Festubert centenary marked on Skye

All weekend, events were held in Portree to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Festubert, and the wider implications of the conflict and the Great War on Highland communities.

Easter Ross piper Duncan MacGillivray plays a set of bagpipes which were retrieved from the trenches at Festubert

On Friday night an estimated 500 gathered at Portree High School for “An Ionndrainn: Remembering Festubert” —  a unique show, comprising music, poetry, readings and visual images.

Presented by shinty commentator and historian Hugh Dan MacLennan, the show featured music from Gary Innes, Donnie Munro, Arthur Cormack, Duncan MacGillivray, Allan Henderson, Iain McFarlane and Linda MacLeod. Iain Anderson of the BBC assisted with the narration, while Somhairle MacDonald read his grandfather Sorley Maclean’s poem in memory of Festubert.

In all Skye lost nearly 600 men in the First World War, and Festubert was the first battle which brought news of heavy local casualties. In particular it devastated the island ranks within the 4th Cameron Highlanders — on one night alone 11 men from the same Portree territorial battalion fell.

That sacrifice was remembered at shinty matches held in Portree on Saturday — bringing together the communities of Skye and Kingussie, as well as the military team Scots Camanachd.

Highland Council held a civic reception in Portree High School on Saturday evening, while on Sunday the North Skye Branch of the Royal British Legion held a parade through central Portree.

Padre Hector MacKenzie leads the service at the Portree War Memorial last Sunday
Padre Hector MacKenzie leads the service at the Portree War Memorial last Sunday

They were joined by legion members from Badenoch and Strathspey, and many others, before a wreath-laying ceremony and  service at the local war memorial was conducted by Padre Hector MacKenzie from Kilmuir.

The weekend’s commemorations began last Friday with a conference in the Aros Centre examining a range of themes surrounding the Great War and the Highlands.

Prof Ewen Cameron of Edinburgh University began by looking at the Highlands on the eve of war, suggesting that events in Europe – while pertinent — weren’t exactly the burning issue of the time.

Locally, and despite the 1911 Act on land reform, power remained in the hands of the landlords and land raids were common — indeed Professor Cameron’s own grandfather was himself involved in one such raid in Skye.

In political terms, a general election was expected — the Liberal Party had been governing with the support of Irish MPs and the Labour Party. Comparisons were made with the expected outcome of the recent General

Election when a hung parliament was the predicted result, with Scottish MPs potentially holding the balance.

The big crisis of the time, however, was  in Ulster. Andrew Bonar Law, the Unionist Party leader, drew a crowd of 5,000 in Inverness to hear his views on Irish Home Rule and Irish Partition. And locally the question was hotly debated at, for example, the Kilmuir Literary Society in a pro-unionist vote against Irish Home Rule.


Bedford was the final training ground for many of the young Highland and Island volunteer soldiers before they were despatched to mainland Europe.

Richard Galley, who was born and raised in the town, began researching the story of the Highland Division’s friendly invasion after reading the original pocket diary kept by Private Hugh MacArthur — an 18-year-old Argyll and Sutherland Highlander from Islay who was stationed at Bedford, and who died at the Somme in August 1916.

Richard’s account recalled that by May 1915 Bedford, which had a population of 35,000, had swelled into a Highland enclave with the arrival of some 22,000 soldiers — many of them using Gaelic as their main tongue.

Contemporary photos and material from letters and the press helped illustrate the scene —  for many it was an enjoyable place in anticipation of the adventures which the soldiers thought awaited them. It was also a place of great sadness, especially due to the many Highlanders killed by infectious diseases to which they had never previously been exposed. In all about 150 men died from disease while in Bedford.


Alan Cumming focused on the  Scottish Women’s Hospitals, with a  film highlighting what these women did to save lives in places like Greece, France, Serbia, Russia and Macedonia.

Alan has researched in depth the work of these women — like Elizabeth Ross from Broadford and the Nicolson sisters from Strollamus — whom he feels deserve much greater recognition in their homeland.

He said he had discovered that one doctor, Elsie Inglis, had a plea to use women’s skills rejected in the UK — possibly because she was a suffragette.

“In Scotland Dr Elsie Inglis is a doctor — in Serbia she is a saint,” he said, adding that the Scottish nurses helped over 300,000 people. In Serbia it’s reckoned up to 5,000 people died from typhus, including some of the staff who had treated them.


In her wide-ranging talk Prof Marjory Harper of Aberdeen University looked at the widespread emigration from the Highlands which followed in the aftermath of the war.

It was a time of radical action when land raids had taken place — notably against Lord Leverhulme in Lewis. There, the aftermath of war and the ‘Iolaire’ disaster fuelled emigration.

Professor Marjory Harper's talk examined the large-scale emigration from the Highlands which followed the war
Professor Marjory Harper’s talk examined the large-scale emigration from the Highlands which followed the war

Prof Harper looked at interviews with emigrants to Canada and also with those who later returned.
She also recalled Uist landowner Lady Cathcart, who owned shares in the Canadian Pacific Railroad — which might have been a factor in encouraging the people on her land to emigrate. Soo, too, may have been her anti-Catholic stance.

Prof Harper noted that by the 1930s figures like Dr Lachlan Grant of Ballachulish and Rev Tom Murchison were attempting to develop a “new deal” for the Highlands and Islands to obtain investment for economic development — an idea which ultimately  proved ahead of its time.


