"My Hero, My Soldier Laddie"

Part of Decision Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:07 pm on 10th June 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 5:07 pm, 10th June 2010

I thank everyone who has stayed in the chamber for the debate and all the members who supported the motion, which received cross-party support from members of all the parties that are represented in the Parliament.

I pay tribute to the man who inspired the motion—Duncan Brown, who is in the public gallery tonight. When I say that he is an amateur historian, I mean that in the best sense. He pursues his passion for Scots history out of sheer love and an unshakeable belief in its importance and not for income or recognition. He is not attached to any academic institution and he undertook his research under his own steam, with painstaking dedication.

Duncan was lucky enough to count as a friend the late Nigel Tranter, whose books opened my eyes and those of many of us to the endless thrills and excitement that are to be found in the tales of Scottish history. Duncan continues to work in that tradition today. He is also a talented artist and a piper, by the way—I become exhausted just thinking about his talents.

Scotland has a long tradition of chroniclers such as Duncan—I lean often on my copy of Blind Harry's work to look back at Scotland's history.

Such chroniclers work in local history and archaeological groups or just beaver away on their own to add layers and nuggets of fact and detail to our nation's story. They are sometimes small and sometimes monumental, but they all enhance our understanding and our enjoyment of Scottish history. It is often said that such amateur historians have provided us with the tales of ordinary lives in towns and villages throughout the land—those of the farmer, the weaver, the rent striker, the dominie or the soldier—that bring depth, richness and colour to Scotland's story.

I realise that it is a bit unorthodox to plug items in the chamber, but I hope that members will not mind if I recommend to them all Duncan's book—"My Hero, My Soldier Laddie". The title comes from Robert Burns and the book is in the best tradition of the history that I have described. Half of all the proceeds of sales will go to the Erskine veterans charity.

Duncan's search for Scotland's Victoria Cross recipients began by chance when he played the pipes at a wedding in Cheltenham, of all places. A guest mentioned that she believed she had a Scottish ancestor—a David MacKay who had been in a Highland regiment and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Duncan has painstakingly pieced together MacKay's life story. He discovered that MacKay not only took part in the famous thin red line during the Crimean war, but went on to be among the first group of men ever to be awarded the VC for the heroism he displayed during the siege of Lucknow in 1857, having been nominated by his fellow Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders for the honour.

MacKay was badly wounded but survived and returned to Lesmahagow, where Duncan eventually traced his remains to an unmarked pauper's grave. Discovering that sad fate of a man who should still be recognised as a Scots hero, regardless of our feelings now about the role of the British empire in India, prompted Duncan to go on to uncover the details of 172 Scottish VCs. He found that no fewer than 14 among them hailed from the towns and villages of Lanarkshire.

Before I speak about Lanarkshire, I pay tribute to Thomas Peck Hunter, a Royal Marine who received the Victoria Cross and who happens to be the uncle of a proud John Swinney.

In fact, one VC in every 100 awarded has gone to a Lanarkshire man—an astonishing record for our small county. Three recipients came from Carluke alone. I wish that I had time to talk about every one of them but, having spoken about the first, I also want to say something about the last VC recipient, Bill Reid, whom Duncan Brown was able to meet and talk to before his death in 2001. I feel a particular affinity with Bill, because he was originally a Baillieston native and that is where I live now.

In November 1943, the Lancaster bomber that Bill was flying across the Dutch coast towards Germany twice came under attack. His navigator and wireless operator were killed, he himself was badly wounded, the plane's oxygen system ruptured and the hydraulics were damaged. However, instead of turning back, Bill fought his plane back under control, flew on and completed his mission.

After recovering from his wounds, Bill joined the 617 Squadron with Leonard Cheshire and, on his first flight, he fouled up his landing and knocked the tail off his plane. He had an endorsement put in his logbook and later joked that he was surely

"the only pilot to get a Victoria Cross on one trip and a red endorsement on the next."

Bill Reid was an extremely modest man and modest about his bravery. I am sure that some other men would have used it as a great chat-up line but, when Bill got married in 1952, he had not even told his wife.

Explaining later how he had been able to act with such heroism, Bill simply said:

"When you lost people who were your closest friends, the danger certainly came home to you. If you'd thought it would happen to you, too, you'd simply never have been able to fly again."

People such as Bill who did not perform great acts of bravery for Queen and country usually performed them for their band of brothers or the man standing next to them. That is an important piece of history that all our young people should know about. Reading stories such as his brings home not only how much we owe men such as him and his fellow VC recipients, but how important it is that those of us who live in Scotland now and in future generations continue to read and hear those stories and do not forget the extraordinary contributions that ordinary people made to secure our freedom and democracy.

If members are ever in Hamilton, I encourage and invite them to visit the memorial to the Lanarkshire VCs in the town square, which was unveiled in 2005 after a campaign by Duncan Brown and a public appeal by the Hamilton Advertiser. The poem inscribed on the memorial is by 12-year-old Anna Smith from Our Lady's high school and it captures the spirit of tonight's debate for me. It reads:

"You are heroes in our hearts, and that you'll always stay

Courageous and heroic in every possible way.

You sacrificed so much for us - a debt we can't repay.

You fought for us and bled for us and we thank you on this day."

I thank all members who are taking part in the debate.