The island of Laerg towers over the North Atlantic, a forbidding black rock with cliffs impossible to climb, its farthest heights wreathed in fog. It’s an inhospitable place, whose last residents were forcibly evacuated in the 1930s, but Donald Ross, the artist son of an islander, has spent his life imagining its rugged beauty. When he finally comes home, however, the isle of his dreams may become his tomb.
Donald is searching for his brother, Iain, believed lost at sea many years ago. He finds him living under an assumed identity at the British army outpost that now dominates Laerg. The weather soon turns sour, and the moment to evacuate draws near, but Iain delays. He’s seeking something on the rocky cliffs, and to find it he will sacrifice his sanity, his men, and his soul.
Based on the Hebridean island of Hirta, Laerg is a truly unique creation—a place so real, so tantalizing, so utterly dangerous that readers will feel they have traveled there, to feel the salt wind at their backs and the bloody sand beneath their feet.
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About the Author
Following his demobilization in 1946, Innes worked full-time as a writer, achieving a number of early successes. His novels are notable for their fine attention to accurate detail in descriptions of place, such as Air Bridge (1951), which is set at RAF stations during the Berlin Airlift. Innes’s protagonists were often not heroes in the typical sense, but ordinary men suddenly thrust into extreme situations by circumstance. Often, this involved being placed in a hostile environment—for example, the Arctic, the open sea, deserts—or unwittingly becoming involved in a larger conflict or conspiracy. Innes’s protagonists are forced to rely on their own wits rather than the weapons and gadgetry commonly used by thriller writers. An experienced yachtsman, his great love and understanding of the sea was reflected in many of his novels.
Innes went on to produce books on a regular schedule of six months for travel and research followed by six months of writing. He continued to write until just before his death, his final novel being Delta Connection (1996). At his death, he left the bulk of his estate to the Association of Sea Training Organisations to enable others to experience sailing in the element he loved.
Read an Excerpt
By Hammond Innes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Hammond Innes
All rights reserved.
DECISION TO EVACUATE
The decision to withdraw the Unit from Laerg was taken early in October. That it was a fatal decision is now obvious. It was taken too late in the year, and in the initial phases the operation was carried out with too little sense of urgency. Whether the disastrous consequences of that decision would have been avoided if the personalities involved had been different I cannot say. Certainly personality played a part in what happened. It always does. A decision that calls for action involves men, and men cannot escape their own natures; their upbringing, their training, their basic characters. Moreover, in this particular case, a series of mishaps, unimportant in isolation, but cumulatively dangerous in combination with the colossal forces unleashed against us, led inevitably to disaster....
This was the opening paragraph of a statement I found among my brother's papers. It was written in his own hand, when his mind was still lucid. Intended as a refutation of the charges brought against him, the statement was never completed. Together with his notes and all his other papers, it lies before me now in the lamplight as I embark on the task of writing this account of the disaster. And the fact that I am writing of it in the solitariness of my winter isolation here on Laerg, with the same violent winds battering at the door, the same damp, salt-laden atmosphere blackening the night outside and Sgeir Mhor standing like a battlement against the Atlantic, will I hope give it a clarity not otherwise possible; that, and the fact that I was involved in it, too.
Not directly, as my brother was; and not with his burden of responsibility. Laerg was a military establishment at the time, and I am an artist, not a soldier. But for both of us it held a fatal fascination. It was in our blood, and looking back on it, our paths crossing after so many years and in such circumstances, there seems to have been something inevitable about it, as though Laerg itself were an integral part of the pattern of our lives.
There is, of course, no mention in my brother's notes of his personal reasons for wanting the Army out of Laerg, no hint of the fearful thing that drew him back to the island. And the fact that he had been so many years in the Army inhibited him in his writing. For instance, he gives no account of his interviews with Standing. He merely states the facts and leaves it at that, so that there is no indication of his relations with his Commanding Officer. Fortunately I have my own notes from which to work. These last few months I have interviewed most of the men involved in the disaster. As a result I have been able to add considerably to my personal knowledge of what happened. I have also had access to the depositions taken at the Board of Inquiry and also to the transcripts covering the first two days of the abortive Court Martial. There are still gaps, of course. So many men were killed. If I could have talked with Colonel Standing, for instance ...
However, the picture in my mind is as complete as it can ever be. And that picture is dominated, of course, by Laerg. Laerg – forbidding and mysterious, rising out of the Atlantic like the last peaks of a submerged land, its shaggy heights lost in cloud, its massive cliffs resounding to the snowflake swirl of millions of seabirds. Laerg dwarfs the men, the ships; it dominates the whole story.
