ST COLUMBA’S is the parish Church of Scotland in Lerwick, and is known as “da muckle kirk” across the Islands. It is the venue for frequent weddings, funerals, the Sunday service, guild teas and on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of the 11th, the Remembrance service. The parade was bigger than for many years with more people at the War Memorial next to Lerwick’s imposing Town Hall and more poppies on lapels.
I mused on why the poppy was so much in evidence with some well-appointed members of Shetland society as we followed the parade to the Kirk. The enormous news coverage of the home nations football teams wearing a poppy on their international shirts had raised awareness of this year’s commemoration events. The UK government’s banning of a nutty group who wanted to burn poppies also fuelled the news agenda.
I suggested that being banned by Home Secretary Teresa May was not likely to diminish the status of an organisation, no matter how odd or downright repugnant. Had everyone, particularly an embattled Home Secretary needing a good news story, simply ignored them the country would have never noticed.
In St Columba’s Church the speaking podium is a beautifully hand-carved wooden prow of a Norse galley. So as the congregation listened to the readings, I thought of Shetland’s historical and enduring ties to Norway, the Shetland Bus and the many brave men who ferried commandos, Norwegians, arms and goods across the North Sea and into Nazi-occupied Norway.
How are such incredible feats of bravery to be remembered and what stops the remorseless passage of time which means fewer and fewer are able to parade to the country’s war memorials?
Britain’s armed forces are actively deployed and veterans of these continuing conflicts are a fact of 2011 Scotland. In a recent, unusually thoughtful Scottish parliamentary debate these matters got a well-deserved if completely unreported airing. Should Scotland have an Albert Hall-style Festival of Remembrance? A limited dry-run took place recently in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall to raise money for Poppy Scotland. In truth, despite a varied programme and the excellence of the capital’s Jubilo Choir, the attendance numbered in the low hundreds rather than a capacity sell-out.
So selling tickets in Scotland for such an event looks a tall order. A different approach is to accept that the march of Father Time is not helpful despite Edinburgh being the only UK capital to be without a Festival. Three such smaller events do happen in Scottish towns and are run by the Royal British Legion but they face considerable challenges in keeping them going.
Poppy Scotland have instead initiated great work in augmenting the school curriculum to recognise armed conflicts and what they mean for the freedoms we take for granted. They have provided materials for primary school teachers to use as part of the Curriculum for Excellence and this parent can attest to the benefits of this approach.
My 11-year-old phoned after one school day to declare that the family would be going to Normandy next summer as he had been studying the D-Day landings and wanted to see Sword Beach, the British cemetery at Bayeux and where Saving Private Ryan was filmed. We did as instructed and mixed holiday with history, innumerable military museums and even the odd tapestry.
So Poppy Scotland are concentrating on how best they can ensure the next generation learns and thus does not forget. That is achieved by education, learning and encouraging inquiring minds. Lively news coverage and a row over football shirts all helped to sell poppies too. A win-win for all concerned.
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland