Common Cause?

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It’s a truism that, down the centuries, Scotland’s greatest export has been its people. Indeed, a strong element of the current Year of Homecoming—allied with the hosting of the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow—is attracting visitors from the wider Scottish Diaspora, which is estimated to be between 28 and 40 million people around the world.

2014 is also, of course, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War; yet, as a new exhibition opening today at the National Museum of Scotland suggests, the military aspects of the Scottish Diaspora across the Commonwealth (and, in particular, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and–not forgetting–England) have often been overlooked.

“The relationship between emigration and military service is part of the story of the Scottish Diaspora which academics and museums have only recently begun to look at again,” explained Dr Stuart Allan, Principle Curator of Scottish Late Modern collections at National Museums Scotland. “Common Cause is a timely reflection on the relationship between Scottish identity, the experience of war and the emerging national identities of Commonwealth countries where Scots settled in large numbers, countries which made such a significant contribution to the war effort.”

The reproduction of a 1918 official Government poster is a case in point: what you immediately notice about “the British Commonwealth in Arms” is that both Canada and South Africa are represented by soldiers in kilts. Certainly, the exhibit shows that even non-Scottish (though, it has to be said, all white) recruits and units from South Africa appeared to have shared a sense of Scottish military identity. Admittedly, on occasions it was adapted to local conditions; the regimental mascot of “the South African Scottish” was a Springbok called ‘Nancy’, which is one of the five principle exhibits forming the core of the exhibition.

Staunch unionists may well enjoy the exhibition’s apparent confirmation of people having multiple national identities; one of the core exhibits, after all, is the Victoria Cross presented to Ulster Scot James Crichton who fought for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Yet they may equally blanche at the sight of a Highland broadsword inscribed “LNB” on the blade, identifying it as one carried by a member of the “Loyal North Britons”, the second Scottish volunteer unit originally instigated by the Highland Society of London in 1803.

Yet what comes across most clearly throughout the exhibition is not just the resilience of a specifically Scottish military identity (even in England, with Scottish regiments formed in London, Manchester and Liverpool), but also the role of that “Scottishness” in helping forge the new national identities of those nascent Commonwealth nations. Admittedly, some were further down the road than others; as that same war poster shows, Australia and New Zealand were already their own men.

The exhibition is grouped primarily around five ‘national’ display cases, each hooked on one specific object loaned by the respective country: in addition to those already mentioned, there are a set of bagpipes retrieved from the fields of the Somme (Canada), the sculpture of an archetypal Australian soldier by William Wallace Anderson, and the field communion set of Reverend DC Lusk (a presbyterian chaplain who served with the 1st Battalion London Scottish).

In some respects the items on display are precisely what you’d expect to see in any military-themed exhibition—swords, medals, and the hauntingly silent newsreel footage of the mud-churned battlefields. Nevertheless, there are the occasional, truly personal touches which genuinely touch the heart: the Christmas card sent back to Australia from the European front; the purse containing coins damaged by the bullet which injured a soldier called Harold Brierley; the “thank you” cards sent out by the parents who had lost their 24 year old son on the battlefield. Questions of national identity aside, those symbolise the shared human injury and loss that the First World War represented to millions of people around the world.

Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War runs at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, from 11 July to 12 October. Admission free. 

The exhibition is part of the programmes of the First World War Centenary Partnership,, and Homecoming Scotland, It is one of five projects which have received funding from the Scottish Government to engage with Scotland’s Diaspora during 2014.  


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  1. JimnArlene says:

    I watched a programme recently on the BBC (spit), about pipers in WWI. Men from Scotland, England, Canada and various other ” Commonwealth ” countries, going over the top, unarmed and in the face of enemy fire. Very moving and inspirational stuff, though not to be used as a reason to stay in this no longer (if ever); fit for purpose union.

    1. MolliBlum says:

      Here you go, Jim, since you mention it:

  2. James Dow a voice from the diaspora says:

    Australia’s first Army, the Australian Imperial Force was a volunteer Army a disproportionate number of Scot’s and Irish enlisted to the extent it was said you could not walk ten paces at Gallipoli and call Jock and not get an answer.

  3. lochside says:

    Yet still the shocking and disproportionate loss of volunteer Scots in the First War is denied. I challenged Historian Hew Strachan at a recent ‘Aye Right’ and he questioned Scots losses being higher than the rest of the UK. He also denied that battle police (redcaps) shot out of hand stunned or shell-shocked men found in trenches after regiments had gone over the top.

    My grandfather was a Gordon Highlander and fought for four bitter years in the trenches. He told me about the mutiny at Etaples took place because Gordons and Aussies took the opportunity to kill the hated redcaps after one shot a Gordon for ‘insubordination’. English troops were used to surround and arrest ‘mutineers’.

    This ‘mutiny’ was suppressed and only came to light because of the tv programme about Percy Toplis, the ‘Monocled Mutineer’. This drama caused outrage with the usual suspects claiming it was all fabricated.

    Now Prof Strachan and his like are engaged in justifying the charnel house of the First War as a ‘justified ‘ war based on the usual (ironic )Angocentric hatred of the Germans.

    At his presentation, supported by some Royal Military lackey, I had to listen to them trying to diminish the horror and level of suffering experienced by men like my Granda. This is the new narrative of English Historians and their Brit/Scot lackeys..justify the War and write out the decimation of Scots manhood for a totally unnecessary war.

    There are 147,000 names in the Edinburgh Castle books of the dead for Scotsmen in the first war. Britain lost 750,000. It has been stated that Scotland’s war dead was only exceeded per head by the Serbians, who were basically driven out of their country into exile.Many thousands more of Scots died with the ‘colonial’ forces. ‘Common cause’ indeed but sadly, only for the Butcher’s apron.

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