The story of a 16-year-old boy from a Scottish island who seeks revenge. A journey which takes him from the ’16 Uprising in Dublin to a heroism at the Somme.
St.Pols near Arras France, November 7th 1920.
There was a darkness of sorts by the time the two men entered the chapel. The Brigadier looked towards the older man who closed his eyes.
The officer nodded that he understood, as the General lifted his hand from the Union flag. There was a gentle sadness in both their actions as they lowered the body into the wooden box, it could so easily have been one of them; yet neither noticed the silver chain with the blue medallion drop from the coffin. Unseen, it found its way into a crack.
They wouldn’t leave him on his own, not tonight; this poor soul had slept too long alone.
Four summers earlier that same chain and medallion clung to the neck of a boy stuffed to the brim with life. His name was Sammy Galbraith and he was living up to all of his sixteen summers.
“When I catch you and don’t think I won’t Galbraith, I will crack that stupid head of yours open, I swear to God I will”
The Reverend Winters was fifty-three, apparently God’s ambassador on earth and a bit of a horseman. He took an exception to his daughter’s affections being dallied with by the local boys, especially that Godless brute Sammy Galbraith.
Being on foot allowed Sammy more manoeuvrability. He managed to slip behind Old Shaker’s Rock and wait for the reverend to go riding past. A piercing sliver of sunlight found Sammy’s face; he lifted his head skywards and smiled as an eagle patrolled the warm thermals above.
By the time his pursuer realised he had lost the boy he was already riding towards what he considered the source of the problem, Sammy’s father.
Johnny Galbraith, who had only been thirty-two years old when he left his legs in a field in France, had a son of sixteen whom he loved and a wife who no longer cared if he lived nor died.
Before the war Johnny had been in complete charge of Lord Inverstark’s stables, now he wasn’t even in control of his own body. He sat in a wheelchair on the porch of the tied cottage, angry at life and always looking toward the mountains that were once his to conquer.
Their island was named Annshal and it sat about a mile off the mainland of western Scotland. As the sun sank below the Annshal Mountains, the silhouette of their peaks would assume the outline of an ancient soldier at rest with his spear by his side; he was known to the locals as The Sleeping Warrior.
The reverend’s horse came to a halt in front of Johnny, just as the soldier was contemplating whether returning from France had been a good thing, or whether he should have been left there and buried along with his legs.
“Your son has been pestering my daughter once again Galbraith, I will ask you, as I have done several times before – will you not control your lad?”
“Perhaps your daughter likes to be pestered Winters have you ever considered that?”
“I realise that the war has served you with a great injustice Mister Galbraith but you should tread with the utmost care in what you say and not judge all women by the standards of your own wife. I look forward to you having a word with your son.”
Johnny reached for the pistol he kept by his chair and pointed it above the reverend’s head.
“You wouldn’t shoot a man of God? Behave yourself man.”
Johnny fired the pistol into a tree.
“You’ll regret this”. The reverend already having turned his horse was riding away. “Mark my words Mister Galbraith, you will rue the day. Rue the day.”
At the age of thirty Fiona was still pretty, and anyone with eyes could see why Lord Inverstarck found her attractive.
It had started off innocently with Fiona covering Johnny’s work while he was away at war but it soon became something more between Fiona and the Laird (as the locals would refer to them in hushed tones). To be really truthful, Fiona had attempted to make things work between her and Johnny after he came home. She knew he had been injured but he had failed in his letters to mention the missing legs. Even they were not the problem; the real concern was the darkness that now ate at Johnny’s heart. The night she’d left for good, he had threatened to kill them both. She had only walked in the door and his ever-present gun was pointing straight at her.
“Why are you so angry?” She’d never dared ask him that before but with a gun pointing at her head, she didn’t feel she had that much to lose. He said nothing and put the gun back by the side of his chair. She went into the room, packed a small case and as she walked past him, he grabbed her wrist. “I love you” he said.
“I know”. He freed her and she walked out.
Fiona was exercising the horses when she felt a shadow cross her eye line. She didn’t have to look up for she knew who it would be, who it always was, her son Sammy. They no longer talked he would just sit on the hill and stare at her, something he did every day. She loved him but it had been such a long time since she had told him.
