Oct 142019
 

Duncan Harley reviews Tessa Williams’ ‘Hotels of the Stars’.

Months ago, at least it seems like it, I was sent a copy of Tessa Williams’ ‘Hotels of the Stars’. Described in glowing terms as featuring ‘A-list Haunts and Hideaways’ the book, amongst others sat amongst my pile of promised reviews.

Inevitably some never make it to the top of the pile and kindness occasionally precludes that promised review. In the case of Tessa’s tome, a bit of illness got in the way and now that I am much better, I thought it timely to pen a few words.

A journalist by trade she is no stranger to the content having spent a portion of her life penning for the likes of Marie Claire, Elle and Vogue.

There are no Holiday Inn’s or Travelodge’s here and nor should there be.

With an introduction by Albert Roux this book reveals the inner details of that cosseted world of the super-rich and those super-famous-folk who inhabit the likes of London’s Dorchester, Fort William’s Inverlochy Castle and L’Hotel Paris. Raffles, The Chelsea Hotel and the various Ritz’s also feature alongside The Rock at Gibraltar and that iconic Kempinski in Berlin.

Not that I have visited many of the establishments on this list, well maybe – The Balmoral – but, in the big scheme of things, after ruffling amongst these pages, I feel that I have at the very least an understanding of how the other half live.

Replete with quotes such as ‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolates in one go’ – Truman Capote and ‘When I was growing up, I had three wishes. I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table’ – John F. Kennedy, this is much more than a coffee table trophy.

In all, there are around 37 featured hotels – each with a historical narrative. And each illustrated with iconic images to salivate over.

For my money, the piece featuring Claridge’s on P48 gives full flavour to the intention of this book. Alongside a descriptor ‘The hotel was also a home for the Hollywood Royalty … including Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant’, we learn that Spencer Tracy described the place in glowing terms:

“When I die I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.”

You really couldn’t make it up!

Hotels of the Stars by Tessa Williams is available from Amazon @ £35 in hardback.
ISBN-13: 978-1909399983

Apr 112019
 

Mike Shepherd reviews Duncan Harley’s ‘The Little History of Aberdeenshire’.

Duncan Harley’s fascinating new book is described as a little history of Aberdeenshire, yet covers a 4,000 year time span from the Neolithic when peasant farmers built the stone circles that dot the countryside through to North Sea oil.

Along the way we read about battles, plagues and the arrival of the modern era when Aberdeenshire finally became accessible to the outside world: turnpikes, canals and railways were built.

This is anything but a dry and dusty history tome.

As with his previous book, The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire, Duncan throws in lots of quirky and curious facts to liven up the tale.

Did you know that the bulldozers building the Aberdeen bypass uncovered a whole load of new archaeological finds including ninety Roman bread ovens at Milltimber? That it took years to complete the monument to the battle of Harlaw near Inverurie, because of a reluctance to add the armorial shields representing the highland clans?

The expense involved was considered as ‘paying for the arms of the enemy’ (and this 500 years after the battle took place). The shields were finally added in 2011 for the 600th anniversary.

Or how about this? Stonehaven’s oldest building, the Tollbooth at the harbour, was severely damaged during the Second World War when an anti-shipping mine beached next to it.

These and many more nuggets make Duncan’s book an engrossing read. If you enjoyed Duncan’s first book or you are curious about the history of Aberdeenshire, then this is the book for you.

Highly recommended. 

Published by The History Press. £12.00 in hardback.

 

Dec 192018
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘And I Am You’ – the new novel by Judy Mackie.

Layla is a splendidly timeless song penned by Eric Clapton and co-songwriter Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos fame.

Inspired by an Arabian love story – Layla and Majnun – Clapton’s song made 27 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and won a Grammy in 1993.

Clapton was of course in love with Patti Boyd – the wife of his friend George Harrison.

Clapton and Boyd would eventually marry for a few years and Layla – the song not the lady – would become ranked amongst the greatest rock songs of all time.

