It's like being faced by children whose eyes shine with innocent interest and amiable welcome. They're mostly calm, handsome faces. The men are in Western clothes but wear a Nepalese topi, cloth hat. Some women are clad in tartan shawls, discreetly announcing they have a family member in the Gurkhas. Where else would you obtain tartan but Scotland? And from whom but a Gurkha son or husband?
Moments before, we had driven up to the smart building that houses the Gurkha Area Welfare Centre and been greeted by retired officer Lt Senbahadur Gurung. I was with my brother Ewen and sisters, Alison and Rowena. Silk khada scarves of welcome were placed around our necks along with garlands of marigold as if we were a cross between Grand Prix winners and camp hillwalkers. In fact, we were being feted as honoured guests and fundraisers.
The old men and women had taken days to arrive and were sitting quietly chatting on the lawn, awaiting their three-monthly pension payment, when, along with a small entourage, we came round the corner. "Could you address them?" asked Lt Sen, as if I was a public figure. "In Nepali?"
My Nepali isn't good. Once I translated for a brigadier in Princes Street as he addressed a Gurkha pipe band; they laughed so much that the brigadier wondered what I was saying.
But today my message was simple. My brother and I had, with serving Gurkhas, marched across Scotland, from the West to East, in seven annual 200-mile hikes. This had raised 830,000 from the people of Scotland for the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Lt Sen helpfully interjected to expand the tale, so I'm sure they got the message. I ended with "Jai Gurkhali! Jai Scottisharu! Ra jai ramro Ketiharu!' Bless the Gurkhas! Bless the Scots! And bless good women!" The assembly smiled happily.
"Could you walk among them?" asked Sen. My jaw dropped. "What like Prince Charles?" "Yes!" So it was that I got to stroll around, bestowing my most princely nods left, right and centre. Everyone was keen to name their old regiment and where they'd served.
Everyone should get a shot at this once in their lives but part of me felt a fraud. These people thoroughly deserved the money being distributed – and though my brother and I had acted as a conduit, it hadn't been our money. When one widow fell to her knees to thank me, I burned with embarrassment as I felt a wave of gratitude.
I explained to a widow in a Lindsay shawl that it was very like my mother's family tartan, reminding me how Scots and Gurkhas have long established links. Every unit has a piper, most love whisky and dance, and they are, after all, Highlanders. And now there are 9,673 pensioners who live on the 35 per month payment given by the Gurkha Welfare Trust (GWT). It makes most Scots' blood boil to hear that these old soldiers receive nothing unless they had served for 15 years. These brave survivors got nothing as they served for only the war – though many here in Gorkha today were some of the 25,000 in receipt of a proper MoD pension.
The GWT pensions total 4.1 million a year – raised solely by fundraisers back in Britain – which is disbursed at the same time as the MoD pensions at the 20 Area Welfare Centres throughout Nepal. These act as doctors' surgeries too, where eight doctors last year provided free health care to 9,222.
The Trust also gives hardships grants (421 last year) and helps with the education of nearly 2,000 students, but one of its biggest contributions to Nepalese life has been the provision of bridges and water standpipes. Field Director Lt Colonel Adrian Griffith explains: "Water is the most important contribution we make. A quarter of Nepal doesn't have access to clean water. We have 60 new projects a year. It makes a huge impact – particularly on women who carry water for hours."
The MoD pays most of the admin costs meaning that donations go, more or less, directly to the needy. The money couldn't go to more deserving people.
Gorkha is the spiritual home of every Gurkha, whether he be from the East or West Nepal. It was from here that Prince Prithvi's kukri-wielding army emerged to conquer and unite Nepal. To be here was to be at the heart of an ancient soldiering culture where the prince's stronghold still caps his impregnable summit. Today I was among heroes.
It was as if a circle had been completed. A decade before, my brother and I had begun fundraising hikes out of a sense of adventure. We never envisaged it coming to this; actually meeting the grateful beneficiaries – and in Gorkha itself. Tramping from Mallaig to Stonehaven with a handful of serving Gurkhas had been its own reward. We had seen Scotland at its most beautiful while making lifelong friends of some of the best guys around. That the donations of our fellow Scots had been so extraordinarily high reflected more their generosity than the efforts of Ewen and me. Nevertheless, while our young Gurkha colleagues blazed with pride to be helping their glorious forebears, Ewen and I were deeply proud that our compatriots had responded with such open-handed warmth.
Then Fate intervened. Rowena, my younger sister and an Army officer, despite never having worked with Gurkhas, was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff of British Gurkhas Nepal, and moved to Kathmandu 18 months ago. It was under her auspices that we were here today – and it was actually she who made the precious payments to the pensioners. Our own wee sister completing the circle that had been begun ten years ago! How coincidental is that? None of this could possibly have been predicted in 2000 when we made our first trans-Scotland trek – yet it seemed that Providence had a hand in our every move.
Many Nepalese believe events were meant to be. Gurkhas exclaim: "Yatina samma pugna bhanero!" "It must have been written down!" The journey made by my brother and I had been a long one, but perhaps the most rewarding of our lives.
Jai Gurkhali! Jai Scottisharu! Bless the Gurkhas! Bless the Scots!
LUMLEY WON ONE BATTLE BUT THE WAR GOES ON
WHILE their reputation is unsurpassed and their fighting prowess legendary, the Gurkhas' biggest battle recently has been with the UK Government.
Last year Nepal-born actress Joanna Lumley, inset, led a campaign aimed at persuading the government to reverse a ruling that limited the right to settle in Britain to Gurkhas who had served after 1997. After a humiliating series of confrontations for the government, she finally forced a U-turn on the policy.
While that marked a major victory for the regiment, there is still an ongoing battle around their pension rights. Changes to pension rules in 2007 gave serving Gurkha soldiers equal pension rights with their UK counterparts.
But this is limited to soldiers who retired after July 1997. Those who quit prior to that have been denied the chance to transfer into armed forces pension schemes, leaving them with a fraction of the pension income of UK soldiers.