The Anniversary

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As Jenny pinned a rosebud cut fresh from the garden onto her frock, she remembered standing in this scullery for the very first time exactly a year ago. Then, she had been an excited bride clutching a posy of lily-of-the-valley tied up with blue haberdasher’s ribbon.

Now, she thought, Arthur and she were a very ordinary couple living very ordinary lives. But back then at the Locarno, a time that seemed so long ago, her first impression was that he was like a god, so tall and fair. Arthur, in reality a hardworking clerk for Henry Hughes & Hughes, had come along mainly to keep his friend Sidney company and it was he who suggested they ask the two laughing dark-haired girls to dance.

The band struck up ‘Happy Feet’ and Arthur asked his dancing partner if she’d ever heard Jack Hylton & His Orchestra play. She hadn’t but smiled anyway, a lovely, natural smile, Arthur thought.

For the rest of that summer, they walked out together and eventually Jenny took Arthur home to meet her parents. Her father, a porter at Covent Garden fruit market, took him out into their tiny back yard and, while puffing on a venerable pipe, grilled the polite young man before him on his intentions towards his eldest daughter.

The Dickens family was a large one and Jenny’s mother often struggled to keep poverty from the door. Arthur however was the only child of a comfortably off couple originally from Kent. Although his mother doted on him, Arthur Charlesworth Snr took care to instill in his son a keen awareness of life’s responsibilities.

Soon enough, they were officially engaged. Their world was bounded by the busy drag that was Streatham High Road. They saw a Jack Buchanan film in the Odeon’s cheap seats and caught the trolleybus to Streatham Hill to watch ‘Murder in Mayfair’ at the theatre. There were some half-hearted tennis lessons and long walks, hand in hand, with stolen kisses in the shrubberies of the Common. And on Jenny’s twenty-first birthday, they spent a magical evening at Crystal Palace where Jenny squealed with pleasure (and Arthur held her tight) as they rode the newest showground ride at Thurston’s Fair.

The wedding was a quiet affair but the men of both families rolled back the carpet at Leigham Avenue, the groom’s family home.

Arthur brought a blush to his new mother-in-law’s cheeks with an energetic foxtrot and Jenny thought she would never have a day so happy as this one in her whole life.

And now here she was, daydreaming, when she had still to make the sandwiches for today’s outing. Plain ham for her and some English mustard spread on top for Arthur. Two crisp green apples, along with a flask of tea, were already packed in the basket.

To celebrate their first anniversary, Arthur had suggested taking the early train down to Brighton and making a day of it at the coast. Jenny knew that the wind-up gramophone would accompany them, as it did everywhere, and she’d tucked a record of ‘Happy Feet’ into its lid. No matter if Arthur thought her sentimental – she still remembered that first dance.

She wore her favourite blue frock but had replaced the rather tired collar with one she’d sewn out of some pretty lace. And on her slim feet were new shoes bought at Pratt’s Department Store which she felt showed off her ankles to perfection.

Arthur’s colleagues would scarcely have recognised him. Day in and day out dressed in a drab grey suit, he was today resplendent in tan knickerbockers, matching argyle patterned socks and co-respondent shoes. Jenny thought what a very handsome husband she had and how lucky they were to have each other.

As they sat on the train together, she considered when the best moment would be to break her news to him. Perhaps after they’d had their first cup of tea on the beach or when the gramophone was playing their favourite song.

Catching her reflection in the window, Jenny saw that Arthur was smiling at her and as she turned, he reached out his hand to take hers.

Arts, Stories

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what price beauty mono

I was walking past the Shelter shop in Raeburn Place when something caught my eye. In the middle of the window display was a vintage mannequin bust. She was naked but for a string of pearls with a price tag hanging from them. Her head was bald, her maquillage only slightly faded. But the most striking thing about her was her beauty and how lifelike she was. I looked at her from every angle I could, pressing my nose against the window (never be self-conscious about these things if you’re serious about photography!). Eventually I found an angle that would give scarcely any reflection. The sunlight fell on her slightly upturned face and threw the rest of the display into shadow.

