New Scotland Street Chapter 71: The Duke of Johannesburg aloft

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Travelling in a green truck that he had borrowed for the occasion from his sheep-farmer cousin, and driven by his Gaelic-speaking driver, Padraig, the Duke of Johannesburg made his way a week later from Edinburgh towards the Morvern peninsula in Argyll.

The two of them had finished constructing their microlight seaplane only two days earlier, and were now transporting it to a sea loch from which they proposed to take off on their inaugural flight. It had been a long process – building a plane, however small, is not an easy task, and its construction had not been without difficulties. In the earlier stages, everything had gone well enough, but latterly, when it came to finishing the project, there appeared to be a discrepancy between what the plans indicated and the parts that they had laid out beside the fuselage. Padraig had been concerned about this, but the Duke had insisted that the drawings must be mistaken, and they had made do with what they had.

“These things are often over-engineered,” he said. “It’s like the Forth Bridge – the rail one. Far too much steel. More girders than a gallon of Irn Bru.”

“Hah!” said Padraig.

“Thank you,” said the Duke. “But a serious point nonetheless. They design these things with too many parts – just to be on the safe side. But as long as the whole thing hangs together reasonably well, you’re home and dry. We don’t need absolutely everything.”

“I’m a bit concerned,” Padraig began, only to be silenced by the Duke.

“Haud your wheesht, man. It’ll be fine. Look at it. As sturdy as anything. There’s nothing wrong with this plane.”

Neither of them knew, of course, that the missing parts had been deliberately taken by the Duke’s nephew, James, in an attempt to halt the construction of the plane. And it had not occurred to James that his uncle’s response to finding certain parts missing would be to carry on regardless. So, in this whole affair nobody was at fault, strictly speaking, although, speaking not quite so strictly, everybody was at fault.

Now, as the truck carrying the plane climbed up towards Rannoch Moor, the Duke opened his window and breathed in the fresh Highland air. “Not far now, Padraig,” he said. “And smell that air. Soon we’ll be up there, soaring over the Sound of Mull, kept aloft by Bernoulli’s Principle.”

Padraig said something in Gaelic that the Duke did not catch, and for the next half hour they travelled in companionable silence until they took the sharp turning down to the Corran ferry, ready to embark on the last stage of their journey.

Their destination was Loch Teacuis, a small sea loch that fingered into the land from the larger Loch Sunart. The Duke had been told that this would be a good place to take the seaplane on its test flight, as the loch was well-sheltered from the prevailing south-westerlies and would provide a good jumping off point for a flight over to Mull and then on to Coll. If all went well, they would then turn north towards Muck and land in Gallanach Bay. There would be lunch in the tearoom, a walk down to the pontoon at Port Mhor, and then the return flight to Loch Teacuis. It would be a full and exciting day.

Padraig would be at the controls. He was, after all, the Duke’s driver, but it was not just his road skills that would stand him in good stead – he had attended a series of flying lessons at East Fortune Airport, and was now licensed to fly microlights.

“It’s a fine day for a flight,” said Padraig, as, having disembarked from the ferry, they made they set off on the road towards Morvern.

“I can’t wait,” said the Duke, looking up at the high, empty sky. “This is the end of an auld sang, Padraig.”

The road to Loch Teacuis was no more than a single track, punctuated by regular passing places. This meant that the final stage of the journey took rather longer than they expected, but even with the resulting delays they arrived at the loch shortly before two in the afternoon. That would give them time to unload the seaplane, re-attach its wings, and wheel it into the water. The engine had already been tested, and fired well enough; all that needed to be done, then, was to tighten a few screws, check that the floats were watertight, and then climb into the seats. The Duke would navigate, allowing Padraig to concentrate on the task of becoming – and remaining – airborne.

They had chosen Loch Teacuis for the test flight not only because of its sheltered nature, but because the Duke had a friend who lived within sight of the loch. This was Loafy Weir, whom the Duke had known when he lived in Glasgow, and who was always game for an adventure. If the test flight went well, the Duke had promised that Padraig would take Loafy on a flight over Tiree, returning by way of the Sound of Iona, on which they could, if tidal conditions were right, land for a brief visit.

Loafy was on hand to help them re-assemble the plane and push it into the water. “This is a beautiful wee machine,” he said. “Do you think it flies?”

The Duke laughed. “Of course it flies, Loafy. And anyway, if it doesn’t we’ll have a grand little boat.”

“True enough,” said Loafy. “Well, here’s hoping.”

Padraig climbed into the pilot’s seat, followed by the Duke, who secured himself in the passenger seat and gave a thumbs-up sign to Loafy, who was still standing on the shore.

“Fire her up, Padraig,” said the Duke.

The engine, take from a small Volkswagen, spluttered into life. As it did so, the frame of the aircraft shook violently.

“That’s her responding,” shouted the Duke. “She’s rearing to go.”

Spray whipped up behind them, a white cloud that was soon dispersed by the thrust of air from the propeller. Now, as Padraig increased the supply of fuel to the engine, the seaplane began to move slowly across the water. At the other end of the loch, disturbed by the noise, a flock of Canada geese took to the air, flying low at first, honking instructions to each another, gradually climbing in controlled formation.

“There they go,” said the Duke. “Look at them. Just look at them.”

The flight of geese wheeled slightly, as if to inspect the would-be intruders in their airy element. Padraig smiled, and saluted them. He loved geese; he always had.

The seaplane gathered speed. Now they were travelling at ten knots, now at twenty. The air roared; the spray arose in a flurry of droplets; the water, with its tiny wavelets, was a bumpy runway. White, thought the Duke, this is a world of white: white water, white cloud, a white line of vapour where, high above them, a jet made its way towards Greenland and North America.

More white. More liquid. More air. More movement through all of these; a wild dash, witnessed, in surprise, by hidden eyes: an otter, a curious seal, tenants both of the water that now hosted a glorious headlong hurtle, one that seemed to be finding difficulty in freeing itself from the embrace of water. It was as if the water were protesting Stop, don’t leave

me yet. And then whispering, in a voice made up of spray and of foam, You are still mine, just as I am yours – just as I am yours.