As we reach the centenary of the end of the First World War and reflect upon the sacrifice of all
the young men who fell it is clear that, statistically, Scotland had a higher percentage of soldier
deaths than elsewhere in the union. Often, the kilts and bagpipes that marked their heritage also
marked their bravery as they led the troops into battle. Everyone will have their own stories or
their own local folklore but the stories I probably find the hardest to understand are those when
multiple members of the same family were lost and Caithness has plenty of these to remember.
I saw photos of the 90th birthday celebrations of a Caithness exile recently and remembered
some of the stories he’d told me. One that he did not mention was of the fate of his three uncles and
their twin cousins. All five lived together in the Dunnett family home in Willowbank, Wick and all five
perished during the Great War; the twins within a fortnight of each other. Nine months after the
outbreak of war, William and Donald Murray were dead and two months later, their cousin William
Dunnett had also perished. Daniel Dunnett, underage at only 16 years old died the following year
and the final tragic news of brother Thomas’ death came only one month later.
In the village of Dunnet near Thurso, 3 brothers from the Henderson family were lost with George
and Alexander heartbreakingly dying in the same battle on the same day. Their mother would
receive notification of the demise of her third son Donald less than six months later.
Still within Caithness, the Farquhar family lost brothers James and William, incredibly also on the
same day and in the same battle. Two more brothers, George and Alexander also never made it
home from the Front. Sutherland lost Golspie brothers John and William MacDonald, both on the
Naval boats sank carrying menfolk from the same communities and when an entire generation
was decimated with rural areas bearing the brunt of the losses, it is only to be expected that
individual families could be hit hard. It does not make it any easier to understand though and I
doubt that anybody did take comfort in the thought that their loved ones “died for King and
Approximately one third of all soldiers and sailors in The Great War were underage, mainly
between the ages of 14 and 18. Some may have wanted to prove their maturity or to escape
hardship at home but many, many more were pressurised into enlisting after being accused of
cowardice. The Order of the White Feather which was heavily populated by women, targeted
many teenagers by sending white feathers, a recognised symbol of cowardice that was designed
to bring shame upon the family.
More children met their fate not through the act of enemy fire but by their own colleagues. When
the horrors of war became too much, not only for the youth but also for many adults, the crime of
desertion resulted in a death sentence; shot at dawn and stigma heaped upon their family. It is
one of the cruelest legacies that even now, 100 years later when the effect on mental health is well
documented, that none of those executed have been pardoned or have their names inscribed
upon war memorials.
The words of Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land (Green Fields of France) is forever poignant and never
loses that emotional pull with its haunting lyrics. Even as I write this, my children are watching a
box set of the latest American teen drama craze which contains an episode showing a dream
wedding sequence. As with all good American shows, there was a nod to Scottish heritage and
the groom was in a kilt. As the bride walked up the aisle, the pipes started up and the villain of
the show quickly appeared and killed the groom. What escaped my children’s notice, and that of
many other people I suspect, was that the tune was The Flowers of the Forest, commonly
associated with military and highland burials. Originally written about the defeat of the Scottish
against the English at Flodden Field 500 years ago and referenced in the afore mentioned song, it
is a beautiful piece of music to reflect upon our ancestors actions in the war that did not end all wars.