I took only a couple of shots and this was one of them. In colour, she was beautiful but unexceptional. But in black and white, the starkness of her beauty shone out. Her eyes seemed beseeching, her cheekbones as sharp as a whetting knife.

Out of all my photos, this is probably my absolute favourite. I never gave the mannequin a name, although I know that her owner does. I’ve since seen her dressed in many different outfits, but never to me did she look more beautiful than the day she was clad only in pearls at a price.

Martine peeking

Martine was a French lady who came to visit friends in Edinburgh for a few weeks each summer. My French is terrible these days and she didn’t have an extensive grasp of the English language, but we nodded amiably to each other – Ca va? ~ Ca va bien, merci. She had a wonderfully mobile face and I knew I wanted to capture some of her facial expressions.

In the small back room of the Gramophone Emporium in St Stephen’s Street, there was a hubbub of conversation which Martine was struggling to follow. Suddenly, someone asked her a question. As she leaned forward to listen, I took this picture. The light in the room was very bad, not to mention being so crowded, my elbows were welded to my sides as I lifted the camera and I wasn’t sure I had caught the moment.

When I showed her this photo later, she was amused – C’est moi! Oh! – and didn’t mind a bit.

My grateful thanks to the manager of the Shelter shop for his inspirational mannequin.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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The Xtraordinary Letter X

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X is an extraordinary letter. Or even Xtraordinary if you’re über-cool. I’d say that a browse through the mercifully short X section of a dictionary is never time wasted. My own discovery of X came when I was looking for Scrabble Animals.

Ed: That’s another story, you promised you wouldn’t article hop, so let’s not go anywhere near board games again, OK?

My Concise OED, which cost me six quid – because I can’t afford the 20 volume set and my bookshelves are groaning – came to me shamefully unbattered. I’ve done my best since to make it feel wanted by anointing it with coffee and doughnut debris. At any rate, there are just two pages allocated to the 24th letter of the Latin alphabet – X. The third most rarely used letter in the English language.

The consonant X (Xi or chi) was a late addition to the Greek language and virtually all the words we have today can be traced back to that ancient culture. But lest we feel at all xenophobic (xenophobia: ‘strange, foreign, stranger’), let’s talk about the things that the letter X on its own stands for.

Ed: I take it we’re not referencing reclining Buddhas or Ozymandias then? And that was a pretty lame segue into xenophobia, if you don’t mind me saying so.

It transforms a mundane 2010 into the rather elegant MMX. It’s the first unknown and the first co-ordinate in algebra and geometry respectively. Should I crack a joke here about first among equals? No, in view of the look the editor’s giving me, maybe not.

X marks the spot; it’s all the kisses you ever wanted; it’s those films you can’t go to as a kid, it’s the mark of those unfortunate people who can’t write; and it’s the mysterious Mister or Miss.

I had an X in my life, my childhood pooch being blessed with the pedigree name ‘Xanthippe of Brittas’. Confusingly, Xanthippe actually means yellow horse. Ungulate references among personal names were common. Hippocrates (horse tamer) – the man wasn’t a vet, was he? and Philippos (horse lover)

Ed: You’re starting something here I hope you’re not damn well going to finish!

Xanthippe was the wife of the illustrious Greek, Socrates. Considerably younger than the great man, legend has it she was a bad-tempered, nagging harridan. The only evidence for this seems to be that she once threw water over her husband. Socrates’ response was to say “After thunder comes rain”. No doubt with a smug little smile on his face. It can’t have been a stroll in the olive groves for Xanthippe, can it? We all know those people, the ones who smile beatifically and say ‘Look, I’m not going to argue with you’. Don’t you want to slap them?

Pretty near the top of page X, you’ll find the Greek word xanthos meaning yellow. I wonder what the -thos means? Immediately, you see, I remember Athos, Porthos and oh yes Aramis, but then we’re not talking aftershave, aren’t we? There’s probably no connection though – Three Yellow Musketeers doesn’t quite have the same ring. Ring – ring of gold – golden yellow…

Ed: You’re free-associating again, I told you, you don’t get to do that while I’m paying for your time!

