The isle where just one man re­turned from war

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By Bill Caven

AS they gath­ered on the is­land of Colon­say, the 17-strong group of men paid an emo­tional farewell to their fam­i­lies be­fore leav­ing to serve their coun­try in the Great War.

But when it came to the home­com­ing, only one of them re­turned.

And in the case of the sole sur­vivor, An­gus McPhee, who had pre­vi­ously worked as a deck­hand be­fore go­ing off to war, he too died shortly af­ter­wards, trau­ma­tised by the ter­ri­fy­ing sights and sounds he had wit­nessed that had claimed his friends’ lives.

It is a story borne out else­where, par­tic­u­larly in and around many of the other is­land com­mu­ni­ties such as Fair Isle, Lewis and Scal­pay – all dev­as­tated by the scars of war and the loss of lives.

Kevin Byrne, a his­to­rian liv­ing on Colon­say, said: ‘This is an agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity, so a lot of peo­ple would have been in re­served oc­cu­pa­tions, but what we do know is that 16 men died, and among them were three pairs of broth­ers.

‘As far as we know there was only one, An­gus McPhee, who re­turned here, but he died not long af­ter.’

To­day many of the 135 in­hab­i­tants on the is­land will once again gather to com­mem­o­rate Ar­mistice Day.

Else­where, at Loch Glen­coul in Suther­land, Bri­tain’s most re­mote war me­mo­rial bears only the names of broth­ers Wil­liam and Alistair El­liot.

Wil­liam, a stalker on the Duke of West­min­ster’s Reay Es­tate, served as a cor­po­ral with the Cameron High­landers in France and at Gal­lipoli but was struck down by in­fluenza and died on March 29, 1917.

Alistair, 24, had left Glen­coul and was work­ing as a bank clerk in Glas­gow when the war be­gan. He later be­came a Lance Cor­po­ral in the High­land Light In­fantry and was killed on April 12, 1918, at Neuve Eglise, Bel­gium, and his body was never re­cov­ered.

His name is in­scribed on the me­mo­rial in nearby Ploeg­steert.

The broth­ers grew up in the now empty es­tate cot­tage that lies in the shadow of the me­mo­rial. Poignantly the sec­ond Duke, a distin­guished WWI com­man­der, was so moved by the broth­ers’ tragedy that he paid for the me­mo­rial by the cot­tage. The Duke’s fam­ily suf­fered their own tragedy when Lord Hugh Wil­liam Grosvenor, son of the 1st Duke, was killed on the Zand­vo­orde Ridge near Ypres.

The me­mo­rial was restored four years ago by the late 6th Duke whose son-in-law, TV his­to­rian Dan Snow, makes an an­nual pil­grim­age there.

Mean­while, the names of the Scots who died in the war will be pro­jected to­day onto the Scot­tish par­lia­ment build­ing in Ed­in­burgh, the most ac­cu­rate fig­ure for the death toll yet.

A list of 134,712 names has been com­piled by Lieu­tenant Colonel Roger Binks, who spent five years up­dat­ing en­tries in the Na­tional War Me­mo­rial’s rolls of hon­our.

But he warned: ‘I don’t be­lieve there is an ab­so­lute fig­ure. I don’t think there ever can be.’

Pic­ture: FRiEndS OF COLOn­SAY

ROLL OF HON­OUR: Neil McMil­lan, left, was one of 16 Colon­say sons lost

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