I just finished reading the book Ardnish Was Home by Angus MacDonald.  We used to holiday in Ardnamurchan, not far from where the story is partly set.  I say ‘partly’, because it’s the story of a wounded solider and his nurse in Turkey during the Gallipoli campaign in World War One.  Interspersed throughout the story, the injured soldier tells his nurse about life and traditions in his Highland village.

Which got me remembering…

I’m in the process of selling my house, so it’s being kept much tidier and cleaner than normal. Making my bed this morning made me think of my mum.  As someone who never owned a tumble dryer, she ironed everything, and I mean everything;  socks, hankies, shirts, petticoats (or ‘petties’ as she called them), dishtowels, pillow cases, sheets.

She had a unique technique for the sheets.  Naturally, they were always white – and cotton – which had to be folded lengthwise in a particular way after she took them down from the washing line. Then either my sister or myself would take one end while Mum took the other, and we’d ‘pull’ the sheet to get out the worst of the wrinkles.  Once that was done, she’d iron them completely smooth before she put them back on the bed.  Same with the pillowcases.  They were always pristine and smelled of the fresh outdoors.

Nowadays, it’s out of the tumble-dryer for me, onto the bed, and smoothing them as best I can with my hand.  But there are always wrinkles left – wrinkles of which I know Mum wouldn’t approve.

Like the memories in the book, the ‘pulling of the sheets’ is a piece of family history that perhaps only I and my sister remember now.  And yet, although I would huff and puff about having to help Mum, I remember it fondly.  We’d talk, and laugh, and sometimes try to pull each other off balance!

I’m sure Mum learned the technique from her mother, and she, perhaps, from her own mother.

A female tradition, stretching down the generations, to be lost with the introduction of modern technology.



The Royal Pavilion – Brighton

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton has to be one of the most unique and fascinating palaces in the UK. Built over 200 years ago as a seaside getaway for the then Prince Regent – later George IV –  it boasts a stunning Indian exterior and exquisite Chinese interior. Unfortunately, I can’t show you any photos from inside – interior photography is forbidden – but you can find some wonderful images on their website.

One of its more intriguing uses was as a Military Hospital for Indian troops during World War One.  According to a booklet available at the Pavilion, At the outbreak of war, Britain’s army was relatively small: in August 1914 it had fewer troops available than Belgium. The allied British and French forces were outnumbered by the advancing Germans, so reinforcements were brought in from Britain’s colonies.  The first Indian divisions arrived in October 1914. 

The Royal Pavilion ceased to be used as a royal palace during Queen Victoria’s time – she disliked the lack of privacy – and is now open to the public year-round. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. The palace is a feast for the eyes. (And it also hosts a lovely tea room if you’re looking for a feast for something else.)

Brighton makes for a wonderful day trip from London – it’s only a one-hour train journey and trains depart from several London stations.


Harold and Emma McGill – A WW1 Love Story

IS picture

Photo – Diana Cranstoun

Harold McGill and Emma Griffis, a doctor and nurse from Calgary, made an unlikely pair – he was shy and reserved while she was outgoing – but when Harold signed up to serve on The Western Front in 1915, he asked Emma to write to him. Emma also joined the Canadian army as a Nursing Sister in 1917 and was stationed in England. The couple married in December 1917, returning to Calgary after the war.

Sadly, Emma’s letters no longer exist, but Harold’s are safe in the archives at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and can be viewed online. They tell a fascinating story;  aspects of war you rarely find in the history books blended with a tenderly unfolding love story.

Some of Harold’s descriptions of the battlefield – the guns growling, a shower of shells, night as dark as a wolf’s mouth – are chillingly evocative. And when he talks about standing in a trench at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1915 to watch the old year out and witness the blast of artillery fire from all the batteries announcing the birth of 1916… well it makes the hairs on the back of your neck prickle.

He talks about their rotation through the trenches; 6 days in the trenches – where they must sleep in their clothes and only remove their boots to change their socks – followed by 6 days in the brigade reserve, followed by another 6 days in the trenches, then 6 welcome days in divisional reserve billets where they have the opportunity to rest up before the whole process starts over again.

The gas alerts when the wind blows in from the east.

How ‘one smokes a lot at this game’.

A regimental dinner held in a convent.

The daily rum ration when in the trenches.

Having to go for 15 days without changing his clothes followed by the sheer joy of a hot bath and clean bed.

But it’s the love story that is the most touching. He starts off addressing Emma as Dear Miss Griffis and signs off Sincerely yours. Following his proposal of marriage in July 1917, that changes to My dear Emma and ends Yours truly. And after their marriage in December that year, it’s My Dear Wife from Your loving husband.

