The Beauly barrier, the women of Ross and the bogus telegram: World War Two Highland lockdown

In his second blog post about the impact of government decisions on Highland life during wartime, Neil Bruce considers the impact of the introduction of permits required to enter the region during World War Two.

In 1940 Robert Michie was sentenced to a £2 fine or 10 days imprisonment at Inverness Sheriff Court for circumventing the army’s Beauly barrier which controlled the north road.[i] North and west of the Firth of Lorne and Great Glen had been officially designated as the North of Scotland protected area in the ‘interests of defence or the efficient prosecution of war’ on 11 March 1940. [ii]  Restricting access in wartime resonates with 2020, when rural communities to protect themselves, warned would-be visitors, second home owners and others to stay away during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Forest of Birse, April 2020

Photo: Neil Bruce

The Highlands became a military-controlled zone.[iii] North-bound travellers’ credentials were checked at key points including Inverness railway station, the Kessock ferry and buses from Fort William.[iv] Those bound for the Northern Isles required a transit visa from Inverness’s military control office.[v] Adult residents needed permits to prove their identity if stopped, and proof of residency leaving or entering the area. In Inverness, almost immediately, ‘thousands’ queued to obtain permits from police headquarters.[vi] Residents from enemy countries required a specific permit and had to adhere to strict regulations: forgetting to report to their local police station before overnight curfew, Italian ‘aliens’ Enrico and Antonio Pizzamiglio were each fined £10.[vii]

Visitor permits were issued by military offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Initial confusion and delay ensued: applications required both parents’ nationality and countersignature by a J. P. or someone-else of ‘respectable status’.[viii] The protected area covered 40% of Scotland, but the government initially rebuffed suggestions local registrars or police could issue permits, claiming security was ‘predominant’.[ix] Democracy came second to military authority: the government candidate in the Argyllshire by-election, a non-resident serving officer, still required a permit.[x] Holidaymaker Jessie Macleod freely crossed the Beauly barrier several times before being found to be without permit. Her defence that she believed her identification card was sufficient proof did not prevent a 10/- fine.[xi] Irishman John P. McGovern, a farm labourer in Caithness for 11 years received more leniency, remanded in custody while Wick police obtained the necessary military permit.[xii] A son was only allowed to attend his father’s funeral having ‘pulled certain very important wires which are not given to all men to reach.’[xiii]

There was other suspicion about ‘wires’ being pulled. Lord Redesdale and daughter Deborah Mitford’s visit to their Argyll island was contrasted with ‘legitimate and loyal persons’ inability to obtain permits.[xiv] Secretary for War, Anthony Eden defended Redesdale’s ‘valid reason for finding it desirable and necessary to reside there during part of the year’: seeing no ‘reasonable grounds for disquiet throughout Scotland.’[xv] Minister for Security and Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson responded that the island was ‘visited periodically by the police’, though he had no grounds ‘for prohibiting the present inhabitants from living there’.[xvi] In spring 2020 echoes reverberate when officials told citizens to stay at home, then ignored the same instruction; and elsewhere, police visited Lismore following concerns about a non-resident’s arrival.[xvii]

Tourism was ‘killed almost stone dead’ in 1940.[xviii] Slow issue of visitor permits brought sparse Eastertime trade.[xix] The Scotsman encouraged readers not to worry about food restrictions or petrol rationing, but was apprehensive that the bed and breakfast, and other tourist businesses built-up by that ‘modern regiment’, the ‘women of Ross’, could continue.[xx] Would-be visitors with permits intent on a summer Highland ‘staycation’ were prevented from ferry or rail travel without warning.[xxi] Shooting and fishing tenants could not obtain permits.[xxii] The government refused to compensate sporting estate owners, hikers or ‘holidaymakers of the humbler sort’ for losses incurred.[xxiii] Pressed why permit offices were instructed not to grant permits if the reason given was ‘holidays’, Anthony Eden replied cryptically, ‘There may be reasons which I would rather not refer to in public.’[xxiv] Those included an expected imminent invasion: defensive works were under construction to thwart an advancing enemy.[xxv]

Sign in Finzean, Lockdown 2020

Photo: Neil Bruce

Then as now, individuals circumvented the rules in force: in 1941, determined to holiday on Skye, James McLachlan arranged to receive the telegram, ‘Fanny seriously ill; come at once’. Permit granted and his deception discovered, he was fined £3 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.[xxvi] Though with very different origins, responses in wartime and to viral threat involved taking control of individuals’ lives to effect immediate change for the greatest impact and collective good.


