Donald was one of the first Commandos to train at CBTC Achnacarry during World War II. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth Donald’s family has kindly loaned us photographs, his medals, his green beret, and other items for display at the West Highland Museum throughout 2023. His family are rightly very proud of Donald but have noted that he rarely spoke about his war service during his lifetime. The first part of this blog is taken from an interview with Donald in 2013. It is re-published with permission of the author and editor, Richard Sidgwick, The second part of this blog features a poem written by Donald’s grandson.
The objects will be displayed in the museum's Commando Exhibition from 24 June 2023 - 31 December 2023.
Donald, tell me of your early life and childhood memories.
I was born on the croft at Swordland, on the north shore of Loch Morar, one of a family of eight – four boys and four girls and I was the third oldest. My father’s people came from Roy Bridge and mother belonged to Tarbet – her people have moved there in the 1880s from the head of Loch Nevis, at Finiskaig or thereabouts. The croft was productive – everybody had hens and a house cow beside a few other cows, and the sheep, of course. There was a good garden that gave us potatoes and vegetables and of course there was always fish in the loch. The family have been crofters there since 1905 and they survived an outbreak of TB that killed all but one of a neighbouring family.
Shopping came from the wee shop in Morar or Mallaig; mother sent a note of what we wanted, and we paid at the end of the month. There was no electricity, of course, so we had tilleys and paraffin and peats. Breakfast was porridge and, if you were lucky, an egg or something; we made our own bread and there were always scones or oatcakes and a piece for lunch at school.
I first went to school over the hill at Tarbet, about a mile away. My birthday was in June, but I went to school early Easter; if the numbers fell below three, the school would have closed, so I went early when I was four and, there were two sisters, the Misses MacMillan from Uist who were the teachers. I remember the Mass was once a fortnight in summer and once a month in the winter.
A big treat each year was a children’s party in the summer in Morar given by Mrs Shaw Stewart from Traigh; all the children would be asked – from Morar, Bracora, Meoble, Tarbet and all the outlying places – and we had ice cream and cakes and treats. We never really saw much of the Lovat family who were our landlords; they would come over in the summer on holiday and maybe to the hotel on rent day – the rents were low – maybe £2/10 – a half year. The family were always well regarded.
So, Donald, at 14 it out into the wide world.
Well not really. After leaving school, I worked at Meoble, just across the loch, which was owned then by Sir Berkeley Sheffield. It was mostly deer; there were five stalkers, Sandy MacDonald was head stalker, his brother, John, Ronald MacDonald, Angus Gillies and a man, MacDonell. There were also three boatmen, gardeners, domestic staff and a handyman or two. I stayed there until I was 17 when I joined up – Meoble was taken over by the army – and I joined up on 14th May 1941 in what was called the General Corps and went off to Plymouth for three months basic training – the first time I’d ever been away from Lochaber! After that I was drafted into the 2nd Warwickshire Regt. And I don’t think there was another Scotch boy in the whole squad. I had five or six months and at Company Details it came out that they were wanting volunteers for the commandos and the captain said to me ‘On you go, you’ll be right up in your own part of the country’. Ach well, I thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so off I went and found myself at Spean station with a full pack. Eight or nine of us got off the train – all English lads – and they must have known we were coming because there was a man coming to us. The outcome was that we marched in full kit to Achnacarry.
This was the Spring of 1942, and we were the first intake, no Nissen huts yet and we were mostly in tents. I remember the CO. Col. Vaughan and a training officer called Lieutenant Leach; we called him Spider Leach because he could climb anything! We went through the whole two-month training schedule, the assault course, armed and unarmed combat, canoes, opposed landings, endless exercise out on the hills; I can remember walking from Achnacarry through Glen Pean and on to Meoble from where I could see home just across the loch before getting the train back from Inverailort. And of course, there was weapons training with mortars, grenades and small arms and Bren guns. I can remember crossing the river on ropes and more than once seeing a man go in with full pack. After passing out, we went to Inverary to train for D Day; the beaches were more like Normandy and we practised with landing craft; we were stationed briefly at Liberton, outside Edinburgh before heading for Littlehampton and the invasion of Sicily.
We landed in July 1943, in the southeast corner of the island and the plan was to prepare for the invasion of Italy and to knock out the airfields that were attacking shipping in the Med. I was in the 9th Commando – the Germans were good soldiers, and they had much better equipment than us – it was tough. We didn’t have much heavy equipment, a few jeeps, Bren gun carriers and some six-pounders.
Donald continues to tell us about his war time experiences.
After Sicily had fallen, we had a spell of recuperation in camp at Keighley in Yorkshire and then off to a farm called Borland, near Dumfries, we didn’t have a billet, just tents, training for two months over the winter of ‘43/’44. We went down to Sevenoaks and in June 1944, we landed on Sword Beach, and we pretty much fought our way to Northwestern Germany at the end of the war, all the way from Arromanches to Petershagen, near Hanover. We had big casualties on D Day, whatever the depth of the water, you couldn’t hesitate. A lot of men drowned, imagine having an 80 lb mortar plate on your back plus all your kit and even if the landing craft was in 20 feet of water, you were straight out. You could be talking to a man one minute and, whoof, he was dead. Men were going down in dozens as we fought towards the gun positions, we were to destroy.
