John McLellan: Why limit cemetery trusts?

The last resting place of Sir Hector "Fighting Mac" MacDonald. Picture: Esme Allen

The last resting place of Sir Hector "Fighting Mac" MacDonald. Picture: Esme Allen

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If there is one thing we are not short of in Edinburgh it is graveyards. Our forefathers were not ones for the great cities of the dead, the vast necropolises which are a feature of Glasgow and London which seem to serve as much as a reminder of our insignificance as anything else.

They were a product of the huge populations but here ours are, shall we say, on a more human scale.

All cemeteries, large or small, are documents of their times, the stones hinting a little about the lives they commemorate but by necessity unable to tell much more than the fact the people lived, died and were loved enough for memorials to be left.

The announcement that “Friends” trusts are to run five of Edinburgh’s best-known cemeteries, welcome though it is, begs the question about what happens to all the others, 40 all told and some in a better state than others. The main one, Mortonhall, is now full and the city’s principal burial ground is now at Craigmillar Castle Park which will have enough room for 5000 permanent residents. So much for us not having a necropolis.

In this the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, the significance of remembrance will be greater than ever. I defy anyone to go over the brow of the hill at Tyne Cot Cemetery, where 12,000 of the fallen at Passchendaele in 1917 are buried around a concrete German bunker, and not be stunned into silence.

And no Scot can fail to be moved by the graves of the teenagers of the 51st Highland Division at Beaumont Hamel, some dotted around the trench network where they fell, all with the same July date in 1916 when the Somme offensive was launched.

And on the other side, the Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle where 26 tons of explosives blew a 300 foot crater where the German front line had been.

A hundred years on and these places can still break your heart: Contalmaison where so many of Edinburgh’s finest gave their lives, the jaw-dropping scale of the Thiepval memorial carved with the names of thousands who have no grave, and the Menin Gate in Ypres where the Last Post still sounds every night.

It’s the same at the great Second World War sites, like the British cemetery at Bayeux where the German dead are buried too, and the American burial ground above Omaha beach.

But you don’t have to go over to France or Belgium to find the last resting place of the casualties of war. The regimental headstones erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can be found in most Edinburgh cemeteries, most notably at Comely Bank where 225 soldiers of the First World War are buried as it was the closest to the 1000-bed 2nd Scottish General Hospital based in what was the Craigleith Poorhouse. No prizes for guessing it’s where the Western General is now.

Biggest of all is Rosebank on Pilrig Street with 270 First World War graves, most of them members of the Royal Scots killed in the 1915 Gretna rail disaster. In fact, 31 of Edinburgh’s cemeteries have graves officially cared for by the CWGC. Some, like Seafield have neat sections similar to those you will see at battlefield sites. Others, like at Saughton, are interspersed with civilian plots.

I’ve passed Saughton several times on runs around the area from the canal and once stopped to have a look. All are from the Second World War and I’ve been intrigued ever since because so many of the dates of death were well past the surrenders. I’ve long wondered whether these poor souls spent months in agony from wounds which would ultimately prove fatal.

With a little bit of searching around the CWGC and the Scotland’s People website you can piece together a little of what happened to them. (Warning: Scotland’s People, the website of the National Records of Scotland isn’t cheap.)

As it turns out many of them were servicemen invalided out either through injury or ill-health but were entitled to the same honour as those who fell in battle.

Lance Corporal Hugh Thomson of the Royal Scots died aged 57 in September 1946 so he must have been one of the oldest servicemen in the war, with 41 being the upper age limit for conscription. But by the time of his death, L Cpl Thomson from Craigmillar was working as a hospital porter and died of a heart attack.

Or 29-year-old Thomas Jenkinson, a Royal Navy engineer, who by the time of his death in February 1946 was working as a brewery labourer and was killed by something virtually unheard of now, coal gas poisoning.

And Driver James Gold of the Royal Army Service Corps died in the Western General in October 1947 as a result of bronchitis and emphysema.

Also in Saughton is one of the earliest casualties of the war, 20-year-old Gunner Robert Heath who was a dispatch rider attached to a searchlight unit in East Lothian, where the very first German air raid of the war took place. He was not killed by the Luftwaffe but his death is listed as a fractured skull suffered in Tranent, possibly as a result of a motorbike accident.

One soldier killed in action was Corporal Robert Foley of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and I was intrigued because his regiment was described as Airborne. Was he a commando?

What is extraordinary is that he died in India in 1944 so how his remains were returned to Edinburgh will be a story in itself. And the horrors of what his unit went through can only be guessed at from the regimental war returns. His colleague William Frazer died of Typhus aged 25 and contagious hepatitis killed Cornelius Gallagher at 28, both within months of Cpl Foley.

And this is just from one cemetery.

Grandest of all must be the Dean Cemetery. It is the last resting place of General Sir Hector “Fighting Mac” MacDonald, whose stellar career saw him rise from the ranks of the Black Watch to become a hero of Omdurman and the Boer War before committing suicide in the midst of a sex scandal in 1904.

