Notebook: Dropping in for plots and plum brandy: Churchill wanted dead Germans. Tito wanted arms. Fitzroy Maclean parachuted in and seized the moment

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GEOGRAPHICALLY, if not spiritually, Sir Fitzroy Maclean was a remote oracle for me to consult on the civil war in Yugoslavia: an octogenarian living in a 20-room house on the eastern shore of Loch Fyne in Argyll. Seagulls and men in rowing boats competed for fish as rain-clouds drifted up the narrow waters, driving a record number of tourists in frantic searches for beds and breakfasts. Yet my visit to the tall, stooped occupant of Strachur House did bring the Balkans home in an unexpected way.

Halfway through our chat about the violent differences between the Yugoslav peoples, the former diplomat and early member of the Special Air Service regiment had this to say: 'There are a lot of differences in Scotland. Not only is there a big difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands, the central belt and the Borders, there are a lot of local differences between one bit of Argyll and the other. They have been violent in the past.'

Fitzroy Maclean's reports from Yugoslavia in the Second World War contributed to Tito's formation of a post-war Communist state. His present activities include writing, farming 7,500 acres and running a nearby hotel where his books - among them Eastern Approaches, Holy Russia, and Bonnie Prince Charlie - are displayed for sale alongside boxes of his Fyne Fudge and bottles of his MacPhunn's whisky. But he is also a proud clansman, whose family motto is 'Thank God I am a Maclean,' and whose most distant forebear, Gillean of the Battle-Axe, commanded the 13th-century territories of Ardgour, Duart and Lochbuie.

In their ambiguity towards cohesion, the Yugoslav plemena (tribes), are not unreminiscent of the Scottish clans who once butchered each other with the frenzy now evident in Bosnia- Herzegovina. Just as the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians and Bosnian Muslims have long memories, so too has Sir Fitzroy. The pleasure he derived from purchasing Strachur House for pounds 7,000 in 1957 was enhanced by the fact that it had been occupied by a member of the Campbell clan. 'We had a lot of houses taken away from us by the Campbells,' he said.

My visit was prompted by a controversy in the columns of the Spectator over Sir Fitzroy's - and Winston Churchill's - wartime record in Yugoslavia. Critics challenge the baronet's claim, submitted in reports to Churchill and repeated by Sir Fitzroy ever since, that Tito's Partisans were the only Yugoslav resistance group worth backing against Hitler's army. They argue that an alternative British policy, specifically increasing support to the non-Communist Chetnik resistance fighters, might have saved the country from Communism - and present strife.

'Fitz,' as he is known to friends, sticks to the version he gave in Eastern Approaches, first published in 1949. Surrounded by volumes about the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and (of course) the Scottish Isles and the Celtic world in general, his lineage and career may have combined to produce his outlook on communal conflict. He remains very defensive of his Yugoslav role.

'To understand the decisions that were taken in 1943 you have to remember what the situation was like then, when the war was far from won. A very important thing Winston said to me was: 'Your job is to find out who is killing the most Germans, and how we can help them to kill more.' Some people now say we were wrong in believing that Tito was infinitely the most effective, and secondly, that by backing Tito we handed Yugoslavia over to a Communist regime. Well, various German documents published since show that Tito's Partisans were the most effective, and that the Chetniks under General Mihailovic were either doing very little or were collaborating with the enemy.'

Here, in the first-floor study of Strachur House, as he talked about old Scotland and modern Yugoslavia, I think I understood the intensity of tribal warfare: Serb massacres of Croats and Bosnian Muslims; Campbells killing Macdonalds; Macleans dying for the House of Stuart. ('And it's still going on in Northern Ireland,' he said.)

His pale, blue eyes stared intently from a long, lean face, healthy from physical exercise. ('I'm an inveterate swimmer. You have to walk a mile into the loch before the water is deep enough.') On his cluttered desk there was a photograph of his father, a kilted Cameron Highlander, alongside pictures of Tito and Churchill and an unopened bottle of Scotch.

