Inverailort Castle lies about 1 kilometre south east of Lochailort, near the north east corner of Loch Ailort, west of the A861. Also known as Inverailort House.
The house is part of the Inverailort estate, which was acquired by Major General Sir Alexander Cameron in 1828, who died at Inverailort in 1850. The estate passed to his son, Duncan Cameron of Inverailort (Lieut. October 23, 1835. Ensign. Retired May 8, 1840, who died on June 24, 1874., when Inverailort passed to his 15-year-old daughter Christian.
Said to have begun as a farmhouse, the house was rebuilt as a Victorian shooting lodge in 1875, then extended in 1891. During World War II, the house was requisitioned, and was used by the Commandos, Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the Royal Navy.
The house is still occupied (2010), and remains in use as the Lochailort Post Office and sorting office, but is now in a state of considerable disrepair and suffering badly from the effects of damp.
Christian Cameron was only 15 years of age when when she inherited Inverailort, and still a minor, so a family trust was appointed to run the estate until she reached an age at which she could take over formally. However, she actually took control from the start, and the Lochailort archives for the period 1876-1878 record "18 volumes of notebooks including address books, notes on English literature & English history, and dinners attended with guest lists". In 1888, Christian was finally released from the family trust, and able to take sole control of the estate. In 1890, she married James Head, an ex-Army captain and director of several shipping companies. In 1896, Christian gave birth to mixed twins, Frances and Christian, and in 1910, the couple amalgamated their surnames to Cameron-Head by Royal licence.
Together with with her duties on the estate, Christian was also able to become an experienced photographer, and took many photographs of the house and surrounding area. Unfortunately, as film was yet to be invented, these images were recorded on glass plates, and when the house was requisitioned by the military during World War II, many of these were either lost, or destroyed as a result of mis-handling.
Many of the surviving photographs were catalogued, scanned, and published in a book written by a local historian, The Cameron Collection: Moidart and Arisaig in the 19th Century, Ian Thornber, ISBN 9780955627903, Ian Thornber Publications.
Christian had refused advice to offer or hand over the house for use as a hospital or school, and while in London, she received a telegram with the news that her country house, like many others at the time, had been requisitioned by the military. Although the house was cleared and the contents sent to Fort William for storage, it seems storms had washed away a number of bridges in the area, and that when the lorries carrying the contents encountered a collapsed bridge on the road, the soldiers unloaded the valuable antique furniture from up to three of the lorries in order to bridge the gap and continue on their way.
Christian Cameron is said to have died of a broken heart after learning that much of the contents of the house had been damaged by the Army when they emptied it. One account suggests she suffered a heart attack as a result, and subsequently stayed with relatives until her death.
"I found both my houses (Inverailort Castle and Glenshian House) taken by the military and vans carting the furniture away out of both," she wrote in a distressed letter to her Edinburgh solicitor. "I am waiting here for a few days till I try to see what is happening to my clothes... there are to be 300 soldiers in the Castle and they have taken land on which to erect huts." She never recovered from the shock and died the following year.
- Published in Westie News, Dec 2007, for The West Highland White Terrier Club Of England.
This appears to be at odds with another account of the time given by Major Hall, who had been sent to Inverailort by the Kentish Regiment to train men there for the British Resistance , at a time when there was a real fear that Britain would be invaded. At a talk given at the Glenuig Hall on August 13, 2001, he said, "Mrs Cameron-Head, despite having her home taken over by the military, became mother and friend to all".
Special Training Centre
Commando Country, by Stuart Allan, considers the origins of forces like the Commandos and SOE, and refers to the requisitioning of Inverailort Castle, and its operation by Military Intelligence (Research):
This was requisitioned by the War Office at the end of May 1940 for use in the training of irregular forces as the Special Training Centre. Initially this was operated by MI(R) but became part of Combined Operations. Many techniques of guerilla and irregular warfare were developed there and training techniques which were adopted for Commando training. SOE training was centred on nearby Arisaig House. The army moved out of the house on 20th August 1942 and it was then taken over by the Royal Navy when it became HMS Lochailort and used for the training of naval cadet ratings to be officers on small craft used by Combined Operations. The Royal Navy moved out in January 1945.
- Commando Country, Stuart Allan, National Museums Scotland.
Those attending courses at the house would have been receiving training to work behind enemy lines, in hand to hand combat, sabotage, use of explosives, survival techniques and the like.
