On Tuesday (12 July), the Royal Air Force Red Arrows paid a visit to Clachan, West Kintyre, when its pilots performed a fly-past to honour a comrade who lost his life 23 years ago.
The elite aerobatic team’s visit coincided with the final stage of a Remembrance project carried out by local primary school pupils and led by the former local Church of Scotland minister.
At breakfast time on Tuesday morning, around 100 people of all ages – some local residents, others friends or visitors – made their way to the edge of the village and trekked up first a farm road and then sheep tracks to the summit of the hill at Dunskeig.
Encircling the hilltop are the remains of what is believed to be an Iron Age fort, and within it stands a memorial cairn, erected in memory of Flight Lieutenant Neil Duncan MacLachlan who died when his aircraft crashed during Red Arrows training at RAF Scampton in January 1988. The cairn is believed to have been raised by friends of Neil who were fellow pilots.
At a respectful distance from the cairn, Clachan Youth Club members and helpers set a small campfire and prepared breakfast for those who were beginning to gather at the summit.
The Red Arrows had specified to the minute their anticipated arrival time, and, as many of the walkers absorbed the stunning views of the Sounds of Jura and Gigha, and of West Loch Tarbert, there was much checking of watches and scanning of the sky to the south-west.
As the minutes ticked by, the crowd gravitated to the flattish ground between the Ordnance Survey trig point and Neil MacLachlan’s cairn.
At precisely 9.14 am, a horizontal line of nine slender shapes, silhouetted against the bright blue of the morning sky, appeared from the direction of Rhunahaorine Point.
As the tight group approached Dunskeig, the distinctive red paintwork of each Hawk aircraft became visible. With half a mile to go, the pilots activated the Red Arrows’ trademark smoke trails. For this poignant occasion, no red or blue dye was used – just a billowing trail of white vapour behind each jet.
Holding a perfect V formation, and with white nose lights blazing, the nine planes roared overhead. It sounds ostentatious, but in reality it wasn’t. It was very simple, very respectful, and very moving.
Each of the aircraft involved was flown by a fast jet pilot drawn from the RAF’s frontline squadrons. As Red Arrows pilots, their current business is high-speed aerobatics. Pilots such as these love their work, are conscious of how quickly things can go wrong, and accept the risks involved. In paying tribute to one of their own, they were as discreet as it’s possible to be in a machine which is nearly 12 metres long and capable of 900 miles per hour.
As the aircraft passed overhead, some in the crowd waved. All watched intently as the formation, flying onwards up West Loch Tarbert, maintained the impression of flying as one. The team’s motto – Éclat (brilliance) – never seemed more appropriate.
Eventually, the entire formation banked slowly to the right. The nine scarlet jets turned towards the peaks of Arran, as a singleton – the reserve aircraft, flown by Red 10, the team’s Road Manager – re-joined the main group for its onward passage to Prestwick and re-fuelling. Thereafter, the Red Arrows would fly to Greenock, where they were scheduled to display at The Tall Ships Race.
Afterwards, we spoke to the Reverend Martin Grashoff, who, until March this year, was the parish minister for the West of Kintyre. Having spent two very happy years in Kintyre, he followed his intuition and applied successfully for what is at first sight a very different post, that of chaplain to the UK oil & gas industry, based in Aberdeen.
During his time in Kintyre, Martin was the school chaplain for the primary schools at Clachan, Rhunahaorine, and Glenbarr.
He explains: “For the three schools, for the last session, I took, as a theme, Remembrance. We had a lesson about the war memorials, which can be seen in the villages.
“We had a lesson also about a Bible story, about how remembrance works, with stones that remind you of something, and we had planned to continue all that, but then I left for Aberdeen; so it didn’t happen”.
Martin described how, despite his departure for Aberdeen, an opportunity arose subsequently to illustrate the last part of the Remembrance theme, thereby completing his project with the West Kintyre children. He continued: “Because here, on Dunskeig, we have a monument built by friends of Neil MacLachlan, the Red Arrows pilot who crashed in 1988. And remembering someone can be climbing a hill and standing there.
