Second account of loch tragedy

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THE MOST generous benefactor in Helensburgh’s history believed that divine intervention saved his life, and giving was his way of expressing his gratitude.

Provost Andrew Buchanan is best remembered for donating the outdoor swimming pool, but he also paid for a paddling pool at the foot of James Street, and refurbishment of the Victoria Hall to mark the Silver Jubilee. Privately his generosity was just as great.

His son Ian confirmed to me some years ago that his generosity stemmed to a great extent from his father’s very narrow escape from death by food poisoning in what became known as the Loch Maree Tragedy of 1922.

The whole episode centred on the Loch Maree Hotel, which in August 1922 was full with visitors and holidaymakers. The loch was world-famous for the quality of its sea-trout fishing.

Now another account of what happened has come to light. Tim Elmhirst contacted the Trust with the information that his Grandfather and two Uncles were staying at the hotel at the time.

His Uncle Tommy — Air Marshal Sir Thomas Walker Elmhirst, KBE, CB, AFC, DL — wrote about his recollections of the incident in a privately published book of his memories of a very colourful life and successful service career.

Sir Thomas, who was born into a landed gentry family in Yorkshire on December 15 1895, was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force in the first half of the 20th century.

He was the first commander-in-chief of the newly independent Indian Air Force, and he organised the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi following his assassination in 1948.

He later became the Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Guernsey from 1953 to 1958. He died on November 6 1982.

This is his account of the Loch Maree tragedy . . .

It was in 1922. I was 26 and having spent two years in Malta with the RAP flying-boat squadron was coming home on leave for two months.

Normally I would have made my way straight home to Elmhirst, Barnsley, Yorkshire, but this year Elmhirst was closed for August and my father and mother, and a brother on leave from India, had gone north for my father's annual sea-trout fishing on Loch Maree in Wester Ross.

He had five sons and a daughter and any of them able to take a fortnight's holiday in August were always asked to spend it with their parents, fishing.

In fact none of us were mad keen on fishing. It entailed daily fishing and ferocious midges from nine to five, with the fish hard to come by, together with a hotel full of mad keen fishermen of some age usually with their elderly wives!

Our summer holiday pursuits if we could get them — and if our parents had no grouse shooting to offer — were cricket, tennis, golf and the company of the young of the other sex.

This year my brother Victor from India and I from Malta were to join them at Loch Maree Hotel for the last week of their holiday fishing.

I arrived on a Sunday at the Kinlochewe Hotel at the head of Loch Maree where my parents and brother had been staying for a fishing week. We were all to move on the next day to the Loch Maree Hotel, ten miles down the loch side, for another week of sea-trout fishing.

On the Monday morning my parents set off early to enable them to get their rooms at the hotel, collect their packed lunch, pick up their allotted ghillie and his boat, and be on their fishing ‘beat’ by 10 am.

My brother and I, not keen fishermen, said that it was a lovely August morning and that we would walk down the loch side to the hotel and have lunch in the hotel when we got there. The walk, I thought, would settle and steady my upset stomach.

My parents' day went according to plan. When they arrived at the hotel the other fishing guests had departed to the six boats and were already rowing allotted beats.

My parents collected their packed lunch, ham sandwich, fruit and cake and followed. My brother and I enjoyed our walk and our good hotel lunch — I still remember some very good thick hare soup. The fishermen and their wives returned in the evening after quite a good day's sport.

The next morning the trouble began. The first I knew of it — and I was not feeling too well myself — was after breakfast when talking to an old fishing friend of my father's.

We were both lighting our pipes, and he said: "I am not going fishing today as my wife is upstairs in bed and not feeling at all well. Also, when shaving this morning, I saw two faces, now I see two pipes."

His wife died that night and the next morning the husband asked me to come with him to Gairloch, another ten miles down the loch, to see the Minister about the funeral and arrange for a lair in the kirkyard. When we got there he asked for a double lair, and said to me afterwards: "I don't think I shall last out this week."

When we got back to the hotel we heard of other fishermen and their wives and some ghillies feeling unwell.

That night there was another death and the following day, the Wednesday, every guest in the hotel, not stricken, was packing and departing.

The only doctor in the district was more or less permanently in the hotel but no one had any clue as to the cause of the trouble. My shaky stomach thought of the hare soup of the Monday lunch.

On the Wednesday night a south of England Judge who had the next room to mine in the flimsy wooden annexe died in pain.

The following morning I suggested to my father that our stay was hardly a holiday for any of us and that we should leave, but he was firmly against moving on.

He said: "I wish to attend my old friend's funeral and now, with the hotel empty, we shall have daily the best fishing beat." We stayed.

I am unsure of the full number who died, nine or ten of the fishermen and their wives, all within a week, and two ghillies, who lasted ten to twelve days.

provostThe symptoms were the same, a sort of creeping paralysis from the throat to the eyes and brain.

After the first three or four deaths the word poison got around. Medical experts arrived from Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow and the poison was soon traced.

It was traced to a remnant in a glass jar found on the hotel rubbish dump of Lazenby's (or it may have been Crosse and Blackwell's) potted wild duck used on the Monday morning for all the early sandwich packages for the fishermen.

The poison was Botulism, known in Germany as a germ that had caused deaths from eating sausage meat, but, apparently, not known as a cause of death in Britain. I believe that there is now an antidote but it has to be available within hours.

The glass jar with the poisoned meal in it had been emptied before the last sandwiches had been made, and ham had been used instead.

Hence my parents and one other pair arriving late were given a ham sandwich and did not suffer, and nor did anyone — including me and my brother — who had lunched in the hotel.

One pair we knew, a young Major and his wife, told us that they never eat potted meat, so had given their sandwich to their ghillie and so caused his death.

I do not remember that we caught many sea trout that week, and what a grim one it was.

No-one was more pleased than me to leave that hotel and move to my next visit in North Wales, where there was cheerful young mixed company, tennis and golf and grouse shooting on the slopes of Snowdon. 

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