Given that the first flight of a heavier than air machines took place in the United States in 1903, and the aeroplane played such a major role in World War One, which began just eleven years later, it is easy to assume that once Wilbur and Orville Wright had made their breakthrough, others rapidly followed. It is therefore a surprise to read in Deborah Lake's excellent book that it was not until late in 1907 that the first successful trials of a British heavier than air machine took place, under strict military secrecy, in Glen Tilt, in Highland Perthshire.
Deborah Lake joined the Royal Air Force at the age of eighteen, and served in various locations around the world, including Leuchars in Fife. She is a qualified pilot. "Tartan Airforce" traces the story of Scottish military aviation over the century since those first very faltering steps were taken. In doing so it weaves together the story of developments within Scotland itself and many of the individual stories of Scots involved in military aviation outwith the country.
The approach taken is a strictly chronological one, and the result is a narrative which can flit between the big picture in one paragraph, and an individual anecdote in the next, then back again. Making this approach work in practice depends on very skilful writing if the reader is not to be lost in the frequent changes of scale and subject: and it is good to be able to report that Deborah Lake has tied together the huge number of different strands very effectively indeed. The result is a book which leads you through the chronology in a way that keeps you turning the page, while at the same time building up both the overall story of the development of military aviation in Scotland.
While the flow of this book is an important factor in its success, the sheer depth of research which so transparently supports it is still more so. As already noted, the story told goes back a century, and you are left with the strong impression that wherever relevant records still exist from throughout that century, the author has unearthed them and put them to work in her book. Official records provide only one part of the story. Another is told by the very many individuals who have been interviewed by the author in the development of this book: and relevant and focussed quotes from their accounts do much to add life and a human dimension to the wider picture.