John Robertson, the honorary president of Kingussie Camanachd, gave a superb address looking at  Kingussie and Skye — shinty rivals, and war comrades.

Men from both communities — many of them shinty players — fought and died together at Festubert.
Shinty’s biggest prize, the Camanachd Cup, was on the platform along with a silver-mounted caman which belonged to one member of the Kingussie team who fell at Festubert.

A wonderful selection of photographs told the story of the club’s war losses — including an early picture of the Skye and Kingussie teams taken in 1901.

Particularly poignant were photographs of a dinner held in December 1919 with the cup which Kingussie had won in 1914 on the table — but of course many of the players were missing, killed in action. The players were given caps similar to those awarded for playing in internationals, and caps were given to the relatives of the men who never returned.

One hundred years later, in the Camanachd Cup Final of 2014, the Kingussie team wore the names on their shirts of the players who had died during the Great War.


Graham Ross, the author of a seven-volume work,’ The Roll of Honour for Skye and Lochalsh’, spoke about and showed pictures of some of the more unusual war memorials in the area. Notable ones include that of Sleat which, as well as names, has the crofts and townships from where the fallen hailed.

Murdo Beaton has great experience in the memorials of WWI in France, having led trips from Skye to the battlefields. He told of  the huge memorials at Thiepval and at the Menin Gate, where 72,000 and 54,000 names of the missing are listed. These are men who have never been found and have no known grave. Murdo showed a very moving film of the Skye group at the Menin Gate laying wreaths at the eight oclock Last Post ceremony each evening.

Murdo will be leading another tour from Skye in June, one that is already fully booked.

Last Friday’s conference was organised by the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre, and chaired by Dr Neil MacGillivray — to whom we are grateful for helping provide this summary of the day’s events.

Representatives from Scots Camanachd and Poppy Scotland join Skye’s Gilleasbuig MacLean and Kingussie’s Lee Bain


Skye….3 Kingussie….3
(Kingussie won 3-2 on penalties)

Kingussie secured a penalty shoot-out victory after an entertaining 3-3 draw with Skye Camanachd in the centrepiece of the sporting events held in Portree last Saturday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Festubert.

The match was designed to honour the sacrifice of those from the two communities — many of them shinty players — who fought alongside each other in the trenches a century ago.

After the teams had been piped onto the field a minute’s silence preceded the match, as thoughts turned to those who had their own shinty-playing careers cut cruelly short by the onset of war. Kingussie lost six of the team which lifted the Camanachd Cup in 1914 — including their captain Willie MacGillivray at Festubert —  so poppies were embossed on their shirts which were specially-made for the day.

It’s reckoned at least 19 Skye shinty players died during the Great War, so the islanders also wore a special one-off kit. But though proceedings were strong on ceremony, the match was no mere exhibition. Once the formalities were over the players produced a competitive and entertaining 90 minutes.

Skye struck first, with Will Cowie sweeping the ball home after a goalmouth scramble. An interesting aside is that Will is the great-great grandson of William Ross, company Sergeant Major with the Portree volunteers of the 4th Cameron Highlanders. William had been a shinty player of some renown but was one of 11 men from the Portree battalion killed at Festubert on 17th May 1915.

John Gibson equalised for Kingussie in the 26th minute, and the sides remained level until 12 minutes after half time when youngster James Falconer exploited a gap in the home defence to sweep in the equaliser.

Skye responded well, and 20 minutes from time Jordan Murchison slammed home a rebound after Danny Morrison’s initial strike had been saved by Craig Dawson in the Kingussie goal. And with six minutes to go it looked like Skye had done enough to win it — Murchison driving home a superb finish to make it 3-2.

The late twist arrived, though, when Rory MacGregor’s 88th-minute effort nestled high in the net, and with that the tie went straight to penalties.

After 10 penalties the teams still couldn’t be separated. But in sudden death Rory MacGregor netted for Kingussie, while Dawson foiled  Murchison to give the Badenoch men the John “Kaid” MacLean Memorial Trophy.

Former paratrooper Thomas Wilson takes control for the Skye 2nd team.
Former paratrooper Thomas Wilson takes control for the Skye 2nd team

The inclement weather on Saturday meant that the Skye second team’s match against forces shinty side Scots Camanachd was shifted to the artificial pitch at Portree High School.

There it rained in goals as the islanders ran out 8-4 winners. The first half produced nine goals, with Skye making the most of the wind advantage to turn around 7-2 to the good.

Yet it was the Scots who got off to a flying start as Ewen Graham fired in a first-minute opener. Skye soon found their feet, and goals from James Pringle and Angie MacDonald had them ahead, and John Gillies sent on to rattle in five goals before half time. Colin Irving had pulled a goal back for the military side just before Gillies scored the seventh.

In the second period things were  a bit closer, Fraser MacKenzie and Arran Devine grabbing goals for the visitors either side of a John MacKenzie strike for Skye.

FESTUBERT - LADIES S V K - 2The Skye Ladies also took on their Badenoch and Strathspey counterparts in a specially arranged Women’s Camanachd Association Marine Harvest League match.

The teams couldn’t be separated during an excellent tussle, with neither side able to find a way past two inspired goalkeepers — Sarah Corrigall for Skye, and Elizabeth MacGregor for Badenoch.


Friday's primry school match between Portree and Kingussie ended 4-2 in favour of Portree
Friday’s primary school match between Portree and Kingussie ended 4-2 in favour of Portree

See also: Communities to remember fallen of Festubert 100 years on