Sometime after Arromanches, we were withdrawn and sent for parachute training to Clay Cross and Ringway for the attempt in September 1944 to capture the bridges at Arnhem. I was one of the paratroopers who were dropped in – the boys in gliders had a hell of a time. It was nine days of fighting, and I was one of the lucky ones who survived and managed to withdraw, otherwise I’d have finished up as a POW.
We very near did it and it was the Americans that let us down. We carried on up through Belgium into Holland where I was wounded; we were just battling on, and it was a place called Hocksoff that I was wounded; it was an airburst, shrapnel from a German shell and it went through my tin hat into my head. I was treated in a field hospital and had about two months convalescence behind the lines. I rejoined my unit after about two months off – there was no home leave then – and we pushed on till the end of the war. The winter of ‘44/’45 was the coldest I can ever remember; life was just as bad for the enemy and civilians suffered awfully.
When I was back with my unit, we were to go to Kentucky in America to invade Japan, but the Americans dropped the bombs, and that was it. After that, they sent us out to Palestine; we were supposed to be peace keeping, but I’ll tell you this, it wasn’t very safe there and it was a relief to be demobbed in 1946. I go a suit in a box, a coat, a hat, a pair of shoes, and that was it. My brother Angus had been in the RAF and John, the oldest was in the Royal Engineers and they were home too. I went to Swordlands, but there wasn’t enough work, so I came to Fort William and stayed at Annat, in digs in one of the prefabs and got a job in the Lime Quarry for a while. I also did a season working for Mrs Spence in Oban – she had three pleasure boats for trippers, and I’d used boats all my life.
Donald, for most of the time I’ve known you, you’ve been a shepherd. When did that start?
I got a job with Lochiel as a shepherd in 1951. It was what I knew best in civilian life, and I lived at Strathan house in a bothy. There was Jimmy Henderson, Robert Wright, Sandy Kennedy and a man called MacVarish, about 15 shepherds altogether, including Glen Loy and Uachan. Quite a community, the school was still open, and the ex-army ambulance came up the loch each week with supplies. If we were gathering and there was a lot of extra shepherds, Lexie Mackintosh would come up and cook for us all. In those days, the estate had a pedigree Jersey herd, about 12 cows and a bull and a cross highland suckler herd and an Aberdeen Angus bull and they were summered up at Glendessary. Between Caonich and Kinlochmorar there were about 3,000 wedders, some cheviots, some blackface; they were great wool producers sold at three years old – big strong sheep.
I married when I was there, in ’53; Emma came from East Weymss in Fife and she was a hardy woman, and I met her when I went to St Andrews to see a man called Duncan MacGillivray. He had been at Strathan and had very good dogs but didn’t like Lochaber and went to St Andrews and I went to see him because he had an awful good bitch, and I wanted a pup – and that was how I met Emma! We lived at Toloman until 1955, when I moved to Blarachaoruinn which Donald Glen Nevis rented from the Forestry Commission; I was there for nearly 20 years until most of the hill ground was planted.
We moved to Caol in 1973 and, when Brooks left Mamore there was a lot of sheep left on Achintee and I spent a winter gathering what I could – Steall and places away up to near Spean Bridge and young Donald Glen Nevis – Do-Do, to all of us – and I went into partnership until he moved to Dingwall.
Listen to our podcast if you would like hear Donald speak about his life and wartime experiences.
Images: 1) Donald Cameron 2) Assault landing under 'enemy' fire, Commando Basic Training Centre, Achnacarry, Inverness-shire, 1942.
The following poem was written by Donald’s grandson, Michael McDade and read at his funeral service. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Michael.
My granda, my hero. A hardy old man.
A Shephard all his days, sometimes needs a hand
Please granda please, can’t we wait ‘til it’s dark
I can’t be seen chasing sheep round the high school carpark.
Right you grab your coat and put on these wellies
Get into that pickup, don’t care if its smelly.
Now run round over that way, they’re going through this gate
Now smile for the camera and wave to your mates.
My Granda the veteran, signed up just 17
Don’t think we could imagine the things that he seen
From Sword beach to Arnhem and the river Rhine bridge
He fought in these places still merely a kid.
Commando training at Achnacarry, Toughest training around
Beach landings, rope bridges under live firing rounds
He’d walk Loch Arkaig to Swordlands, with coal in a sack
I’d still be there now getting this on my back.
My granda the shepherd, one of thee best around
We’d be out gathering sheep on the toughest of ground
See that one in the middle, it’ll run when were down
Now you stay on that side, don’t let it get round.
There are 500 sheep here I’m getting confused
That sheep that he showed me I’m starting to lose
White fleeces, black faces, they all look the same
Its going to get past me and I’ll be to blame.
When we got down, boy did that sheep go
Over the burn, up a cliff face, my granda in toe
He’d headed that sheep off in the blink of an eye
That sheep’s flight for freedom has just waved goodbye.
My Granda, My hero, till we meet again.