I was a typical prepubescent boy: Commando comics, stenn gun sticks, fir cone grenades. Incongruously violent games for kids; Bang! Bang! Neeeooow! Kabooosh! There was no honour or glory in our play, no honorable mentions in dispatches, no medal ceremonies, no weeping widows. Just brutal annihilation.
Lie down! You’re dead! I got you. No you didn’t!
At secondary school, this interest manifested itself as a not well-received piece about the Crimean War, particularly the Charge of the Light Brigade. The teacher had expected a work of fiction but, being enamored by the romance and daring-do of it all, I had written a precise factual account, despite clear instruction to the contrary.
Despite an interest in the Crimea, and a concurrent knowledge of the Victoria Cross, it wasn’t until adulthood that a link was forged, finding out that these medals were first manufactured from the Russian artillery captured at Sevastopol and other Crimean battles, (and then from captured Chinese guns subsequent to the end of the First World War).
The next parallel with the honour came with a fascination of the Zulu War and Rorke’s Drift in particular. It’s a remote location a day’s drive from the place I was working in the southern Drakensberg mountains of South Africa in the mid-90s, but it was worth every bone-crunching pothole and sun-baked mile travelled to see what still holds the record for the place where the most Victoria Crosses have ever been won in a single action by one regiment.
From my enduring fascination in this highest military honour, the mature picture I was building about warfare was a very different one to my juvenile play: selfless courage in the face of adversity while surrounded by horror as your comrades are dismembered, and coming to terms with the likelihood of your own death. Violent emotions represented in this one medal. More than most: for the first time, all men were treated equal; valour holds no rank. Their value is thus priceless, despite which you can’t help think of all those ex-servicemen who have had to sell their decorations in order to supplement their pension, to be warm, to eat. The honour of a nation pawned because that nation fails to support its elders and heroes.
And most heroic must be those soldiers who don’t fight, but provide support in combat: medical corp, chaplains, buglers, pipers. Usually unarmed and risking being under fire only to help others, these men are valiant beyond comprehension. Indeed, although bagpipes have likely always accompanied the Scots into battle, the archetypal symbolism of post-Union Scottish military history, from the Jacobite uprising to Waterloo and onwards, every major Campaign involving Scottish battalions, and Hollywood depiction of Scottish soldiery, has included the obligatory piper, often accompanied by some ill-fated drummer boy destined to fall in the line of duty. The only thing possible is to recognise their valour and honour their names, regardless of rank. And that is where the Victoria Cross plays its part.
Piper George Findlater, “The Piper of Dargai”, of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders won his Victoria Cross at Dargai Heights in October 1897 for continuing to play “The Haughs o’ Cromdale’” under heavy fire even though he had been shot through both feet. Enlisting in the 9th Battalion of The Gordon Highlanders at the commencement of the First World War, he was invalided home from Loos in September 1915.
Another was William Millin, “Piper Bill”, personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1st Special Service Brigade, who played “Hielan’ Laddie” and “The Road to the Isles” as his comrades fell around him on Sword Beach on D-Day in June 1944. German snipers later reported that they did not shoot him because they thought he was crazy.
However, probably the most famous piper to receive the Victoria Cross is Daniel Laidlaw, “The Piper of Loos”. The first day of engagement, the 25th September 1915, was a disorganised mess: the wrong gas cylinder keys had been sent, and what gas could be released before the British infantry attacked blew into their own faces on the changeable light south-westerly wind, exacerbated by the downdraft produced by heavy german shelling. Poorly designed gas masks were discarded as a hindrance and men were overcome by the Red Star chlorine smog gathering in the trench bottoms, exactly where the men were cowering for cover. Seeing the distress and destroyed morale, the CO implored, “For God’s sake, Laidlaw, pipe them together!” Laidlaw recounted:
“On Saturday morning we got orders to raid the German trenches. At 6.30 the bugles sounded the advance and I got over the parapet with Lieutenant Young. I at once got the pipes going and the laddies gave a cheer as they started off for the enemy’s lines. As soon as they showed themselves over the trench top they began to fall fast, but they never wavered, but dashed straight on as I played the old air they all knew ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’. I ran forward with them piping for all I knew, and just as we were getting near the German lines I was wounded by shrapnel in the left ankle and leg. I was too excited to feel the pain just then, but scrambled along as best I could. I changed my tune to ‘The Standard on the Braes o’Mar’, a grand tune for charging on. I kept on piping and piping and hobbling after the laddies until I could go no farther, and then seeing that the boys had won the position I began to get back as best I could to our own trenches.”
The shell that wounded Laidlaw had exploded only a few yards distance from him, sending up a section of barbed-wire entanglements previously cleared by his charging comrades. The wire cut off the heel of his boot and a strand lodged in his foot. The same shell blast killed Lieutenant Young.
Laidlaw was now hindered from following his troops, but continued until forced, from loss of blood, to kneel and then become prostrate, never ceasing his piping all the while. “You see,” he said later, “I was only doing my duty.”
“Duty” seems to say it all; it is the calling that supercedes common sense, the motivation for heroism. Duty! Such a modest word. For King and Country! Sentiment almost inconsequential in our modern society obsessed with individual success and the epistemics of constant self-evaluation. To whom do we pay our duty today? Whereas, even the the last British soldier who died in action during WWI is an honorable death because his sacrifice was dutiful, “Ellison, G.E., Private, 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers … was unhappily killed only an hour and a half hour before the Armistice came into force … The path of duty was the way to glory”.
If Nelson’s flags at Trafalgar ordered that, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, then the skirl of Laidlaw’s pipes strengthened similar resolve from his Scottish ranks, and the lyrics to “The Standard On The Braes Of Mar” that Laidlaw chose are most apt,
Our prince has made a noble vow,
To free his country fairly,
Then wha would be a traitor now,
To ane we lo’e sae dearly,
We’ll go, we’ll go and seek the foe,
By land or sea, wheree’er they be,
Then man to man, and in the van,
We’ll win or die for Charlie.
It was a very different world a 100 years ago. All that was needed by Daniel Laidlaw and his brothers in arms to imperil their lives was the unquestioned duty to the liege, and divine guidance, epitomised by the battalion’s mottos: In Veritate Religionis Confido (“I put my trust in the truth of religion”) and Nisi Dominus Frustra (“Without the Lord, everything is in vain”). Loyalty was unquestionable, but also crucial was having God on your side.
And an unwavering belief in those central tenets was gloriously rewarded with decoration. But ulterior motives existed; heroes were needed back home as much as on the Front, as propaganda to reassure the public that the nations’ sacrifices were worthwhile. It is perhaps then no coincidence that Laidlaw was among 17 recipients of the Victoria Cross at Loos. This was one of the first engagements to receive large losses of volunteering soldiers, set up as Kitchener’s Army, to supplement the fast dwindling regular troops. Suddenly, the war would have felt very real back home.
Laidlaw had re-enlisted at the start of the War, having seen action on the Indian Frontier some 17 years earlier. This made him one the most experienced, and at 40 years of age, one the oldest in his ranks. This contrasts starkly with the tragedy that often evokes most sentiment about the massive loss of life in those trenches: the stark youth of the soldiers that did die. Of the 210 fatalities to the battalion on that one day, the casualty records (kindly provided to me by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) hold the ages for only 91, ages ranging from 17 to 53, with an average age of 26 (a loathsome coincidence for this project).
When considering this task for 26 Treasures, it became increasingly obvious that a modern perspective would not be able to do justice to these men, their sense of place, their shared camaraderie. This is what the Piper of Loos represents: a lone piper gathering the genuine might of a whole battalion, and hurling it at the enemy. Advance! Side-by-side. Hold the line! But no words, especially so few as 62, could capture that obligation to duty; I am no Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon to draw from first hand witness, nor do I have the word-count and turn of phrase available to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and so do not have a line like, “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”. Anything similar, attempted from a modern perspective, could form only a trite narrative.
Hence my solution, the symbolic use of the surnames of the men who fell on that day, when Daniel Laidlaw earned his Victoria Cross, as many as I could use within the rules and word limit, to form a different, altogether too familiar cross. I only feel guilty that I had to omit so many.
There is further poignancy here: there remains only a single veteran of the great war Florence Beatrice Green (née Patterson, born 19 February 1901), of the Women’s Royal Air Force. The significance? Simply that, with the passing of witness, a society without living history has a greater responsibility to keep, protect, curate and learn from its past. Without reliance on firsthand accounts, reliability of record and memories in museums are all we have.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Deadline-crashing habits from time served in the media die hard so here I am on the morning of 28 July with various false starts, sitting on the western-most edge of the Isle of Lewis trying to think about a bionic hand lying in a museum several hundred miles away.
Outside, long strips of crofting land and fenced-in polytunnels reflect the ages-old determination to make a living here in the face of wind and weather. Inside it’s all Apple Macs and the whirring of the washing machine.
My 10 year old likes those conversations that go, “Say there’s a rhino and an elephant in a fight, who you think would win?”. Nature v people in a fight round here? I know who I’m backing.
