She was flying at 2000 feet and all of Scotland was socked in with fog. She skimmed through the strath above a blanket of white wool that looked like the skirt around the bottom of a Christmas tree. Green braes rose out of the fog on either side of her and disappeared into cloud that crept down the sky around the hillsides like magicians' beards and hid all the tops. She could fly until she ran out of fuel, but she could not see any place to land.
Theo was meant to land at Prestwick, south of Glasgow, the big Air Transport Auxiliary base that was arguably their last line of defense on their most remote border. The Spitfire she was flying was to be delivered to a transport ship headed for besieged Malta, where some young, exhausted RAF fighter pilot would hurl it into flaming combat. Theo had once been shot down flying a Spitfire; ferry pilots carried extra fuel in their wings, not ammunition. But nothing had ever made her so afraid as the soft, menacing whiteness that lay below her now. Prestwick was covered in sea fog; Perth was in cloud down to the ground. There was only Findo Gask between them.
She was over the spot where it ought to be. Her map showed lovely straight lines along the valley, a road and a runway and a massive earthwork ridge labelled ‘Roman Remains’, all paralleling one another. But she could see nothing but cotton wool below her. A Spitfire was built for speed and maneuverability, not endurance. Her long ferry flight was meant to end at Prestwick. She had half an hour, maybe less, to find someplace to land.
Findo Gask answered her radio call.
‘Prestwick Cargo 41, maybe we can talk you down,’ the calm Scottish voice crackled through the headset in her helmet. ‘Descend to circuit height.’
Theo looked down. She had been straining for so long to see anything but fog that she had not realized the strip of darker grey that came and went below her might be anything more than a trick of her eyes. Sure enough, over Findo Gask the fog ran thick and thin, changing and shifting like a crowd of ghosts. Still, Theo could not tell the shadows from the runway. She throttled back gently, beginning the descent, resigned to her fate; she knew no one could coax her safely through this murk. She would fly steadily at 95 knots into the unforgiving rock of the Ochil hills.
But as she began to sink into the shadows, she saw in line below her starboard wing half a dozen bright patches of orange light. There were, she realized, great bonfires burning in a line along the airfield’s edge. And then she saw that in the still sky, their thin blue trails of smoke stood straight up through the choking fog. They rose at distinct half-mile intervals all along the three mile approach to the runway.
Relief washed over her like May sunlight; relief, and gratitude, and marvel at the ingenuity of these perfectly placed signal flares. She could see half a dozen columns of smoke before the cloud swallowed it in the eastern and western distances. That was enough to land by, maybe.
Theo lined up against the thin blue trails and began her descent. The fierce red fires glowed steadily through the fog, keeping her true on her course. And at a hundred feet the green trees and fields of Findo Gask and the grey concrete buildings of the airfield lay revealed before her. She fixed her eyes on the runway threshold; landing was anticlimax. Theo touched down lightly beneath the lowering sky, taxied to the dispersal shed, and with shaking hands set about shutting down the engine. When she looked up there was a fitter standing on either wing, working to pull back the Perspex canopy and help her out.
‘Either you are one very lucky lady, Miss, or that landing was pure dead magic,’ said one of them approvingly.’
Theo climbed out of the cockpit. The clear green air was cool on her hot face. ‘I couldn’t have done it without the beacon signals,’ she replied.
‘You lined up along the Gask, did you?’ the other said, giving her a hand down from the wing. ‘Wouldn’t have thought you could see the old signal stations through this cloud.’ He waved an arm toward the low cloud above the ranks of parked RAF and Polish aircraft. Behind them, a long green hump of land like the rampart of a hill fort stretched into the distance.
‘What’s the Gask?’ Theo asked. ‘“Roman Remains,” it says on the map.’‘Part of the Gask Ridge,’ the man said. ‘The Romans had signal towers on these earthworks for 25 miles, their last line of defense on their most remote border. They lit a beacon fire every half a mile.'
‘We ought to light ’em, too,’ grumbled the other fitter. ‘Try and burn off the weather.’
Theo paused. ‘Don’t you?’ she asked cautiously.
The fitter laughed. ‘Not since the Romans left,’ he said. ‘No bonfire's been lit there for a couple of thousand years.’