They all remained friends. In fact, Harrison attended the Clapton and Boyd wedding and gave his blessing to the unlikely pair.

Lyrics include the immortal lines:

‘Let’s make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane.’

And now, some decades after the release of Clapton’s Layla, North-east author Judy Mackie, inspired perhaps by the lyrics, has penned a novel deeply rooted in those far-off but timeless events.

In this exquisitely penned Gothic tale a lonely lady, recently abandoned by a long-time lover, examines her life and finds herself in another person’s body.

Judy is of course well known for her stewardship and editing of Leopard Magazine and her love for all things North-east comes through strongly in this, her dark debut novel. And I Am You is set variously along the North Sea coastline with locations as diverse as Cruden Bay, the massive blowhole of the Bullers of Buchan and the tarry-sheds of Fittie.

Betrayed and abandoned by her husband and with a career in the doldrums thirty-eight-year-old academic Layla Sutherland longs to escape her shattered existence while half a world away, Australian journalist Stevie Nightingale is desperate to shed her identity.

A ground-breaking procedure developed by an Edinburgh neurosurgeon, Professor Blunstone, offers both Layla and Stevie salvation in the form of not just an identity swap, but a full-blown body swap.

The eccentric professor has discovered a previously unknown portion of the brain which, when transplanted, offers the subject the possibility of switching bodies whilst retaining consciousness within the new host.

His discovery of the ‘Me Gland’ throws up both moral and ethical dilemmas but, in the true traditions of eccentric scientist tales, nothing can halt the pursuit of knowledge and once the taboo of using humans for experimental purposes is broken, there is ultimately no easy way back from the unspeakable brink.

“He’s not mad and he’s not evil,” says Judy,

“he thinks he’s furthering human knowledge.”

And I Am You, aside from being set in Bram Stoker territory, has all the elements of a contemporary Gothic thriller. A vast baronial mansion occupied by an obsessed researcher hides a secret hospital wing within sound of the Buchan coastline while two damsels in distress agree to help him crack the age-old secret of the seat of consciousness.

What could possibly go wrong and what might be the ultimate cost of tampering with our sense of self?

As medical ethics go out the window, Layla finds herself inhabiting Stevie’s body while retaining her own identity. Likewise, Stevie inhabits Layla’s body. At first all seems smooth and, alongside a practical exploration of the reality of the situation, elements of conflict creep in.

Layla for example meets up with errant spouse Calum, but in the body of the blonde-haired Stevie. Things, to say the least, become complicated.

Will Buller the dog sort out who is who? What will the subjects experience when, or perhaps if, the body-swap is reversed? Who, or what, is the mysterious stalker?

Blunstone makes clear early on that:

“Quite clearly, body swapping is not for everyone. But for those of a certain mindset the opportunity to occupy someone else’s body is surely the most profound experience a human being could have.”

As I raced towards the final pages of Judy’s novel, I began to wonder if the eccentric professor’s premise that body swapping is not for everyone might be slightly off the mark. After all, who amongst us hasn’t imagined what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes?

And I Am You – by Judy Mackie (289pp) is available for download from Amazon Kindle at £4.99

Nov 272018
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘When Brave Men Shudder – The Scottish Origins of Dracula’ by Mike Shepherd.

The Whitby Dracula connection is well established and has been extensively written about. Bram Stoker’s life and times have also been well documented. But until now, the story of how Stoker came to pen possibly the most talked about gothic novel in history whilst on vacation in and around Cruden Bay has been largely unknown.

Outwardly of course, Cruden Bay is just one of many coastal villages which dot the Aberdeenshire coastline. Claims to fame include a connection with Norwegian aviator Tryggve Gran, who took off from the local sands on an epic flight over the North Sea to Stavanger in the July of 1914.

Then there is the story of the Cruden Bay golf hotel where, for a few years at least, the rich and the famous came to relax and take in the sea air along the links.

