“I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above” :Flying Scotsmen




Bertram Dickson 1

Bertram Dickson

Britain’s first military pilot and the first British winner of an aviation competition was Scotsman Bertram Dickson. He was also involved in the first collision of an aircraft; an incident which led to his early death.

Bertram Dickson was born in 1873 in Edinburgh and died and was buried at Achanalt* in the Highlands in 1913.

Bertram's gravestone


The plaque on his memorial stone states:



BORN EDINBURGH 21.12.1873.

No danger found him hesitant
No suffering found him feeble.

Edinburgh-born Bertram Dickson’s heroic feats were instrumental in the formation of the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner to the Royal Air Force.


Thomas Holdich

 Before that in 1892 the young Bertram accompanied the geographer Thomas Holdich, one-time president of the Royal Geographical Society and definer of national borders, to Chile and Argentina to establish the frontier between the two countries along the Andes.

Andes frontier

Creating a frontier in the Andes

He underwent training at the Royal Military Academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in November 1894. By the turn of the century he was a captain and soon seconded to the Foreign Office undertaking duties in many parts of the world including British East Africa and Somaliland. His role as military attaché and vice consul found him in Turkey, in the troubled Ottoman Armenian city of Van but his enthusiasm for the embryonic pursuit of flight led to his enrolment at the Farman flying school in France in 1910 where he took the Aero-Club de France’s eighty-first pilot licence. Later that year he won £400 prize money for flying the greatest aggregate distance at the Lanark Aviation Club meeting and 18,000 French francs in prize money at the Aero Club de France at Tours.

Bertram was in his element as one of an elite body of early pilots who drew vast crowds as they took to the air carrying out daring manoeuvres in tiny open aircraft. He took up a post with  British & Colonial Aircraft Company which manufactured the Bristol Boxkite. This company went on to develop the Bristol Fighter plane for the Royal Flying Corps and later what became the Royal Air Force but by then Bertram Dickson was dead.

In September 1910 he took part in army manoeuvres over Salisbury Plain, on board one of two Bristol Boxkites and those trials convinced him of the potential of aircraft for reconnaissance in war and the importance that control of the skies would become in the future.


A month later Dickson was in Milan where he added that other, unfortunate, first – the first mid-air crash between two aeroplanes when his bi-plane collided with an Antoinette monoplane piloted by René Thomas** of France. Both men were injured but Dickson came off worst. As a consequence of his injuries that day he died, at Lochrosque House, near Achnasheen on 28 September 1913. He was buried nearby at Achanalt in Cnoc na Bhain graveyard.

Achanalt Strath Braan

Cnoc na Bhain

Achanalt near Achnasheen on the side of Strath Bran lies the Cnoc na Bhain graveyard.

It is said he died in Lochrosque Castle but appears to have an exaggerated claim for a lodge. At any rate he was there as guest of Sir Arthur Bignold, then a former Unionist MP for Wick – an Englishman who took a liking to the Highlands and decided to buy a bit of it- around 30,000 acres.

Bignold was doubtless an enthusiastic and staunch Tory which makes the following episode all the more incredible.

In September 1914 Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, happened to be passing through Ross and Cromarty on his way to inspect the fleet anchored in Loch Ewe when he spotted a light shining on the roof of Lochrosque Lodge. Taking his professional role ultra-seriously, or perhaps drink was involved, he became highly suspicious and doubtless laying the foundations for John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps the twitchy Winston Churchill assumed Bignold was a German spy signalling to his kameraden from Berlin. At any rate Churchill aided and abetted by a loyal protection officer burst into the house, made their way onto the roof and disabled the light – to the annoyance and probably astonishment of Bignold and his household.

Rene Thomas

René Thomas

*Rene Thomas became a motor racing champion as well as pioneer aviator. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1914 but by then Bertram was dead and buried. Thomas died an old man in 1975.

The Royal Flying Corps was the air arm of the British Army before and during First World War. It merged with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918 to form the Royal Air Force.

As a footnote for no other reason other than I came across his name while researching Bertram another of many young pioneering Scots pilots Reginald Archibald Cammell from Inverness died a couple of years before Bertram, in 1911.  


Reginald Cammell

Cammell was killed at Hendon in England while trialling a Valkyrie monoplane. He had won his brevet (a military commission conferred for outstanding service) on a Bristol bi-plane at the Salisbury Plain school at the end of 1910 but his first flight in the Bleriot monoplane would be his last. Before taking off there had been trouble with the engine and it was suspected engineers passed it as okay despite continuing problems. At the inquest into the crash the coroner found death by misadventure.



His final flight began well with him completing a circuit of the airfield and rising to 100 feet but when he attempted a spiral turn something went wrong – some say he lost control and others that the engine seized; whatever the cause the plane crashed. Cammell was thrown clear and survived a short time but was dead before arriving at hospital. Only 25 years old he was described as one of the cleverest pilots of the British Air Battalion.

Cammell gravestone

Cammell’s memorial stone

Cammell was buried in England with full military honours.

The important role of aircraft in war developed apace since those first faltering days not only in reconnaissance but in devastating bombing of populations. In this light the exploitation of the skies by men and women in machines has been a mixed blessing but none of that detracts from the courage of the first airmen and airwomen. 

* Achanalt for many of us is a stop on the railway running between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh. It was once part of the Dingwall and Skye Railway operated by Highland Railway; one of many small British lines. During the First World War this line was a vital link between the south and Scapa Flow where the British Navy had a base, serviced from Scrabster near Thurso. Each day the Jellicoe Express ran between London and Thurso – a journey of around 22 hours.


Achanalt halt


I am obliged to Ruadh Watson for pointing me in the direction of another impressive early airman, from Dundee – here’s the link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preston_Watson

4 Comments to ““I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above” :Flying Scotsmen”

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