Two clan chiefs: defending the realm and the impact of travel restrictions on the Highlands in 1916

Neil Bruce continues his consideration of how access to the Highlands and Islands was restricted during the two world wars. The situation faced by authorities to defend the realm in 1916 has some semblance of similarity with 2020, albeit for very different reasons.

On 10th October 1916 Fraser Alexander MacKinnon appeared in Inverness Sheriff Court charged with entering the railway station ‘without lawful authority or permission of the relevant military authorities in contravention of the orders of the Deputy-Commandant of the North of Scotland special military area.[1] MacKinnon was an unlikely lawbreaker: 68 years old, he was usually given the nomenclature ‘Mackinnon of Mackinnon’, his clan’s 35th chief.[2] The region’s Depute-Commandant responsible for upholding Defence of the Realm Regulation 29b was Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron of Locheil (25th chief of clan Cameron).[3] Mackinnon’s solicitor successfully argued that the charge was irrelevant as both the station and its environs were within the ‘prescribed area’.[4]

Access to the north of Scotland had become restricted on the 25th July.[5] The special military area included Inverness and the mainland north and west of the River Ness, Loch Ness and the road from Invermoriston Pier to Kyle of Lochalsh.[6] There was considerable military presence in Inverness, with the commandant’s officer in Hamilton Street, ‘vulnerable points’ throughout the area were guarded and the navy patrolled the Caledonian Canal.[7] Inverness was described as a ‘continental frontier station’ which would-be passengers could only reach if the railway company had sight of the required permit.[8]

Everyone over 16 other than serving military, dockyard employees and local residents needed a permit.[9] In practice, locals also had to apply and obtain a pass as the commandant could require them to carry one ‘authenticated by a Chief Constable’.[10] The introduction of controlled movement was generally smooth, though locals unable to prove their identity attempting to enter Inverness could only leave on production of a duplicate national registration card obtained from the chief constable. One unintended consequence was that islanders were initially unable to board ferries to the mainland if they could not show identification.[11]

Those who wished to travel to the military area had to follow a strict procedure to obtain a permit-book, providing a photograph, personal details, address and description of any distinguishing marks. The applicant’s details required to be validated by two British subjects who were householders. They had to apply to the local commandant, stating the purpose and length of their visit, and the name and address of the British subject with whom they were to stay. Permits were checked on entry to the military area.[12] Police in Aberdeen and the ‘county constabulary’ quickly exhausted their supply of identification cards as people anticipated their need when travelling from the east by train.[13]

The introduction of restrictions prevented freedom of travel. Newspapers, though, expected that Locheil ‘with his intimate knowledge of the district as an asset’, would enforce the regulations ‘tactfully and with a minimum of friction.’[14] He used his powers judiciously, finding a temporary solution to enable islanders to travel. Within a month of restrictions being in force, he arranged with the railway companies that those who had an urgent need to visit the area could purchase a ticket and travel to Inverness if in possession of a telegram from himself permitting entry. The traveller was expected to report on arrival at Inverness railway station to have the required official permit book completed and authorised.[15]

During World War Two the strictness of the permit application process and its then administration from London caused Inverness County Council to call for it to be relaxed because of the impact on ‘hotelkeepers, farmers and crofters’ seasonal incomes. Locheil, the council’s convener, commented that when he had been in charge during the previous conflict, he could issue permits whereas his then successor did not have the same power.[16] In his civil office, Locheil commented that as  control of the area was of national importance, losses should not be shouldered by ‘one of the poorest Districts in the British Isles’.[17]

Then as now authorities acted to protect lives and society. However, restrictions have implications: earlier this year islanders could only travel to the mainland in emergency situations and implementing two metres social distancing on ferries limited the number travelling. Businesses were forced to close to limit transmission of Covid-19 and protect the NHS: then as now, the impact on seasonal tourism and related enterprises, and the wider community caused considerable concern, threatening their economic wellbeing.


[1] The Scotsman, 11 October 1916, 6.

[2] The Times, 28 February 1947, 7.

[3] Locheil had been invalided home that May from the Western Front from command of the 5th battalion of Cameron Highlanders he’d raised in 1914, Herald Scotland, 17 August 2015, The Times, 12 October 1951, 6.

https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/13600601.calling-descendants-of-cameron-highlanders/ accessed 14 June 2020; The press regularly described Locheil as commandant of the special military area.

[4] The Scotsman, 11 October 1916, 6. MacKinnon won on a narrow legal point: the sheriff told a perplexed procurator fiscal that Mackinnon had not been properly advised which section of the order he was being charged under. The fiscal questioned whether the sheriff regarded the railway station as not covered under the relevant section of the order to which the latter replied he had ‘no opinion’ on its validity.

[5] The Scotsman, 24 July 1916, 3, 4.

[6] Pulling, A.(ed), Defence of the Realm manual (London, 1917), 535-536.

[7] Royle, T., ‘The first world war’, in E. M. Spiers, J. A. Crang & M. J. Strickland (eds), Military History of Scotland (Edinburgh, 2012), 506; Carter, H., The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), 133.

[8] The Scotsman, 18 July 1916, 4; The Guardian, 22 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/22/uk-quarantine-plan-what-will-it-mean-for-travellers

[9] The Scotsman, 24 July 1916, 3, 4. Residents of Inverness, Ross, Elgin or Nairn were those ordinarily resident from 4th August 1914.

[10] Inverness Courier, 25 July 1916.

[11] The Scotsman, 26 July 1916, 6.

[12] The Scotsman, 24 July 1916, 4.

[13] The Scotsman, 26 July 1916, 6.

[14] The Scotsman, 18 July 1916, 4; Inverness Courier, 25 July 1916; Strathspey Herald, 27 July 1916.

[15] Glasgow Herald, 9 August 1916, 6. Checks on travellers were much more rigorous than for passengers arriving in the UK in June 2020 who were required to provide the address they would self-isolate for 14 days, with a one in five likelihood of being checked by Border Control. Herald Scotland, 8 June 2020, 4; http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ssi/2020/169/made  accessed 10 June 2020.

[16] The Scotsman, 3 May 1940, 9.

[17] Ibid.

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