Jane Anderson: Don't wait for centenary to visit National Memorial

Next month marks the centenary of the initiation of a project at the heart of Scottish culture and heritage.

The Battle of the Somme is remembered at the National Memorial

The 8th Duke of Atholl wrote to The Scotsman and other papers proposing a National War Memorial for Scotland. Although this may seem strange before the end of the war, there was already ample evidence of suffering and loss.

The project progressed through the ­bureaucratic channels –in October 1918, the ­Secretary of State, ­Robert Munro, approved the site of ­Edinburgh Castle and appointed a committee of 25, chaired by Atholl, and in April 1919 Sir Robert Lorimer was chosen as architect. His aim was to ­create “a building which will stir ­emotion by the austere beauty of its proportion and by ­perfection of materials and craftsmanship”, something the final building amply ­demonstrates.

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In January 1920, the ­fundraising appeal was launched: “If any spot is marked out by nature and history for the dedication of a shrine in memory of men and woman of Scottish birth or connection who died for King and Country, it is surely the capital of Scotland and in that capital, the castle.”

During the next three years funds were raised, incurring opposition from those, such as Lord Rosebery, who felt money should be spent on the living. In December 1922, scaffolding was erected so the Ancient Monuments board could consider possible ­alterations to the building under their care.

Huge controversy broke out, concerning both altering the castle skyline and the ­perceived lack of ­consultation, though Atholl felt there first should be definite ­proposals to debate.

Atholl met this opposition head on, strengthening his committee and producing an information leaflet. Lorimer adapted his design to take account of comments and on 18 January, 1923, Atholl addressed one of the leading objectors, the Cockburn Society and convinced them of the merits of the plans, which were finally passed in March. The contractor, Neil McLeod, was appointed in November.

The artists were selected by Lorimer; Douglas ­Strachan was responsible for stained glass windows showing motifs relevant to the units remembered, such as the Navy and RAF. The main sculptor was Pilkington Jackson, who carved the lion on top of the shrine, and the ­figure of Reveille with a ­broken sword at the door. Many of the emotive bronze friezes were modelled by Alice Meredith Williams, with Phyllis Bone contributing those of animals. The ­casket with the names of the fallen was designed by ­Lorimer himself.

To fully appreciate the depth of emotion evoked by this work, a visit to the shrine is necessary. No one need wait until the centenary in 1927; although there is a charge to view the rest of the castle, it is everyone’s right to visit the National Memorial free of charge.

It is indeed a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in war and is part of Scotland’s heritage that should be better known and appreciated.

Jane Anderson lives in ­Strathbraan, Perthshire. She is former archivist to Atholl Estates.