Communities to remember fallen at Festubert 100 years on

Plans are being finalised for a weekend of events in Skye to commemorate the sacrifices made by Highlanders in one of the Great War’s bloodiest battles.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Festubert — a battle which claimed an estimated 16,000 lives over 10 brutal days in May 1915.

The impact on Skye and Lochalsh was significant — it was the first battle of the war which brought news of heavy local casualties, and in particular it devastated the island ranks within the 4th Cameron Highlanders.

On 17th May 1915, 11 men from the Portree territorial battalion fell —a tragic episode explored last year in the BBC documentary, ‘the Machine Gun and Skye’s Band of Brothers’.

Over the weekend of the 15th, 16th and 17th of May this year the events of Festubert, and the wider Great War, are to be discussed, explored and commemorated.

On Friday 15th May a conference in Portree’s Aros Centre will include contributions from prominent local and national historians. Professor Ewen Cameron, Trevor Royle and Professor Marjory Harper are all due to speak at the event being coordinated by the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre.

Throughout this year the archive centre will explore the First World War in an exhibition — ‘An Cogadh Mór: remembering the Great War in Skye and Lochalsh’ — which is to be launched on Thursday 12th March. A musical tribute will be held in Portree Community Centre on the evening of 16th May — similar in theme to the successful ‘Shinty’s Heroes’ show which ran as part of the Blas Festival last year.

Broadcaster and shinty historian Hugh Dan MacLennan will narrate the show, interspersed with muscial contributions from Gary Innes, Allan Henderson, Linda MacLeod and many others.

On Saturday 16th May, shinty will take centre stage as a bond between the communities of Skye and Kingussie — dating back to the trenches of the Great War — is remembered.

The Portree Camerons trained with their counterparts in Kingussie prior to heading for Bedford, and then to France. The Portree and Kingussie companies were also alongside each other on that fatal night of 17th May 1915.

Inevitably, many of them had been shinty players. The First World War would eventually claim the lives of six of the Kingussie team which had lifted the Camanachd Cup just months before the outbreak of hostilities. Kingussie as a village would lose about 60 men in all, with Festubert the deadliest battle. Among those slain in May 1915 was Willie MacGillivray, captain of the great 1914 cup-winning team.

Killed on the same night was Company Sergeant Major William Ross from Portree — part of the Skye team which had won the MacTavish Cup in 1898. A local postman, he lied about his age to go to war and was reckoned to be 46 when he died.

In all it is estimated at least 19 shinty players from Skye died during the four-year conflict — a loss which can, at least in part, go some way to explaining why it would take until 10 years before the end of the 20th century for the island club to lift another major senior trophy.

That was the Camanachd Cup in 1990 — a team which, as fate would have it, included two of Billy Ross’s great grandsons and was managed by a third.

As well as a clash between the Skye and Kingussie senior teams, there will be matches between Portree and Kingussie primary schools, and the Skye and Badenoch ladies’ teams, over the course of the anniversary weekend. The Skye second team, meanwhile, will meet forces shinty club Scots Camanachd.

A civic reception hosted by Highland Council will be held on the Saturday evening. And on the Sunday one of Scots Camanachd’s former players, Padre Hector MacKenzie from Kilmuir on Skye, is to lead a commemorative service.

British Legion members from Kingussie and Skye will be there to lead a remembrance parade in Somerled Square in Portree.

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William Ross and others from the Portree Camerons in the trenches