But amongst the private soldiers there are also Major General Sir John Sym of the Indian Army who died peacefully aged 80 in 1919 and Brigadier General Charles Campbell, killed in action in March 1918. Not all the First World War commanders fit the Blackadder caricature.

Up at Morningside is one of the most poignant First World War memorials, to Private Andrew Speirs, a former pupil of George Watson’s College whose father was a Viewforth minister. There can’t have been many Scots in the Imperial Camel Corps, which fought in Egypt, Sinai and Palestine. What an extraordinary experience it must have been for a son of an Edinburgh manse to be serving across the Holy Land, places he would have known about from Bible class but which he might never otherwise have seen.

Sadly he was severely wounded and was discharged; even aged just 28 his occupation was recorded as an army pensioner. Back home he succumbed not to his wounds but to double pneumonia at the Chalmers Hospital as the flu epidemic took hold. The date of his death? November 11, 1918. Armistice Day.

So, friends trusts for five city cemeteries? They are all worthy of such care and pride.

FISH FOR VOTES SOMEWHERE ELSE, SHEILA

SO, 240 extra students living in the St Leonard’s area is an appalling prospect, according to Labour MP Sheila Gilmore.

She reckons a plan to build accommodation at the Homebase DIY store site represents development “without a holistic thought about the longevity of the area” and has vowed to oppose the scheme.

This is a site just up from the Pleasance, down the road from Pollock Halls and within a few hundred yards of all the major Edinburgh University departments apart from King’s Buildings. It’s prime student territory.

Ms Gilmore would be that last person to rail against the growth of Edinburgh University, especially as more than 14,000 people now work in tertiary education here.

Look at St Andrews, where about 2000 people work in the university in a town with a population of 17,000.

That is topped up by over 7000 students but I bet you don’t hear many moans on Tayside about holistic thought as to where they live.

If we want to compete in the international university market, the students have to have good places to live with good amenities close by. I doubt very much if the students will complain about living on top of Homebase.

Come on Ms Gilmore, I’m sure there will be plenty of other opportunities to scoop up populist votes between now and May next year.

City’s on the up

Over 10 years after the Cowgate blaze, the SoCo complex to replace the Gilded Balloon has finally been completed.

Had it not been for moans from the great and the good about the finer points of the design it would have been finished some time ago, but at least it’s done now.

The Costa café, Sainsbury and hotel are now open for business but the most impressive thing about the building is the airy new courtyard at its heart, accessible from the Cowgate, the South Bridge and from Niddrie Street. It’s very much an echo of the historic yards which characterise much of the Old Town. (Pity they couldn’t do the same at Caltongate… only joking.)

The Costa is already busy and SoCo looks like it is a very positive addition to the South Bridge streetscape.

The South Bridge and its continuation along Nicholson Street and South Clerk Street often gets overlooked in the debate about urban Edinbugh, but its mix of specialist quality stores like Blackwells and Drum Central along with bargain stores and small local traders, means it is always lively, especially with such a dense population of locals and students.

And of course at its heart is the wonderful Queen’s Hall.

Sure, some places could do with a lick of paint, but it is a strip which serves many different needs and if SoCo encourages other projects that can only be for the best.

Number one is the Odeon, still crying out for help after repeated attempts to find an appropriate and cost-effective use have come to nothing. Will there ever be an end to that sorry saga?

And then there is the dangerous subject of the tram. The route to the New Royal Infirmary is now protected in the local plan should the time ever be right for an extension of the line.

Leith Walk apart, nowhere would be more suitable.

Now we are seeing trams actually running on the streets, let’s see how long it takes for people to come round to the idea of a proper network. If the Scottish Government can make the Borders Rail link happen by the end of next year, why not?

Where are the priorities?

A number of weeks ago I told of how a young girl was apprehended after apparently trying to break into cars, including ours.

We didn’t see any of this and only found out because our neighbour told us about it. The police duly called round to take a statement, which amounted to little more than we saw nothing and nothing was taken. Not much to go on there, Holmes.

But now my wife has a court summons, presumably on the basis that someone in the Procurator’s office thinks she might add something to the case. Exactly what beats me.

So there is the cost of processing the paperwork, the cost of taking a day off work to attend court and all the other shenanigans which goes with a witness appearance, all for her to say she saw nothing?

For whose benefit is all this? Not the tax-payer, that’s for sure.

But now there appears to be a something of a blitz on house-breakers in Edinburgh which is obviously very welcome, although just under half are unsolved. So for the 51 per cent of cases which might go through the court system, how many will involve members of the public telling the beak they saw nothing?

When I think of the things we have seen and reported and which we heard no more about (stolen car rammed into a lamp-post, ne’er-do-wells casing houses, to name but two) and it does make you wonder where the priorities lie.