Did you know that work on Beecraigs Loch was started by German prisoners-of-war during the First World War, but due to their unwillingness to work the job was given to conscientious objectors instead?
This is just one of many snippets of information on West Lothian's experience of war that two local people painstakingly researched in order to put together a show to commemorate West Lothian's own war centenary from 2014 to 2018.
“There was a Soldier...” is a unique show that pays tribute to the people of West Lothian in World War 1 and Bangour, the War Hospital. I met Liz Reid and Mary Boylan over coffee at their favourite cafe - Williamson's Garden Centre in Uphall - to learn about how the show came about.
“We were clearing out my late aunt's house a few years ago, and came across a bundle of letters addressed to her from a young soldier in WW1. Tied with a faded pink string, the letters and memorabilia from her sweetheart on the front line entranced us.” Mary and Liz became engrossed in the story of the young man, David Wallace Dinwoodie. At the bottom of the bundle came the almost-inevitable black-bordered envelope announcing his death in action.
“We researched and visited his grave in France, which led us to discovering much about the effects of the war here in West Lothian - about the young men who left with such enthusiasm and didn't return,” explains Liz. “Then a few years ago we saw a show in Glasgow called Far from Ypres, written by Ian McCalman. Ian made the format of the show freely available to anyone wanting to produce a similar story about the war in their own area.”
So Mary, a retired police officer and Liz, a retired music teacher, set about researching West Lothian's experience of war.
The resulting musical show features David as the main character, and incorporates two songs written in an old jotter by George Coyle, in Flanders 100 years ago.
“George came from Broxburn. Reading his good-humoured songs written on the front line, you can imagine he must have been an inspiring and positive man to be with in those terrible conditions,” Mary said. “Tunes for them just came to me one day, Liz wrote them down, and Broxburn teenagers Lucas Rodger and Sam Malone sing them in the show.
The cast [for the 2016 show] of twenty features young singers from Broxburn Academy and St. Margaret’s Academy, piper Callum Davidson and drummer Reed Cameron, who are all ages with the young men who left West Lothian for war. Callum and Reed are members of Peoples Ford Boghall and Bathgate Caledonian Pipe Band. They are joined by local groups “Tryst,” a female harmony trio, including Liz herself, folk duos Cockleroy from Linlithgow, and Iolaire from Bo’ness. Mary works frantically front-of-house to keep it all running smoothly.
The show commemorates:
*The Linlithgowshire Cyclists Battalion who left on their bicycles from Bathgate to protect the East Coast.
*The women of West Calder who worked in the munitions factories with chemicals which turned their skin yellow, thus they were known as Canaries.
*Members of Broxburn Band who all volunteered together and the young father of six from Broxburn whose belongings were returned to his family including a jotter of humorous songs he had written.
*Men volunteered from all walks of life - Uphall shale oil worker Robert Beveridge, Broxburn police sergeant James Lyall, Col. Shairp of Houston House – all lost their lives.
*The Forth Rail Bridge area was blacked out to avoid being bombed, so there were many accidents on the surrounding roads as folk simply couldn't see.
Bangour Village Hospital at Dechmont, originally built for mental health patients, was used as a War Hospital, with wounded men being brought from Southampton by Red Cross train straight through Edinburgh Waverley and out to Bangour Station. (Broxburn man Peter Duffy wrote two songs specially for the show, one of them, ‘Heading to Bangour’, about the Red Cross train.) Tents were required to house the eventual 3,000 patients in the hospital originally designed for 800. Volunteers from the surrounding towns helped with after-care for the men, including putting on concerts, and world famous entertainer Sir Harry Lauder performed there a few times.
“My aunt eventually married at the age of 50,” muses Liz. “We never knew about the years of pain and loss she must have felt from losing her sweetheart in the war until we found these letters.”
Published in Konect August 2016
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer