Return of MacRobert's Reply

by Dawn Rennie

A CELEBRATED piece of Tarland's history was marked last week in the grounds of the MacRobert Estate.

A bronze sculpture of MacRobert's Reply – the Stirling Bomber bought by Lady Rachel MacRobert to commemorate her three sons – was unveiled in front of Douneside House last Friday (March 7).

Lady MacRobert had gifted the 25,000 Bomber to the RAF in 1941 after her sons were killed in separate aviation accidents. The gesture was seen as a rallying call to the nation during World War Two. MacRobert Trust trustees decided last year that the move should be celebrated and the sculpture was commissioned.

Lady MacRobert was the second wife of Sir Alexander MacRobert, whose first wife Georgina died in 1905 after 20 happy years of marriage.

Sir Alexander returned from India where he had managed a woollen manufacturing mill to purchase the 120 acres at Burnside – now known as Douneside. Sir Alexander later married Rachel, who ran the estate and became well known in Scottish agricultural circles, before he died in 1922.

Lady MacRobert met opera singer William Heughan at her son's 21st birthday party in the 1930s. Mr Heughan, who came from a stock rearing background in Dumfries, was later employed as estate manager.

It was 1938 when Lady MacRobert's eldest son was killed at the controls of an aircraft in Luton. Her two remaining sons had joined the RAF, but both were tragically killed on operational sorties within six weeks of each other, in 1941.

MacRobert Trust administrator, Major General John Barr, CB, CBE, said: “Lady MacRobert's entire family was gone. You would think that would be enough to destroy a mother, but in an extraordinary gesture, Lady MacRobert sent the Secretary of State for Air 25,000 to purchase a Stirling Bomber.

“This was a hugely publicised story, Lady MacRobert exchanged correspondence from all round the world. It was seen as a rallying call to the nation during World War Two.”

The Bomber was called MacRobert's Reply, which became Tail Letter F in XV Squadron. There has now been eight different types of aircraft – MacRobert's Reply is currently a Tornado and XV Squadron is a training squadron at Lossiemouth. MacRobert's Reply flies over Tarland regularly – it made a special flight over the village in special salute after Friday's 12.15pm unveiling.

Among Lady MacRobert's correspondence during the War, was a model made by a 14-year-old boy, William Heughan's nephew Donald. He had scaled the model from photographs in the newspapers and sent it to Lady MacRobert. She was so impressed she sent for the lad and later assisted him in his education. He later became a trustee of the MacRobert Trust – set up in memory of Lady MacRobert's sons – in 1964.

When she died in 1954, Lady MacRobert left everything to the trustees, with the wish that they would run it as she might have. Donald, now in his late 70s, is still a trustee today. His uncle had set up the Heughan Douneside Supplementary Trust which wound up last year and contributed 25,000 to the MacRobert Trust. It was agreed by the trustees to use the money to augment the facilities at Douneside House – used today as a guest house for armed service officers and their families. The facilities are also open to residents through membership, and local groups.

Trustees also agreed to mark the remarkable gesture made by Lady MacRobert, by creating a sculpture of MacRobert's Reply.

The Trust commissioned the Stirling Bomber to be cast in bronze. It was sculpted by David Annand – who many will recognise as the maker of the Aberdeen Angus bull sculpture at Alford. The sculpture was cast by Powderhall in Edinburgh and mounted on a Corrennie granite cairn from Westhill-based Fyfe Glenrock, carrying an inscription and the MacRobert Trust Grand of Arms.

It was unveiled last Friday by Donald Heughan, accompanied by the skipper of the first MacRobert's Reply in 1941, Squadron Leader Peter Boggis, DFC, now in his 80s.

Guests at the ceremony included, Air Marshal Sir Michael Simmons, KCB, AFC, president of XV Squadron Association, XV Squadron historian Martyn Ford-Jones, Wing Commander Bill Gibson, RAF, Officer Commanding XV Squadron, Two officers from XV Squadron, Air-Vice Marshal George Chesworth – Lord Lieutenant of Moray and former trustee – and his wife Betty, Alastrean House (RAF Benevolent Fund home) residents Jim Duncan and Flight Lieutenant Alex Smith, DFC, sculptor David Annand, architect George Simpson of Covell Matthews, and Master Masons Alastair Urquhart and Gregor Robertson.