Skipping by what looks like a rather ghastly skin condition (xanthoma), we reach xanthophyll. Now this I like. You get two words for your money: xanthic (yellowish) & phullon (leaf). And the leaf is the clue. Carrots, tomatoes and those greens your granny dished up for Sunday tea. xanthophyll are any one of those oxygen-carrying carotenoids associated with chlorophyll. Chlorophyll makes leaves green, and carotenoids, which are always present in leaves, turns them yellow. I like this -phyll thing. Phyll -Phil – fill – feuille – feuilles mortes – who said you can’t go from Ancient Greek to Yves Montand in less than five verbivorous steps? And in case you’re interested, Les feuilles mortes was the work of a French surrealist poet, Jacques Prevert, whose Wiki entry contains the splendid line “He was also a cheesecake maker”.

Ed: I fail to see the relevance of this – can you please try to keep on topic?

The Hyphenated X-es (as we call them in Gloucestershire) are a rum lot.

Ed: What? I thought you were from Aberdeen?

The x-axis is the first – oh good lord, it’s geometry again, I was never any good at geometry. And X-ray. Did you know that it’s a translation from the German x-Strahlen and that the nature of the rays that were discovered in 1895 was not fully understood at the time?
The world of music has the splendid xylophone, a percussion instrument used to dazzling effect by Evelyn Glennie in which both the graduated bars and the hammers are made of wood (xulon). The vibraphone, a hi-tech version of the xylophone, has its admirers but I am certainly not one of them.

Where would we be without Xerox? This American company, founded in 1906, takes its brand from the process of xerography, where powder sticks to a Well, let’s just say it’s an incomprehensible process and leave it at that. Oh and this is what dear old OED says.

Ed: I feel that this section was poorly researched – have you started drinking again?

xerography: a dry copying process in which black or coloured powder adheres to parts of a surface remaining electrically charged after exposure of the surface to light from an image of the document to be copied.

Algiers_xebecIn sharp contrast to this, my favourite x-word sails the seven seas. Lateen whips in a northerly gale and the senses are assaulted by the stink of gunpowder and the sweet smell of fine wines. A xebec was a tri-masted vessel with projecting bow stern and convex decks. It was small, fast, highly manoeuverable and much favoured by corsairs.

The etymological route this word took through the world’s languages is as exotic as the spice markets of the East. From the Arabic sabak via Italian sciabecco, it becomes chebec in French but is then influenced by the Spanish xabeque and the Portugese xabeco.

That brings us to the end of the extraordinary letter that is X. Except, by the by, there’s a font called Xanthippe. I knew that girl would have the last word.

wordle of xtraordinary letter X

Illustration by Alan Lennon


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Have Your ID Ready

Identity is something we’re quite preoccupied with these days. Identity theft, identity cards and ‘who do you think you are?’. For two of my family, ID cards were a fact of life. They carried them during two separate wars with Germany.

Tom, a policeman, was in a reserved occupation in World War II. A Schedule of Reserved Occupations was drawn up in 1938 and included farmers and railwaymen as well as policemen. These jobs were regarded as vital to the country at home. Nonetheless, Tom went to the recruiting offices of every armed service and tried to enlist. He was turned down – because a stray cricket ball had punctured his eardrum when he was a boy and left him deaf in one ear.

This picture ID card is dated 1940 and was an expanded version of a Police Warrant Card. White dress gloves are tucked into the choker-collared tunic of the day, made from of heavy dark blue serge. His hair is short (the rule of never having hair touching the collar was one he adhered to for the rest of his life) and he looks ridiculously young, although he was 21 when this picture was taken. During the war, he worked for Kirkcaldy Borough Police on the Fife coast. I don’t think they were ever in real danger from invasion or bombing there, but the threat must have seemed real enough at the time.

I found this ID card near the end of my father’s life. He wasn’t a sentimental man, and the fact that he had chosen to keep it all those years must have meant it was precious to him.

The other person in possession of an ID card in my family takes us to my father’s Aunt Annie. The year is 1917 and World War I still has one more bloody year to run. Annie, who was my grandfather’s sister, married a foreigner, a French stonemason named Laurent Storione. So her ID, although also issued by the local constabulary, was quite different in its purpose than my father’s. As the wife of a foreign national in 1917, she was required to carry ID with her at all times. Despite the fact that France was a British ally in the fight against Germany, Laurent would still be viewed as a foreigner and by association, his wife Annie could have been said to pose a risk to national security.

