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Family Matters

Author: Richard Bennett

Dufftown, 1914 - 18

The War was disastrous for the Dawson family, as it was for so many others. The two oldest sons, my uncles, Willie and Doddie, had been members of the Archiestown Company of the Seaforth Highlanders Territorials and joined up straightaway. Willie had been a farm servant at Wester Elchies Home Farm; Doddie had worked at the Knockando Wool Mill.
My mother, who was four when War broke out, remembered, ‘as clear as yesterday’, being lifted on his shoulders by Willie, a big long lad, in his kilt and khaki, in the Square in Dufftown, and kicking and laughing and skirling, ‘Pit me doon, Willie, pit me doon!’ Willie was no sooner in France than he was dead. The Battalion arrived in France on 15th May; Willie was killed one month later at Festubert. Doddie was killed at the second battle of Arras, in the taking of Vimy Ridge in 1917.
The death of the two boys was devastating. My mother said that Festubert had been particularly hard on the 1/6th Seaforths. One unusual fact is that the names of William and George Dawson appear on four different War Memorials: in Dufftown, in Archiestown, in the Kirk at Knockando, and in the school at Knockando.
The memorial in Knockando School is of particular interest. Sixteen former pupils died in the War. The Headmaster of the time, William Watt, had taught in the school for forty years and had taught every single one of the boys killed. He paid for the memorial out of his own pocket. It was created in fine Arts and Crafts style by James Hector, a well-known artist of the time. In about 2002, while visiting Knockando School, I saw that the memorial – very fine gold paint on wood – was in a poor state. I wrote to Moray Council with a detailed history of the memorial and managed to secure money for its restoration.
The following letter has somehow survived and serves as a memorial, too. It was written by one Harry Woodward to Doddie.
‘T. F. Depot,
6th Seaforth Hrs.,
Drill Hall,
Elgin.
4. 9. 16
My Dear Young “Feller”,
Had a great severe shock – a damnable dint, in fact, – on receiving yours this morning. It not being my habit to write letters in time of war, I had not previously written you. Well, old son, I am sorry. You had a mighty short time in hospital. Foo did ye nae bide? They tell me ye was gassed. “Weel, weel,” said I fan I heard that, “He was aye that.” However, I’m glad it wasn’t more serious, laddie. It was queer that you and Callum should write and then, almost immediately get on the Casualty list. Haven’t heard what ails Callum yet. Was he hit? And so ye’ll be for off to France again, eh? That young loons, man, they winna bide contented in ae place. Have ye seen the Tailor yet? Orderlies –––!!! At the double.
I hear Jock’s pulled a trick, but Lord! The war’s nae deen yet. I doot I’ll be getting a tippie masel’ yet. Ye’ll nae wear that dice in your bonnet an’ nae hae tae gang. What! What price Auld Aberdeen noo? Daein’ their bit, man, wi’ the best o’ them, eh? Ex-private Weelum Makin’-on-onachie is doing his bit at the Recruiting Office (High Street, Elgin) in civvies. It’s whispered that he pulled a trick, tae. But, as I said already, the war’s nae owre yet. We’ll a’ be nott yet.
I was quite expecting to get a call from you while you were on leave, but, like the Declaration of peace, ye didna come, laddie. Geordie Grant’s at Holt (2/6 Seaforths)), I believe. That’s where we sent him anyway. Weel, weel, loonie, see an’ be good tae yersel, for, if ye winna, the Airmy’ll nae.
See and write again before ye go off. I’ll be turnin’ up unexpected ane o’ this days and giving you a clap on the back.
Ta ta, cheero, sonnie,
Thine ever,
Harry Woodward’
Harry Woodward had come from Shropshire with his father who was an officer with the Customs and Excise. He obviously struck up a relationship with Doddie. He was never ‘nott’ (‘needed’), but remained as an acting sergeant at headquarters in the T F Depot in Elgin.
This beautifully articulate letter is remarkable for the sense conveyed of feverish wartime activity in the community; for the contempt felt for those who have ‘pulled a trick’; for the ways in which this young Englishman switches between RP English and a pretty fair approximation of the language of those around him; and for his deeply-felt concern for Doddie and his other young companions.
Doddie never received the letter.
*
The family lost its youngest member, Charlotte, to the Spanish flu, in 1918.
My mother remembered being lifted up to view her sister in her coffin on the kitchen table.
*
I include the following verses for sentimental reasons, only – and because of the names in the first stanza. The poet, Mary Symon, did live in Dufftown. So, who knows? What we do know is that my grandparents refused the invitation to the unveiling of the Dufftown War Memorial in 1922.

The Soldiers’ Cairn
Gie me a hill wi’ the heather on’t,
An’ a reid sun drappin’ doon,
Or the mists o’ the mornin’ risin’ saft
Wi’ the reek owre a wee grey toon.
Gie me a howe by the lang Glen road,
For it’s there ‘mang the whin and fern
(D’ye mind on’t, Will? Are ye hearin’, Dod?)
That we’re biggin’ the Soldiers’ Cairn.
*
Lads in your plaidies lyin’ still
In lands we’ll never see,
This lanely cairn on a hameland hill
Is a’ that oor love can dee;
An’ fine an’ braw we’ll mak’ it a’,
But oh, my Bairn, my Bairn,
It’s a cradle’s croon that’ll aye blaw doon
To me fae the Soldiers’ Cairn.