Book Review: Our Uninvited Guests

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In April 1940 Mrs Frances Cameron- Head was informed that her home, Inverailort Castle between Fort William and Mallaig, had been taken over by the military for urgent wartime use.

She was not alone among country house and castle owners in receiving this unwelcome news and the stories of how the acquisitions played out are told in great detail in this excellent and comprehensive study by Julie Summers.

The houses and grounds were required for military accommodation and training, secret services, housing children at risk and the sick and the elderly. This well-researched book ranges from smaller houses right up to Blenheim Palace and the many and varied uses to which they were put during these years of crisis.

For readers of this newspaper the chapter aptly titled Gorillas in the Mist! will be both fascinating and entertaining, as it covers those Highland properties taken over for outdoor training, field craft and sabotage.

It was an ideal environment and one in which the author praises the additional benefit of the ‘discretion’ of the locals. Indeed, over large areas of the West Highlands, a ring of steel was put in place and residents had to produce permits to move about. Apart from Inverailort, other Highland homes taken over included Achnacarry Castle and Arisaig House.

The most extreme and most dangerous training took place at Arisaig House under the direction of the Special Operations Executive, where agents were put through rigorous exercises before being dropped behind enemy lines.

Neither the instructors nor the men and women trainees knew about the other’s background, but this calm must have been impossible to maintain after the charismatic Captain Gavin Maxwell arrived there as an instructor in 1941.

An excellent shot and expert in outdoor survival and extreme animal cooking, Maxwell exhibited such strange behaviour as to be called by a colleague a ‘creative psychopath’. When the operation was closed down in 1944, he threw his personal collection of German training guns into the sea and headed off on his boat, later to write his famous book, Ring of Bright Water.

Other celebrated characters in the book include Lord Lovat, David Stirling of the SAS, and Uilleamena MacRae, proprietor of the Inverailort Inn.

Mrs Cameron- Head never again saw Inverailort Castle as she died before her son Francis had it returned from the military, receiving £6,500 in compensation for damage caused.

Julie Summers has done a splendid job in recounting the stories of such houses and the vital part they played in the ultimate victory in 1945.

Eric Macintyre

Our Uninvited Guests, Julie Summers, is published Simon & Schuster.