My object signifies the battle between technology and arbitrary events, science vs nature. A bionic hand to replace one that was lost or never there.
It’s impossible to know what it’s like to live without a hand or to live with one like this. I’ve spent months with my writing hand in a sling (I have a shoulder that doesn’t understand the basic principle of a ball and socket joint - i.e. that the ball needs to stay inside the socket …) but there’s no way I can understand what a bionic hand might mean to its owner. What can it be like to watch that hand respond to the signals sent by your brain for the first time?
I haven’t been to see my object. Quite deliberately. I’m an adopted Glaswegian not an islander so it would be possible. I know where the hand is, I just don’t want my mind to be too cluttered with my museum baggage. In my real life I operate on the other side of the museum’s green baize door … One of the things that I do is to help museums write labels. I have spent hours of my life poking through the recesses of other people’s curatorial knowledge - knowledge that they have crafted into talks, conference papers, lovingly-researched doctoral theses - and then synthesising it into 30-word object labels (and definitely no more than 30 - I am the word count police … ). Debating what can and can’t be said. What tone of voice should we use? Are ‘we’ the museum and ‘you’ the visitor? Are we sufficiently chatty? Help, are we sounding too patronising? Do we share our doubts about provenance or do we ignore what we don’t know and maintain our Victorian forefathers’ (and they were fathers, and mostly bearded ones at that …) voice of certainty? How do we make a flat iron tell a story?
It’s my bread and butter to have conversations about how to interpret things in museums. We would start by discussing the context of the gallery or display, and then the specific interpretation aims of this section and object. Perhaps we would decide to talk about the triumph of technology over nature or the story of bionics in Scotland or to simply use the words of someone who owns a hand like this as the best way of representing the personal meaning of this object?
But I’m trying to forget the day job for a few moments.
For me, what’s really interesting about this object is that points to the future. And it’s been chosen to be in the museum for precisely that reason. Unlike the other objects in the 26 Treasures, this has no historical resonance yet. A museum object without a past. It’s been chosen to show the future something about contemporary life. It’s part of a conscious choice about how to represent the present. I’ve collected things like this for museums. I have taken part in shaping that representation. But it can only ever be partial and totally subjective and we certainly can’t control what the future will think of our choices … So that’s what I will write about. The one object in 26 Treasures that has no history but is in the museum to become part of history.
Learning which object I’d been assigned (Ross Tartan Suit), I was delighted. I had no problem with it. Not at that point.
OK, who among us didn’t look down the list of 26 objects to see what everyone else had ‘got’? And who didn’t wonder what it would have been like to have been paired with something else, something more immediately glamorous or dangerous: the Lewis Chessmen, miniature coffins, a bionic hand?
I loved my object, because it was mine; not naive enough to think I’d bagged a coveted one (confirmed by an email, saying, ‘Glad I didn’t get the tartan suit!’).
I understood why. We laugh at tartan; can’t take it seriously. The White Heather Club. The carpets.
What instantly recognisable symbol has this nation, of its identity? Tartan. Is there another country which so derides and shamedly dissociates from the thing it promotes, globally, as its badge? And would punch any non-Scot for mocking?
The rare citizen wearing tartan day-to-day is met with incredulity, hilarity. Yet it has evolved into the uniform for men at weddings.
Our struggle to be proud of ourselves is mirrored in our love-hate with tartan. Our slight self-embarrassment, which hides behind our passion, our social levelling, our teary sentimentality and our brilliant Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment contributions. Are we a knowledge economy or a signing-on underclass? Self-determined or occupied dependents?
Early signs that big themes lay in wait, that this object may render me wordless, were crowded out by elation. I had a photograph: a back view of a suit that stopped time as I stared at it. And I had potential family connections. The suit is Ross tartan. The historic clan seat is Balnagown Castle – a few miles from where my paternal ancestors hail. We had salmon fishing rights near Tain. Did the owner of this suit eat fish caught by my great, great grand-someone? The connection seemed uncanny; this was meant to be my object. I would visit Ross-shire! I would write the piece there!
Oh that heady time of uninformed enthusiasm for the suit. I remember it fondly.
It buoyed my journey to Edinburgh, dispelled any trepidation in steep, blind closes to the Royal Mile.
The enthusiasm of the curator, David Forsyth, matched my own. His knowledge far exceeded. A ranging, exhilarating conversation ensued about Scots and Scotland. Scots as aboriginals, as Highland warriors. The Highland clearances (more people left in the 20th century than the 19th – did you know that? We’re way up the emigration league table with Ireland and Norway.)