His concern when he discovers she’s assigned to the ‘lungers‘ ward at Bramshott Military Hospital in England, and his ‘mortal terror of TB which is more deadly than Fritz’s trench mortars’.

He makes an interesting comment about how men approach married life. ‘Usually when a man asks a woman for the privilege of making her everlastingly happy,” he writes, “what he really wants is for her to make him happy and worship him as a tin God.”

Only after they became engaged, when he was on leave in England in July 1917, do they really start learning about each other. He tells her he has an older brother and two younger sisters (one of whom, Margaret, is also serving in France) and that his parents died within 10 days of each other when Margaret was only 15.

There is so much more. I can only offer a sliver of the richness of his letters here and encourage you to click on the link at the top of the page and check them out yourself. As to why her letters didn’t survive… Harold offers the intriguing hint that he would ‘love to keep them’ but it is ‘difficult on active service’ and he must ‘burn them’.


Alberta In The Great War

Although I learned about The First World War in secondary school, I don’t remember much about it beyond the Schlieffen Plan and trench warfare. Somehow it never captured my imagination in the same way as The Second World War.

However, I’ve recently been soaking up all the recent TV programmes and documentaries which have been made to mark the 100th anniversary since the The Great War’s outbreak. And the more I learn, the more I want to learn. So when I discovered the Military Museum here in Calgary was offering a lecture to introduce their temporary exhibition, Albertans in The Great War, I was in there like a dirty shirt.

Here are a few tidbits I learned.

alberta map for blogIn 1914, Alberta, as a province in Canadian Confederation, was only 9 years old with a population of 470,000. (Canada’s total population was 7.9million.) During the war, Alberta sent 49,000 men, between the ages of 18-34, to serve overseas. Only Ontario and Manitoba sent more in sheer numbers, but the proportion of men Alberta sent was the highest in Canada.

The majority of Albertan men served in the infantry on The Western Front, but a few joined the navy or the RFC serving at sea (obviously!) or in Palestine, Siberia and at Gallipoli. Supporting units included Artillery Batteries, Cyclist(!), Tunnelling and Railways companies. Medical, engineering, veterinary, supply, forestry and machine gun personnel. (The aim of the bicycle units had been to get the infantry up to the front fast, but were essentially useless in the chewed up battlefields of The Western Front. They did come into their own at the end of 1918 when the front line moved to areas where the roads remained intact.)

During the war, Alberta became the largest exporter of wheat and timber, the 3rd largest exporter of beef, and sent over ½ million horses overseas. The province also raised $42million ($1 billion in 2014 dollars) to war relief efforts such as The Red Cross, The Canadian Patriotic Fund, The Belgium Relief Fund and the YMCA amongst others.

Sam Steele, a hero of The March West, The Riel Rebellion and The Boer War, volunteered to serve, but was officially too old for the armed forces.  However he received special dispensation to help train the men here in Alberta and accompany them to Britain. Once there, the men received further training under Steele, but Steele then had to relinquish command when the troops were sent to the Western Front. His forage cap is part of the current exhibition.

The lecturer told a great story of pilots in the RFC who, after they had destroyed a target (eg ammunition dump/ train) would then land their planes beside the target, collect a souvenir (eg empty shell casing/letter from the engine) then take off again. Apparently one pilot returned with a sack full of mementoes.

And what do you do if you’re caught in a chlorine gas attack and have no gas mask to hand? Urinate into your handkerchief and hold it against your face.

These are just a fraction of the stories told during the current exhibition. It’s on until December 15th.  If you live in Alberta and have an interest in our province’s role during the conflict, I highly recommend you check it out.


Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Given that Scotland will – or will not – vote for independence from the rest of the UK on Thursday, September 18th, I thought I would focus this week’s blog posts on Scottish history and writing.

With 2014 being the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, I was fascinated to read about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which treated allied soldiers during The Great War.

Formed to provide medical assistance to the injured, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals also worked to promote the cause of women’s rights.

Elsie Inglis, who I talked about in a previous blog, was one of its founders. A doctor, she approached the War Office with the intention of setting up a hospital in Edinburgh to care for injured soldiers, or co-operating with the RAMC to treat soldiers on the Western Front. The War Office’s response? “My good woman, go home and sit still!”

Following this rebuff, the Scottish Women’s Hospital approached the French and by November 1914 they were in business, setting up a hospital in Calais. This was followed in December with a hospital in the Abbey of Royaumont. They went on to set up hospitals in Belgium, Serbia, Malta, Corsica and Russia.

