Aug 122018

Duncan Harley reviews  Far, Far From Ypres at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

It’s difficult to adequately classify Far, Far From Ypres.

Described as “the story of the Scottish war effort during World War One” with “its excitement, hope, suffering, endurance, humour, fear and disillusionment in the face of horror told through the eyes of fictional, prototypical soldier Jimmy MacDonald” this ambitious multimedia production sits oddly – and please excuse the pun – with its feet astride two camps.

A strong documentary-styled historical narrative, delivered by veteran broadcaster Iain Anderson, frames a broad range of popular song from the period whilst overhead a mix of trench imagery combines to add poignancy to the performance.

We are told that the fictional Jimmy is from any town or village in Scotland and that when issued with his tin hat and his rifle, he heads off to the continent in search of medals for the victory parade and of course for a great foreign adventure.

An acceptable figure for Scottish war dead has yet to be calculated – some put it at between 100,000 and 146,000 – and the enthusiastic Jimmy is portrayed as one of those who did not return.

Killed in France or Belgium, not by bullets nor by shells but by an influenza better known as Spanish Flu, he certainly died in uniform but is probably not numbered amongst the roll of the war dead.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, “Far, Far From Ypres” is laden with familiar and not so familiar song.

Within the context of the narrative, most are a good fit for the performance and most are delivered strongly by a cast of largely familiar folk-figures. Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan, Alan Prior, Tam Ward, Ian McCalman and Mairi MacInnes are just to name a few.

In fact, there are around 27 performers on stage at any one time making for a crowded performance space and indeed a difficult place for the soloists to excel in.

It was perhaps the male dominated chorus which brought the intent of the production solidly home. Decidedly appropriate and atmospheric of the era, Pack up your Troubles and When this Bloody War is Over vied with Tipperary and Armentieres to tug the heartstrings.

All in all, this is a largely successful attempt to track and trace changing perceptions during the course of that First War to end all wars through the songs of the day.

From hopeful beginnings through to eventual despair, the song list bravely traverses some four years of the bloody history of that hundred-year-old conflict in which young men could take the boat-train to the continent, stick a bayonet into the skull of a youngish man from a neighbouring land and, if he were lucky enough not to be stuck in his turn, return home with a medal in time for the local victory parade.

At the close of the night and indeed during the performance, not a few tears were shed.
Stars: (4/5)

Following last night’s performance at HMT, Far, Far From Ypres heads off to Oban, Skye, Ullapool, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries and Edinburgh.

Jul 282018

By Duncan Harley.

To my complete surprise and astonishment that’s a short story of mine heading towards the Aberdeen stage in a few weeks. And I have to say that I am humbled.

A call for entries came via Rachel Campbell at APA and after a day or so I got to thinking that, although I have no realistic idea regarding how to even pronounce Ypres, I do have an intimate store of first war recollections albeit at second, third or even at fourth hand. 

A grandfather, now long missed, left a family story regarding his first war experience.

A regimental quartermaster, or so he had us all believe, he recalled only that following a long and muddy march through France and then Belgium he played some football then marched all the way back to Glasgow. 

I have his war medals and one at least appears to be a military medal plus bar from his Black Watch experience.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, Far, Far from Ypres is an acclaimed production of songs, poems and stories, following the terrifying journey of a Scot to “the trenches” and back. 

A Scottish squaddie heads off to the continental adventure and is given a tin hat and a rifle in anticipation of heroic deeds and victory over the unwholesome Hun. Told largely in songs of the day, the performance lays bare the squalid fate of the boy next door who marched off to adventure amongst the jaws of death.

I concluded my recent book – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire – with a tale, not of the trenches, but of the unexpected bombing of the Garioch by the young men of the Kaiser’s Zeppelin squadrons and Ann Wells of seems intent on sharing my tale.

She writes:

“Many thanks for sharing this with us.  I knew about the Edinburgh raids but had never heard tell about those further north.  Enemy or not these guys were incredibly brave to venture up in those things.

“I would like to add this into the programme for the performance at Aberdeen and possibly Dundee and/or Inverness.  Is that OK?  We are starting to get quite a few stories in now, really interesting tales, but this one is slightly different.”

Naturally I replied in the positive and my tale of the 1916 Zeppelin night-time terror-bombing of the Garioch features somewhere in amongst the programme for the night.

