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Going back to yesterday: the legacy of war

Reflecting on the various ways in which the centenary of the First World War was commemorated in text, Dr Catriona M.M. Macdonald argues that we are developing a new, more democratic narrative of the conflict, putting the people of Scotland, and their stories, centre-stage.
Millport war memorial, commemorating the fallen of the two world wars

Did she cry? Was she consoled? How could she understand – a woman who had never seen an aeroplane – that a bomb dropped from the sky had killed her son? She was remembered as strict, solemn and serious by my mother and her siblings whose family home she shared in the 1930s. ‘Granny Campbell’ had certain expectations: Cuticura soap ordered specially from Glasgow, and a thick veneer of respectability which was hard for her Hebridean grandchildren to understand. She had dark moments too – the children learned to avoid her when she sat brooding, making circles with her thumbs in an anti-clockwise direction (who but children would notice such a habit?). But, what was she thinking?

In quiet moments when talking to family in her west-end flat in Glasgow, my father’s aunt – a spinster, to use the parlance of her youth – would remind us that, regardless of how we found her then, she had received more than one proposal of marriage. A soldier of the Great War, who gifted her a silver pendant, picked up in Russia in 1919, returned more than once from his new homeacross the Atlantic to woo the young schoolteacher. Instead, she remained true to her profession (marriage would have ended her career), and to the care of a succession of nephews (my father included) who boarded with her to save them the long journey to school, over moor and across lochans in North Uist. A strict disciplinarian, in the twenties, she recalled, she had only once ended the school day ahead of the closing bell. When news reached Claddach Kirkibost that a plane was to land on the sand she seized the educational opportunity: ‘You may never see such a machine again’. A hundred years on, we know little, bar fragments, of the fears and expectations of those who survived total war: it is hard to judge just how different lives would have been had war not created a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in their stories. And it pays to be reminded that the inter-war years were not lived as such: after all, was not the whole point that there had been the war to end wars? No-one knew that the blood of millions had bought only 20 years of peace. How much deeper would the grief have been of the young Edinburgh woman, clad in widow’s black, who caught the eye of a Scotsman reporter on 11 November 1918 as she waved a handkerchief at celebrating soldiers, had she known that the hope borne of victory and sacrifice would not even last a generation?

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About History Scotland

After the Great War: Rebuilding a nation Five great reasons to read History Scotland this month * New research on what life was like between the World Wars * Exploring the link between crime and military service * Special report on underwater archaeology at the German High Seas fleet scuttle site in Orkney * The women registrars who broke into an all-male profession * A new study of the controverial marriage of Queen Victoria's daughter Louise BONUS DIGITAL-ONLY CONTENT: Video report on a forgotten treasure trove of Victorian photos Exhibition preview: Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs Video: living history food & drink experience