A massive bomb-laden airship attacking Scotland became an unusual victim of our weather, as Ian Sutherland reveals

ON Saturday, September 7, up to 15,000 day trippers will flock to Braemar's annual Highland Gathering - intent on catching glimpses of members of the royal family.

They could also discover this year the almost surreal story of how one Upper Deeside family preserved evidence of their area's accidental link to events which involved Sinn Fein, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Kaiser Bill, the Battle of Jutland, and the bloody events on the Somme, on July 1, 1916.

Somewhere in the village retired police inspector and mountain rescue team leader John Duff hopes to display the nose-cone of a ``water-flare'' dropped on May 2, 1916, at the southern entrance of the desolate Lairig Ghru pass, through central Cairngorms, between Deeside and Strathspey.

The object was dropped from a massive Zeppelin airship of the Imperial German Navy. In company with seven other Zeppelins, naval airship L20 - which could have been carrying up to 10,000lbs of bombs - left northern Germany in the early afternoon of May 2. Her orders were to attack ``England north, chief target Rosyth, Forth Bridge, English fleet''.

L20 got nowhere near Rosyth. Her bombs broke a few windows in central Aberdeenshire. Things might have been very different. L20 was part of a vast plan by the Kaiser to end the war in 1916.

On the Western Front, the Allies and Germany were locked in a trench war stalemate. Throughout Europe anti-war sentiment was increasing. Supported, covertly and opportunistically, by German cash, Lenin - in exile in Zurich - demanded ``civil war between the classes'', throughout Europe.

In the UK, munitions shortages and soaring casualty figures threatened civilian morale. The Home Fleet's North Sea blockade left millions of Germans subsisting on potatoes.

German arms and largesse also backed the Irish nationalist uprising in Dublin on Easter Sunday, 1916. Airships were a vital part of the whole German masterplan. One historian has descibed Zeppelins as ``the H bombs of their day, an awesome Sword of Damocles to be held over the cowering heads of Germany's enemies''.

Both sides hoped to lure the other's fleet from safe anchorages into a pre-planned terminal confrontation in the North Sea. L20 had two missions - to reduce the size of the Home Fleet at Invergordon and Rosyth, and to deepen civilian dissent by ``terror-bombing''.

But L20's commander, Kapitanleutnant Stabbert, confused the Forth with the Tay and crossed the coast near Montrose. Blinded by atrocious weather he mistook the eastern Grampians for the coalfields of Fife.

And so at around 7.30 on the evening of May 2, the McDonald family at Luibeg Cottage, one of Scotland's loneliest houses at the southern entrance to the Lairig Ghru, heard aircraft engines in the vicinity. Five years later Sandy McDonald found an object in the heather and passed it to the then Prince of Wales - who prevailed on Room A337E of the Air Ministry to identify it as a flare carried by a Zeppelin. Sandy's daughter, Nel, now 95, has kept it for 75 years.

Stabbert does seem finally to have realised where he was - and made a last-ditch attempt to reach the Caledonian Canal, doubtless hoping to fly east to Invergordon. Low on fuel, he had to turn east over Aberdeenshire. On the morning of May 3, L20 hovered 60ft above the North Sea - and asked the startled crew of the trawler Holland for a position. L20 just made it to a crash-landing in neutral Norway. Most of her crew were interned. Three weeks later, at Jutland, Kaiser Bill's warships faced the Home Fleet. The encounter was brutal but indecisive. On July 1, the Allies launched the Somme offensive with 60,000 casualties in one day. It was futile.

But if L20 had made it to Rosyth, she could easily have badly damaged the Home Fleet. The British didn't have incendiary bullets capable of downing Zeppelins until September of that year.

If the Home Fleet had copped 10,000lbs of high explosive, another nation's royal family might be presiding at Braemar this autumn. Scottish weather could have saved the British throne for the House of Windsor.

Other than good weather, John Duff and Nel McDonald have one last hope for September 7 this year.

If Stabbert's descendants show up in Braemar, they'll receive a royal welcome - and a trip to Luibeg, where there isn't a coal mine or naval anchorage in sight.

an WARTIME censorship forbade more than a brief mention of the catastrophe, but 80 years ago Edinburgh felt the full shock of the first Zeppelin attack on Scotland.

It was on a chilly but clear moonlit spring night that the two German airships slipped across the North Sea to launch their daring raid on the Rosyth naval base.

The huge craft were, in fact, extremely vulnerable. Capable of just 60mph, they were 300ft long and virtual sitting ducks for the highly trained Scottish anti-aircraft batteries defending the base up-river from the looming Forth bridge.

As they came into view, the gunners opened up, terrifying the German crews with their accuracy. They realised that in a matter of moments they would be sent plunging earthwards and, fatefully, decided to switch their attention to Edinburgh itself.

Yesterday, local historian Sandy Mullay told of the raid on the capital that left 13 people dead, most of them in Edinburgh's Grassmarket.

In an interview with BBC Scotland, he revealed the full extent of the attack which was heavily censored by the Government of the day. It has always been a matter of argument whether one or two Zeppelins took part, but Mullay insists that the raiders were known as L14 and L22.

While L14 advanced on the city, L22 concentrated on finding the recently built Redford barracks in the Colinton area. A total of 47 bombs fell on Edinburgh and Leith, he said.

John Wilson was a 13-year-old boy at the time of the 1916 raid. He then lived in Leith. ``The shipyards were working night and day. My father and I saw a Zeppelin come over the docks and I saw it drop two bombs,'' he said.

The bombs crashed onto a whisky bond. ``Every time a barrel of whisky burst everything went sky high,'' he recalled. Unfortunately, 20 other bombs fell close to Commercial Street, Leith, and a man and a sleeping baby became the first two fatalities of the raid.

Meanwhile, it appears that the other raider attempted to hit the barracks, but mistakenly bombed Donaldson's Hospital in the city's West End. As thousands of Edinburgh residents cowered under their beds, the Zeppelin turned towards Edinburgh Castle.

Bombs rained down, many of them smashing into the Grassmarket where a total of 11 people perished. Wilson, who now lives in Dunbar and went on to become a veteran of the Normandy landings 28 years later, also witnessed the attack on the castle, and told how the explosions from the bombs lit up the night sky.

He maintains that only one Zeppelin took part in the attack, but Mullay said access to German records refutes this view. One of the German crew was interviewed by the BBC during the 1960s and said he and his colleagues were as terrified as their victims on the ground.

He told how they were extremely uncomfortable in the early airships, it was cold and they were ``sitting ducks'' for the anti-aircraft batteries around Rosyth.

A plaque on Edinburgh Castle Rock records only that a bomb ``fell on this spot'', but there is nothing else to immortalise the innocent people who died and the 20 others injured.