[i] Northern Chronicle, 24 April 1940, A newspaper scrapbook history of Inverness, 1939 to September 1940: a year at war, http://www.scalan.co.uk/oldinverness/inverness/Invern33.gif accessed 13 April 2020. Michie from Markinch, arrived in Inverness believing his permit to work in Invergordon was being arranged. When he found it was not, he proceeded on the north road. The maximum sentence was a fine of £100 or 3 months imprisonment; The Scotsman reported an unnamed Fifer reached the Square in Beauly, disembarking from a bus before it reached the barrier: he was reported to the military, having asked someone how he could avoid the barrier. The Scotsman, 20 April 1940, 7; The barrier, across Station Road, five yards south of the Phipps Hall, was closed at 10pm each evening. The army also occasionally patrolled the surrounding countryside to prevent unauthorised entry. Harrison, H. W., compiler, The village of Beauly: parish of Kilmorack: a study of the history and demography of the village of Beauly, 1700-2000 (Kilmorack, 2001), 200-201.

[ii] Parliament passed legislation enabling the designation of protected places or areas the week before the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, The Times, 29 August 1939, 16; Scotsman, 27 February 1940, 7.

[iii] Coastal areas had stricter controls of access. Manchester Guardian,6 April 1940, 4.

[iv] The Scotsman, 12 March 1940, 5; 26 March 1940, 5.

[v] The Scotsman, 12 March 1940, 5. Entry to the Northern Isles required a special military permit.

[vi] Ibid. The local registrar issued 5,000 applications the day before when the protected area came into force.

[vii] Northern Chronicle, 29 May 1940, A newspaper scrapbook history,   http://www.scalan.co.uk/oldinverness/inverness/Invern38.gif accessed 13 April 2020. Italian men between 17 and 60 had to report daily to a police station, could not use personal transport and were curfewed from 8pm to 6am.There were only four Italians resident in Inverness who were naturalised British citizens and 17 others were regarded as aliens; The Scotsman, 4 April 1940, 7.

[viii] The Scotsman, 28 February 1940, 7; 30 March 1940, 10.

[ix] House of Commons, 17 April 1940. 

[x] The Times, 25 March 1940, 8.

[xi] Northern Chronicle, 17 July 1940, A newspaper scrapbook history, http://www.scalan.co.uk/oldinverness/inverness/Invern33.gif accessed 13 April 2020. She had travelled by train from Inverness without challenge, having only her ticket checked.

[xii] The Scotsman, 18 May 1940, 7. The same court sentenced fellow countryman Charles McLaughlin 30 days imprisonment as he could not pay his £5 fine. McLaughlin had a permit to work in Invergordon, but, finding no accommodation available, decided to travel to Orkney, being was arrested en route.

[xiii] The Scotsman, 6 April 1940, 11.

[xiv] The War Cabinet had previously refused Lord Redesdale’s request that he take another daughter, Unity Mitford, with him because of expected public outrage and the precedent it would set. National Archives, CAB 65/6/4, War Cabinet, 59 (40), 4 March 1940.

[xv] Ibid; House of Commons, 6 August 1940.

[xvi] House of Commons, 11 July 1940; 18 July 1940.

[xvii] https://twitter.com/jasonleitch/status/1244199165095284736 accessed 24 April 2020; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/05/scotland-chief-medical-officer-seen-flouting-lockdown-advice-catherine-calderwood accessed 28 April 2020;  https://www.obantimes.co.uk/2020/04/10/marks-spencer-chairman-dismisses-rumours-family-travelled-to-lismore/?mc_cid=478d795889&mc_eid=156180a7ba accessed 10 April 2020; https://www.obantimes.co.uk/2020/04/14/police-visit-lismore-property-over-lockdown-concerns/?mc_cid=153442b327&mc_eid=156180a7ba accessed 14 April 2020; Herald Scotland, 18 April 2020, 4..

[xviii] The Scotsman, 18 October 1940, 3. Flora, Mrs Macleod of MacLeod told Inverness County Council it was important all parts of the country were prosperous.

[xix] The Scotsman, 23 March 1940, 8.

[xx] Manchester Guardian, 7 March 1940, 6; The Scotsman, 22 March 1940, 9; 9 April 1940, 11.

[xxi] The Scotsman, 26 August 1940, 4.

[xxii] Sporting tenants were described as ‘people, who go, for so many months at a time, annually, to live in another part of the country.’ The Scotsman, 3 September 1940, 7.

[xxiii] The Scotsman, 3 September 1940, 7. Some estate owners achieved rates reductions at valuation appeal courts: in Ross and Cromarty, the County Clerk questioned why ratepayers should ‘suffer’ because the government had created a protected area. The Scotsman, 20 September 1940, 3. 20-25 shooting lodges were identified as suitable for occupation by evacuee children if needed. The Scotsman, 3 May 1940, 9.

[xxiv] The Scotsman, 7 August 1940, 4.

[xxv] See Barclay, G., If Hitler comes: preparing for invasion: Scotland 1940 (Edinburgh, 2013).

[xxvi] The Scotsman, 1 August 1940, 6.

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