Scotland’s War

 A Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War, by Trevor Royle (published by Birlinn, 2011) – this article published today at Think Scotland

If you have never seen the view into the valley of the Clyde from the hills above Greenock, then that is something wonderful you have yet to experience in life.  With the sun shining and a gentle breeze tugging at the yellow whins, you can see the blue river snaking down from Glasgow, past Dumbarton Rock, and Ben Lomond looming like an iceberg on the horizon; you can see it as it flows toward you growing wider, the channel of its navigable waters neatly pegged out like a putting green, red to port, green to starboard, all the delicate way between yawning sandbanks; and over your left shoulder now there’s the Tail o’ the Bank, where the water turns salty, then lazily moves south round the headland of Gourock and opens out into the mouth of the Firth, with Largs, Troon, Turnberry and the Ailsa Craig, and all the promises of fish teas and ice cream which those sunlit pavilions have to offer.

Across the water from you now are the Holy Loch, Loch Long and Gare Loch, where you could hide seventeen Royal Navy Frigates like so many kilted Jacobites in moorland heather: because you can see clearly now from where you’re standing, plain as the nose on your face, that these are some of the best natural harbours anywhere in the world, bar nowhere.  This is a home for giants: where ships were incubated then born onto the river like calving glaciers; and spread out before you it is a natural amphitheatre as glorious in its way as the view over Edinburgh from the North Bridge.

The mighty channel is usually empty these days apart from the occasional dredger heading up to Glasgow, or the quaint sight of the Waverley ploughing the waters like a mechanical swan.  Indeed on a day like this, with the sun in the sky, the waters and shores look natural and clean: fish swim far upriver and razorbills and oystercatchers perch along the banks; but sprawling supermarket complexes and burger joints now fill the void of what was once the vast grimy, noisy, relentless, unceasing, ceased to exist glory – the clanging heart – that was shipbuilding on the lower Clyde.

Close your eyes; go back over seventy years to 1940 and the scene before you when you open them again is very different.  I have mischievously convinced my four year old daughter that the world before 1980 was entirely black and white, but in this instance it’s not hard to believe that the sky and the sea would have been a little less blue, the grass a little less green, the air thick with grey smoke and coal dust.  In those days the Clyde was a seething mass of shipping, with every conceivable vessel butting its way through the choppy waters, crossing and crisscrossing before you like scars on a riveter’s glove.  Or as Trevor Royle describes the scene in A Time of Tyrants:

“Not only was the Tail of the Bank home to some of the warships of the Free French Navy, together with 1,500 of their sailors at Fort Matilda, but as the assembly point for Atlantic convoys it meant that the waters ‘held the biggest small boat pool in Great Britain with French, Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian and other vessels.  Greenock was as a consequence highly internationalised then and each of its public houses a veritable Babel.’”

In those days of war the Clyde was alive with ships: so alive, in fact, that the Nazis knew that it had to be addressed through bombing raids; and so first Clydebank and then Greenock received their share of the bombs.  As Royle describes, 35,000 people were made homeless in Clydebank and 528 killed, while in Greenock and Port Glasgow the figure was 320, with hundreds more seriously injured.  There was tragedy and high drama, but I also remember the story of the Tate and Lyle factory on Greenock’s Drumfrochar Road being bombed, and molten sugar running down the cobbled streets: why do I always imagine ragged schoolboys delightedly following its lava-like course?

It’s rather difficult today to bring to mind the Scotland of the Second World War, since so much has changed both here and abroad.  That’s why it takes a past master like Trevor Royle to tell us the story: to lead us through the people, the politics, the honour and the sacrifice of the most important period of the twentieth century, and the immense involvement of Scots and Scotland in that global struggle.  Following on from his successful appraisal of The Great War in The Flowers of the Forest, A Time of Tyrants has been thoroughly researched by Royle in the National Archives of Scotland, the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh: providing him with material which he has then knitted into a seamless account of the period in a lucid and engaging style.

There are, of course, many single volume histories of the Second World War (for example those by Anthony Beevor, Andrew Roberts or Sir Max Hastings, all published in the last twelve months) and very good they are too: however A Time of Tyrants looks at the phenomenon of the War both within Scotland at that time and as contributed to by Scots across the globe.  It is, therefore, both a unique and important contribution to our stock of knowledge of the period.

If I had one small criticism, however, it would be this:  it seems to me that the history would have benefited more from real stories from the war: for example where is the dramatic explosion of the Free French destroyer Maille Breze off Greenock?  Where is Bill Millen, piper to Lord Simon Fraser the fifteenth Earl of Lovat, who on D-Day heroically played The Road to the Isles on Sword Beach and survived only because the German snipers assumed he had lost his mind?  But these are mere trifles, interesting whimsies, compared to the hard work of Royle’s impressive and wide ranging achievement.

The book is available from Birlinn publishers here: and if this has whetted your appetite for some stunning photographs of the Clyde, you’ll find many at Gerard Watt’s excellent River Clyde photography website here.

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