Think Jeremiah Coleman of mustard fame and the families associated with Swan Vestas, Horlicks and Bovril.

There were vague tales about how Bram Stoker and his family had spent a few holidays in the area and the local hotel could point to an entry in the guest book written by Stoker and promising to come again.

But, until now, no one had really taken time to research the story and until now, no one had drawn together the multitude of recollections and solid clues which make up the story of how Dracula came to be written in a largely unknown coastal village on the North Sea coastline.

With an introduction by Dacre Stoker, Mike’s new book is brim full of bite-size facts and with a cover based on an original circa 1897 Dracula edition this is clearly a book to get your teeth into. Well, that’s the vampire puns dealt with so onto the content.

Penned in plain language and meticulously researched, When Brave Men Shudder makes for a fascinating read.

Not only has Mike tracked down the various visits, there were thirteen at least, which Stoker made to the area; but he has traced the links between the man’s writings and the local community at Cruden Bay.

Local lore and superstition backed by an interest in the writings of Emily Gerard – who explored long-held Pagan beliefs flimsily shrouded by a ‘surface varnish of Christianity’ in Transylvania – must, says Mike, have excited Bram enormously.

Mike continues:

“In contrast to the peasants of Transylvania, the residents of Port Errol didn’t believe in vampires and had probably never seen a bulb of cultivated garlic. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two widely separated cultures were evident.”

Stoker of course stumbled upon Cruden Bay, then known as Port Errol, completely by chance. Seemingly he had heard that the Aberdeenshire air was “very bracing” and in a quote from the man’s diaries Mike relates that when he first saw the place, he had fallen in love with it.

“Astonishing as it might seem” writes Mike,

“this little-known Aberdeenshire fishing village with a population of 500 was about to change his life forever.”

Many of the landscape features which to this day inhabit the area would have been completely familiar to the Dracula author and Mike’s local knowledge, he lives in Cruden Bay, and careful research has identified landmarks which appear in Bram Stoker’s writings.

Sand Craig, an offshore rock, features in an early short story and the Scaurs – a jagged outcrop – seems to have fascinated the Gothic author.

Stoker apparently stared at the Scaurs for hours on end and may have explicitly referred to them in the Dracula tale:

“it needed but little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death … “

When Brave Men Shudder is full of such references neatly linking Stoker’s Cruden Bay experience to passages in his writing.

Of course, it wasn’t all about the writing. Bram and his wife Florence formed sound links within the local community. Indeed, it seems that the locals took to him.

Long after his death one resident was recorded as saying that:

“Bram had a fine sense of humour always joking about something.”

While another recalled that:

“he became a familiar figure with his stout walking stick as he strolled along the sands and the cliffs.”

In essence, this new take on Bram Stoker is both surprising and occasionally scary. Scary because the portrait painted of the man who penned Dracula is that of a family man on a mission to explore that dark side of humanity which most only dream about.

Although the villagers portray him as a genial gent with a sturdy walking stick, his wife and child often became fearful of his moods and occasional outbursts. Perhaps a lifetime spent amongst actors had enabled him to immerse himself in his stories to the detriment of those closest to him.

As for surprises, it seems that Bram wrote extensively in the Doric, was married to a lady who had previously had a fairly serious relationship with Oscar Wilde and never really made much money from that book which, to this day, remains both a Hollywood staple and an international best seller. Who would have thought!

Stars: 5/5

When Brave Men Shudder – The Scottish Origins of Dracula is By Mike Shepherd and is published in paperback (244pp) by Wild Wolf Publishing @ £12.99

Oct 122018
 

It’s Dracula season in North-east Scotland as Duncan Harley reviews Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker.

Local writer Mike Shepherd is about to release a new book about Bram Stoker’s Cruden Bay connection and Dacre Stoker – in conjunction with Illinois born writer J.D. Barker – is about to unleash a prequel to Stoker’s Dracula classic.

Dacre Stoker gave a talk at Cruden Bay in early 2017 and both Janice and I were privileged to attend.

Alongside setting forth some solid ideas about the history and the mythology of vampirism, Dacre let slip the fact that his forbear, Bram Stoker, let loose upon the world that classic of the bloodsucking genre ‘Dracula’.

Indeed, the very venue of Dacre’s mid-winter talk – The Kilmarnock Arms at Cruden Bay – boasts a guest book entry which reads something like:

“Delighted with everything and everybody and hope to come again.”

The signature alongside the entry reads:

“Mr and Mrs Bram Stoker.”

Bram Stoker, author of the Gothic Vampire Horror tale ‘Dracula’, and many other literary sensations, stayed with his wife and son at the hotel for most of that 1884 August. He returned frequently over the subsequent 20 years and wrote at least part of his Dracula tale at Crooked Lum Cottage, one of his holiday homes at Cruden Bay.

There is a strong local belief that his tale of Transylvanian terror was heavily influenced by nearby Slains Castle although Ecclesgreig Castle at St Cyrus and the town of Whitby in Yorkshire also claim to be Stoker’s inspiration. But the jury is still out.

Jointly written by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker, the new Gothic novel, ‘Dracul’ makes no pretence at solving the riddle and, in a volume dedicated to ‘finding the roots’ of the Dracula truth, both Dacre and Barker have penned a bold prequel to the Stoker tale.

Bram’s tales probably reflected his early sufferings

Dracul is described in the PR fluff as ‘Scary as hell. Gothic as decay’. And for once, the cover fluff is pretty much near the truth.

Based on notes left behind by Bram Stoker, Dracul is really a fly-on-the wall insider-vision to what really happened.

Stoker is in a room, in a tower armed with various items. A gun, some mirrors and holy water litter the table alongside some plum brandy and a crucifix for fortification. His fevered mind imagines a night to remember and he awaits with some trepidation the inevitable battle with the undead.

Inevitably, the reader is drawn to the suspicion that this early tale reflects at best a dream sequence brought on by some dreadful childhood fever or, at worst, an over-use of some prescription medication.

Imbued with a sickly childhood, Bram’s tales probably reflected his early sufferings and his later associations with theatrical empressario, Sir Henry Irvine could only have augmented the childhood recollections but in a mainly theatrical way.

But, back to the chase … imagine if you will a pre-adolescent Dracula author – in fact Stoker himself – sitting behind a firmly locked door awaiting the arrival of some dreadful apparition.

‘The Journal of Bram Stoker: From my earliest memories, I was a sickly child, ill and bedridden from birth until my seventh year, when a cure befell me. I will speak of that cure in great length to come …’

The indescribable tension will have you hiding your face in your hands at times and the complexity of the tale might draw you to the very edge of your seat. Blood and guts in nature, Dracul is one of those gripping reads which – by its very provenance – is difficult to put down.

All in all, this is a splendidly orchestrated piece of pure Gothic horror told in the style of the master of the art and by writers who have been privileged to access the family archives.

It’s not often that I pen a spoiler. But suffice it to say that Dracul ends with the immortal words:

“I will stay with you always.”

Stars: 4.5/5

Dracul is available in the UK in hardback from 18th October 2018 from Bantam Press @ £12.99
ISBN: 9780593080108

Sep 052018
 

Duncan Harley reviews Alan Stewart’s new book.

Five years in the making, Alan Stewart’s new book ‘North East Scotland At War’ will appeal to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the North-east of Scotland.
There are plenty of books out there which record the difficult years between the Chamberlain peace accord and the Soviet conquest of Berlin. Osborne’s ‘Defending Britain’ and Gordon Barclay’s ‘If Hitler Comes’ are the classics.

But this book is slightly different and there is certainly room for further historical accounts of the dark days when Hitler threatened our shores.

With a decidedly local slant, North East Scotland At War launches the reader into the minutiae of the defence of the North-east against what was, for a brief few years, perceived as the Nazi threat.