Annie was the third child of thirteen born to Thomas Cowan & Anna Brown. Her father served in Her Majesty’s Army for many years, seeing service in India, South Africa and England. This photograph clearly shows a woman who is not prosperous. Both her dress and hairstyle are more suited to 1900 than 1917 and her best outfit, donned here for the photographer, would have lasted for many years. Her expression is fairly grim and with good reason. At the age of 44, she had borne seven children and raised them with little help from her husband, who often disappeared for months on end, ostensibly on political missions (he was a firebrand Communist well known to the authorities) but there was talk of other women. Annie died only seven years after this picture was taken in 1924. My cousin, her granddaughter, commented that “She died of a broken heart, but she was really just worn out and had taken to Hell’s Wine to help”. There apparently was no money for a burial and she lies at rest with her brother John, my grandfather, and his wife Martha.

Family History

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Wild Man Blues


I have a passion for old shellac 78rpm records which I play on my cherry red HMV 101 wind-up gramophone. My tastes run from 1920s dancebands through classic French chanteuses et chanteurs to early tango orchestras. The collection is modest by most collectors’ standards (about 120) and is governed purely by the amount of space I have to store the records – 78s are heavy and bulky. Creating a personal collection isn’t a costly affair: I have only one or two rarities and don’t care if a particular record was so popular in 1925 they pressed hundreds of thousands of them. I buy my records, usually costing £1 or £2, from my old friends at The Gramophone Emporium in Edinburgh.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have only a few classical 78s and these are of iconic opera singers of the time. No sopranos though – the recording process wasn’t kind to the soprano sound. But tenors, including of course Caruso, the first real recording star, are a different matter. Singing directly into a huge recording horn with the orchestra placed around and behind the singer, the tenor voice rang out clear and true.

The appeal of 78s is mysterious, but their appeal for me is largely the immediacy of the sound. It’s like sitting in the front row of the stalls as Caruso gives it his all, or leaning on the bar while Fats Waller tinkles the juke joint ivories.

The first taster of my 78s collection is a number by the inimitable Satchmo. As he continued to record right up to his death in the 1970s, most people are familiar with the name of Louis Armstrong, but this earlier recording is Armstrong at his raw best.

Label details:
Wild Man Blues
Trumpet Solo, acc. by His Original Washboard Beaters
R 2162

❦ To listen, click the audio player below ❦


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140 or less

140 characters or less in which to tell a story

The new kitten was asleep on a cushion when the mouse attacked.

His obsession with measurements had cost him his marriage, but it proved to be quite helpful in prison.

The house had burnt down, but Ethel knew it would be all right. She still had her Carmen rollers and her water wings.

“I can’t swim, sir”. “Can’t swim? You’re a bloody Marine, Bridges. Get in there and save that duck.”

I found this photograph of us on the fridge. It smells of cheap whisky.

Ignatius P was descended from the black and white tribe of Fitzroy Square.



Trains & Flowers

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I had been wandering through Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, but had grown bored with shots of pretty trees and benches. An American tourist once asked why Edinburgh Castle was built above the railway: they found it hard to grasp the concept of an ancient castle built on an extinct volcano.

I headed over to the bridge that separates the Gardens from the slopes of the Castle. I was initially disappointed to find that not only were the sides of the bridge were too high to effectively shoot over, but the railway authorities had filled in the mesh with heavy duty plastic.

I stood there for about fifteen minutes watching trains come from nearby Waverley Station, bobbing up and down like a lunatic as I tried to find a vantage point I could shoot from. Then I concluded that it might be less frustrating to work with the prevailing conditions. So I hunkered down a bit to the level of the plastic sheeting, focussed as best I could and waited for another train. As the train approached, I fired off a few shots. I knew there would be blur, but hoped it might be effective blur. What I got was what snappers often call the happy accident. The effect of the plastic, plus my shaky hands, produced this impressionistic, even romantic, picture of a very ordinary modern commuter train.

