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March to the Museum – United front as fallen of WWI remembered

By Jim A Johnston

World war one was like no previous war.  The perfecting of new weapons, the machine gun in particular, made defence much easier than attack in any pitched battle, guaranteeing that every foot of advance would be at enormous cost.  At sea, the submarine brought maritime trade right in to the firing line while, at the same time, ensuring that the so-called ‘Dreadnoughts’, those 19th Century weapons of mass destruction, actually had much to dread. Among the clouds flying machines, though in their infancy, opened up an entirely new front including the opportunity to wage war against civilian populations and, within the air itself, that most indiscriminate of weapons, poison gas, was deployed at will by both sides. The industrial might of all Europe was focussed on munitions and, with recently completed railway systems ready to transport men and material to static fronts faster than they could be killed, the stage was set for a war of attrition on an entirely unprecedented scale.

The new warfare also demanded men and, to a lesser extent, women, in numbers undreamt of hitherto and, throughout the UK, but especially in the Highlands and Islands, the young and sometimes not so young streamed to the standard in huge numbers.  The valley of Strathnaver, resettled in 21 lotts at the dawn of the new century, gave up its youth all too generously responding, together with the entirety of Sutherland, to the call to arms just as their warlike forefathers had prior to their clearance for sheep.

Among those who joined up, including some who, having emigrated, returned from their new lives to answer the nation’s call, were a surprising number of pipers, many of whom were schooled to the highest degree in that ancient art.  But surely there could be no place for such an archaic instrument in this ultra-modern war?   Not so, as the tactics employed by the generals had not kept pace with the technology available to them and attack relied all too heavily on bombardment, often ineffective, followed by massed advance, usually in daylight, across open ground towards a well-armed, entrenched and determined enemy.  No wonder they needed the wild strains of the pipes to keep their spirits up!

As part of their programme of commemoration for World War One, and in conjunction with Feis Air an Oir, Strathnaver Museum held an Open day on Saturday both in commemoration of the fallen and to promote their participation in the Museums and Galleries Scotland World War One Fund 2014-15 project – Pibrochs and Poppies.

And what an event it was!  A small, youthful and tuneful Pipe Band had been assembled from local pipers, including some descendants of those from WW1, to march from the War Memorial at the centre of the village to the Museum accompanied by the Farr High School Cadet Force, and followed by all and sundry.  The threatening nature of the weather did not deter anyone and fortune smiled on them all as, while hail showers with occasional thunder rolled past all around, Bettyhill was temporarily spared its share of current May weather and everyone arrived in the sunshine at Clachan dry, if a little windswept.

Provisional Instructor Pete Malone then addressed the crowd on the question of Remembrance, drawing a series of contrasts, first between the ceramic poppy cascade at the Tower of London and the single crocheted poppy which formed the centre-piece of the Remembrance display at Strathnaver Museum and then between the massed bands of the Welsh and Coldstream Guards as they marched past the Cenotaph in London and the lesser spectacle of the small local band at the head of a handful of cadets. But each, he said, had its own validity as it reinforced the feelings of the nation which had been so well expressed in John MacRae’s 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields. 

Then everyone was free to explore the museum and its environs, including a marquee which had been erected in the car park, and take in not just the wonderful display on the Piper of Hielam or the Pibrochs and Poppies project but many other enterprises on which Strathnaver Museum is embarked or with which it is associated.  These included a workshop with Caithness artist Joanne Karr on making paper flowers, a spinning demonstration by Jane Kitchener and Jean Eisenhaur, kids activities with the Flows to the Future Project involving giant midgies and enormous sundews, an opportunity to find out about DXing with Caithness Amateur Radio, a display on forthcoming events from local Highland Council Countryside Rangers and the latest developments in the Perils in Peril Project pertaining to the pearl mussels of the River Naver.

All of this was accompanied by music from the talented children and tutors of Feis air an Oir, there was an unending supply of tea, coffee and baking in the marquee and the proceedings were captured on video by professional film maker, Will Sadler.

The event attracted a substantial local audience whose numbers were swollen from unexpected quarters.  One was by a hefty contingent from the Gaelic Society of Inverness who happened to be on an all-day exploration of the Strathnaver Trail and who dropped in en masse just in time for the parade.  However, the most exotic visitor had to be one Tyler J Nelsen from the USA who, having cycled the entire length of Shetland, and then across Orkney, was pedalling his way along the North Coast towards the home of his ancestors in Tongue when he fell in to the celebrations purely by accident.  This was a stroke of luck for him as museum staff were able to direct him to the very spot in Dalcharn, Tongue, which his ancestors had left way back in 1830 and, on Saturday, to guide him personally to the scene of the Battle of Druim na Coup where around 1430, the Mackays defeated a powerful invading force from Sutherland though, as so often in these affairs, they were very badly damaged themselves.  Plus ca change!