The blurb for the performance informs only that:

“The show features the large screen projection of relevant images throughout the evening, enhancing greatly the audience’s understanding of the story unfolding before them. The format of the evening takes the form of two fifty-minute halves with an interval.

“It has a cast of ‘folk singing stars’, who remain on stage throughout the performance, singing the ‘trench’, ‘marching’ and Music Hall songs of the time. From that chorus, groups and soloists come to the middle of the stage and perform songs, both contemporary and traditional, about the Great War.

“The narrator, Iain Anderson, brilliantly links the songs with stories about the hero of the show, Jimmy MacDonald, who was born in “any village in Scotland”. It tells of Jimmy’s recruitment and training then follows his journey to the Somme and back to Scotland.

“It would not be a Scottish tragedy without laughter, so there are also stories of humour and joy that take this production well away from the path of unremitting gloom.”

Produced by Ian McCalman and with a huge cast of performers including Barbara Dickson, Siobhan Miller, Mairi MacInnes, Dick Gaughan, Ian McCalman, Iain Anderson and Professor Gary West, Far, Far from Ypres plays at HMT Aberdeen for just the one night – Thursday 09 August 2018. 

Seats are becoming scarce for the Aberdeen performance but can still be had via the Aberdeen Performing Arts booking site @:

Do go, if only to hear about the Zeppelin bombing of the Aberdeenshire villages of Insch, Old Rayne and of course Colpy.

Mar 242016

GrampianTransportMuseumImage1With thanks to Martyn Smith, Marketing & Events Organiser, Grampian Transport Museum

Next of Kin, an exhibition created by National Museums Scotland, opens on 2nd April at the Grampian Transport Museum.

It presents a picture of Scotland during the First World War through treasured objects from official and private sources, passed to close relatives and down through generations.

The exhibition was previously shown at the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle, and Grampian Transport Museum will be the fifth of nine touring venues around Scotland.

It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Scottish Government. Each of the host venues will be adding material from their own collections to tell local stories which reflect the themes of the exhibition.

Next of Kin will tell the stories of those directly involved in the Great War, including Colonel Frank Fleming. Colonel Fleming was taken prisoner, and his experiences will now be brought to life with a number of personal effects, including his officer’s pass to leave the prisoner of war camp for recreational purposes. Colonel Fleming’s cell wall calendar will also be displayed – prisoners were denied all information including what the date was, so he kept his own record.

Canadian Lieutenant James Humphrey’s story will also be told for the first time; Lieutenant Humphrey was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry and was wounded in action. While recovering in hospital he met his future wife when invited by her parents to their home for Christmas. The Next of Kin exhibition will include items belonging to Humphreys, including his wounded man’s kit label. Invalided out and very nearly losing his right arm, he was sent back to a London hospital – just one of tens of thousands of injured soldiers.

The exhibition will be supported with further displays including a Foster Wellington traction engine, affectionately known as Olive, which was originally commissioned by the War Department. The museum’s 1914 Sentinel Steam Waggon, used by local carrier Alexander Runcie, was new at the outbreak of war and helped to provide a much needed morale boost.

Runcie utilised the Sentinel to provide excursions for local groups of children.

A horse-drawn Aberdeen tram will also be decorated in the period style, harking back to the days when such vehicles were used as recruitment vehicles.

Goliath, a 10hp McLaren Traction engine, will also be on display for the season, having been used to pull heavy guns on the Western Front. Goliath would go on to become a Showman’s Road Locomotive, before being preserved by an enthusiast from Aberdeenshire.

Grampian Transport Museum Curator Mike Ward said:

“The First World War had a profound influence on Aberdeenshire. The depopulation of the Cabrach was partly due to the rush of young men to volunteer in 1914, thinking it would be a great adventure together and that they would be home by Christmas. The war memorials testify to the losses suffered by local families, in some cases three sons from one family.

“This is a sensitive subject and the museum is keen to take a look at what happened in our locality on the home front. There are many very sad stories but also some of great relief as ‘missing in action’ became ‘taken prisoner’.”

Stuart Allan of National Museums Scotland said:

“The First World War separated millions of people worldwide from their families and homes. The impact of the conflict was felt by families and communities in every part of Scotland as individuals served in the war in different ways. For those who experienced the conflict, keeping objects was a way of remembering this extraordinary period in their lives, or coping with the absence and loss of their loved ones.