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I was walking home through St Stephen’s Place, the site of the old fruit market in Stockbridge. And there, just beside the arch, were these torn-up discarded flowers. Vividly red against the grey of the paving stones. I knew that my newly acquired Bronica was loaded with Velvia film and that this was the perfect subject for it. Velvia has always been a favourite with photographers who want intense, deep colour. I gambled that the flowers wouldn’t be cleared away in the time it was going to take me to fetch my camera and my luck held.

Was there a story behind them? I imagined a quarrel between lovers, perhaps a longstanding grievance about not spending enough time together. The man, as men do, bought flowers and presented them to show his devotion. The woman, as women do, talked of empty gestures and was that the best he could do. She tore the flowers to pieces in front of him and flung them on the pavement. He retreated, hurt, to the pub.

While I took a few shots of the torn blooms, several passers-by asked me what I was doing. Part of the curiosity was about the camera, for old medium-format cameras bear no resemblance to the pocketsize digital cameras we’re now so accustomed to. Apart from anything else, the picture is back to front in the viewfinder. But it turned out that people were also curious about the flowers and why they were there.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Noddy – The Missing Piece


Driving his trademark red car, Noddy and his co-star Big Ears smile and wave to the waiting crowds at the premiere of their latest movie Noddy – The Director’s Cut. But behind the scenes, there have been reports of acrimonious meetings between the two. Big Ears battled to get his name in the title, arguing that Noddy’s just a kid in a stupid cap without him. Noddy’s lawyers responded with the assertion that Noddy is the brand, Big Ears a mere hanger-on. And noticeable by his absence tonight is that unfortunate character, Golly, who’s said by reliable sources to have ‘retired’ to a sumptuous villa in Biarritz. Whatever the truth, the fresh-faced youngster and his bearded sidekick will always be the best team on the block to their many adoring fans.


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To beyond

OK, I admit the title’s a bit pretentious. But the idea of looking beyond, both in an outward and an inner sense, was what I was trying to achieve when I made this piece of digital art a while back. I think this one has stood the test of time.

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© Rachel Cowan


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The Gramophone Emporium

The Gramophone Emporium was a place out of time. Its window (broken) crammed with gramophone parts. It had no website, no phone line, and, despite being in a trendy boho part of town, no passing custom.

But it did have customers: collectors of vintage wax and vinyl who knew of the shop’s existence by word of mouth. Although some jealously guarded the secret of where they got their records, collectors came from as far away as Germany and even the US.

They were virtually all male, some young but mostly older and much older. Their interests ranged from 1902 Caruso recordings (single sided discs) through Fats Waller in 1924 (the sound as live and immediate as if you were leaning on Fats’ piano) to esoteric Gaelic songs that could have been recorded in a croft somewhere in the Highlands.

The shop began its life in St Stephen Street, Edinburgh in the mid-70s. Part of the street was threatened with demolition and rents plummeted. Because the area was central, people took advantage of these low rents and low-budget businesses moved in along with a whole community of ‘hippies’. Many of the small businesses remained – I have photos of an antique shop and a shop selling only gas mantles and oil lamp parts, both further along the street from the gramophone shop.

It gained sufficient fame in the 1980s to have a whole radio feature devoted to it on Radio Scotland, the radio crew and presenter filling the shop.

After squeezing through the front door, with its tinkling brass bell, there was a front room which doubled as an assault course for the unwary. The machines on which to play the treasures of the 78 disc were everywhere: reconditioned wind-ups, stately table tops and furniture-sized models. The walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of discs, loosely (very loosely) categorised. At floor and ceiling level were collections of 33rpm vinyl, looking almost uncomfortable in such riches of an earlier recording age. Boxes full of records that had ‘just come in’ lay randomly about and, as customers plundered them, stray discs spilled out and some were crushed underfoot in the limited floor space.

There was Victorian sheet music and piles of vintage music magazines. If you have a portable wind-up gramophone (imagine a 1920s picnic with strawberries and cream by the river), there’s a cavity into which you can stuff some material to muffle the sound, the origin of the expression ‘put a sock in it’! So N. would sell you packs of gramophone needles in soft, medium or loud tone. Each needle was used only once and of course, each record requiring cranking the gramophone handle about twenty turns.

