Docu-drama on forgotten Leith rail disaster

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IT was a sunny May morning in 1915 and the troops on board the train were cheery, whistling, comrades in arms.

As the train carrying 500 Edinburgh men bound for the Front approached Gretna few could have anticipated the horror that was about to unfold.

The locomotive smashed into a goods train, bursting into flames.

Then, with people still trapped inside, a Glasgow bound-express train ploughed into the wreckage.

The tragedy that ensued has been likened to the rail industry’s Titanic moment – a disaster which left 215 Royal Scots and 12 civilians dead.

Now, nearly 100 years on, a special docu-drama charting the disaster is to be made – and the programme makers are keen to unravel the events’ roots in Leith, the community from where many of the victims hailed.

Director Robert Rae, of Theatre Workshop Scotland, is based in the former Dalmeny Drill Hall where the ill-fated battalion was based.

He is seeking help to tell the train disaster story, which was not widely reported at the time for fear it would damage home-front morale.

He said: “This is a seminal event in Leith history. “It was the biggest rail disaster in UK history, and yet today many people have never even heard of it.

“Through our research we have found out that the youngest victim of the crash had only just turned 15-years-old. Some families lost all of their children in the disaster.”

Among the officers killed was Lieutenant Christian Salvesen, son of the shipping magnate of the same name.

Robert said: “The bodies were brought back to the Dalmeny Drill Hall and the people of Leith gathered outside and waited to find out what had happened to their loved ones.

“But they weren’t allowed into the building because the injuries were so horrific. It was almost the only time that the war came home in such a direct way. They didn’t even manage to get out of Scotland.”

This isn’t Theatre Workshop Scotland’s first foray into film-making.

Their award-winning feature film The Happy Lands, created with members of the mining communities of Fife, was screened by the BBC, and the team are hoping to repeat that success in Leith. Already, people with a personal connection to the disaster have expressed an interest in taking part.

Robert said: “We have been approached by people who have said their grandfather was involved and that they want to tell their story. You don’t need any experience and we’re keen for people to get involved in everything from acting to the research process.”

Jim Tweedie, from Leith Local History Society, welcomed news of the planned documentary. “I’m all for this tragedy being publicised. It’s an important part of Leith history, but it tends to be forgotten that more than 200 people died.”

“Many people in Leith can trace back to relatives who were involved in this disaster.”