Heriot’s rugby teams given historic invite to Belgrade

Robert Smith, Rory Herd, Robert Walker and Tour Organizer Dave Walker
Robert Smith, Rory Herd, Robert Walker and Tour Organizer Dave Walker
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It’s taken them 96 years to get around to a rematch.

Now the descendants of Serbians evacuated to Edinburgh to escape the horrors of the First World War will watch as their countrymen take on the Scots who taught them to play rugby.

Serbian Herioters. Picture courtesy of Louise Miller

Serbian Herioters. Picture courtesy of Louise Miller

Nearly a century ago the city took in children displaced by the conflict and introduced them to the game while they studied at George Heriot’s.

The school’s elders took it upon themselves to do something for those who had escaped the war-torn Balkans and the people of Edinburgh paid for their education.

That generosity will be repaid when teams from the Capital travel to Belgrade as guests of honour at a major European tournament this summer. Descendants of the same 27 Serbs who studied at the prestigious school will watch as teams from Scotland, England, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, Romania, Russia, Hungary and Croatia compete at the event.

The invitation for Heriot’s Rugby Club to attend the tournament in June came about after a documentary on the lives of the evacuees was aired in Serbia last month.

Serbian national television picked up on research being undertaken by Louise Miller, a stockbroker and writer from Bruntsfield, and sent a film crew to Edinburgh to highlight the story.

The idea to make the Heriot’s players guests of honour came after coaches from Belgrade side RK Pobednik saw the documentary when it was screened in Serbia last month.

Ms Miller told the Evening News: “On a number of levels it’s very important that this tournament is happening and that a team from Heriot’s are planning to go. It celebrates the good in Serbian history amid all the tragedy it’s seen in recent times.

“It’s important to remember the good and the bad.

“They’re going to experience Serbian hospitality on a big scale. It’s also a way of remembering what the people of Edinburgh did to help those boys and what staff and pupils did to help them.”

During her research she learned of the hardships the evacuees had to endure to escape the conflict before arriving in Edinburgh.

The evacuation order was issued by the Serbian government in late November 1915 and 15,000 boys attempted to escape through the mountains of Albania and Montenegro, with 8000 dying on the way.

The survivors arrived starving and skeletal. They had been surviving on tree bark and twigs during the crossing.

Ms Miller added: “Yet all of the boys who arrived in Edinburgh went on to do really well. They all eventually returned to Serbia but three ended up studying engineering at Edinburgh University, and most of the others went on to study at university as well.”

Heriot’s hopes to send both junior and senior teams to the tournament.

Dave Walker, Heriot’s Rugby Club committee member whose prop forward son, Robert, 16, will be among those competing, said the event will be a special experience.

He said: “It’s a fantastic opportunity, particularly with the historic connection.”

Mark Barrett, director of rugby at the Belgrade side RK Pobednik, said: “This tournament celebrates the origins of Serbian rugby.”