“I just applied for a fly-past, and at first it seemed it wasn’t going to happen. But (the Red Arrows) contacted me personally and said “We really want to do this“, so I was really chuffed with seeing ten Red Arrows here. I would have been very happy with five of them – sometimes they do small formations – but it was all nine, with (Red) 10 on the wing. I’m really pleased.
“Neil MacLachlan was connected to the Clachan area because his family used to – and still does – come on holiday to the area just at the foot of Dunskeig. And they are there now”.
Martin feels that, despite the tragic circumstances which brought the Red Arrows to Clachan, Tuesday’s event could be seen also as a celebration of community. He welcomed the fact that the occasion had brought together at Dunskeig a wide range of local people.
He feels also that the event highlighted the importance of a school within a community, citing the fact that although, with the arrival of the summer holidays, the occasion was no longer a school activity, the same people turned out as would have had the fly-past taken place during term time. They simply renamed it a community event.
He added: “The school and the local community are so interwoven and connected that what happens in the school is for the village, and what happens in the village will include the school. And that’s how local communities work. It’s very important”.
He regrets that, owing to the holidays, it proved impossible to involve the pupils at Rhunahaorine and Glenbarr, but he pointed out: “There are some people, from all the way down south on the west side, who have come today – some older people – and who have climbed this hill”.
We understand that Neil’s mother was present during the fly-past, and that she was able to watch from the shore at Dunskeig.
We understand also that, over and above the MacLachlan family’s holiday connection with Clachan, Neil’s forebears actually farmed at Dunskeig.
Neil Duncan MacLachlan is buried in Binbrook (St Mary) Churchyard, Lincolnshire, where his grave is marked by a military headstone. Prior to transferring to the Red Arrows in October 1987, he flew Lightning jet fighters.
At the time of his death, Neil was married, with a two week-old child.
The story of one fitting tribute to Neil, by a former comrade, is told here.
Set into Neil’s memorial cairn at Dunskeig is a simple bronze plaque, inscribed as follows:-
NEIL DUNCAN MACLACHLAN BA (Hons) RAF
2 JULY 1955 – 22 JANUARY 1988
A Fighter Pilot
Always in the hearts of his Family
And in this place he loved
A beloved friend
Nice piece and good photies – Graeme M, 2 NGL.
Thanks for the feedback, Graeme. Much appreciated.
I didn’t get to the flypast on 12th July but I visit Neil’s cairn often as I am his sister. Your piece brought the event to life vividly. Very moving. Many thanks.
Thank you for your comments, Kate. We considered it an honour to be able to record the day.
I am Neil’s daughter and im so sad i did not make this day. However this article is wonderful and has really moved me. What fantastic support and proof that the Red Arrows never forget their own. Thank you to them, everyone who was there and to Rev Martin Grashoff for making this happen and making nan one very happy lady!
Kerri, Thank you for your comments. Everyone involved did a great job.
I am Neil MacLachlan’s mother and I watched the Flypast from Dunskeig beach with my nephew – many of our family and friends were on the hill. it was a wonderful moment, and a very moving tribute to my dear son. For me the best bit of all was when the formation banked, the sun caught the red paint and it became like a single beautiful aircraft dipping its wing! I was also very moved by your wonderful article which expressed it all so vividly – thanks to everyone.
Mrs MacLachlan, Thank you for your kind comments. You’re absolutely right about the day being a very moving tribute to Neil. The combination of Dunskeig, the RAF, family and friends, and the people of Clachan – natives and newcomers, young and old – was uplifting.
