Six miles east of Achnasheen, where the A832 sweeps along the north side of Strath Bran, is the tiny settlement of Achanalt. Here a brown tourist sign directs visitors to the grave of pioneer military aviator, Captain Bertram Dickson, whose final resting place is in the steeply sloping Cnoc na Bhain burial ground on the hillside above. Captain Dickson's grave records that he was a Captain in the Royal Regiment of Artillery; that he was a soldier, aviator and explorer; that he was born in Edinburgh on 21 December 1873; and that he died at Lochrosque Castle on 29 September 1913. Lochrosque Castle presumably refers to Lochrosque Lodge, a little to the west of Achnasheen, which at the time was the home of Sir Arthur Bignold MP.
A nearby information board gives some background about Captain Dickson's aviation exploits, but tells you little about the man himself. And when you do try to find out more, detail is hard to come by. We have uncovered very little about Dickson's early years. By 1908 he was a 35-year old lieutenant in the Royal Artillery serving as Britain's Military Attaché and Vice Consul in Van, a city in the far east of Turkey, a largely Armenian area. At the time he was said to have previously served in South Africa, Somaliland and British East Africa. And while much younger, from 1892, he had assisted Sir Thomas Holdich in his work defining the border between Argentina and Chile through the Andes.
It is tempting to think that a man of obvious ability who was still a lieutenant at 35 had not followed a normal Army career: and, indeed, may even have been using his junior rank as a cover for more covert activities. While Dickson was at Van he travelled widely, producing a number of articles for geographical journals. Meanwhile, official reports he sent to the British Ambassador in Istambul, Sir Gerard Lowther, in late 1908 and early 1909 suggest he was keeping a very close watch on Armenian dissidents in eastern Turkey, reporting that they were being armed on a large scale by the Russians.
By 1910 Bertram Dickson had been promoted to captain, and he spent the first part of the year developing a serious enthusiasm for aeroplanes. He learned to fly at Henry Farman's flying school at Chalons in France, and was awarded the Aéro-Club de France's pilot's licence No71. He was then one of 16 pilots who took part in the Aéro-Club de France's aviation week at Tours between 30 April and 5 May 1910, flying a Farman biplane. Dickson won the main event, flying nearly twice as far as the second place competitor, and collected the first prize of 18,000 French Francs. The following month, on 6 June 1910, Captain Dickson achieved an aviation first, carrying a passenger on a flight that lasted over 2 hours.
By September 1910 Dickson had resigned his Army commission to take up a post with the British & Colonial Aircraft Company helping promote their products. In the years before the First World War, the British Army undertook huge military manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain each year. On 21 September 1910, Captain Dickson attached himself to "Red Force" in the manoeuvres and took off from Larkhill in a Bristol Boxkite to locate "Blue Force". Accounts of what followed, even in newspapers at the time, are confused and contradictory, but it would seem Dickson located "Blue Force", then landed and reported back to "Red Force" headquarters by telephone. Before he could take off again, however, he was captured by Corporal Arthur Edwards of the 4th Dragoon Guards, part of "Blue Force". While the umpires were discussing how to resolve this unprecedented situation, Dickson happened to meet the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who was observing the manoeuvres, and was able to impress on him the importance of aviation to the Army. Amidst all the confusion, Captain Bertram Dickson had flown the world's first ever military sortie by aeroplane.
It seems that Captain Dickson flew twice more for "Red Force" on 21 September. His involvement was reported in the next morning's Daily Telegraph and by the end of that day Robert Loraine, a well-known actor and enthusiastic aviator, had travelled down from London to offer his services, and his Bristol Boxkite, to "Blue Force". Within a few days, Loraine had managed to combine flying his aircraft with transmitting Morse Code reports via a 40lb radio over a distance of a mile to "Blue Force" headquarters. The aviation arms race had begun.
On 2 October 1910, Captain Bertram Dickson achieved another aviation first, though not one he would have wanted. While flying over Milan in a Farman biplane, he became part of the world's first ever mid-air collision, when his aircraft was struck by an Antoinette flown by Frenchman, Rene Thomas. Thomas was relatively unscathed, but Dickson was very badly injured, and would never fly again. Dickson never recovered from the injuries he sustained in Milan, but despite this was, by late 1911, working with a number of British manufacturers to improve the design of their aircraft.
In November 1911, the British Prime Minister asked a group called the Technical Sub-Committee for Imperial Defence (TSID) to consider what part aeroplanes could play in future military operations. Dickson made a highly influential and chillingly prescient submission to the Committee:
"In case of a European war, between two countries, both sides would be equipped with large corps of aeroplanes, each trying to obtain information on the other... the efforts which each would exert in order to hinder or prevent the enemy from obtaining information... would lead to the inevitable result of a war in the air, for the supremacy of the air, by armed aeroplanes against each other. This fight for the supremacy of the air in future wars will be of the greatest importance..."
TSID's recommendations led directly to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps on 13 April 1912. Bertram Dickson saw that happen, but did not survive to see his prophecy prove so accurate in the First World War. He died, of complications arising from his Milan injuries, on 29 September 1913, and was buried in the Cnoc na Bhain burial ground on the north side of Strath Bran. Today, Strath Bran is a regular low level route for modern military fast jets, and don't be surprised if you see one dipping its wing in salute to Bertram Dickson as it passes Achanalt.