“We look forward to touring the exhibition and bringing these stories from the National collection to people across the country and we particularly look forward to the stories which our partners will tell alongside ours.”

The material on loan from National Museums Scotland looks in detail at eight individual stories which both typify and illustrate the wider themes and impact of the War on servicemen and women and their families back home in Scotland. Objects include postcards and letters, photographs, medals and memorial plaques.

Examples include;

  • Two autograph books in which Nurse Florence Mellor collected drawings, watercolours, verses, jokes and messages from the wounded soldiers in her care at Craiglockhart War Hospital.
  • The pocket New Testament which Private James Scouller was carrying the day he died at Cambrai in 1917, returned to his family by a German soldier on the eve of the Second World War.
  • Drawings and postcards by Henry (Harry) Hubbard, an architectural draughtsman in Glasgow who contracted illnesses so severe that he ended up spending 16 months in hospital.
  • The last letter home from George Buchanan, Seaforth Highlanders, a railway plate-layer from Bathgate who was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Loos, along with his memorial plaque and service medals.
  • The shell fragment which wounded Private William Dick. He kept the fragment after it was removed from his leg, but later died from the wound.

As the exhibition tours, the host venues will develop additional content using their own objects and stories related to their respective local areas. The results of these additional contributions will be captured and preserved in the exhibition displays and a digital app interactive.

Learning activities exploring the exhibition themes will take place at each venue. School and community groups will be able to interact with a bespoke handling collection made up of original and replica objects. There will also be an associated training programme to develop new skills among the participating organisations.

The tour starts in Dumfries and then the exhibition travels to Rozelle House Galleries (Ayr), Hawick Museum, Low Parks Museum (Hamilton), Grampian Transport Museum (Alford), Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Perth Museum and Art Gallery and the Black Watch Castle and Museum and Orkney Museum.

The full list of partner organisations and touring venues can be found here:

Explaining the importance of the HLF support, the Head of HLF in Scotland, Lucy Casot said:

“The impact of the First World War was far reaching, touching and shaping every corner of the UK and beyond. The Heritage Lottery Fund has invested more than £60million in projects – large and small – that are marking this global Centenary. 

“With our grants, we are enabling communities like those involved in the Next of Kin exhibition to explore the continuing legacy of this conflict and help local young people in particular to broaden their understanding of how it has shaped our modern world.”

Next Of Kin Exhibition
2nd April 2016
Grampian Transport Museum, Alford.

Jul 312014

Grampian Transport Museum’s Marketing & Events Organiser, Martyn Smith  brings news of upcoming events over the next

Sentinel GTM

The oldest surviving complete and original Sentinel Steam Waggon will once again take to the roads this Sunday to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War.

Built at Polmadie in Glasgow in 1914, the Sentinel will be in attendance at a number of events around Alford, as the community reflects on the outbreak of the war.

A special service will be held at Howe Trinity Church in Alford at 9.30am after which the waggon will make its way to commemorative events, starting at the Alford War memorial at 10.50am, before moving on to Tullynessle & Forbes War memorial at 11.30am and Keig War memorial at 12noon.

A team of volunteers at the popular Alford visitor attraction have been putting the finishing touches to the waggon, to ensure it is ready to take part in such an important engagement. The Sentinel was brand new and a state of the art road haulage vehicle when the First World War broke out. It was actually working through the entire period and forms a great living link with the past.

Interestingly, the wartime austerity measures meant that trips and excursions for children were discontinued. However, the museum’s Sentinel in the hands of Sandy Runcie of Inverurie, a local carrier, began to offer trips to school groups to local picnic spots, like Bennachie, in order to boost morale and lighten the mood.

Speaking of the Sentinel as it approaches its 100th birthday, curator Mike Ward explains:

“The Grampian Transport Museum has numerous photos of the occasions, and in the centenary year intend to recreate some of the outings. The traditions continue as the Sentinel frequently offers rides both at the museum and at local events – it is an extremely sociable Sentinel!

“In fact, we will be marking the Sentinels actual birthday on the 13th August by providing rides around our circuit at our Family Fun Day event”

The summer fun continues in Alford when an interesting array of American cars will take to the circuit at the Grampian Transport Museum on Thursday 7th August for the next ‘rides’ event – American Car Rides.

