Heroes in the dark: Inside centre for war blind

From left, blinded war veterans Arthur Bell, Arthur Penman and Denis Valentine. Picture: LISA FERGUSON
From left, blinded war veterans Arthur Bell, Arthur Penman and Denis Valentine. Picture: LISA FERGUSON
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POPPIES tilt their sun-burned petals towards the clear blue sky as they gently dance among the long grass of the roadside verges as the A71 leads west out of Edinburgh.

A floral signpost, they point the way to the Linburn Centre in Wilkieston, lining the route as a colourful tribute to the fallen and a salute to those who survived their time while serving their country in the armed forces.

There will be some on their journey to the centre who will still just be able to make out the vibrancy of the poppies, others who will pass them by with no knowledge they even exist.

For the centre, carved from wood in the shape of a phoenix and nestled in the verdant green of immaculate lawns and surrounded by aged trees, is a place of peace and tranquility for the Scottish War Blinded.

It’s also a hive of activity as former military men and women, now battling with failing eyesight or already registered as blind, spend their time learning IT skills or joinery, creating new gardens or culinary concoctions, working out in the gym or just relaxing and chatting over a cup of tea.

The organisation, which celebrates its centenary next year, was established to meet the needs of soldiers and sailors whose sight was affected during the Great War. What began as a small hostel at 37 Grange Loan in Edinburgh is now a national charity with 670 members, all with visual impairments, who benefit from attending the Linburn Centre or from outreach work.

“Coming here has changed my life.” The earnestness of 66-year-old Denis Valentine’s words are plain. “I was living in Aberdeen but when I was offered the chance to come here it took me about two seconds to say yes.”

That was 18 months ago and Denis, who served with the Black Watch 4th Royal Tank Regiment, which affected both his eyesight and his hearing, has never looked back. “I’m in here every day learning computer skills, sometimes in the workshop and working in the gardens as well. It’s given me a whole new lease of life.

“I’ve got dry macular degeneration of my corneas so I have to use eyedrops and gel six times a day. It’s connected to my time in the tank and the flash of the 120mm guns. The noise has affected my hearing too – there was no protection back then. I was just 20 when I joined the regiment so I’ve lived with these problems a long time.”

We’re sitting in the centre’s art room, with paintings covering the walls, a large tapestry filling one end and a weaving loom taking up much of the space at the other. It’s clear that despite the members sight problems, their creativity knows no bounds.

Denis adds: “I’m not much good at this kind of thing, but I love being in the IT suite. I go on the regimental website and have a good old chin wag with some of my old colleagues. I would never have found them if I hadn’t come here. I tell everyone about it.”

As well as his eye and hearing problems, Denis has also had to live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I was 15 years in the service and we went to Cyprus, Northern Ireland twice and Berlin in 1972/73 at the height of the Cold War. That was a scary time, the East Germans were terrifying but the Russians were not too bad.

“I was in Ireland at the height of the Troubles though and that was worse. One of my first duties was to attend the aftermath of a bomb going off, and we were just picking up body parts of men, women and children, it was horrific.

“I had to come out in 1980, I was going off the rails. They didn’t have a name for it then, but in 1997 I was told I had PTSD and since I went on anti-depressants to deal with it, I’ve been so much better. Part of that is being able to work out in the garden. I’m not a city boy, this is more my kind of place.”

The garden is certainly a work of horticultural artistry. A new summer house and sensory garden has just been completed, thanks to a large donation, with a range of aroma-therapeutic plants and water features to accent the movement of the Lin Burn and encourage relaxation.

The path from the Centre of the Summerhouse – already the site of dominoes contests - is lined by a bone white rail to make sure no-one can wander off into the nearby farm land. Arthur Bell, has been down to inspect it all he says, laughing as he folds his walking cane.

The 75-year-old from Rosyth, who claims to still cut his own grass despite being able to see “just a wee bit” loves gardening. It was when he was in his own in April two years ago that he was hit by a stroke which took the sight from his right eye. A few weeks later the sight in his left eye began to fail, and now everything is just a “blur”.

“An outreach worker from the Scottish War Blinded came to see me and asked if I wanted to come here, so now I do three times a week by minibus.”