A disc-lined alley led to the ‘back room’ which doubled as an unofficial club. This was presided over by A. and B., who held court among their ordered shelves of classical 78s. You’d like an example of a Russian bass from 1920? No problem, B knew just the one. And while it’s playing, how about a cup of tea (laced with a wee dram if you’d like!) and a biscuit? A. and B. had known each other for years (neither were in their green and salad years) and there was a steady flow of banter. When I asked those gents about their backgrounds, I was told that B. was a retired art teacher and an expert on the recordings of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. A. described himself, with a customary twinkle in his eye, as ‘a man of the world’.

In the corner of this inner sanctum, there was often a customer hunkered down with a heavy pile of records on his knee: sifting and searching for that one dreamed-of treasure. A lot of the stock cost between £1 and £3, so it was an affordable hobby. There were rarer discs, but it was mostly dealers who handled those sales. The internet has invigorated the market recently, and four figure sums for one disc are now not uncommon.

The shop stock was sourced mainly from house clearances and people who came in with their deceased relatives’ boxes of records. N. (the manager) remembered one case where they participated in the clearing of a house belonging to a Scots-Italian violinist who had grown increasingly reclusive in his final years. When he died, the rooms of the house were knee deep in his collections and among his treasures were about 5,000 78rpm records. His taste was eclectic, and there was everything from opera to jazz in the collection.

How did I find this place? Well, I lived just along the street and one day the door was open. They only opened one and a half days a week, so I was lucky. I seemed to become a kind of mascot – lady collectors are rare birds indeed. N. (who, in his other life, taught the Gaelic and also the Scots moothie (mouth-organ), would put aside discs he thought I might like – he got the idea that 1920s Cuban tangos, American dancebands, jazz pianists and Italian tenors were my kind of thing.

I learned so much. Did you know, for example, that the famous His Masters Voice label (with dog) issued all their records during WWI and WWII with a white label out of respect for the war? Or that the plainer the label on an early Russian 78, the closer to the Holy Grail of 78s it is? Or that not all 78s were created equal – some were recorded at 80rpm, others at 76rpm – and for that reason, wind-up gramophones have an adjustable slide.

In short, it was the kind of place which I didn’t think existed any more. But there it was, thriving, in the heart of a busy city. A quiet delight. So twice a week back then, you’d find me propping up a wall in the Gramophone Emporium.

POSTSCRIPT: Nowadays the revamped Gramophone Emporium, orderly and clean, is sited directly across the street from the old shop, which was bought by one of the Emporium’s customers. Now it’s a popular record shop, smart and trendy, selling the best of vinyl. But if you want 78rpm records or a beautifully restored wind-up gramophone, the Gramophone Emporium is still the last shop in the UK to exclusively sell them. It’s well worth a visit. Tell Billy I sent you.
The Gramophone Emporium, 12 St. Stephen Street, Stockbridge, Edinburgh, EH3 5AN
0131 225 1203

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Hands & Feet

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I had a young friend who was a talented artist with a gallery in St Stephen Street. She liked to dress flamboyantly and had the striking good looks to carry it off with ease. The day this picture was taken, she was dressed down in casual top and jeans. But, being her, the look didn’t stop there. She twirled in front of me, pointed downwards and clicked her heels. There were sequinned, pillarbox red shoes complete with bows. Dorothy shoes with a twist! How could I resist? Afterwards, I bleached out most of the colour except the bottom of the denims and those red shoes. She’s since become the mother of a wee boy, but she’s still a working artist whose verve and zest for life is infectious and heartwarming.

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There’s an annual festival which takes place in Inverleith Park called Treefest. It celebrates all aspects of wood, so there are demonstrations of woodturning and logging as well as marquees full of the most beautiful things ever to emerge from wood or paper. It was a hot summer’s day when this was taken and the woodturner was busy at his lathe. The fact that the rest of him was in deep shade drew me to those hands and arms – cords of sinews and muscle and brown, knobbly hands.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Great Uncle George’s War

This story begins with Betsy Somerville’s relationship with George Dick, who was proven in court to be the father of her son John. It’s 1890 and Betsy gives birth to another son – called George. This time, there’s no father’s name given. George Dick is now married to Agnes McCallum and living not far away. Could he be George’s father? But there’s another possible candidate for the paternal role. In the 1901 census, she’s living at another address and she has a visitor – George Livingstone, a 29 year old (married) painter from Rothesay. Mr Livingstone’s wife is not present.