The hospitals were staffed entirely by women. Many, but not all, came from Scotland, with others coming from other countries such as America, England and Ceylon. Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel received a salary, but ancillary staff, including orderlies, drivers and cooks, did not. These jobs were filled by women from the upper classes who could afford to work for free, wanted to help the war effort and had a sense of adventure.

If you are interested in reading more, please check out this wonderful website which not only goes into the history of the hospitals, but contains the biographies of many the women who worked there.



Union Cemetery – Calgary: Part Two

With 50,000 people buried in Union Cemetery (not all in marked graves) there are literally thousands of stories to be told. Continuing on from my previous post on Monday, I’m going to look at a couple of memorials which are related to two famous nautical disasters.

STEENROBERT ALEXANDER STEEN.  Forty-seven years of age, a private in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Steen was one of the 234 personnel murdered by the Germans on the Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle in World War One. The ship was returning to England from Halifax NS, carrying 164 men, 14 nurses, and 80 officers and men of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

Under the Hague Convention, hospital ships are prohibited from carrying arms, must be clearly marked with the Red Cross, and sail with all lights burning. The enemy are allowed to stop and search the ships, but must not fire on them. However, on June 27th, 1918, a German submarine fired on the Llandovery Castle.

It sank within 10 minutes. Three lifeboats got away. The German captain – Patzig – interrogated those on the boats to find ‘proof’ of misuse of the ship (ie that it was carrying arms). Unable to find any, he then ordered his crew to prepare to dive. With only himself and a few other sailors on board, they attempted to hide their war crime by ramming and machine gunning the boats and survivors in the water. Twenty-four men in one of the lifeboats survived and were rescued 36 hours later. All 14 nurses were murdered. The sinking became a rallying cry for the Canadian forces in the last few months of the war. Captain Patzig was never found or prosecuted for war crimes.

Please click HERE to find a link to a brief report of the tragedy on the front page of The Calgary Daily Herald on July 2nd, 1918.

dickALBERT and VERA DICK were two of the 795 survivors of the sinking of the Titanic on April 10th, 1912 which killed more than 1,500 men, women and children.  Albert, who made his early fortune in Calgary’s land boom,  married his seventeen year-old wife Vera in the fall of 1911. They travelled to Italy, Palestine,  Egypt and France on an extended honeymoon, picking up the Titanic in Cherbourg. Their first-class tickets cost 57 GBP each. They both escaped in lifeboat #3.

In an era when the custom was, ‘Women and children first,’ Albert’s survival caused controversy. He claimed that, while trying to calm his hysterical wife who was clinging to him, he was pushed into the lifeboat. Some speculated that he dressed himself as a woman (not true) to escape. However, it must be remembered that men were needed to row the lifeboats far enough away from the ship to prevent them being drawn down into the vortex  as the ship went down. Whatever the reason, Albert’s survival meant that he carried a stigma for the rest of his life. In some places he was even considered not ‘socially respectable’ for having survived.






Women in World War One

I know a fair bit about my grandfathers’ lives during Word War One. It’s always easy to find out about men’s lives in wartime. In the case of servicemen, every posting is recorded in their service records. For those back home, employed in essential services or too old to fight, there are always work records or census details. But what about the women? What about my grandmothers?

Gran Dad

My paternal grandmother, Mary Hendry, holding my father. 1915


My maternal grandmother, Harriet Davenport

I never met my paternal grandmother – Mary Hendry – but as both she and my maternal grandmother – Harriet Davenport – were young mothers during the 1914/18 conflict, I can only assume they remained at home raising their children while faced with diminishing resources and increasing food shortages. In my paternal grandmother’s case, she raised her family as a single parent under the constant worry that her husband may not return from the front.

But for many single women who found employment it was an exciting time. For the first time in their lives they were earning decent money which allowed them to live independent lives.  I’ve just watched Katie Adie’s Women of World War One which is a fascinating look at how The Great War changed women’s lives and led – eventually – to women finally receiving the vote.  (Women over 30 got the vote in 1918, all women over 21 in 1928.  All men over 21 got the vote in 1918.)

Here’s a clip from Youtube, but please try to catch the whole programme. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until midnight on Tuesday August 19th.

David Tweedie Cranstoun

Granddad - I think copyAugust 4th, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what became known as World War One.  I never met my grandfather on my dad’s side, David Tweedie Cranstoun; he died ten years before I was born. A trained ‘dispenser’ working in a pharmacy shop in Rothesay, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in 1916, ultimately winning the Military Medal for ‘Bravery In The Field’ in 1918.