The day will be a celebration of American motoring with vehicles already confirmed including a 1995 Pontiac Trans AM, a pair of American engined AC Cobras, a 1993 Dodge Ram Charger truck plus a stunning replica of the iconic A-Team van, kindly provided by Celebrity Car Hire of Aberdeen.

This unique event is an ‘added value’ extra and is available to museum visitors as part of the standard admission, which is £9.50 for adults, £7.50 for concessions and two children are admitted FREE with every adult ticket.

Following the American Car Rides event is the annual Lotus Day, which takes place on Sunday 10th August. This gives museum visitors the chance to climb aboard a number of Lotus examples as they take to the museum’s circuit.

A family fun day follows on Wednesday 13th, featuring Balloon Maker, Face Painting, Puppet Show and rides around the circuit on the museum’s fantastic Sentinel Steam Waggon. Again, these events are included in the museum’s standard admission.

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Jan 162014

By Duncan Harley.

minty kitchenerLord Kitchener is to be featured on the new Royal Mint £2 coin.

Kitchener drowned after his ship was sunk at sea on the 7 May 1916 but in some quarters the man is still celebrated as an heroic general who rallied the nation to send the youth of Scotland to their deaths in the madness of the trenches of France and Belgium during the first years of that war to end all wars.

Thought by some modern thinkers to be a thoroughly nasty man, in 1898 he famously sent a force of 8,200 British troops equipped with modern weapons against 20,000 Sudanese citizens and a few thousand or so Egyptians on dromedaries up the Nile to destroy a town in the Sudan by the name of Omdurman in a revenge attack for a previous British defeat.

Sven Lindqvist, a Swedish historian, has pointed out that the decisive battle of Omdurman was fought in the name of civilisation but nobody in Europe asked how it came about that 15,000 Sudanese were killed while the British lost only 48 men. Nor did anyone question why almost none of the Sudanese wounded survived.

In his book ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ Lindqvist refers to some sad and shameful 19th-century newspaper accounts of British massacres of wounded Sudanese after the battle.

Maxim machine guns, lack of any medical care or indeed any victuals for prisoners plus sharp British bayonets may have been the weapons of choice, however the British resolve for HRH Queen Victoria and her then imperial empire, was almost certainly the prime motivation for this quite appalling pre- WW1 slaughter.

In that dated and historically inaccurate film The Great Escape, the German prison commandant advises the British Senior Officer that 50 of the escapers were shot while attempting to flee Nazi Europe and that their personal effects will be returned to the POW camp.

–          How many of them were wounded?
–          Here are the names of the dead.
–          How many of them were wounded?
–          I am advised by a higher authority that none were wounded.

On the 26th of January 1899 at the ‘battle’ of Omdurman’s conclusion, Winston Churchill wrote to his mother with the message that:

“Our victory was disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded and Lord Kitchener was responsible for this.”

Kitchener’s influence over his contemporaries remains undeniable. Throughout his life and well beyond it, even those who knew him best, such as his school friend Raymond ‘Conk’ Marker, invariably seasoned their affection with a curiously resonant awe:

“In this age of self-advertisement there was always a danger that Lord K. with his absolute contempt for anything of the kind, and his refusal to surround himself with people who attract attention, would not be appreciated at his real value but I think the country recognises him now.

The more I see of him the more devoted I get to him. He is always the same – never irritable – in spite of all his trials, and always making the best of things however much he may be interfered with. As Chamberlain said, “to praise him is almost an impertinence.”

Many of us Scots are of the opinion that the new Royal Mint £2 Lord Kitchener coin is unworthy of the memory of our dead ancestors and is quite shameful.

Worth refusing perhaps should you be given the opportunity.

Should you agree, there is a petition at

Should you disagree there is a Lord Kitchener appreciation society at .

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Nov 082013

On the Eve of Armistice Day and in the year before the 100th anniversary of that war to end all wars, Duncan Harley reviews Andrew Davidson’s new book which details the story of Fred Davidson, Andrew’s granddad, who against orders, took a camera to war.

fred's war cover duncan harleyAs one raised on titles such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Goodbye To All That and All Quiet On The Western Front, I was excited at the prospect of viewing the First World War through the lens of a serving soldier, albeit a Medical Officer enlisted in the Cameronians.
The promise of a journal-type narrative enriched with over 250 original photographs seemed promising indeed.

