Sunday, August 11, 2019

Scotland: An Academic and Personal Journey

Posted by Steven J. J. Pitt

In late June, I participated in “The Problem of Piracy” conference ( at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. One of the great privileges of being an academic is the ability to travel, meet other scholars working in your field, and exchange ideas. This conference, organized by Dr. David Wilson, Dr. John Coakley, and Nathan Kwan, examined piracy from antiquity to the present. The opportunity to participate in this conference thrilled me because my dissertation, publications (articles and book reviews), and research interests deal heavily with the pirates, sailors, privateers, and smugglers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was also the first time in my career, as far as I am aware, that an institution has hosted a conference entirely dedicated to pirates and piracy. On a more personal front, the location of the conference struck me as especially fortuitous. Travelling to Scotland had been a life goal because my father, Lt. Steven J. Pitt, died in the Isle of Skye during a training mission when his F111 crashed into the mountain of Sgurr na Stri on December 7, 1982 – four months before I was born. The crash site was just a five-hour drive from Glasgow (more like eight or nine hours after stopping to behold the beauty of the Scottish Highlands and the ruins of castles along the way). After receiving word from David that my proposal had been accepted, I knew that part of my trip to Scotland would entail visiting Skye and climbing Sgurr na Stri to the crash site.   
F111s in flight from Lakenheath in 
England where my Dad was stationed

As I prepared my presentation, entitled “Boston, Pirates, and Reciprocal Revenge during the Early Eighteenth Century,” I thought about how I would carry out my journey up Sgurr na Stri. Initially, I envisioned a very somber, solitary hike up the mountain – a personal pilgrimage and tribute of sorts with a life goal accomplished but with little joy or sharing. I would have slipped into Skye, stayed a couple of nights, climbed the mountain, and no one would have been the wiser. I could have lived with that experience but the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. I decided to invite my older sister, Sara, who was six at the time of the crash. Several years earlier, Sara had invited me to go on a similar journey. I declined because our family had just moved from Maine to New York and we were in the process of buying a house. It now felt right to have her join me on the climb up Sgurr na Stri. I knew that inviting my sister would change the nature of the trip I had planned, but I could not have envisioned by just how much.

Sara already had a contact up in Skye, a very gifted artist named David Deamer, who informed her about the All Things Cuillin ( Facebook group, which in turn put her in contact with Adrian Trendall. Adrian is a talented photographer and mountain guide who had been to my Dad’s crash site before. He, along with the wonderful Bridgette Blackmore, also run the Boat House in Sconser where Sara and I stayed during our visit to Skye. David “Heavy” Whalley, the man who led the RAF’s initial rescue attempt in extremely dangerous weather conditions, also reached out to Sara via the Facebook group and generously offered to join us on our journey. I was relatively unaware of all these arrangements taking place and relationships being formed but I am extremely grateful to everyone involved, especially Sara because I would not have reached out to anyone. Through Sara, I learned how much people in Skye remembered and cared about my father’s crash. This tragic event connected us.

I arrived in Glasgow for my conference on June 23. Over the next three days, our cohort of rabble-rousing pirate experts exchanged ideas and debated “The Problem of Piracy.” I learned a great deal from all the panel sessions I attended and the two keynote speakers, Dr. Claire Jowitt (University of East Anglia) and Dr. David Starkey (University of Hull). Our Pedagogical Roundtable, led by Dr. Jessica Hower (Southwestern University), generated a great discussion and great ideas for educating students about pirates and piracy and will prove extremely beneficial when I teach HIST451: Piracy during the Age of Sail again.

In Glasgow, I stayed at the Merchant City Inn, an eighteenth century building where tobacco merchants trading with the Americas met to conduct business. 

I also enjoyed the comradery and conversations outside of panel sessions where I openly discussed my plans to visit my Dad’s crash site with many colleagues. I appreciated the warmth and encouragement I received in return. In talking about my forthcoming trip to Skye with colleagues, I realized that I had suppressed discussing my Dad and his death for much of my life. He had been my hero as a young child but, even as I learned more about my father and his life, a stony silence set in during adulthood. This insight helped explain why my first inclination was a secret, solo mission up Sgurr na Stri.

One of our many stops in the Glen Coe region. 

Along with beautiful vistas, we stopped to see the ruins of 
Sara arrived in Glasgow on June 26, the last day of my conference. The next day we drove up to the Isle of Skye. As I previously noted, on the way we passed through the Scottish Highlands and the beautiful region around Glen Coe. It was hard not to stop every mile to walk around and take pictures of the vividly green scenery and lakes that reflected mountains like mirrors. The journey was not without its perils. Narrow roads, curbs, aggressive drivers, sheep and elderly people crossings, and driving on the opposite side of the road kept me on high alert (primarily in the passenger seat), but we safely arrived at the Boat House in Sconser around dinner. There we met Adrian and Bridgette in-person. Their genuineness and kindness immediately shone through. I connected easily with Adrian as we share a similar sense of humor and Bridgette over our mutual interest in birds, nature photography, and environmental concerns. Sara and I knew we had placed our trust correctly.
The next morning, we prepared for our climb up Sgurr na Stri. Skye can have volatile weather, but the forecast smiled upon us, holding clear skies, sunshine, and a steady upper 70° day. The good weather meant that our ferry from Elgol would be able to carry us to Loch Coruisk, a perfect starting point for our climb. In poor weather, the ferry does not run and the only way up Sgurr na Stri is a very long hike. David Whalley warmly and respectfully greeted us when we arrived in Elgol. I could tell that it meant the world to David that we invited him to join us and, upon meeting him, the feeling was mutual. Throughout the day, David would share the experience of the RAF Mountain Rescue team’s attempted rescue of my father and the pilot, Major Burnley L. Rudiger Jr. and the impact of the tragedy on his life. David clearly prioritized remembrance of the fallen and peace for the family members and relatives left behind. His presence was a constant comfort through a difficult but poignant day. He is a remarkable person. 