Until that October I had never even seen Laerg. This may seem strange, considering my father was born there and that I'd been half in love with it since I was a kid. But Laerg isn't the sort of place you can visit at will. It lies more than eighty miles west of the Outer Hebrides, a small island group composed of Laerg itself, which with Eileann nan Shoay and Sgeir Mhor constitutes the main island; the bare rock islet of Vallay; and Fladday with its attendant stacs of Hoe and Rudha. Eighty sea miles is no great distance, but this is the North Atlantic and the seven islands of the Laerg group are a lonely cluster standing on the march of the great depressions that sweep up towards Iceland and the Barents Sea. Not only are sea conditions bad throughout the greater part of the year, but the islands, rising sheer out of the waves to a height of almost 1,400 feet, breed their own peculiar brand of weather.
Oddly enough, it wasn't my father who'd made me long to go to Laerg. He seldom talked of the island. He'd gone to sea as a young man and then married a Glasgow girl and settled as a crofter on Ardnamurchan after losing his nerve in a typhoon. It was Grandfather Ross who filled our heads with talk of our island ancestors.
This gnarled old man with a craggy face and huge hands had been a powerful influence on both our lives. He'd come to live with us following the evacuation of the islanders in 1930. He'd been the only man to vote against it when the Island Parliament made its decision, and to the day he died in 1936 he'd resented living on the mainland. It wasn't only that he talked endlessly of Laerg; in those six years he taught my brother Iain, and myself, everything he knew about the way to live in a world of rock and towering heights where sheep and birds were the raw materials of existence.
I'd tried to get there once a long time ago, hiding away on a trawler anchored in the bay below our croft. But that trip they hadn't gone within a hundred miles of Laerg, and then the war came and I joined Iain, working in a Glasgow factory making shell cases. A year in the Navy and ten years at sea, tramping, mainly in old Liberty ships, and then I had embarked on the thing I had always wanted to do – I began to study as a painter. It was during a winter spent in the Aegean Isles that I suddenly realised Laerg was the subject that most attracted me. It had never been painted, not the way my grandfather had described it. I'd packed up at once and returned to England, but by then Laerg had become a tracking station for the new rocket range on Harris. It was a closed island, forbidden to unauthorised civilians, and neither the Army nor Nature Conservancy, who leased it from the National Trust for Scotland, would give me permission to visit it.
That was the position until October of the following year when a man called Lane came to my studio and I was caught up in my brother's strange story and the events that led to the disaster. But first I must give the background to the Army's decision to evacuate Laerg, for without that decision the disaster would never have happened.
The future of the tracking station was discussed at a Conference held in the Permanent Under-Secretary's room at the War Office and the decision to close it was confirmed by the Director Royal Artillery at a meeting in his office four days later. In my reconstruction of the Conference I am indebted to the frankness with which the DRA described it to me. For the details of the subsequent meeting I have also had the benefit of talks with his Brigadier General Staff and with Brigadier Matthieson, the Brigadier Royal Artillery, Scottish Command. The latter, in addition, was able to recall for me in considerable detail his conversation with Braddock on the night train going north. These two senior officers both gave evidence at the Court Martial and my talks with them were supplementary to that evidence.
First then, the Conference. This was held on October 7 and in addition to the Permanent Undersecretary for War, there were present the Director of Finance, the Director Royal Artillery, and, during the vital discussion on the fate of Laerg, a member of the staff of the Ordnance Board. The object of the conference was to review Royal Artillery expenditure for the current financial year. This was one of a series of War Office conferences necessitated by the Prime Minister's refusal to face the House with supplementaries to the original Estimates.
There were eleven items on the agenda for that afternoon, all affecting the Royal Artillery. Laerg was sixth on the list. It came up for discussion about half past three and I understand the Director of Finance had all the costings ready to hand, reading them out in a flat monotone that was barely audible above the roar of Whitehall traffic. It was a long list and when he'd finished he put it back in his brief-case and faced the DRA. 'I think you'll agree,' he said, 'that the cost of maintaining the detachment on Laerg is quite disproportionate to the contribution it makes to our guided weapons tests.' He then went on, I gather, to emphasise the point he wanted to make. 'Your firing season finishes when?'
'Some time in August,' the DRA replied.
'And it starts in May.'
'In May – yes. But we begin the build-up in April.'
'In other words, the station is dormant for at least seven months of the year. And during those seven months it requires a Detachment Commander, usually a Captain, a Medical Officer and two orderlies, cooks, drivers, a REME outfit, even seamen military, a total of anything from thirty to forty men. There are two LCTs Mark VIII involved in ferrying supplies and ...'
'The tank landing craft don't function in the winter.'
'Quite so. But they are nevertheless committed to this operation and are merely withdrawn to Squadron Headquarters at Portsmouth for re-fit. They are replaced by an RASC trawler. Not so costly perhaps, but still pretty expensive. In addition, a helicopter is periodically required to deliver mail.'
Throughout this interchange the DRA explained to me that he was very much on the defensive. He knew the operation could not be justified on grounds of cost alone. 'It's the men,' he said. 'They feel cut off if they don't get regular mail. In any case, we've already decided to dispense with the trawler this winter and rely on Army helicopters for mail and relief of personnel. An experiment recommended by Colonel Standing, the Range Commandant. We've yet to find out how it will work. Conditions for helicopter flying are not all that good, particularly after the end of October.'
