what they wanted, or had always wanted, some of whom required a degree to get there so had put themselves down for university, others who didn’t and for them it was straight off to their first job when the summer was over, or sooner.
Since I had no clue, and no particular calling, it was easier to spend time with others in the same boat, and one of the most entertaining of those was someone I also knew from Cargilfield, a guy called Dave Stirling.
Now if I’d studied Second World War history with a wider lens that captured events in North Africa from a Churchill perspective, I’d have known he was a direct line descendent of Sir David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, but at that point I thought ‘Who Dares Wins’ was a Sedbergh school 1st XV rugby slogan, because it was Cool Kerry’s favourite war cry for his beloved Browns.
Dave’s Dad was a Colonel with the Black Watch, and someone who the Queen stayed with when she was in Scotland on Royal business, but his Son was as wild as wild oats, and that was good enough for me.
We had shared one military experience together. By complete coincidence, we both found ourselves at the same army training camp in Scotland with our respective schools, a place called Cultybraggan, which is probably nice to visit if it’s sunny and you’re on holiday in a decent B&B in Comrie, the village nearby, but not much fun if you’re yomping around in the driving rain quartered in corrugated iron roofed barracks of what used to be a Nazi POW camp, being shouted at by wannabe Sergeant Majors.
But there was some free time, which most used to take a hike down the main road into Comrie, to visit the fish and chip shop. Anyone that’s been to one of those iconic Scottish villages will know the chippy is often a magnet for trouble, a place where local youth with time on their hands like to hang tough.
I’m sure they’d have preferred a platoon load of Eton and Harrow toffs to taunt, but Cultybraggan probably wasn’t their first choice corps camp destination, so all the Chip Shop Gang had to work over was the same Public School ponces from the less fashionable likes of Sedbergh and Strathallan.
Meanwhile, to prevent any chance of scuffles breaking out between different schools at camp, visits into the chippy were staggered. So when I was on my way over the bridge into Comrie, Dave was on his way out. Except at a fair clip, without his fish supper.
When he saw me, he ran over, said there’d been some trouble at the chippy which he’d obviously been heavily involved in, and asked me to accompany him back to camp by a different, off road route. Like a fool, I agreed.
So a moment later, we’d hurdled the fence at the side of the bridge, and were legging it along a field next to the river. Dave must have thought his antagonists would lose enthusiasm once they’d seen he’d left the road and taken to the fields, but he must have needled them more than he realised.
Either that, or hunting down a couple of posh cadets from corp camp was the finest sport known to them, like fishing for salmon, or walking up grouse. When I first glanced back over my shoulder, I knew it was serious. They had fanned out right across the field, in a formation quite like the ones we were practising on exercise, except that they had deadly weapons to play with. One of them was swinging a motorbike chain, another held a knife, the rest had sticks – and they weren’t for walking with.
One minute I was going for a poke of fish and chips with my mates, the next I was in a Mad Max film, running for my life, with Dave. And there was no where to hide, it was quite flat and not many trees. And in the excitement, we completely lost our bearings. And worse, we couldn’t shake them off.
The only obstacle it looked like we could put between us and them was the river. But that turned out to be deceptively fast flowing like those kind of rivers always are, and peat brown after all the rain so no sight of uneven river bottom, with rocks to stumble on and sudden hollows to fall into, and water up to chest high in the middle, and both of us could easily have been swept away, but driven by adrenaline we somehow survived and hauled ouselves onto the far bank.
They were already falling back to recross the river by the bridge, so we’d found their red line, a suicidal river crossing, and it wasn’t unreasonable to hope they’d give up the ghost and head back to their base camp, the chippy.
But what did we do next? We were by then on the wrong side of the river for the camp, and it was at least three miles along the main road from the bridge, which we’d have to sneak through town to even get close to, and by then with the chippy on full alert the bridge was a dangerous bottle neck.
There was always the option of fording the river again, but that wasn’t even discussed, so we must have given ourselves a right proper fright there!