The archaeology of those distant times is laid bare and many of the official documents which record the difficult days inhabit the pages.

A ground-based Invasion never came. But preparations were firmly in in place and Alan’s finely researched history brings the day to day story of those difficult times sharply into focus.

Fougasse – developed by the Petroleum Warfare Department as an anti-tank weapon, Dragon’s Teeth and Railway Blocks feature in this book along with the stories of the stop-lines, the Home Guard roadblocks and of course that secretive plan to harry the invaders using suicide squads tasked with assassinating both their own commanders – who might betray them under torture – and German officers.

Air crashes also inhabit these pages. Alongside the enemy casualties, and they were in the hundreds, Alan details the stories behind some of the Commonwealth gravestones which litter the cemeteries of the North-east.

Training accidents accounted for many of the casualties.

A Czech fighter pilot killed when his Spitfire spiralled into the ground, an air-sea rescue crew lost in a collision with railway wagons on the perimeter of RAF Dyce Airfield and the gravestone of Flight Lieutenant Wheelock – killed attempting an emergency landing – again at Dyce – are featured.

This is one of those books which is difficult to set aside. The minutiae of the location of pill boxes and the stark reality of the bombing maps, feature alongside some difficult tales of children killed on the local sands, not by the Germans, but by the very defences intended to keep them safe.

Landmines and barbed wire were as much a hazard as air-borne bombs and machine gun bullets.

Alongside the difficult descriptions of civilian carnage, Alan has included a number of images of official documents which give a flavour of the times. In a memo marked TOP SECRET, a Colonel Geddes, commander of Aberdeen Garrison, expresses his concern regarding the vulnerability of Tullos Hill.

“I am a little uneasy” he writes, 

“about the defence of TULLOS HILL – Area 4624. This is a very commanding feature, on which the following units are located: A.B. 2 Site, Heavy A.A Bty, Detachment 319 Search-Light Regiment, RAF Wireless Installation and Royal Observer Corps Post.”

And there are literally dozens of such so-far hidden documents sprinkled throughout this account of the time when the invasion of our shores seemed such a certainty.

Profusely illustrated and replete with a plethora of new information gleaned from both local and national records, this is a local history book which I am pleased to include on my bookshelves.

North East Scotland At War – by Alan Stewart is Available from http://www.cabroaviation.co.uk/book.html at £21.99 + £3 P&P

ISBN 9781527215689
Cover image © Alan Stewart

Jan 282018
 

Mike Shepherd reviews Duncan Harley’s ‘The A-Z Of Curious Aberdeenshire: Strange Stories of Mysteries, Crimes and Eccentrics’

Tucked out of the way in the far reaches of the land, behold Aberdeenshire, a place that can boast the forlorn reputation of being largely unknown to the population at large. Edinburgh yes; Glasgow yes; and lots of tourists nip up the west coast of Scotland, but Aberdeenshire?

If the area registers at all in the national consciousness, it’s a vague awareness of something to do with North Sea oil, whisky, farming and a bit of fishing.

Otherwise nothing much ever seems to have happened there.

Then along comes Duncan Harley’s new book to challenge these perceptions. Much in the way of odd and curious things did indeed take place in that north-eastern corner and the world hadn’t known about it until now.

The book follows an alphabetic format starting with A for Aberdeenshire Art and ending up with Z for Zeppelins. Now that last section I found the most curious. During the First World War a German bombing raid went astray as the Zeppelin got lost somewhere over Aberdeenshire.

As Duncan notes:

‘Wildly off course and completely disoriented, the L20’s  sixteen-strong crew flew inland, bombing Craig Castle at Lumsden before overflying Kintore, Old Rayne and Insch, where they dropped bombs and a flare on a field at Hill of Flinder Farm, Mill of Knockenbaird and nearby Freefield House were also targeted. Amazingly though, there were no casualties and next day, curious locals went in search of souvenirs in the form of bomb fragments.’

