Quintinshill disaster relatives fly in for ceremony

Alistair Stark has come from Toronto. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Alistair Stark has come from Toronto. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Relatives of the Gretna rail disaster victims will flock to Leith to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy – all thanks to the efforts of one man.

John Edward, himself descended from a soldier killed in the crash, has spent a year tracking them down so they could pay tribute to family members.

John Edward with a commemorative coin. Picture: Ian Georgeson

John Edward with a commemorative coin. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The 46-year-old, who runs the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, is the great grandson of Private James McSherry, one of the 216 soldiers of 7th (Leith) Battalion The Royal Scots who died in the biggest train disaster on British soil. Thanks to his work, 150 relatives from as far afield as Canada, New Jersey and France will attend tomorrow’s centenary service at Rosebank Cemetery.

He said: “This is a hugely significant occasion and my main aim is to make sure none of the relatives could say ‘I didn’t know that the commemoration was happening’.

“Both of my mother’s grandfathers died in the First World War. Her father’s father died in Gretna and her mother’s father died in France in 1917, so I have always had an interest in tracking down their service records.”

It was at last year’s commemoration that he was approached by Norman Drummond, chairman of the Scottish Government’s Commemoration Panel, who was aware of his interest and thought he would be the ideal candidate to gather the victims’ relatives together for the centenary.

And so Mr Edward began to spread the word via the Leith History Society, the Spirit of Leithers website and through contacts in the Royal Scots.

Among those who responded was Alistair Stark, who now lives in Toronto. Born and raised on Great Junction Street, he left the UK at 17 and is a former soldier with the 48th Highlanders of Canada.

He will march with the Royal Scots tomorrow to pay tribute to the dead, including his great-great uncle, pipe major James Gear.

“I’m proud to be here and the whole thing will be very moving,” he said.

Also at the event will be Anna Davidson, a 72-year-old retired college lecturer living in East Lothian.

She started researching her family history about a year ago, concentrating on her grandfather George Bird, a Leither serving with the Royal Scots who was killed at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915.

But during her research she also discovered that his older brother, Peter Bird, had been on that doomed train from Larbert with the 7th Leith Battalion, Royal Scots, bound for Gallipoli. His remains were never found as he had died in the fire which consumed the wooden carriages.

Ms Davidson said: “I feel fortunate to be able to attend this week’s commemoration events to pay my respects to a young man I never met.

“He has no grave but is remembered on a piece of stone in the town he was born and brought up in and, like his two dead brothers, he has no gravestone.”

But poignancy of the tragedy has been mingled with some joy and, through the commemoration event, Ms Davidson will be reunited with a cousin she hasn’t seen for half a century.

On the day, a military parade will march from the former Dalmeny Street drill hall to the cemetery. There will then be a service and wreath-laying in the presence of the Princess Royal at the site of the mass grave and memorial.

Tragedy – Pages 22-23