They had kept their word; he had been watched over every step of the way. The coffin had been placed in an oak casket and banded with iron and a medieval crusader’s sword.
The inscription read ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.
He would rest tonight in Victoria Station and tomorrow, the 11th of November 1920, he would travel to Westminster Abbey to lie at peace for ever.
Lord Inverstarck had expected to go directly to France. The troops had been stationary at the Somme for a very long time but there was also word that the Irish were planning an uprising and they wanted him at Dublin Castle before Easter, 1916. It was Fiona’s suggestion of a Ball in honour of his departing.
“You are the Laird and the islanders will want to have their goodbyes”.
She was right of course and he thanked God for Fiona but Inverstarck didn’t particularly care for the islanders or the island. He had been having a jolly time of it in London, living at the family apartments in Kensington, his plan had been to continue with the army for a few more years then move into banking. It had all been decided by Father while the boys were still at Harrow. Harry would take over the Lairdship of Annshal on his father’s death and Robert would remain at liberty.
No one had expected Harry to die so young.
So by default Robert was Lord Inverstarck and all that encompassed, most of which he had no taste or time for. Hereditary was hereditary and not even God could set that apart; to make the best of a problem was Robert’s philosophy. Still, there were compensations, the estate (if you included the properties in London) was relatively well off and Fiona was proving herself to be a beautiful distraction. If they could only rid themselves of that annoying husband of hers and the troublesome brat she had given birth to, things might take a turn for the better.
With any luck, Ireland would keep Robert occupied and there would be no reason to travel to France. He could be back in Annshal and in Fiona’s arms by autumn.
Robert McAnders, Lord Inverstarck of Annshal, was to report to Dublin Castle by the 1st of April, 1916 and so the Ball was arranged for the previous Saturday.
It was a dark early afternoon and there were still several weeks to go before the clocks were changed. This was the first time it had been tried and it kept the British in step with the Germans who were both in a bid to save daylight.
It was one of the few things that would be saved that year.
Everyone on Annshal was invited to the Laird’s farewell and all were expected to attend, that included men without legs and their sons. The Farewell Ball was Fiona’s first real challenge in the House and there was much to prove to herself and to the others. Proof that she was worthy of being at the Laird’s side (and not just in his bed), that she was more than just a grooms’ wife with ambitions and that she would make a worthy spouse to Robert – if that chance ever arose.
These were strange times, very strange indeed, and the old ways were crumbling in the hands of the islanders. In the past Fiona would never have been allowed such an important task as to arrange a party. She would have only been a badly kept secret but things had changed and who really knew what the world would become when the war was finally over.
The Staff, under the charge of Fiona, had done their jobs well. Inverstarck House had never looked more beautiful than it did that night with its face scrubbed and brightened by the snow.The paths were marked by large torches which could be seen from a mile away. Those who had the means arrived by coach and the rest on foot. Men from the mainland, who were not at war, were also invited and most of them made the effort to see the Laird off to Ireland. Robert McAnders was an influential man and one to be respected. It did them no harm, if they ended up in Ireland, to have the ear of the one of the governors of Dublin Castle.
Whether overlooked or by intention, no one had sent a pony and trap to the Galbraith’s cottage. Sammy saw this as a sign that they should stay away but Johnny was determined that they make an appearance. This had been the way of things before the war and in his mind, it still was – nothing had changed.
Sammy pushed his father’s wheelchair in silence as the snow built up in front of the wheels. This made the effort to move his father very strenuous. The chair would grind to a halt, Sammy would shove and then everything, including them, would shudder forwards. His father ignored his son’s discomfort. His boy had legs and as such, he should make use of them.
There was a time when Johnny Galbraith had been popular and it had suited him to be that way. A sociable and thick-skinned man was the only way to deal with the landed gentry that was how they played the game.
When Johnny had been brought home, the House had sent some horse tack over to be cleaned, probably at the request of Fiona, but he had taken this as a patronising gesture. His depression started in France, as it may have done for many men, but Johnny had found that the act of just opening his eyes after sleep took every sinew in his body. The sharp stab of realisation which followed dreams was one of the most painful parts of his life. Johnny wondered how many condemned men found a temporary solace in sleep and then a pain in awakening that burned at their very souls.