Sassoon, Graves and Remarque had covered the genre almost a century ago in traditional narrative style. Indeed Philip Toynbee once described Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That as ‘One of the best of the First World War autobiographies’.

Sassoon, of course, paints a hauntingly- beautiful picture of his experiences in the trenches.

The narrator, George Sherston, is wounded as a bullet passes through a lung when he rashly sticks his head over the parapet during the Battle of Arras in 1917. George is sent home to convalesce, and in another rash moment, arranges to have lunch with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly. The reader is left to wonder, what could possibly go wrong?

As for Remarque, day-time television channels still show the 1930’s film adaptation of his classic novel to this day. Born on 22 June 1898, he was conscripted into the German army at 18 and spent just six weeks in the trenches before being wounded by shrapnel. He was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.

His classic narrative remains in print and a film for TV re-make was made in 1979, starring Waltons actor Richard (John Boy) Thomas as Paul Baumer and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky; it remains an unsurpassed classic.

Fred’s War has an unromantic title, probably deliberate given the rather earthy nature of the subject matter. Written by Andrew Davidson and lavishly illustrated with Fred Davidson’s actual war photographs, the narrative traces the young Fred’s path to France and his eventual return to Britain after being wounded.

The brave Fred is a newly qualified doctor from St Cyrus. His war turns out to be a great adventure. A Cameronian and later an Old Contemptible, he took pictures of his surroundings using a camera smuggled to France in a medical bag.

The narrative is full of descriptive elements many of which may be based on conjecture or on fellow officers’ journal entries of the time. On Christmas Eve the following exchange seemingly takes place,

‘Tommy, Tommy why do you not come across?’

‘Cause we don’t trust you, and you hae bin four months shooting at us’

‘Hoch der Kaiser’

‘Fuck the Kaiser’

‘Gott strafe England.’

Fred’s life in the trenches is described in some detail despite the author revealing,

He never talked about the wars he fought in and the friends he lost. But he did pass down the items that now sit in front of me: three photographic albums and a set of binoculars monogrammed FCD. He also left a framed collection of medals – now replaced by replicas, the originals having been lost to the family.”

Through the diaries and memoirs of Fred’s fellow officers we learn that, following Royal Army Medical Corp training, Fred is sent to join the Glasgow-based Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) at Maryhill Barracks. He quickly equips himself with an imported Buster Brown folding camera to augment his medical kit and begins taking portraits of fellow officers posed in the doorways and streets of Maryhill.

The images do indeed tell the story of a man despatched to war complete with a bellows camera

War breaks out after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Black Hand, and in August 1914 the battalion is stationed beside the Conde-Mons Canal with orders to hold the position against the German advance at all costs.

This is actually a relief to many of Fred’s fellow soldiers who had feared being sent to Ireland to suppress the Irish unrest and defeat the Ulster Volunteers.

There follows a predictable description of the grim reality of static trench warfare, complete with blood, suffering and lice. Constant shelling, freezing conditions and trenchfoot abound. Mud, excreta and rats feasting on corpses are all around.

In terms of photographic content, this is a really interesting book. The images do indeed tell the story of a man despatched to war complete with a bellows camera. The monotone shots provide the reader with a unique insight into the day-to-day reality of what it was like to be there on the battlefield in the early part of that European war almost one hundred years ago.

The description of officers shopping for shirts and underwear defines the book well.

“Most of their kit has gone missing, cast off in the frantic retreat. Outside the railway station, they see a captured German Hussar officer marched under guard, tracked by a hostile French crowd, baying like dogs. Still no-one knows what will happen next.”

The title page proclaims: Fred’s War – A Doctor in the Trenches, an apt summary perhaps. This is after all a description of static warfare at ground zero.

In terms of historical perspective, it is perhaps a dull book. In terms of revisionist history, it says little which is new. The narrative promises much but delivers little except anecdotal diary-based material.

The strength of this book is in its images. Most have been unpublished until now and many show the same scenes then and now, a nice visual touch, allowing the reader to understand the changes in landscapes and townscapes since The Great War.

If you are a fan of the images of war, then this may be for you. If more serious history is your forte, then check out your local library in the next few months to see what else is on offer.

Andrew Davidson
Fred’s War
Short Books £25 (hardback)

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