That’s almost everything I know about young George. Aged 10, he was still in school but his oldest brother Jim was already hard at work in the coalfields of Lanarkshire. It’s likely that both John and George followed Jim down the pits, as there was little alternative for a working man at that time in that place. But I don’t know for sure. My granddad John would go on to be a butcher, but that was much later. Before that, the world as the family knew it would change forever following the assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. George was photographed at Gilmore’s in Hamilton looking pensive but smartly dressed in a suit of fine check and a gemstone tie pin. His face is youthful and he has the trademark protruding Somerville ears.

When we see him next, he’s in the uniform of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). The origins of the Cameronians are firmly set in Lanarkshire, with the regiment’s first muster taking place on the banks of the Douglas Water in 1689. A declaration was read to the assembled men:

“All shall be well affected, of approved fidelity and of a sober conversation. The cause they are called to appear for, is the service of the King’s Majesty and the defence of the Nation, recovery and preservation of the Protestant Religion; and in particular the work of reformation in Scotland, in opposition to Popery prelacy and arbitrary power in all its branches and steps, until the Government of Church and State be brought back to that lustre and integrity which it had in the best times.”

The soldiers of this regiment were zealous Covenanters, whose devotion to the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League & Covenant of 1643 meant that they would even do battle to defend their freedom to worship as they chose. When the crown ejected ministers from their parishes for refusing to submit to the rule of bishops, the Covenanters followed them to the hills and worshipped at open air services which came to be called conventicles. As the threat from government forces increased the Covenanters began to carry weapons to their conventicles and to post armed pickets to keep a lookout. The Cameronians were a unique part of Scottish history for over three hundred years. Their sad end came with the defence cuts of the 1960s and their name was finally erased from the Army List in 1995.

Since the 1880s, the recruiting base for the Cameronians had been located in Lanarkshire and George probably enlisted in Hamilton. His Battalion, the 10th, was formed at Hamilton in September 1914 and were attached to 46th Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division. By July of 1915, the battalion was in France.

I don’t have George’s service records, as many were lost in a WWII bombing raid on the War Office in 1940. The surviving service and pension records – or Burnt Documents as they are known – were later microfilmed by the National Archives, but unfortunately George’s is not among them. So I have no idea what battles he fought in.

But I do have the 10th Batallion’s War Diary for March 1918, excerpts of which are given below. The language is military and understated, but it is still compelling reading. Rifleman George Somerville was in C Company.