How do I know this? Not from learning stories about him when I was a child. It never occurred to me to ask questions about his life. By the time I did, all the family members who’d known him personally were dead.

But it’s easy to find out about an ex-soldier’s military record, I can hear you say. When you know their service number you can access their service records online.  What could be simpler?

And that’s true – except my grandfather’s service records were among those damaged or destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War Two. But some fragments remain, burn marks evident around the sides.

So this is what I’ve found out about the grandfather I never knew.  He was born on May 2nd, 1887, the illegitimate son of Jane Tweedie, a domestic servant.

Birth certificate copy

The fact that he was illegitimate came as a surprise. Growing up in Glasgow in the 60s, ‘that kind of thing’ didn’t happen in families like ours. And you know, I’m not sure my dad ever knew, because somewhere between 1900 an 1910, Enlistbefore he married and became a father, David Tweedie changed his name to David Tweedie Cranstoun. As far as my siblings and cousins were aware, our Cranstoun great-aunts and uncles were truly our grandfather’s flesh and blood. They were always present for family celebrations and there was never a hint of ‘scandal’ about the man who – in reality – was their half-brother.

Married with three children, David joined the army in 1916, serving, as I mentioned before, in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

MMnotification copyI know very little about his war. It must have been bloody and he must have seen some horrific sights. According to surviving records, he contacted measles at the front and was a patient in an isolation hospital in Glasgow for some time. And he must have done something very brave to win the Military Medal in 1918.

I also know that after he was demobbed from the army in 1920 he couldn’t settle. According to my father, my grandfather found it hard to adjust to everyday civilian life and signed up to fight for the ‘White Russians’ following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1921.

Today, 100 years on from the beginning of that bloody First World War, I can’t help thinking of David Tweedie Cranstoun and all the sons, brothers, fathers, sisters, daughters and mothers who served in that conflict at enormous emotional and physical cost to themselves and their families.

We owe them all so much.

Thank you, Granddad.

Vera Brittain

It’s never been hard to find books chronicling men’s experiences in war. However, the first account I can remember reading of a woman’s experience during World War One was that of Vera Brittain in her book Testament of Youth.  It’s the harrowing true account of a young woman who loses her fiance, her brother and many of his friends in the killing fields of Europe. Not willing to sit idly by and watch the war from the sidelines, Vera trained as a nurse and served overseas.

Vera Brittain’s story was first told on-screen by the BBC in an adaptation which can be found on Youtube.  Just weeks ago, filming began on a new adaptation of Testament of Youth, a feature-length film, also by the BBC.  It will be released in 2015.

Although I knew Vera Brittain was a novelist, I didn’t realise she’d also written poetry. Here is one of her most famous war poems, The Sisters Buried at Lemnos, written in 1916 after she visited the graves of two Canadian Army Nurses buried on that island.


O golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,

With purple shadows flitting o-er they crest,

I kneel to thee in reverent devotion

Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!


Seldom they enter into song or story;

Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,

But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory

Of women dead beneath a distant star.


No armies threatened in that lonely station,

They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,

But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,

And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.


Till mortal frailty could endure no longer

Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,

In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,

Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.


No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,

No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,

The only meed of their victorious dying

Lives in the hearts of humble men they saved.


Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,

Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease,

Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,

The souls of women, lonely here at peace.


O golden Isle with purple shadows falling

Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,

I shall not picture these without recalling

The Sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!






Mairi Chisholm

 51uRL4zJc4L._AA160_Aged just eighteen years-of-age,  Mairi Chisholm was one half of the two most photographed women of World War One.

Mad keen on motor-cycling, she met Elsie Knocker (30) at various motorbike competitions around the country. Following the declaration of war on August 4th, 1914, Elsie suggested to Mairi that they join the Women’s Emergency Corps.

After spending the first month of the war as dispatch riders in London, they were asked to join the newly formed Flying Ambulance Corps assisting wounded Belgian soldiers.  Mairi and Elsie landed in Belgium on September 25th, 1914 where their first job was ferrying casualties to a military hospital in Ghent.

51rJcwzV3bL._AA160_In November, they moved to Pervyse and spent the next three and a half years only 100 yards from the front line, performing first aid, transferring the wounded to hospital and retrieving bodies from No Man’s Land, from a cellar only six feet high. They funded this work themselves and often had to return to the UK to raise money.  Their work only ended on 17th March, 1918 when they were both almost killed in a gas attack.

Mairi Chisholm died in Scotland in 1981 aged 85.

Their full story has been told in the books Elsie and Mairi Go To War and, The Cellar House of Pervyse.