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A Village Remembers

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As Scotland marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Erskine has been asking Scots to “honour the ones who didn’t come home and help Erskine care for the ones who did”. The 2,000-strong community of Strathblane in Stirlingshire has come up with a novel way of combining the two.

For the past year some 30 volunteers have been researching the life stories of the 27 men on Strathblane War Memorial who died during the 1914 1918 conflict. The results have been turned into a 112-page large-format book, packed with illustrations, half of them in colour. A Village Remembers is being launch on Saturday September 20 at Strathblane Village Club. All the proceeds from the book will be donated to Erskine, which has been providing care, accommodation and employment for ex-Service men and women in Scotland since 1916.

Blanefield residents Ian and Rosemary Wright, whose son Gary was killed while serving as a Royal Marine in Afghanistan in 2006, have contributed a touching Foreword to the book, linking their experience to that of bereaved local families of 100 years ago.
The Strathblane volunteers started with little more than a list of names. First, they spoke to as many relatives of the men as they could find. Some are well-known names in the area: Edmonstone (the local laird) and Yarrow (as in the Clyde shipyard), for instance. Tracking down the descendants of ordinary soldiers was harder, especially as some had lived only briefly in the area, usually as workers on the big estates and in the large country houses that pepper the area. Some contacts came through the Genes Reunited website.

Then local genealogist Charlie Kerr and his team did a remarkable job, combing through hundreds of census returns, birth records, local newspaper archives, forces records, valuation rolls and other documents. By May of this year they had managed to find photographs of 13 of the men and piece together stories for every single one of the 27.

Thirdly, an appeal for volunteers produced a dozen would-be authors, who set to work shaping the story of each man and finding suitable illustrations. Author and journalist Anne Johnstone, who wrote 11 of the 27 stories, also edited the remainder to ensure accuracy and consistency and avoid duplicating the same material. The result is a pleasing variation in textures, with some stories focused on the man’s family life, while others have more military detail.

The project has attracted grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Stirling Council’s Community Pride Fund, as well as a generous donation from Scottish businessman John M Watson OBE.
Anne Johnstone said: “Every story is touching in its own way. Many of them are inspiring and some are even funny. But we must admit that they often reduced us to tears. Take Fergie Thomson, the youngest of 12 children, who still looks like a boy in his 1918 portrait, sporting the ribbon flash of the Military Medal that he won for securing an enemy post at night, shortly before his death on the Hindenburg Line. Or Sir Archibald Edmonstone (the present Sir Archie’s grandfather), who goes in his coach to commiserate with the parents of 19-year-old Private James Macintyre, killed on the Somme in September 1916, only to return to his castle and discover his own 19-year-old son and heir has been killed in the same battle. Or Lt Eric Yarrow, who ventures into no man’s land to retrieve the body of his neighbour and best friend, Lt Jack Barr, and sends heartfelt letters of condolence to Jack’s family, before being killed himself less than a fortnight later.”

Between them, the 27 stories tell much of the story of the war itself. Deaths are bunched, particularly around the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele the following year, when at least six local men died in just over a fortnight. “So on average every three days someone in our community, (which was barely half the size it is today) received the dreaded telegram or pro-forma letter telling them their loved one would never come home. It really brings home what a collective trauma the First World War represented,” said Anne Johnstone.

Individual soldiers’ stories are used as pegs on which to hang various aspects of the conflict, such as pals’ battalions, bantam battalions, the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Division, Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Derby Scheme, the Railway Operating Division, the Royal Army Medical Corps and even the Lovat Scouts. And all human life is here, from the son of the laird to the son of his gamekeeper and from the son of a prominent industrialist (Professor Archibald Barr of Barr & Stroud) to the son of his chauffeur.

The achievement of this book is that now Strathblane War Memorial can never be reduced to just a list of names. Here are men many of whom attended Strathblane School, walked the same streets, lived in the same homes and even played on the same tennis courts (opened in 1913) as today’s residents. The families of Lts Barr and Yarrow were involved in launching the charming Arts & Crafts-style Village Club, opened in 1911 and others must have used it for games like snooker and quoits.

Patricia Davy, the retired librarian who conceived the project, said: “There is always a risk that in concentrating on those who were killed, the plight of survivors is underplayed. Donating the proceeds of our book to Erskine is a way of saying that as well as a duty of remembrance, we also have a duty to care for ex-Servicemen and women who make it home but need support to rebuild their lives.” Erskine Chief Executive Steve Conway said: “Erskine is extremely grateful to be chosen as the supported charity. There are clear synergies between Erskine, which is a community in its own right, and the community described in the book A Village Remembers. We continue to remember those we have cared for, and are keen to ensure that the current generation and those to come, do not forget those that sacrificed everything in WW1 and subsequent conflicts. A Village Remembers will go a long way to raise awareness of one particular local community, and as we approach our centenary we will be making similar efforts to remember the Erskine of 1916 and what changes we have undergone, whilst remembering the veterans we have cared for over the years.”

A Village Remembers will be for sale in a number of Scottish museums, including regimental museums, bookshops, Stirlingshire libraries and a number of local outlets, as well as via the Strathblane village website www.strathblanefield.org.uk