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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > May - Jun 2019 > SCOTLAND’S GREAT WAR MEMORIALS


Dr J.J. Smyth and Dr Michael Penman discuss Scottish Great War memorials, asking what the huge volume and diversity of memorialisation projects can tell us about the way Scots sought to remember and commemorate their dead in the immediate aftermath of war
Causewayhead memorial, 1923

What constitutes a ‘war memorial’? The answer most people would give, we think, would be to refer to any or all of the civic or parish memorials that are ubiquitous in the villages, towns and cities throughout Scotland. These monumental structures, even when relatively modest, were paid for and constructed by communities acting through civic committees or local authorities to mark the gratitude felt towards those who fell. If that ‘ultimate sacrifice’ was not to be forgotten then the collective memory of it had to be given a physical manifestation.

This was a sentiment given greater impetus by the emotional impact of the monolithic Cenotaph erected in Whitehall, London, at first a temporary structure of wood and card, for Peace and Armistice Day ceremonies in 1919. By far the majority of parish and civic memorials were proposed, funded, designed, built and unveiled in its wake over the next five or so years.

Typically situated in a prominent position or public thoroughfare in an urban centre, often close by a church or civic buildings, these monuments would constantly remind the population of those who had fallen and the debt owed by the living. If that was the primary message intended, other lessons could also be learned. The memorial, and especially its unveiling ceremony, could be seen as a celebration of victory but it was likely more often seen as a warning that this ‘war to end all wars’ must never be repeated.

There were, however, many other memorials to the fallen; often utilitarian rather than monumental, driven by a desire to make reparation by providing a service to the community. Such practical commemoration could include buildings – a village hall, a cottage hospital – that were intended to be permanent, while others could be more ephemeral – workshops for unemployed veterans, school bursaries, a bus stop, gas or electrical lighting, or even just a monetary collection towards a good cause linked to the war.

As well as the general locality, across which the shared ambition was to commemorate everyone, there were huge numbers of private bodies and institutions which wished to acknowledge their dead also: schools, regiments, churches, societies, businesses, banks, postoffices, landed estates, sports clubs, etc. In most instances, though not all, these would be more modest memorials, like a bronze plaque or a stained glass window. These are also, simply by the constant change in population, the decline of certain communities, and the closure or relocation of companies, schools and so on, the more likely to have been forgotten, lost or even destroyed. Of course many do still exist, and even where a school, hospital or church has moved into a new building, the memorial could be transferred (have a look, for example, at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s relocation of memorials when branches close ( But even where the original building remains and fulils the same purpose, a memorial can easily be lost from sight. There are any number of buildings, including churches, where panels listing the fallen of the congregation have become partially or completely obscured. How many of us are aware of the large memorials to railwaymen situated in Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley stations? Furthermore, such private or sectional memorials are, by their very nature, exclusive; they commemorate the fallen members of a particular group only. In most instances this exclusiveness is unremarkable and inoffensive, but what are we to make of Bridge of Weir golf club in Renfrewshire which refused to include the names of its young professionals who died in arms because they were ‘not members’?

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