Crazy or what? – yet fairly typical of Duncan’s fascinating book. Here’s how it came about. Duncan was asked by the History Press to write the book.

They had been aware of his articles in Leopard magazine, now subsumed into the Scottish Field. Duncan is a known wordsmith having worked for a time on a newspaper before turning to freelance writing. He has also contributed to the Aberdeen Voice which as he writes in the introduction deserves special recognition for their support.

To whet your appetite here’s some more curiosities that you might want to read more about in Duncan’s book:

– Buffalo Bill’s trip to Peterhead and Fraserburgh with his Wild West Show.

– How the Beatles, then the Silver Beetles, were nearly wiped out in a car crash on the road to Fraserburgh.

– The German spies who landed at Crovie during the Second World War.

– The royal wee… Queen Victoria’s toilet at Ballater. And on a similar theme – how a German U-Boat was sunk by its toilet near Cruden Bay.

– The Stonehaven Railway Riot in 1848 during the construction of the line to Aberdeen when over 200 navvies rampaged around the town.

This and so much more – an alphabet soup for the curious. Highly recommended – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire is on sale in bookshops around Aberdeen and the Whisky Shop in Inverurie – where signed copies are to be had. Do have a look.

Mike Shepherd.

Nov 082017
 

With thanks to Roger White.

A prestigious North-East Scotland magazine of new writing and the visual arts, Pushing Out The Boat (POTB), is reminding young writers and artists in the North East and
beyond that they’ve got less than a month left to submit entries for their new online venture, ‘ePOTB’.

ePOTB will be the magazine’s first e-zine and will be devoted entirely to work by young people aged 12-17.

Like its parent magazine, ePOTB submissions will be subject to the same distinctive ‘blind selection’ process, which ensures that work is selected on merit alone.

Prize-winning author Juliet Lovering, chairing the ePOTB team, said:

“We know there’s a wealth of young writing and artistic talent out there but this is the first time we’ve given young people the chance to shine in their own publication. Three prizes of £50 are also on offer for the best contribution in the prose, poetry and art categories.”

The ePOTB team encourage anyone considering entering to read previous editions of the magazine, which are available on its website, to understand the variety of work accepted in years gone by.

Young writer Hannah Kunzlik, one of POTB’s previous contributors, said:

“I was published in POTB when I was 16 and it remains one of my proudest moments. Submitting a piece is something I would advise any young person to do with even a passing interest in writing or art. Apart from the creative fulfilment, it’s like gold dust on a CV for college or work.”

The call for submissions to ePOTB opened a month ago. Full details and registration are available at www.pushingouttheboat.co.uk.

The deadline for submissions is 30 November 2017 and the e-zine will be published on the Pushing Out The Boat website in Spring 2018.

Jul 212017
 

By Duncan Harley.

In this comprehensive guide to Scottish mountain bothies, Edinburgh writer Geoff Allan reveals the unique network of mountain huts and bothy cabins which inhabit our wild places.
Geoff has variously hiked or biked to every known Scottish bothy and in this stunningly illustrated book he details all of the 81 Mountain Bothy Association maintained bothies and, in addition, points the way towards the lesser-known wilderness gems.

Defined in the pre-amble as “A simple shelter in remote country for the use and benefit of all those who love being in wild and lonely places” remote bothies are often romanticised and Geoff’s short but concise take on the beginnings of the bothy movement cuts to the chase and advises the reader what to expect of typical bothy accommodation.

Facilities are quite rudimentary. “As a bare minimum” he cautions “bothies will have a table and a couple of chairs.” Answering calls of nature will however involve a short walk plus the use of a spade “Select a location at least 200yds from the bothie, dig a hole at least six inches deep and bury your deposit.”

It is this Spartan attention to detail which makes this outdoors guide invaluable. Not only does Geoff list those bothies which actually have loos, there are eight in the entirety of Scotland, but he takes care to inform the reader about the essentials of bothy etiquette and of the common sense philosophy of leaving the building in the condition in which you might wish to find it.