The Battalion had been relieved in the Front Line by the 9th Black Watch on the night 27/28th March. On completion of relief the Battalion withdrew to the Army Line and were in Brigade Reserve.
Right Front – D. Coy. Left Front – A. Coy.
Right Support – C. Coy. Left Support – B. Coy.
Battalion H.Q. – Dugout at ESTAMINET CORNER.
All ranks were accommodated in their new positions by 1.30 a.m. 28th March 1918. Night was fairly quiet until 3 a.m. when heavy shelling commenced, gas shells being used for 2 hours. The enemy had previously indulged in heavy shelling of selected localities. Shelling continued until 7.30 a.m. when it became intense. Companies afterwards reported that no Company Runners were able to get within 200 yards of Battalion H.Q, ESTAMINET CORNER, WILDERNESS CAMP and ARRAS – CAMBRAI ROAD being severely barraged with all calibres. At 8.15 a.m. the Master Cook of the 7th CAMERON HIGHLANDERS rushed into Battalion H.Q. and stated that his Battalion had been very seriously shelled for 4 hours, that heavy casualties had occurred and that the enemy had attacked, penetrating their front line.
At 9.45 a.m. C. Coy. under CAPT. J.S. MUNRO moved off to counter attack. At this time the enemy could be seen coming over the ridge (ORANGE HILL) in small parties and occupying our old front. Support and Reserve positions (JERUSALEM, CROMARTY and INVERGORDON TRENCHES) on the right of the Brigade Front. At 10 a.m. the Company counter attacking had reached the FEUCHY CHAPEL – FEUCHY ROAD with very few casualties.
At 10.30 a.m. orders were received at Battalion H.Q. (Support Line) from G.O.C. 46th Infantry Brigade to stop the counter attack. These orders were sent on at once by runner and were received by the Company Commander at 10.15 a.m. The Company was accordingly withdrawn, still in Artillery Formation. One Officer and about 30 men of the Company had at this stage become casualties and the enemy were firing fairly heavily on Company with machine guns. The Officer and some of the men were able to regain our lines with the assistance of a covering party.
At 11 a.m. the enemy appeared to have ceased advancing on our immediate front and were consolidating in our old front, support and reserve lines, using CALIFORNIA TRENCH as his front line.
At 6 p.m. it became obvious that enemy was withdrawing South of ARRAS – CAMBRAI ROAD. With the exception of a party of 30 – 40 of the enemy, which crept up ditches of the ARRAS – CAMBRAI ROAD, the enemy infantry never pressed home any attack on the Army Line North of the WANCOURT ROAD, and did not come in any strength beyond our old BROWN LINE.
At 4.30 p.m. a gap existed in the Front Line between 46th and 45th Brigades. This was closed by the Front Line Companies side stepping South. At dusk one Company was pushed out as Outpost to occupy shell holes keeping touch with the enemy. Outpost Line on the Right was 50 yards East of BOIS des BOEUFS, on the Left about 200 yds West of FEUCHY CHAPEL – FEUCHY ROAD. The night was quiet except for intermittent shelling of Support Line and Communications.
Casualties sustained during the day :-
Officers Killed :- CAPT. G. McCALL M.C.
2.LT. J.W. KERR.
Officers Wounded :- LIEUT. J. MacKENZIE
2.LT. J.R. ROBB.
Other Ranks Killed 22
” ” Wounded 113. Other Ranks Missing 25.
All the Officers in B. Company became casualties and it was necessary to transfer a subaltern from C. Company to take over Command. Most of the casualties were sustained in the Support Line. Officers, Warrant Officers, N.C.Os and men behaved well under heavy shell fire and trying conditions. It was not possible to give the men hot food for 48 hours.

George Somerville was one of the 113 men (the Other Ranks) who were wounded that day in France. I know that he was taken to a field hospital, but from there it’s unclear what happened. Family legend has it that he contracted pneumonia but the record of his medals gives Died of Wounds as cause of death. The horror of battle conditions and the slaughter of countless young men in the Great War has been well documented. George managed to survive three years at the Front and was 27 years of age when he died, only a few months before the end of hostilities. His brother Jack, my grandfather, who served with the Royal Garrison Artillery, came home safe from the war to marry his sweetheart and live out his life in Lanarkshire. If there was anything to be grateful for in that terrible time, it was that Betsy did not have to mourn the deaths of two sons. Over 7,000 Cameronians lost their lives in the conflict.

The National Archives hold a collection of Medal Record cards for World War I and from this, I know that George was awarded three medals: the ’15 Star, awarded to individuals who saw service from 5 August 1914 to 31 December 1915; the British War medal, which was awarded to eligible service personnel and civilians alike. The basic requirement for army personnel and civilians was that they either entered a theatre of war, or rendered approved service overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918; and the Victory Medal, awarded to all eligible personnel who served on the establishment of a unit in an operational theatre.

George lies in Wimereux Cemetery in Northern France. His grave is tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
And just by where he grew up in Cemetery Road, Blantyre, a monument commemorates the dead of the war to end all wars. My great-uncle George’s name is there.

1. Many men sent silk embroidered postcards from France to their families at home. Each regiment and corps had its own design and George may have sent a card like the one pictured to his mother.
2. Read the full article about Betsy here.
3. I am most grateful to The Cameronians Museum in Hamilton for the War Diary of the 10th Batallion Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians).
4. Thanks to my cousin, Ian Somerville, for the photo of the Blantyre memorial.
Family History

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