- Inverailort was requisitioned at the end of May 1940, as a Special Training Centre
- Arisaig House was initially included with Inverailort, but had transferred to SOE training by the end of 1940
- Inverailort was vacated by the Army in 1942
- Achnacarry House was handed over in 1942, becoming the Commando Training Centre
- Inverailort was taken over by the Royal Navy in 1942
The house was commissioned as HMS Lochailort between August 24, 1942 and January 31, 1945, when it served as a training establishment for the Royal Navy:
Officer Training Establishment in Scotland for Combined Operation Naval Officers, “HMS Lochailort”. for a six weeks intensive course that included navigation, signals, pilotage, and boat handling to name just a few. We were expected to undergo plenty of physical training including assault courses and running practically every day, on top of which we would have to last at least three one minute rounds in a boxing ring. All this would be under the scrutiny of a very critical staff. Looking for any failing that would eliminate your chances of a Commission.
© Jack Gaster: The Millionaire Mob.
At that time, it seems that normal recruitment and training methods were incapable of meeting the demand for junior officers. They were needed in vast numbers to crew the minor landing craft needed for the invasion of mainland Europe. Initially, officer trainees came from HMS King Alfred at Hove, which was an officer training establishment for ratings with potential. When this closed down on July 1, 1943, the supply of officers for training then came from Lochailort itself.
Evidence of the building's past use as a wartime HQ still exists in the form of the names of wartime offices on doors within the house.
House visit 2009
We are grateful to Jack Bakker and the Commando Veterans Association for permission to reproduce some of the pictures obtained while visiting the house during November 2009, and the visit is described as follows:
Last week I have been to Scotland to make arrangements for a program for Dutch Commandos. During the week I had the opportunity to visit Lochailort and more precisely Inverailort, the house where it all started so to speak.I have made some pictures over there, outside as well as inside the house. I thought I might send them to you to put them in the gallery of the forum perhaps or in some sort of an archive. The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the house was the deplorable state it is in. We were welcomed by a very nice elderly lady who had worked for the family who owned the house. I forgot to asked her name!! The house is now in the possession of a nephew of the family. She was allowed to stay there and she now runs a small post office from the house. She invited us in and I must say the inside of the house was a shock to see! There is a very serious problem of dry rot and the smell of humidity is overwhelming. As we went to the attic she told us to stay close to the wall otherwise we might face the risk of falling through the floor! Some time ago she was wakened in the middle of the night by a very loud rumbling sound. She thought that part of the house had fallen in! That wasn't the case however: there was a small earthquake going on! There were carpets drying out on the landing above the hall. She showed us the various doors at which you could still read the signs (see the pictures!) and in the guestbook she showed us the signature of Van Maurik, one of the instructors at Lochailort (see the book Commando Country by Stuart Allen). Asked why there isn't something done about the terrible state the house is in, she told me that a few years ago the house was grade 3 concerning renovation. It has been graded down so there won't be any money available to do something about the state it is in. When we were there the weather was very warm so every door and window was open, but that doesn't help a lot. In the colder times of the year there is insufficient heating to warm the whole house. Only the most important rooms are heated then. The lady said that it will only be a matter of time when the whole of the house will be too rotten do something about it. It's a question of time before the whole will fall in. It think it is a disgrace to see a house with so much history fall apart. It is all about money of course, but even then! It should be made a museum for instance.
- Jack Bakker
Mr Bakker has since let us know that the house is being watched by Barbara Macintosh, who also runs the Lochailort Post Office and sorting office.
The stairway which can be seen in the photographs is the same as that referred to by Stuart Allen in his book Commando Country, where one of the first sights to greet new recruits would be that of instructors Fairbairn and/or Sykes tumbling down the stairs fighting.
Surviving door signs
Following the visit, Mr Bakker received a letter from Mr Hugh Maclaren, owner of Inverailort House, who wrote:
A charitable organisation called Venture Trust is putting plans together to save the house and turn it into a centre for disadvantaged young people. They are hoping to open a website soon to contact all interested parties. The task is formidable, but we feel there is a good chance of success.
Hopefully we will be able to follow this development, if it materialises.
Glenshian House, or Glenshian Lodge, was also owned by Christian Cameron as part of the Inverailort estate, and this house was also requisitioned during World War II, for use as a field hospital:
Glenshian (formerly Glenaylort), mid-18th century and later Tacksman's house, later a fishing/shooting lodge for Inverailort, built in three distinct phases. The earliest range to the north contains the present kitchen and dining room. This was enlarged in 1874 with the former dining room wing at right angles, which was extended southwards in the 1890s to accommodate a panelled staircase and drawing room. Requisitioned as a hospital during the Second World War, it served as an inn for 40 years from 1947, and in 1997 was refurbished as a shooting lodge.
- Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide. Mary Miers, 2008. Rutland Press.
(A tacksman worked for and represented the local landlord, lying one step below in terms of responsibility and authority).
Related Canmore/RCAHMS and ScotlandsPlaces (SP) entries:-
- HMS Lochailort at Combined Operations
- Memoirs of Ernest Dale: Inverailort, 1940-42, Commando training
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