Some men were born for war and took it with an ease and perhaps such men were stupid or brave – Johnny was neither of those. He looked into the eyes of the men who were still to go to war and he noted their pity. It was obvious they couldn’t comprehend his pain. To them, all he had done was make a wrong turning into the forest of darkness but if he would only swing around and chose a different path, it would lead him to back to the light. For those who know depression it is not about taking the wrong road, it is about the ground swallowing you up whole.
On the train journey home he would constantly stare down, always at the floor, never wanting to catch sight of someone smiling or even worse laughing, for in that lay contamination. He had to protect his anger. His anger helped him survive.
The drive in front of the House was not built to accommodate a wheelchair so Sammy pushed his father around to the back. It was here that the party was centred. The pipers stood in the snow playing a merry tune and would continue for several hours before they were allowed time in front of a large fire and a dram of whisky. There was a blast of heat and the smell of drink as some of the Highland dancers reeled their way on to the snowy courtyard and back through the large door.
Inside the House Inverstarck held court, yet always circling within reach was Fiona who would not be presumptive enough to stand next to him.
In one corner of the ballroom were the Reverend Winters and his beautiful daughter, Isla. It had been the intention of the Reverend to keep her at home that evening but, as his wife had stated, if Isla was not exposed to the more gentile society of Annshal then she would continue to make contact with the lower classes. The Reverend agreed but with one proviso, Isla was to move no more than two feet from his side.
What the Reverend Winters failed to observe was how much Sammy and Isla were in love. They had known each other almost all of their lives and instinctively knew what the other was thinking. She had seen other boys and he had kissed most of the other girls on the island, but in the end they always found each other, like magnets in a fog.
All Isla had to do was look towards a door and Sammy knew what she meant. She whispered something into her father’s ear and he reluctantly waved her away.
“Are you all right here father?” asked Sammy, never taking his eyes from Isla.
“Be quick Sammy, whatever it is, I don’t think my presence is much appreciated and keep away from that old goat Winters.”
Sammy found a large heating stone by one of the fires and placed it under his father’s chair, to hold it fast.
“I won’t be long.”
“See that you aren’t.” His father was decidedly agitated.
Isla and Sammy found sanctuary in a small cupboard in the upper floor and closed the door on all their problems.
There was much about that evening to keep Johnny looking at the well polished floor: people were dancing, smiling and laughing, everything that he had once enjoyed but had buried in France. Still, he had to be here even if it was only to see Fiona. When they say that war is expensive they rarely mean the ammunition.
Inverstarck was called upon to make a speech about how the estate was in safe hands, Johnny wondered if this meant Fiona.And then it happened, Robert McAnders called Fiona to his side. Whether it was his imminent departure or a foolish action fuelled by drink the result was the same. He was letting the world know that this was his woman and in front of her own husband. Even the Reverend’s jaw dropped.
What was going through Johnny’s mind could only be guessed at, but there he was sitting in his chair and pointing the gun at Inverstarck.
For a few moments no one moved then two things happened simultaneously. Fiona stood in front of Inverstarck whispering ‘he won’t shoot me’ and the other thing was a servant made a leap towards Johnny’s gun causing it to fire.
The blood gushed from Fiona’s chest as she fell.
In the cupboard on the upper floor, Sammy and Isla were so caught up in the act of making love that they were oblivious to the noise of the first gunshot.
They did not make that same mistake with the second one.
It was a crisp, cold November day and the crowd pulled in their coats tightly around them. A general silence descended as the coffin rolled by drawn by six horses on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery. As the cortege turned at Hyde Park Corner shoulders moved up and down and some sobbing escaped, a young voice cried out, ‘Goodbye Dad’.
When he arrived at Whitehall and after King George 5th unveiled the Cenotaph, there was a two-minute silence. Then he drifted homeward to Westminster Abbey where he was carried to his final resting place guarded by one hundred holders of the Victoria Cross. Earth from several battlefields was placed in the grave including several barrel loads from Ypres; it would let him feel at home and in the Abbey, he need never be alone again.
