Reflections on Armistice Day - Richard Clubley

Read the latest from author and new Orkney resident Richard Clubley as he explores all aspects of island life.

Walking on Scapa Beach is a most therapeutic, thought-provoking activity. Dog is content with her ball and the very act of walking is relaxing. Add to this the wind, sound of the sea, the birds and, more often than you might think, the sunshine.

I’m a novice beachcomber but already I have a plastic dustbin in my shed and was able to give a pristine bag of horse feed to three riders riding by one day. On November 3rd I found a poppy wreath tucked up under the cliff by Scapa Distillery. It had been three weeks since the HMS Royal Oak memorial service out in the bay and I could scarce believe it had been in the sea that long, so fresh was its condition.

The label was only just decipherable, however, but I made out:

Leading Seaman

Ronald Derbyshire

PJ/X 125355

Always Remembered.

A look at the crew list confirmed Ronald had died on Royal Oak, he had been 29. I asked around and discovered the wreath had been laid over the wreck by Ronald’s grandson Gareth, who is current Chair of The Royal Oak Association. I re-laid the wreath at the memorial garden.

Gareth told me Ronald had left a 2 year old son (Gareth’s father) also called Ronald, who passed away in 2001. Gareth (actually Ronald Gareth) was born in October 1969 just 30 years after the death of his grandad. His father had always made sure Gareth knew the story of his grandad which is why he feels such a responsibility to his memory, and the memory of all his grandad’s shipmates. One of Gareth’s grandsons is also Ronald.

Picking up the wreath on Scapa, and speaking to Gareth, I have made a connection with a named person from Royal Oak – no longer will I think only of that terrible number of 834. The other 833 all had families too, one way or another. I hope they are all alive, somewhere, in someone’s memory.

A week later I was back on the beach, in the most glorious sunny, calm weather for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War One. Danny Boyle had inspired Pages of the Sea – a sand art commemoration of servicemen and women who fell in that conflict.

About 2000 Orkney folk gathered, on the beach and along the wall, to watch the etching in sand of a 20m square image of the face of Lieutenant Robert Taylor MC from Flotta. Robert, the only son of Robert and Jane Taylor (neé Sutherland) died aged 24 in 1917 after being wounded at Poelcapelle. He had been awarded the Military Cross at Paschendaele for: “A rare exhibition of tenacity and skill in sending back information of the highest value”. “He was,” said his commanding officer, “A highly popular and efficient young officer who had been through two years of the hardest fighting.” Lieutenant Taylor is buried in Belgium. His MC is in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

The 2018 Armistice Day has certainly been high profile, much more so than (say) the 2017 event, but we would expect that. We take particular note of round figures in the way we remember history. 2017 was 900 years after the murder of Earl Magnus; 2016 was 100 years after The Battle of Jutland and the loss of HMS Hampshire. 2019 will see fifty years passed since the men of Longhope lifeboat, TGB, were lost.

We must be careful not to glorify war, of course, but when I stood outside the cathedral, in the cold, one night, watching the moving images, everyone was silent. You could, more or less, have heard a pin drop at Scapa, too. I don’t think there was much glorifying going on.

We are far less reticent nowadays. We are prepared to make more imaginative and public shows when we mark events. The taciturn stiff upper lip has given way to the thoughtful, proud and grateful thanks for services rendered and sacrifices made. I suppose there might have been some ceremony surrounding the 50th Armistice Day (when I was 17) but I don’t remember any. There would have been a cub and scout parade no doubt “For remembrance Sunday” but as youngsters I think we would have been left to intuit the meaning and draw our own conclusions, if any.

I have been struck this year by just how many children and young people have been interviewed for their views of events. They are the people, of course, for whom this has all been the most important. One young man on the news said “If we don’t remember, then who will pass the message on to the next generation?” Who indeed?


Richard contributes regularly to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and his first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. His new book 'Orkney – A Special Place' is available from all the usual outlets now.

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