After Fitzroy Maclean parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 a lot of pink vanilla brandy was consumed between talk of conspiracy and the task of getting rid of lice. Rounds of plum brandy with Tito usually preceded a question repeated over and over again: when were the Allies going to send the Partisans more arms?

SIR FITZROY is very much the Scottish aristocrat, equally a pillar of the British Establishment - he went to Eton and Cambridge. As head of the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia, his bearing and knowledge of foreign languages gave him authority in dealing not only with those 'prepared to die and to kill for an idea', but with the bizarre behaviour of British colleagues. One of the latter, Evelyn Waugh, had put it about that Tito was really a woman, always referring to him as 'she'. Tito killed the rumour by joining Brigadier Maclean and Captain Waugh for a swim, skimpily attired, in the Adriatic.

Sir Fitzroy believes that the future of Yugoslavia is 'within Europe' - and that its break-up could result in the 'Balkanisation' of the entire Community. But he concedes: 'Of course the country's a guerrilla's paradise - no doubt about that . . . Also they are enormously courageous and have great determination and great endurance, natural fighters. Every man, woman or child given an automatic weapon immediately handles it as though it were in the blood.'

Fear of an external enemy, first Hitler, then Stalin, had enabled Tito to bind the Yugoslav nation together, he said. But I had a problem with that, too, since cracks had appeared long before Tito's death in 1980: political slanging matches between the republics in the early Seventies, growing alienation of the young and the intelligentsia from the ruling elite, beginnings of a reversion from 'self- managerial' Marxism to nationalism.

Fear of Soviet invasion may initially have kept guns holstered and knives sheathed, but well before the Soviet Union's collapse, Yugoslavia's condition was liquid. Maybe Tito wasn't such a great idea after all?

Sir Fitzroy shows no sign of irritation with his critics. 'I would say that there are far too many arms in Yugoslavia. Under Tito, you see, there was all the preparation for a Russian invasion. They had arms in all the villages and the factories and farms and so on. And at the first sign of trouble they would have gone back into the hills. All those arms are still there. They are all over the country.'

He has visited Yugoslavia often in recent years, picking up material for books and lectures, renewing friendships, finding hope in intermarriage. Did he see any solution to Europe's bloodiest conflict since his brigadier days? 'Well, the thing I've kept saying to them was: 'The Swiss had seven different nationalities living together in peace for 700 years. Why can't you do it?' And their answer was: 'Well, we aren't Swiss.' I realised I had asked a silly question.' Perhaps another dictator could do the trick? 'I think firm government is certainly needed there.'

It probably is unfair to expect an ex- diplomat/adventurer/Member of Parliament in brown corduroys and padded green waistcoat to provide a solution to a problem he has been accused of authoring. Lord Carrington consults him occasionally, and Sir Fitzroy is in fairly regular contact with the Foreign Office. Over the years, Belgrade showered him with honours: Partisan Star (first class) in 1945, Order of Merit in 1969, Order of the Yugoslav Star with Ribbon in 1981. He used to send Tito consignments of MacPhunn's whisky and was the first foreigner to be officially allowed to buy a property in Yugoslavia. Many non- Serbs regard him as pro-Serb.

'I think the only thing we can do is to take an active part in guaranteeing convoy relief - if that is suitable. And then I think we should do everything in our power to help the two-to-three million refugees straight away. What the Carrington committee were working on was a scheme of cantonisation. Whether they'll be able to get back to that now one can't tell.' As for his alleged pro-Serb bias, he said that although there were faults on all sides, 'at the moment the present rulers of Serbia are to blame'.

Further: 'My friends in the Scottish National Party offered me the job as first Scottish ambassador to an independent Bosnia. But that was before the general election. I said to them, 'Wait and see.' ' As the first raindrops from the loch hit the 200-year-old house, he allowed himself a chuckle.

(Photograph omitted)