For seven days his grave lay covered by a silk funeral pall. One week later, a temporary stone sealed his grave and on it was written:
“A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This.”
Only a handful turned up at the funeral, Isla was there of course and her father, who led the service, but most of the islanders stayed away. Not because they disliked Johnny but they felt it would displease Lord Inverstarck who had since left the island for Dublin. He had sent word to the hospital in Glasgow that Fiona should receive the best of care and that he would pay all her bills, and that was the end of that as far as Inverstarck was concerned.
Sammy was sad that he never got to say goodbye to his father. By the time both he and Isla had heard the gunshot and appeared in the ballroom, his mother’s wounds were being tended to and his father body was lying slumped over the chair bloodied and alone. No one was taking care of him. The ballroom had been cleared of everyone apart from Inverstarck and a few servants. It was obvious now that his father must have assumed he’d accidentally killed Fiona and then turned the gun on himself.
Sammy had an emptiness that gnawed at his stomach and finished in his heart. He felt alone and dizzy and he was just about to topple into the grave when Isla gripped his hand hard and pulled him back from the edge of several dark things. One of those dark things was the thought he was having about killing Inverstarck.
Isla guided Sammy away from the Churchyard, holding his hand for the very first time in public. She looked at her father daring him to object but instead Winters cleared snow from Johnny Galbraith’s grave and let a tear fall from his eye. The minister was as only as strong as the enemies he had.
Sammy and Isla went back to his house and lay by the fire holding each other until the sun came up yet, peaceful as this was, nothing could erase the cancerous thought that was eating at his brain. He must kill the Laird, this, the man who had stolen his mother and caused his father’s death and who had fled to Ireland without visiting her in hospital in Glasgow. The Laird would be better off dead.
“Are you feeling happier my wee lamb?” asked Isla while stroking her boy’s hair.
“I am now.”
Isla smiled, completely misunderstanding the comment.
On the first day alone 40,000 people had come to visit him when the Abbey doors finally closed at 11pm. By the following year there had been millions. On November the 11th, 1921 a slab of black Belgium marble was used to finally seal the tomb. Engraved on the marble, in brass made from melted ammunition, was a further inscription which ended with the lines:
“THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
Sleep well my friend, sleep well.
Isla had so much to tell Sammy yet his mind seemed to be elsewhere. He was agitated and continued to talk about leaving. She felt if the war continued as it had done he would be leaving soon enough.
A week after his father’s funeral, he did leave. There was a ferry that went from Glasgow to Dublin and called in at several islands on the way. It only stopped at Annshal once every three weeks and today was that day. Sammy packed his bag and wrote a letter to Isla. She would find it propped up beside the fireplace when she called looking for him. He took a Bible and a silver chain to which was attached a blue medallion. Sammy’s father had been given it by his mother to pass on to his sweetheart. His father, Johnny, had given it to Fiona who had left it at the cottage on the night she packed her bags.
He also wrote a letter to his mother, one he been composing most of the night. This too was to be left on the fireplace but when the time came, he ripped the letter in half and threw it onto the fire.
He lifted a shirt that belonged to his father, took in the smell of the man who was no more, then walked out of the cottage.He may have been too long looking around for as he arrived at the pier the ferry was already leaving.
If he didn’t go now, he knew that holding on to that much hate for several more weeks would destroy him. He swung his bag over his shoulder and ran as fast as he could. Sammy flew down the pier and when that ran out, he jumped the ten or so feet to the edge of the paddle steamer. He just made it, and as the ferry was leaving the harbour, Sammy found himself holding on to the side of the boat for dear life.
“Give me your hand boy and I’ll help you up”.
Sammy couldn’t make the face out at first as the low winter sun was blinding his eyes.
“Come on now.”
Sammy reached out and caught the man’s hand. It was strong and it pulled him up the side of the ferry without a struggle.
“The name’s Shamus.” He said.
If only Sammy had listened to his instincts and not grabbed that hand.
bobby stevenson 2017
Photo of Annshal island (Arran) taken by Tom Stevenson