Albert was 18 when he signed up with the Black Watch for ten years. He was stationed in Berlin – part of his duties were to guard Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer in Spandau prison “but they were just old men then” – before his regiment returned to the UK and he worked as a signaller. But there were also tours to Minden, Libya and Malta before he left the army and started his own reinforced concrete business (the bridge to Skye is one of his projects he says proudly).

“But I’ve never been to a place like this before in my life,” he says. “It is amazing. The staff are all tremendous. I’d just be sitting about the house driving my wife crazy if I wasn’t able to come here. There’s so much to do and of course you’re with people who understand how you feel about losing your sight, but don’t treat you like an invalid. It’s such a brilliant place. I do joinery and also some IT and I’d never worked with computers before, but they have a programme which reads the letters out as you type them. And I go to the gym to try and keep fit – well as fit as I can.”

In the hi-tech gym there’s a sign on the wall reading “No Sacrifice, No Victory”. It makes Robert Harvey – better known as MacRab - laugh.

The tanned 78-year-old from the Borders looks as fit as a fiddle – because he is. He spends hours in the gym on the three days he visits the centre, even skipping lunch for his workout.

Only the orange-coloured lenses on his glasses give away the fact that he can see very little. “I have 15 per cent of one eye working,” he says. “It means that when I’m painting, or working on the tapestry, I can only see a pinhole of the canvas at a time, and I need to use a magnifier so it takes me ages to complete anything, but I love it. I’d never done anything arty before.”

Instead he’d dedicated his life to sport. As a young man he was signed by Manchester United – playing with many of the men who later died in the Munich air disaster – and then trained as a coach with Nottingham Forest before hanging up his football boots and taking up a squash racquet instead, eventually becoming an elite umpire. It was only when his eyesight failed that he had to give up training squash coaches.

His military connection is through National Service and then serving with the volunteer reserves as a pilot officer in the 613 City of Manchester Squadron.

“I had a stroke about four years ago when I was swimming but my left eye had 
already been damaged after a cataract operation 18 years 
before. About two months after that my right eye blurred over. They said it was just bad luck. I’ve had lots of laser treatment to keep the eye working, so I can see some shapes.”

Despite all that, he’s still in the gym daily. “I still do 
my fitness all the time. My garage at home is a gym and then when I come here that’s where you’ll find me. This is a wonderful place, it offers so many possibilities, I go climbing at Ratho and I’ve been gliding, it really is marvellous.”

My friend was blown to pieces and I was thrown up into the air’

HUGH Maguire moves his hands along the arm rest of the wooden bench, his fingers searching for the slightest roughness, a telltale nick which means another sanding is required. He had never been interested in joinery before he first began to attend the Linburn Centre just over a year ago. Now he’s there three days a week, being picked up and dropped back at his Armadale home by the centre’s minibus.

While his Irish lilt is still as strong as ever despite living the vast majority of his life as a miner in the Lothians – it’s his eyesight that has grown weaker. Now, at the age of 94 he’s registered as blind.

“I can still see a little but it began to get bad when I was working down the pits,” he says, “and they put it down to the war.”

Hugh served with C Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles in WWI. He signed up when he was 22 – and was almost immediately sent to train near Oban in preparation for the D-Day landings before being posted to Portsmouth to wait for the June 6 attack.

“I think I just wanted to do my bit,” he recalls. “We landed on Sword Beach and were supposed to make for Caen and take it the first day. But we didn’t get there for quite a while. We got a short distance in and then were stopped by the German Army.

“We came to a place called Cambes Wood which we were supposed to capture, D Company went in and so many were killed … when we went in we were just counting the deadbodies. We eventually attacked it along with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and took it, and were there for two or three weeks. We started advancing again then the German artillery opened up on us … my friend was blown to pieces and I was thrown right up into the air. I asked my officer if I could go and silence the machine gun which had killed my friend. He just said, ‘if you’re shot don’t blame me’,” Hugh laughs.

“I crawled all the way till I got behind the machine gun. I shouted at them to raise their hands and surrender. But I had to shoot two of them as they turned their guns on me.”

Hugh won a gallantry medal for his bravery. But that was after he’d had to have shrapnel removed from his back and neck and weeks of convalescence back in the UK.