Hello Pat….I just came across this amazing article while browsing “Clachan” on the Internet. You don’t know me but my name is Donald (Don) McIntyre and I was brought up in Clachan at the cottage I believe now known as Burnside cottage right beside where the telephone box was across from the old Free Church. I am an old classmate of Catherine Kelly who still lives in the village beside the school. I am very familiar with Dunskeig because as a boy as was tasked with going there with the ‘milk run’ ! Carrying several cans from the village down the ‘shore ‘ road and up the steep hill to watch Maggie Mauchline milk the cows, fill the cans after which I had negotiate the steep hill back to the Village! Occasionally, in my haste I would spill the odd can and had to return for a refill! I recall the wooden house on the shore referred to in a post here and when it was constructed…..presumably the same one just before the turn off onto the beach. My father ( Archie McIntyre who worked at Stewartfield farm) died suddenly in 1960 however I have great memories of those Sunday walks to Clachan Beach and swimming in my underwear as well as the occasional hike to Dunskeig where he explained the ‘vitrified fort’ ruins to me. The amazing tribute to your son brought back many memories of Dunskeig. I knew John and Neil McDougall, the old owners well and in fact John gave me a reference when I joined the Glasgow Police at 19 years old in 1967. He was a well educated indivudual and I still have his letter. ( I am now retired and reside in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada) . I did read the connection with the McDougalls in another post here. The point of my note here is not just a trip down memory lane but to comment on how fitting a tribute the ‘cearn’ is to your son and how the flypast struck an emotional nerve with me. I do visit Clachan every couple of years and next time there vow to hike up to Dunskeig again.
Don McIntyre, Collingwood, Ontario
Another member of Neil’s family here – I’m his brother Rob. Alas I couldn’t make it up from London to witness the Red Arrows fly-past in person, but seeing this write-up and the wonderful photos, I almost feel that I was there after all! Thank-you for providing this, and for the sensitivity and accuracy of the article. This is the first time I’ve come across your publication, and it’s one of the best quality productions I’ve seen on the internet. Who are you, publicinsight?
Rob, It’s kind of you to post your comments. It’s rewarding to know that an article has been appreciated, and that it has served a real purpose. E-mail to follow.
I was very moved to read all the posts on this website. I did not know Neil but I graduated from Queen’s University in Geography in 1964 and am an aviation enthusiast, currently researching the history of Queen’s University Air Squadron. On the basis of posts on the website it would seem that Neil was not actually from Dunskeig. May I ask where he was born?
Ulster Aviation Society
Hi Ernie, my brother Neil was born in Belfast on 2 July 1955. Before entering Queen’s University he was educated at Gilnahirk Primary and Methody. The link with Dunskeig stems from his maternal grandfather James MacDougall, who was born on Dunskeig farm, which was farmed by his two brothers Neil and John until the 1960s. Although it passed out of the family then, we still own and regularly visit a wooden cottage at the foot of Dunskeig Hill near the shore. This was the place most loved by Neil/Clachy during his life, and by us his family — all the more as it is also now home to his memorial cairn.
Best, Rob MacLachlan
I am very grateful to you for the information you posted about Neil’s education in Belfast. I am in touch with a number of former Queen’s University Air Squadron personnel who fondly remember Neil, including Noel Mitchel, senior lecturer in the Department of Geography and member of the Military Education Committee.
I have just found this news story from a link to the recent accident.
I was very pleased to see that he is still remembered after all these years.
On that afternoon in January, I had a three week old son, we new about Mr MacLaclans daughter obviously. It was not a pleasant Friday afternoon, with what had to be done.
It was a sad time.
I had known about some memorial to him but this is the first time I’ve seen it.
A very fitting tribute and a lovely article, thank you.
Thank you for your feedback, Steve. It’s gratifying to know that you enjoyed the article. Last Saturday’s news from Bournemouth came as a real shock to us, as we’re sure it did to so many, at home and abroad.
Hello I am one of the people who trekked up the hill to make build the cairn in what could be described as an amazing tribute to a wonderful man. We had all kinds of weather that day in May 1988 on the hill but I remember it as tho it was yesterday. I could not make the day in July but my husband did and he said it was a lovely tribute to Neil (Clachy as he was known to us) and the Red Arrows did a grand job. On the day we built the cairn a Bulldog flew over when we had finished from Queens University Air Sqn.
I was very moved to read all the posts on this website. I did not know Neil MacLachlan but I graduated from Queen’s University in Geography in 1964 where Neil was also a student in later years. Recently, I have been researching the history of Queen’s University Air Squadron, hence my interest in your comment about the Bulldog which flew over the memorial Cairn when you had helped complete it. Do you have a date for the flyover? Ernie Cromie, Ulster Aviation Society
As a former lightning Groundcrew and also Red Arrows Engineer, I knew Clachy very well. He was and always will be a bright star, just the thought of him makes me smile. At binbrook, XR724 still has his name on the front, we always raise a glass to him and will do again on 22 june at RAF Binbrook.