So we started to run walk across the fields, soaked to the skin, army boots squelching, towards the minor road that left town and snaked off into the desolate distance, except for a small cluster of stone cottages a mile or so away just off the road.
I don’t think we planned paying them a visit, I think a route march on tarmac and cross a bridge further down stream was the idea, but that was scrapped when to our horror over right shoulder just emerging from town along our intended escape route at a determined jog came the weapon wielding gang, and we were back in the Mad Max movie.
It was all we could do to get to the road across boggy fields before they cut us off, and then it was straight for the cottages, a do or die move since they were at the end of a dead end drive off the road, and what would we do if there was no one there who’d answer the door?
Best case scenario, in what looked retirement homes, Granny and Gramps see our Mad Max adventure end with a proper beating from their window, and ring emergency services in the nearest big town to come pick up our remains.
So when the first door we knocked on was opened by a huge guy in a string vest covered in tats with a crew cut, I think we both presumed that was the final nail in our coffin, we were trapped, there was no way out.
But when we’d said our bit, and I don’t remember Dave being that forthcoming about what had gone down at the chippy, ‘aye’ he said ‘that sounds like my brother’, and after an expletive that could have been ‘the runt’ or something similar, ‘stick with me lads, I’ll take you back to camp myself’.
Denied their quarry, the gang waited at the end of the drive, not quite sure what to do with themselves. On the way past in the car, we shrank into the back seat while our rescuer stopped, wound down the window, and told them, all standing hands behind backs hiding weapons as if they’d been caught by the local Judge, to take a hike.
We’d stumbled across a gentle giant. It was like hitting the jackpot. He chatted to us all the way back to camp while we counted our blessings, and dropped us at the gates, and neither of us was in much of a hurry to recount our adventure to anyone, let alone authority, and I can confirm there were no more visits to the chippy either, so punishment was self-administered.
But perhaps we should have stood up in front of the whole camp and given a presentation. I’ve no idea what the primary aim of army corp camp was, apart from building team spirit, but if you glossed over the beginning and the end, we’d just been hunted across hostile terrain by a gang of well armed and highly motivated insurgents and lived to fight another day!
I’m not sure what Sir David Stirling would have made of it all, perhaps the Phantom Major turned in his grave, and I don’t think the Colonel ever heard that story either, but they’d both have known the history of Cultybraggan, and the Phantom Major might even have known some of its original inhabitants.
For Camp 21, as it was named when it was built in 1941 during WW2, was a German PoW camp. After the war, 70,000 Nazi diehards, some of Hitler’s most loyal survivors and SS veterans called ‘black prisoners’ due to their refusal to accept Hitler’s dream was over, were distributed in 600 ad hoc camps around the UK. Of these, 4,000 of the most dangerous were sent to Camp 21. There was a lynching and several executions, and probably much more that went unreported. Did anyone escape across the river and into the Highlands? Needless to say, no one told us any of that! Perhaps, 40 years later when we schoolboys were playing at soldiers, there was still something in the air that led to us being hunted down like PoW’s. Maybe the Chip Shop Gang were living out their parents’ fears? Or had some ‘black prisoner’ genes found their way into the Comrie gene pool, via escape or rehabilitation? Even better, did the Phantom Major reach over from the other side to give us a taste of real action? There is no question our generation has little idea what sacrifices were made for our freedom by those who fought and died in the Great Wars. How can it, it wasn’t there. Maybe our time to fight for freedom will come. By all and any means possible before war, which is the tragic last resort.
German PoW’s At Cultybraggan After WW2
Whatever, I suppose the whole escapade did prove some character traits, like love of action behind enemy lines, lived on in the Stirling DNA. The underlying question was how to channel genetic impulses in a positive direction in more peaceful times, and in some kind of symbolic way on that bridge outside Comrie, in a moment of madness, I had signed up to that challenge. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved.
Ch 1 ‘A River Run’s Through It’