David left me at a large table with a thin A4 folder; the ‘object file’. It took two hours to feel done with less than a dozen sheets.
If tartan had been my first problem related to the object, its provenance became my second. And that, dear reader, shall remain the greatest story never told. I was privy to the information in relation to how the suit came to be donated to the NMS. For you, I can distil some facts:
- The suit was made for Alexander Ross, a medical student, most likely for the ceremonials surrounding the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.
- It was given by Dr. Ross to his wife Kitty’s younger brother, Donald Munro Ross (same surname being a coincidence, I think).
- The suit was taken to Australia when D.M. Ross emigrated in1864, aged 34.
- He won the Best Dressed Highlander rosette at the Melbourne Fayre, more than once.
- The suit passed down the family, until being donated by The Rev. and Mrs. Donald Dufty, Australia, for the opening of NMS in 1998.
- The act of donation was inspired by repatriation of aboriginal remains by Scottish institutions.
Geography and dates had ruled out any connection between the wearers of this suit and my forebears.
What I was invaded by, what awakened my writerly urge, was what I found in the object file: the correspondence, the newspaper clippings. Its wearers and keepers; how they changed the suit and the suit changed them (nothing in any way ‘bad’, just regular family myth-making). But I couldn’t touch that. Because as ripe and tantalising as it was, it was not mine to tell. The owners donated their suit, not their family, for the public to stare at.
The significance of the suit as a gift to the people of Scotland brought the weight of the tartan fabric to bear again. In what way was it Scottish? How authentic was this suit, made for a street party? Who wears tartan? When? How relevant is it? Does it mean more to the diaspora than the born-and-bred?
But I couldn’t resolve the politics of tartan in 62 words. And I’d take no avenue that could be construed, however unintentionally, as disrespectful to the donors of the object. I wouldn’t examine the ‘more Scottish than the Scots’ angle, and how the diaspora feels about Scotland. I would not set out to disabuse them of their views. I don’t even know my own.
This object was not a fossil whose relatives were long dead. Or a piece of industrial equipment, which never had any. This object was gifted to Scotland by a generous family who live (albeit very far away). I wouldn’t be ungracious. It’s not what Scots are known for.
This tartan coatee had become a straight jacket. What words were left for me?
Well, I had the fact that when I first saw its photograph I loved it. Utterly, almost sexually, it hooked me. The fresh-blood red of it, the pleat and puff of it. The curl and drape of it. The red. The luminous red. It hung like there was a man still wearing it. If you stand a man’s clothes up, I thought, he can’t leave. Take down this kilt and coatee. Let him rest.
With 15 minutes till closing time, I scurried out from ‘behind the scenes at the museum’ and back in by the public entrance, to the fourth floor, expecting to round a corner and be met with the majesty of it, the statuesque, solitary spot-lit glory of it. I was almost past it before I realised I was passing it.
That was it?
Dull wool, dully lit, front view. Nothing to see here, folks, move along. In a busy display case, one thing among many. Wallpapering a corridor. I wanted to love this object, but it didn’t want to be loved. Scotland and the Scots came to mind, again. We don’t make it easy for people.
I couldn’t write a paen to the object itself, because what caught me was its photograph. The fresh-blood-and-mud pleats, in white studio light. I’d have to write about what visitors to the museum would see.
Let me look more closely, I thought. Let me study this. Let me forget its reinvention over the years (which I cannot mention) and talk only of what is there. The process of tartan-making, a 62 word phonic poem of suggested meaning: plaid and thread, warp and weft, twill and weave, sett and selvedge.
It was not enough. OK then, a tribute, to the dead animal that is folded over on itself, into a sporran, face framed by useless legs. Claws for tassles. An animal which, in the documentation, was never referred to as anything other than ‘the sporran’. (Confirming why I could not touch the ‘story’ of the suit in my 62 words. I couldn’t treat the suit’s wearers and donors like we have treated this creature – as irrelevant and not there. The family is standing beside it every time I look.)
How could I talk about this? How could I haul up its treasure; love it once more?
The only angle to come from was the one chosen for me; the curator’s –
the position in the Australia and New Zealand case, in the Industry and Empire section. I would talk about emigration. The Scots who go. This was not a new phenomenon to explore; nor unique to this object. This phenomenon was all I had.
When I had my angle, the 62 words came. I found out, first hand, that you can’t write well about what you have just learned (the history of tartan, Walter Scott and George IV). You can only write about what you already ‘know’. And I know the push of this country. And I know the pull.