Shared dedication to a worthy cause

THEY are sitting at their workbenches trading banter, man-sized fingers deftly twisting and tweaking red paper petals and plastic together to make the distinctive flowers destined for lapels up and down the land.

On the walls behind them are hundreds of photographs, assorted military memorabilia, cheeky cartoons and, one of them proudly points out, touching letters of thanks from the schoolchildren who come to visit and whose first eager question is always: "Have you ever killed anyone?"

And everywhere, on the floor and on worktops, are piles of boxes stuffed full with some of the five million remembrance poppies, made here in Edinburgh, now ready to be sent across Scotland.

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This no-frills factory in Warriston Road is where the unique "buttonhole brigade" – the tiny troop of ex-servicemen who make the nation's remembrance poppies and wreaths – do their duty to those who, like them, served their country and returned home to families and friends, and to others who paid the ultimate price in blood.

Five million poppies, 9,500 wreaths, churned out every year – a laborious, time consuming task for hands which once pulled triggers, which in their day took on the enemy and which may well have helped haul injured mates to safety.

Most of this year's poppy quota has already left Lady Haig's Poppy Factory. Just a handful of tasks remain outstanding as the clock ticks down to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the poppy makers will, like the rest of us, down tools to stand in deep, respectful silence to remember.

Among them will be poppy maker Tom McPhillips. Quietly spoken, his military training can't prevent his voice catching as he explains how this task – which to many might seem dull and repetitive – has changed his life.

Tom, 64, served in Aden in the Sixties with the Royal Corps of Signals, he explains. He was 18 years old and had never been on a plane before yet suddenly he was in Yemen, watching colleagues leap from the back of moving lorries fearing they were under attack from bomb-throwing children.

He was there when Lieutenant Colonel Colin "Mad Mitch" Mitchell defiantly led soldiers into the Crater area of Aden in July 1967 – 24 squaddies had earlier been killed by insurgents and the bodies of three Argylls dragged through the streets and mutilated.

They were dark days, but Tom has another reason to ensure those who fight are not forgotten.

"I lost a nephew a year ago," he says suddenly. "He was one of the most decorated soldiers.

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"Afghanistan. He was there with bomb disposal. He defused 11 bombs in a single day. He knew troops were coming in, it had to be done."

His nephew was father-of-four Gary O'Donnell, a man described as being "as brave as a lion" who recently received a second George Medal for "repeated and sustained acts of immense bravery".

The Edinburgh-born Sergeant Major of the Royal Logistics Corp was killed in September 2008. He was 40.

"He had soldiers with him who needed to get through," says his uncle sadly. "He was an amazing guy. A real hero. Those lads out there, what they go through . . . you can't praise them enough."

The factory seems a long way from the Afghan battlefields, yet Tom tells how the jolly banter and inter-regimental jibes fall silent on the days when the factory manager Charlie Pelling announces news of another life cut short.

"The place goes very quiet," adds Tom, of Stockbridge. "Most people don't want to talk. We just put our heads down and get on with things. Some will wipe away a tear – you can't help but feel it."

He came to the factory five years ago after struggling to cope after losing his wife to cancer. "I was drifting. I didn't want to go out.

"I started here and there was an immediate change. I was around people who knew what it was like, I could talk to them even if it is just having a go at each other. It's changed my life."

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Today, Tom is also the factory's tour guide, responsible for showing primary school visitors the background to the poppy symbol. Later they send him touching poems, drawings and thank-you letters which he admits bring a lump to his throat. He pins them to a wall so everyone can see how a new generation is learning to respect the sacrifices on their behalf.

Nearby sits Jimmy Skinner, 68, from Joppa, who has giant hands which look as if they could barely grip a paper poppy without crushing it to dust, yet he churns out hundreds every day.

He joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1958, did three years and was heading home when he met some chaps who were serving with the Queen's Own Highlanders. They were talking of going to Singapore and suddenly Jimmy was signed up as a private. "I didn't know I'd be heading to the jungle in Borneo for 18 months," he groans.

His battalion fought with the Gurkhas, tackling communist and Indonesian rebels in inhospitable and unforgiving terrain. Fighting was sometimes at close range and it was bloody. "It was bayonet work," he says, simply.

Years later Jimmy was working at a camp for children's charity the RSPCC when he was in a rock climbing accident which damaged his back. He thought his working life had ended until a friend suggested the poppy factory.

"It gave me hope," he says. "I threw away my crutches. Doctors said I'd struggle to walk again, but here I am."

Factory manager Charlie, who served in the Royal Tank Regiment from 1978 to 2001, says the poppy makers share a unique bond: "Because they are all ex-servicemen, they share a common sense of humour. There is a lot of banter goes on which is, let's just say, 'robust and direct'."

At another bench sits the youngest poppy maker, 41-year-old Andy Farr. If things had turned out differently, he would just have been ending nearly 25 years' service. Instead he suffered a stroke just a year before he was due to be discharged.

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"I was a quartermaster sergeant with the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, training soldiers, going on exercises, that kind of thing," he recalls.

"I'd just been on a three-mile run. I was drinking coffee when one lad noticed it was coming out the side of my mouth. As soon as they said 'stroke' I knew I wasn't going to instruct again," he recalls.

Andy, from Kirkcaldy, was transferred to Redford Barracks but last year suffered a bigger stroke which brought his military career to an abrupt end.

"This is a halfway house for me," he admits. "I'm 41, I can't do this forever. But this has been somewhere to work while I get better.

"This job, this place, it means more to us than civilians might imagine," he adds. "They might have relatives in war zones, but we've been in them."

While the factory provides work for ex-military personnel, Andy stresses there is a much bigger task at hand – raising vital funds to support ex-military personnel.

"All people need to do is give, say, 1," he points out. "It's not that much and it's pretty much the only thing a lot of people can do to show how they feel."

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IT WAS April 1915 when Canadian medical officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row", the inspiration for a national symbol of remembrance.

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The Lady Poppy Factory was established in 1926 with just two workers, a pair of scissors and a piece of paper. Eventually there was a list of 330 men who wished to be employed by the factory.

Ian McGregor, CEO of the charity, points out it is more than a place that churns out symbols of remembrance.

"This place gives the men who work here dignity in labour," he says.

"They are also producing a product that raises a lot of money – 2m last year – to help Scottish service veterans.

"It's not all about remembering the past, it's about today and the men and women who are serving now and those who are not coming out of it all undamaged."

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