Museum unveils new Commonwealth war exhibition

The Liverpool Scottish, known diminutively as "the Scottish". Picture: Wikipedia/CC
The Liverpool Scottish, known diminutively as "the Scottish". Picture: Wikipedia/CC
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A NEW exhibition this summer at the National Museum of Scotland tells the stories of the Scottish diaspora and the war experiences of Commonwealth nations during the First World War.

Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War coincides with the Commonwealth Games and the Year of Homecoming as well as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Private James Crichton Victorian Cross. Picture: contributed

Private James Crichton Victorian Cross. Picture: contributed

The exhibiton will show how objects can reflect plural identities and profound war experiences, from the Victoria Cross presented to an Ulster Scot who fought for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to the springbok ‘Nancy’, mascot of the 4th South African infantry (also known as the South African Scottish).

In 1914, as the world prepared for war, thousands of men in Scotland enlisted for military service. But across the world, in the countries of the British empire where Scottish emigrants had settled, thousands more joined up. Men of Scottish birth and kin became part of the armed forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Meanwhile, in the cities of England, resident Scotsmen joined local battalions which expressed traditional Scottish military identity.

‘Emigration and military service’

Through poignant objects on loan from some of the countries where Scots had made new lives, as well as newsreel footage and photography, the exhibition explores how war and loss was experienced and commemorated in different parts of the Commonwealth.

Dr Stuart Allan, Principal Curator of Scottish Late Modern collections at National Museums Scotland, said: “The relationship between emigration and military service is part of the story of the Scottish diaspora which academics and museums have only recently begun to look at again. Common Cause is a timely reflection on the relationship between Scottish identity, the experience of war and the emerging national identities of Commonwealth countries where Scots settled in large numbers, countries which made such a significant contribution to the war effort.”

‘Lasting social and civic legacy’

External Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf believes the exhibition is important to highlight the impact the First world War had on Scotland and the Commonwealth, he said: “So many Scots at home and around the world will have their own stories about how their own families and communities were affected by the First World War.

“Throughout the centenary period we will be encouraging people of all ages across Scotland and those around the world with links to Scotland to recognise the significant and broad impact the First World War had on our nation, its people and its diaspora, and to reflect on its lasting social and civic legacy and its truly global nature.

“This fascinating exhibition will support the Scottish Commemorations Panel’s ambition to provide opportunities for people to learn about the First World War in meaningful ways, enabling them to explore the resonance of the war and its aftermath to contemporary life in Scotland and beyond. The Scottish Government is proud to support the exhibition, and I urge everyone with the opportunity to come and see it.”

Nancy the springbok

One of the more unusual exhibits will be Nancy the springbok doe, on loan from Ditsong National Museum of Military History in South Africa. Nancy was presented by a well-wisher to the volunteers of the Scottish battalion which formed part of the South African Brigade for overseas service. The 4th South African Infantry or ‘South African Scottish’ wore kilts and bonnets, and had a pipe band. But they paraded ‘Nancy’ at the fore on ceremonial occasions, and took the mascot with them to the Western Front as a symbol of their dual identity.

Nancy survived three years on the Western Front, kept in relative safety close behind the trenches. In a bombardment, the springbok sustained an injury to its horn, which afterwards grew out of shape.When Nancy died two weeks after the end of the war, a military funeral was held. The skin was preserved, stuffed and mounted and returned to South Africa for presentation to Sir William Dalrymple, the Scottish-born Witwatersrand mine owner who had founded the battalion with the support of South Africa’s Caledonian societies.

Private James Crichton

There were Scottish reserve regiments in New Zealand, but Scottish identity emerged only informally in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force of 1914-18. One man who was identified strongly as a Scot was Private James Crichton, 2nd Battalion Auckland Regiment. Crichton served at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front.

During the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive in 1918, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for ‘conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’. Thanks to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, with support from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, the VC medal is being loaned for the duration of the exhibition.

Multiple identities and global mobility

Crichton’s story represents the multiple identities and global mobility of Scottish migration. He was an Ulster Scot, born in Ireland. His family migrated to Scotland, where he went to school and worked as a miner in West Lothian. He joined the British army and served in the South African War with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Later work as a cable-layer took him to Canada, Australia and finally New Zealand.

The exhibition will feature loans from Canada, Australia and England and items from the collections of National Museums Scotland. The exhibition will be accompanied by a book, Common Cause, published by National Museums Scotland Enterprises, price £14.99.

National Museums Scotland will present a programme of events, exhibitions and activities throughout the years of the centenary. Another exhibition, Next of Kin, is at the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle until March 2015 before touring several museums across Scotland. It uses personal objects and mementoes to tell a series of individual stories of people and families affected by the First World War.

Friday 11 July - Sunday 12 October 2014

National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Admission free