'That's merely a matter of detail,' the Director of Finance said. 'I have been into all this very carefully. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it the only maintenance required on the really vital equipment, the radar, is that it should be run once a day, mainly to warm it up. One man's work for a few hours each day. To keep him there you apparently require over thirty men ...'
'I've reported on this to the Secretary for War more than once,' the DRA cut in. 'The tracking station cost a lot to establish. It isn't only the radar that has to be maintained. There's the camp, the vehicles, the boats; to abandon Laerg for seven months in the year would result in rapid deterioration through gales and the salt in the atmosphere. Moreover, trawlermen use Shelter Bay in the winter – Norwegians, Belgians, French, Spanish, as well as Scots. There wouldn't be much left of our installations if there were nobody there to guard them.'
At this point the Permanent Under-Secretary intervened. 'I don't think we need query the number of men involved or the necessity for maintaining the station throughout the year in present circumstances. Presumably this was all gone into at the time and agreed as unavoidable. What we have to decide now is whether or not Laerg has become redundant in view of this new equipment we've been offered. You've had a report on it, I believe. The results of the trials were very impressive, I thought.'
The DRA didn't say anything. He was staring out of the window at the cloudless blue of the sky. From where he sat he looked across the pale stone outline of the Horseguards to the trees in St James's Park. They were still in summer leaf. It had been a mild autumn and so fine were the yellow brush strokes of the early frosts that only a painter's eye would have discerned the warning breath of winter in that green canvas. The DRA was not a painter. His hobby, he explained to me, was bird-watching and he was wishing he had been able to find time to visit Laerg during the nesting season. The room was hot and airless, full of smoke, and the sun slanted golden bars of light across the table.
'Before we finally make up our minds, perhaps we should hear what Ordnance Board have to say about it.' The Permanent Under-Secretary reached for the phone and asked for the Colonel who had conducted the trials to be sent in. The discussion that followed was technical, and as the equipment concerned was secret the DRA did not discuss it with me. He did, however, say that it was American equipment and that he had pointed out that it would be costly to install. To this the Permanent Under-Secretary had replied, 'But as they are using the range themselves they are offering it to us on a long-term credit basis.' That, the DRA told me, was the decisive factor. The matter was settled and what happened later stemmed from that moment, for the Permanent Under-Secretary was under considerable pressure. 'I'd like to be able to report to the PM,' he said, 'that you'll have your men and equipment off the island and the station closed down, say by the end of the month. Would that be possible?'
'I suppose so. It depends on the weather.'
'Naturally. But we're in for a fine spell now. I heard the forecast this morning.'
'Laerg is over six hundred miles north of here and it's getting late in the season.'
'All the more reason to hurry it.'
The DRA was not disposed to argue. He had held his appointment for less than six months, and anyway he was wondering how to handle the next item on the agenda, which was of far more importance to the Artillery than Laerg. 'I've no doubt we'll manage,' he said and made a note on his pad to instruct his Brigadier General Staff.
The BGS, questioned by the President of the Court Martial about the DRA's acceptance of that time limit, made the point that some such limit was essential in an operation of this kind. If the evacuation were not completed before the winter gales set in, there would be little likelihood of getting the men and equipment off that winter. Even a partial failure to complete it would necessitate the maintenance of the station probably until the spring, with all the attendant problems of supply aggravated by the fact that essential stores would be lacking. 'Without a time limit,' he said, 'the operation would have lacked the necessary atmosphere of urgency.'
Unfortunately, all the items on the agenda could not be dealt with that afternoon and the conference was resumed again at ten the following morning. As a result, the Brigadier General Staff received his instructions about Laerg in the form of a hurriedly dictated memo that listed some half-dozen other items for his immediate attention. The BGS was a keen yachtsman, and though he had never sailed in the Hebrides, he was able to appreciate better than most people in the War Office the difficulties that could arise in an evacuation involving landing craft operating across an open beach. With the weekend imminent he decided to shelve the matter until Monday when Brigadier Matthieson was due in London. He marked it in his diary for the morning of October 11, the final decision to be taken after discussion with the DRA. Meantime, he teleprinted Matthieson at Scottish Command ordering him to have a plan of operations prepared for the immediate withdrawal of all stores, equipment and personnel.
Having established that there was a delay of four vital days between the DRA's original agreement to the principle of evacuation and the final decision to go ahead, I should perhaps add that only exceptional circumstances would have produced speedier action, and in this case the exceptional circumstances had not arisen. The pressure at this stage was from the Permanent Under-Secretary, not from the weather; a full two weeks was to elapse before that freak meteorological brew began to ferment in the sea areas Bailey, Hebrides and Faeroes. There was, in any case, a good deal of preliminary work to be done. In particular, the agreement of the RASC to the use of the landing craft had to be obtained and the plan itself worked out. This last the DRA, Scottish Command, brought with him to London so that once it was agreed it only needed an executive order to start the thing moving.
Excerpted from Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes. Copyright © 1962 Hammond Innes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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