My first look at Sgurr na Stri from Elgol. 
Our party assembled, we went down to the harbor to meet with Anne Mackinnon who, along with Seamus Mackinnon, run the Misty Isle Boat Trips to Loch Coruisk ( Anne remembered the night of our father’s crash well and she made special arrangements for us, not least making sure there was a boat for us after our long hike (we ended up a little behind schedule). Once again, the kindness of everyone we met on Skye astounded me and Sara, but the Mackinnon’s went above and beyond. We then boarded the Misty Isle, captained by Sandy Mackinnon, Anne’s son. As we crossed over to the loch, Sandy regaled us with stories, but I was especially interested in how his family helped hide Bonnie Prince Charlie from the Hanoverians in the 1740s and suffered punishment from the Crown because of it. The historian in me wondered if this family history has been fully explored and documented. As we got closer to Sgurr na Stri with its foreboding split and devastating history, Sandy’s stories, along with the company of Sara, David, and Adrian, helped distract from my uncertainty about what I expected or wanted from this experience.

Our view of Loch na Cuilce as we climbed Sgurr na Stri.
When we docked at Loch Coruisk, Adrian considerately allowed the other passengers to depart so we would have some privacy on our ascent. Sandy treated us to coffee, tea, and Misty Isle’s lovely shortbread cookies as we lingered. We then departed on our way up Sgurr na Stri. Initially, the climb was gradual, and we marveled at the beauty of the surrounding Cuillins and Loch Coruisk but it didn’t take long for it to become steep. Adrian picked the best path forward, but we had to be careful of some slick rocks and wet, sinking grass. I thoroughly enjoyed the movement up Sgurr na Stri, using my hands and feet to find the securest placement – it was exhilarating, and it kept me focused as we moved towards the crash site. About an hour into the hike, Adrian warned us that we would soon approach pieces of my Dad’s F111. Adrian had sent Sara some images of the crash site before our trip, but I was ignorant of what to expect. I mistakenly thought I overheard Adrian say there wasn’t much left of the crash so when we came to the first piece – a relatively sizable hunk of rusted metal – I thought this might be our big find. Me and Sara stopped here and sat near this first piece. We considered our Dad’s life and what he might have wanted us to take from this trip. From all the stories we had heard about our Dad, he lived life to the fullest, in part, because a drunk driver killed his own father when he was twelve. Sara thought he would have wanted us to enjoy a few beers and listen to some good music – an excellent plan for a future visit up Sgurr na Stri. We also spoke with regret that our sibling, Jen, who had been two at the time of my Dad’s crash, had been unable to join us.

As we continued our ascent, it became clear to me that there was much more to the crash site than I had anticipated. I began to find pieces, some of them hidden away, half-buried in dirt or covered by rocks. I began actively searching for each fragment of aircraft. I couldn’t help but think that if only I found them all, I could piece my father and his life back together and fulfill my childhood dream meeting him at least once. For a short time, the task gave me a profound sense of purpose. Reality, and the futility of my quest, hit me hard as we approached the main crash site. Twisted metal, tires, and pieces of the cockpit littered the ground all around us and it became difficult to move without stepping on pieces. The sheer volume forced me to abandon my irrational mission and with it my sense of purpose.
Lt. Steven J. Pitt

We soon arrived at the site where the impact of the F111 had left the mountain face gouged and disfigured – the place where we had lost our father. The sadness of the site left me burying emotions and detached. I am thankful that David began talking to me about the rescue attempt. He pointed out where the helicopter had dropped off the team and how they climbed Sgurr na Stri in rough, winter conditions. The physical and emotional hardships he experienced that night in December 1982 gave him the capacity to share our grief in a way I could not have anticipated. After talking with David, I walked over to a ledge and looked out over the ocean and at the surrounding mountains. The majestic beauty gave me a deep sense of peace, despite the heartbreak behind me. My Dad could not have asked for a better burial ground.

The incredible vista from my Dad's crash site. 
In retrospect, it’s hard for me to envision a different story other than the one I laid out above, or the powerful narratives of Adrian, Sara, and David about our trip, but I could have easily ended up alone on Sgurr na Stri. I had been written out of the published and online accounts of my father’s death, mostly because of our family’s recalcitrant silence about the crash. If I had chosen my first path, I would have remained the unknown son, no new relationships would have formed, and a tragedy would have remained just that – a tragedy. Instead, me and Sara have wonderful memories filled with the kindness, joy, and warmth of Adrian, Bridgette, David, Anne and Seamus, my colleagues in Glasgow, and virtually everyone else we met on our journey. Sgurr na Stri and its visceral beauty will always be the place my father died, the place where I forever lost the opportunity to meet or know my father and vice versa, but now it is also a place of happiness, a place I could seek solace in the future, and a place I want my three children to experience and love.  
For Adrian and David’s excellent narratives and more pictures of our trip see (Adrian expected sources from me, the historian, but I doubt he expected to be one): 
Me and Adrian just before we tried to pirate the ferryboat behind us. The pirate pajama pants, however, gave the game away and the vessel fled. 

In addition to Adrian, Bridgette, David, Anne, and everyone we met in Skye, I would like to thank St. Bonaventure University and my colleagues in the History Department for their encouragement and support.

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