Essential equipment such as kit, food and fuel is discussed in minute detail and the Mountain Bothy Code is set-out for the benefit of those heather-crunchers intent on taking the high road to those solitary places for the first-time. Regard for surroundings and respect for fellow users head the list and a cautionary warning for the unwary suggests that all rubbish should be placed in the nearest rucksack and carted home!

The core of this book is of course a detailed description of the bothy shelters. Split into regions, the 100 or so buildings are described by size, facilities and location. A useful general history of each building follows and walking routes are detailed alongside breathtaking images emphasising the remoteness of these hidden treasures.

Superbly illustrated throughout, this clearly written travel-guide will both inform the casual coffee-table user and provide an exhaustive reference source for outdoor folk intent on extreme bothy bagging.

The Scottish Bothy Bible (304pp) by Geoff Allan is published by Wild Things Publishing Ltd at £16.99 ISBN 9781910636107

First published in the July edition of Leopard Magazine

Jul 032017
 

David Innes reviews  St Valéry And Its Aftermath by Stewart Mitchell.

Although it is almost inevitable that events are overtaken by time, and that the effect of history on localities dissipates, the name St Valéry-en-Caux, a small Normandy fishing village, continues to resonate in NE Scotland, even 77 years on from the scenes that accord that tiny French port a special place in Scottish military history.

It is said that there is scarcely an NE family which hasn’t been touched in some way by the events of June 1940, the surrender of the stranded and embattled 51st (Highland) Division, and the incarceration of thousands of Scottish soldiers in prisoner of war camps for the duration of the Second World War.

These were our forgotten casualties of that conflict, and it was a gross unfairness and insult to these brave, fortitudinous men who suffered the privations of capture, forced march and imprisonment to be described as having enjoyed an Easy War.

Stewart Mitchell, who named the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum’s excellent 2011 POW exhibition The Easy War, re-tells the story of the lead-up to Dunkirk and St Valéry, using personal accounts, some of which are now in the public domain for the first time, without resorting to military tactical terminology and technical jargon, often confusing to the lay reader.

Those of us who have had a long fascination with this episode of military and social history will have read accounts of the 51st’s manoeuvres, capture, treatment and liberation and of the social outcomes of returning home after half a decade of imprisonment. Tony Rennell, Sean Longden, Saul David, Alan Allport, Julie Summers, and Banffshire’s own Charles Morrison have all contributed to building a picture of a time of uncertainty, fortitude and, all too often, personal and familial misfortune.

It is in the re-telling of personal accounts that Mitchell excels, and he succeeds in making St Valéry more than just another military history. We hear of regular soldiers, Territorials and militiamen called up to serve when war was declared in September 1939, their backstories often of innocent city, village and country loons thrown into the jaws of an unforgiving mechanised conflict, and losing some of their most promising youthful years behind barbed wire.

Yet, there are personal recollections of derring-do, heroism, resourcefulness, smeddum and survival against heavily-stacked odds, told in fitting tribute to often forgotten men.

The volume’s appendix is unique in imbuing a personal touch to what is a harrowing, yet spirit-affirming story. Mitchell’s painstaking research has seen him identify from military records, every Gordon Highlander captured or killed in France in 1940.

My own maternal grandfather, army number 2870474 among the oldest of the Territorials called up at 37, who was 38 by the time of capture, and 44 before he was liberated, is included. That that saw my emotions well up 77 years after that fateful morning in Normandy, verifies that this a book that goes way beyond normal military history, as a chronicle of a part-generation of NE men. For that, it deserves your support.

Stewart Mitchell is making a generous contribution from the book’s sales to the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum Appeal. Please consider giving this splendid local cultural venue your support too.

STEWART MITCHELL
St Valéry And Its Aftermath
The Gordon Highlanders Captured In France In 1940
Pen & Sword Military
235 pp
Hardback ISBN 978 1 47388 658 2
£25.00

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