Armistice 100: Scots war memorial remembers 140,000 men who gave their lives

Long before the last shot was fired on the Western Front, Scotland was thinking about how to commemorate those killed in the First World War.

Thursday, 8th November 2018, 6:00 am
The Scottish National War Memorial was opened on 14 July 1927.
The Scottish National War Memorial was opened on 14 July 1927.

The enormity of the losses bore down on every town, city and village in the country with more than 140,000 Scots killed during the conflict.

In 1917, Sir Alfred Mond, an industrialist and Liberal MP for Swansea, announced plans to build a monument in Hyde Park that Scottish regiments “would be proud” to be part of.

But the mood was clear: Scotland would have a national memorial of its own.

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The Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle took ten years to build from the time plans were first mooted in 1917 by John George Stewart, 8th Duke of Atholl, Commander of the Scottish Horse Regiment who fought at the Battle of Gallipoli.

The duke’s “rebel spirit rose and he was quite certain that if Scots did wish to have a national monument it should be on Scottish soil”, according to a 1920 article in The Scotsman.

So began a major piece of work to build the memorial with architect Sir Robert Lorimer heading up more than 200 artists and craftsmen and women to create the piece in an old barracks at Edinburgh Castle.

The plans were given Royal approval by the Prince of Wales – later Edward VIII – and the backing of parliament but were met with some opposition as they progressed.

Some wanted the memorial in Glasgow given the city had paid such a terrible price during the war. Then, Sir Robert’s early drawings were modified after some complained that the original plans would alter the Edinburgh skyline.

Ultimately, the plans won widespread public support with funds raised by ordinary people who wanted a memorial of stature for their men and country.

The message was that if everyone in Scotland paid a shilling, a worthy memorial could be built.

Just over £117,000 was collected – the equivalent of more than £6.9 million today.

Savings stamps were issued and local newspapers set up “shilling funds” to gather in money with lists of contributor’s names printed.

An article in the Fraserburgh Herald on 6 June, 1922 said: “You can send one shilling or as many shillings as you like.

“We are well aware that the community is not overburdened with spare cash, but there are many who will be glad of the privilege to give their mite to this noble Valhalla of the dead.”

A National War Memorial Championships was also set up with the entire takings from the turnstiles going to the fund. Hearts played Celtic at Tynecastle and Kilmarnock played Rangers at Ibrox on Saturday, 22 May, 1920 in order to support the cause.

Lieutenant Colonel Colin McGrory, secretary to the trustees of Scottish National War Memorial, says: “The memorial really does belong to the people of Scotland.

“If you imagine Scotland in 1919 and 1920, the country was pretty badly shattered.

“There were 140,000 dead – there wouldn’t have been a family untouched by the tragedy.

“An awful lot of people who lost someone in the war wouldn’t have had the financial means to go and visit a grave and of course many of the poor lads didn’t have a grave.

“The nearest a mother or a father, or a wife, son or daughter could get to them was by going to the memorial and looking at the rolls of honour and touching their name.”

He adds: “The reaction to the memorial was enormous. When it opened, the queues to get in stretched all the way down the esplanade. It became a place of pilgrimage to people.”

Commentators of the day hailed a “remarkable architectural and artistic achievement” which “articulated a nation’s grief”.

The memorial was opened on 14 July, 1927 with thousands gathering in the street for the occasion, which was often a tearful one as widows, families and the wounded and disabled gathered together.

The Duke of Atholl described it as a project “conceived in a spirit of love, built in faith and finished in hope”. He also described it as “truly Scottish, carried out by Scottish money, Scottish brains and Scottish hands”.

On the day it opened, the original rolls of honours of all the regiments, arms and services, including the Women’s Services, were placed in a metal casket presented by King George V and Queen Mary.

The names of those who died have remained there ever since.

While the Scottish National War Memorial created a focal point of remembrance, families had long found ways to honour their dead. With so many men buried abroad or without a grave, tangible tokens of loss and commemoration were widely produced.

Memorial plaques, which were cast in bronze and became known as the “dead man’s penny”, were issued to families of fallen soldiers.

A selection of items, including memorial cards and banners, that came to commemorate the dead will go on show at the winter exhibition of the National Library of Scotland. Called A Better World? Scotland After the First World War, it looks at the impact of the conflict on society and politics.

Scotland’s first poppy appeal was launched in 1926 with the symbol of remembrance finding its roots in America, Canada and France before Earl Haig, the senior British Army officer, brought the movement to Great Britain. It was his wife, Lady Haig, who first arranged a specifically Scottish appeal.

Charlie Pelling, manager at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory, describes Lady Haig as an “astonishing woman”.

He says: “She set up Scotland’s own poppy factory at Whitefoord House with a couple of chaps and she produced enough poppies for the first Scottish appeal in 1926. She went from strength to strength, driving the factory van and walking down the street with a billboard for the appeal.

“The poppy became so successful because every single family in Scotland and the UK was affected in one degree or another.”

Last year, 4.8 million poppies were made by hand at the factory in Edinburgh by 34 disabled veterans. In 2017, the appeal raised £2.8m to support services for ex-servicemen and women.

Amid dissenting voices over the value and purpose of the poppy, Mr Pelling is clear.

He says: “The poppy is completely apolitical. In no way does it mean you support war if you wear a poppy. It is the absolute opposite. They are made by ex-servicemen and no-one who has seen combat would advocate it.

“It is about remembering and paying respect to those who have served. It is not our soldiers, sailors and airmen who make war, It is politicians who make war.”

A Better World? Scotland after the First World War, will run from 16 November to 27 April, 2019 at National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.