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McCrae’s Battalion Trust –
90th Anniversary Pilgrimage to the Somme.

Contalmaison, 1 July

On a muggy evening in October 1915 Major-General E. C. Ingouville-Williams (‘Inky Bill’), commanding officer of the 34th Division, visited the tented lines of the 16th Royal Scots near the village of Sutton Veny on Salisbury Plain. He was welcomed by Pipe-Sergeant William Duguid, a former Gordon Highlander and veteran of the North-West Frontier. Indicating the kilted Dougie Ross (an apprentice electrician from West Register Street), Inky Bill observed, ‘So, Sergeant, this will be one of your pipers.’ Duguid replied (with characteristic pawkiness), ‘No, sir, Mr Ross is a gentleman private in Sir George McCrae’s battalion and he is no mere piper. He is a musician!'

Gary Tait and Robert Sandison: Royal Scots

Last week members of the McCrae’s Battalion Trust pilgrimage to France were privileged to be joined by an equally gifted young piper – Private Alan McIntyre of the soon-to-be-amalgamated 1st Battalion The Royal Scots.

Alan McIntyre and Ricky Barclay

We were on the Somme to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the first day of that bloody, drawn-out battle. Our new memorial, in the village of Contalmaison, has already become a landmark in the region and our ceremony of Remembrance was listed among the top four events of the weekend. Over the past two years the Somme Tourist Office has had more enquiries about Contalmaison than about all the other memorials in the département put together. Perhaps it’s the football element that has caught people’s imagination; perhaps it’s the figure of Sir George himself – a man so intensely proud of his home town that he willed his new battalion to be the finest in Lord Kitchener’s Army.

Ken Stott

In the 90 years since McCrae’s (and their sister unit, the 15th Royal Scots) were all but wiped out on the approaches to Contalmaison, no Lord Provost of Edinburgh has visited the Somme. This old wrong was finally set right by Lesley Hinds, who deserves huge credit for the way in which she embraced an extremely informal programme of commemorative activities. Indeed it’s our very informality that has endeared us to the locals, and raised the hackles of some ‘traditionalists’ who insist that Remembrance must be a sober and tearful affair. Our odd mix of battalion relatives, battlefield tourists, and supporters of Hearts and Hibs never lose sight of the point of the trip, but they manage to enjoy themselves and make friends at the same time. Lesley renewed her acquaintance with maire Bernard Sénéchal (whom she met in Edinburgh earlier this year). Bernard later told me how impressed he was by her ‘gentillesse et sincérité’.

Margaret Curran, Minister for Parliamentary Business, represented the Executive. She was also greatly taken by the absence of formality. Somewhere along the line we have hit on just the right mix of respect for the sacrifice of the Great War generation and celebration of their brief, bright lives. I knew many survivors of the Somme – all dead now. They would want us to remember, but they would not want us to be miserable.

In the nearby town of Albert that afternoon every bar was occupied by the Scottish contingent. My friends at the ‘3 Pigeons’ told me that it was the best day they could remember in years. There is a genuine affinity with Scotland in this part of France – an awareness of shared history and a strong memory of Scottish sacrifice for France’s sake in two world wars.

Le Poppy, 1 July.
Bernard Sénéchal laughs with Lord Provost
Lesley Hinds as Margaret Curran looks on.

Next day we drove to Arras to visit two Royal Scots whose remains were found during building excavations in 2001. Archie McMillan from Armadale and Willie Gunn from Edinburgh lay unsuspected on a bleak hillside for 84 years. In 2002 they were finally buried with full military honours in the little cemetery near Point du Jour. Alan McIntyre (an Armadale lad himself) took part in the ceremony and was visibly moved on his return. Later that afternoon I led the party to one of the most atmospheric places on the entire Western Front. As the coach meandered down a narrow country lane, my fellow pilgrims began to wonder (not for the first time) if I was lost. When I dismounted and disappeared into a dense wilderness of unkempt trees and bushes, they thought that the heat had got to me. Most of them, however, were intrigued enough to follow.

Albert, 1 July

Rœux British Cemetery is an isolated spot. Even the mappers have missed it. You head down a dark, narrow path for several hundred yards, then climb a steep stone staircase to a high-walled, tree-lined burial ground, built on an equally steep slope. No one ever goes there. Save for the wind in the trees and the singing of the larks, it is strangely quiet. Many of gravestones bear Scottish surnames: most of these men fell during the bitter fighting around the riverside village of Rœux at the end of April 1917. Robert MacMillan lies here – the man who followed stray cats around the streets of Edinburgh. There are lads from Penicuik and Haddington, Colinton and Leith. On the hottest day of the year it was almost chilly.

Roeux Cemetery, 2 July

As I talked about the casualties, Alan took a notion. He returned to the bus and collected his pipes. Then, in the cool silence of the wooded glade he played the old Scottish lament Flooers o the Forest. He was playing for the dead of McCrae’s, and for all the other lads of different units who are buried there. But he was also playing for The Royal Scots, a death song for a regiment whose service dates back to 1633 – the First of Foot; holders, always, of the Right of the Line. The ghosts of Blenheim, Malplaquet, Fontenoy, Corunna, Waterloo, Sevastopol and Inkerman must have heard him. At the finish no one said a word for five whole minutes.

No one will ever forget the 16th Royal Scots; and no one who was with us at Rœux will ever forget the intense young musician as he piped his ancient regiment to the grave. Willie Duguid would have been proud of him.

Jack Alexander.

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