Clachy could have easily been nicknamed smile, he was the most cheerful pilot I knew at Binbrook and was taken from us far too soon.
What a wonderful tribute to Neil. I remember him from our UNi days at Q.U.B. where we both studied geography. Even then all he wanted to do was fly and he certainly fulfilled his dream.
I was stationed at RAF Binbrook for my last two years in the service until october ’86. I knew 90% of the Lightning boys, who were ‘social animals,’ including ‘Clatchy.’ Indeed, Karen, (his lovely wife to be) was my flight-planning clerk. Such was the regard in which he was held, that even as a ‘civvy’, I was invited along with my wife back to Binbrook to pay my respects in january ’88 following his tragic loss.
In Binbrook church yard,I have never experienced anything so moving in my life. The day was damp and cold and a lone piper played a lament at the graveside. Those few who were not moved to tears succumbed entirely when Sqn Ldr ‘Furze Lloyd’ blasted past at low level in his Lightning in twin-burner. The sight and sounds still send shivers down my spine 30 years later.
If this late submission reaches a reader or two, then all to the good. Regrettably, I was drawn to this article following the recent decision in the Martin Baker trial and the loss of yet another Red Arrows pilot seven years ago.
Rest easy Clatchy.
Robert E Lee.
Hello Robert, I’m Neil’s brother Rob, replying on behalf of the family, to thank you for your above comments, which vividly brought back the day of his funeral. I’m not sure if you were aware of this, but you posted on the 30th anniversary of Neil’s fatal crash at RAF Scampton (the funeral was a few days later). All the family – including his mother Pat, still head of the clan at 92 – were of course marking this significant day. The incredible tribute by Sqn Ldr Lloyd, who flew his Lightning in just above the church roof, then pointed it straight up into the sky and opened the engines in a twin burn, said farewell to Neil with a roar of love and grief that expressed our feelings on the day and in our memory ever since.
I was privileged to know Clachy back at QUAS. I met up last week with John Wilkinson and we had some great reminiscences about Neil. I’m also in touch with Vince Robertson, the squadron CO at the time. We don’t see each other a lot, but Neil certainly comes up in conversation.
I am conscious that we have just passed the 30th anniversary of Neil’s untimely death.
I would like any of his family to know that he is still very much alive in our memories.
I must get up to Dunskeig and walk up that hill………!
Hello Julian, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. It’s good to know that Neil is still remembered fondly by old friends from his QUAS days. When you get to Dunskeig hill, go up the back way – it’s not so steep!
Hi Rob, I never had the pleasure of meeting your brother but seem to remember Mrs MacLachlan telling us that her son’s plane was due to fly past and letting us watch from the classroom windows to see Neil’s plane roar over Lochaber High School.
Hi Robin (Rob) Just came across this by accident, What a wonderful tribute to Neil. My Mum kept me up to date with local news and I was saddened to hear about his tragic accident. I would love to visit Neil’s cairn some day. It must be almost 50 years since we last met. I remember fondly growing up in Belfast with you and Martin. Please pass on my very best wishes to your family.
Hi Alan – Yes, half a century! Good to hear from you. By strange coincidence, just a few days before you posted here, I was writing (for a memoir) about growing up in Kingsway Park, and mentioned you and Martin, and also your dad, Archie, taking us to Glentoran v Benfica in 1967. It would be good to hear more about your life since. Are you on Fb? I’m the only Rob MacLachlan living in Copenhagen, if you’d like to send me a friend request. All the best
Some who posted above may like to know that our mother Pat departed this life in May 2018 after a very short illness, a few days after her 93rd birthday. She very much appreciated the fly-past by the Red Arrows at Dunskeig in tribute to Neil, and the fond memories of him shared on this page. She is buried in Clachan New Churchyard, in the same grave as our father Duncan, who died in 2013.