The story of a 16-year-old boy from a Scottish island who seeks revenge. A journey which takes him from the '16 Uprising in Dublin to a heroism at the Somme.
St.Pols near Arras France, November 7th 1920.
was a darkness of sorts by the time the two men entered the chapel. The
Brigadier looked towards the older man who closed his eyes.
officer nodded that he understood, as the General lifted his hand from
the Union flag. There was a gentle sadness in both their actions as they
lowered the body into the wooden box, it could so easily have been one
of them; yet neither noticed the silver chain with the blue medallion
drop from the coffin. Unseen, it found its way into a crack.
They wouldn’t leave him on his own, not tonight; this poor soul had slept too long alone.
summers earlier that same chain and medallion clung to the neck of a
boy stuffed to the brim with life. His name was Sammy Galbraith and he
was living up to all of his sixteen summers.
“When I catch you and don’t think I won’t Galbraith, I will crack that stupid head of yours open, I swear to God I will”
Reverend Winters was fifty-three, apparently God’s ambassador on earth
and a bit of a horseman. He took an exception to his daughter’s
affections being dallied with by the local boys, especially that Godless
brute Sammy Galbraith.
Being on foot allowed Sammy more
manoeuvrability. He managed to slip behind Old Shaker’s Rock and wait
for the reverend to go riding past. A piercing sliver of sunlight found
Sammy’s face; he lifted his head skywards and smiled as an eagle
patrolled the warm thermals above.
By the time his pursuer
realised he had lost the boy he was already riding towards what he
considered the source of the problem, Sammy’s father.
Galbraith, who had only been thirty-two years old when he left his legs
in a field in France, had a son of sixteen whom he loved and a wife who
no longer cared if he lived nor died.
Before the war Johnny had
been in complete charge of Lord Inverstark’s stables, now he wasn’t even
in control of his own body. He sat in a wheelchair on the porch of the
tied cottage, angry at life and always looking toward the mountains that
were once his to conquer.
Their island was named Annshal and it
sat about a mile off the mainland of western Scotland. As the sun sank
below the Annshal Mountains, the silhouette of their peaks would assume
the outline of an ancient soldier at rest with his spear by his side; he
was known to the locals as The Sleeping Warrior.
horse came to a halt in front of Johnny, just as the soldier was
contemplating whether returning from France had been a good thing, or
whether he should have been left there and buried along with his legs.
son has been pestering my daughter once again Galbraith, I will ask
you, as I have done several times before - will you not control your
“Perhaps your daughter likes to be pestered Winters have you ever considered that?”
realise that the war has served you with a great injustice Mister
Galbraith but you should tread with the utmost care in what you say and
not judge all women by the standards of your own wife. I look forward to
you having a word with your son.”
Johnny reached for the pistol he kept by his chair and pointed it above the reverend’s head.
“You wouldn’t shoot a man of God? Behave yourself man.”
Johnny fired the pistol into a tree.
regret this”. The reverend already having turned his horse was riding
away. “Mark my words Mister Galbraith, you will rue the day. Rue the
At the age of thirty Fiona was still pretty, and anyone with eyes could see why Lord Inverstarck found her attractive.
had started off innocently with Fiona covering Johnny’s work while he
was away at war but it soon became something more between Fiona and the
Laird (as the locals would refer to them in hushed tones). To be really
truthful, Fiona had attempted to make things work between her and
Johnny after he came home. She knew he had been injured but he had
failed in his letters to mention the missing legs. Even they were not
the problem; the real concern was the darkness that now ate at Johnny’s
heart. The night she’d left for good, he had threatened to kill them
both. She had only walked in the door and his ever-present gun was
pointing straight at her.
“Why are you so angry?” She’d never
dared ask him that before but with a gun pointing at her head, she
didn’t feel she had that much to lose. He said nothing and put the gun
back by the side of his chair. She went into the room, packed a small
case and as she walked past him, he grabbed her wrist. “I love you” he
“I know”. He freed her and she walked out.
exercising the horses when she felt a shadow cross her eye line. She
didn’t have to look up for she knew who it would be, who it always was,
her son Sammy. They no longer talked he would just sit on the hill and
stare at her, something he did every day. She loved him but it had been
such a long time since she had told him.
had kept their word; he had been watched over every step of the way.
The coffin had been placed in an oak casket and banded with iron and a
medieval crusader’s sword.
The inscription read ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.
He would rest tonight in Victoria Station and tomorrow, the 11th of November 1920, he would travel to Westminster Abbey to lie at peace for ever.
Inverstarck had expected to go directly to France. The troops had been
stationary at the Somme for a very long time but there was also word
that the Irish were planning an uprising and they wanted him at Dublin
Castle before Easter, 1916. It was Fiona’s suggestion of a Ball in
honour of his departing.
“You are the Laird and the islanders will want to have their goodbyes”.
was right of course and he thanked God for Fiona but Inverstarck didn’t
particularly care for the islanders or the island. He had been having a
jolly time of it in London, living at the family apartments in
Kensington, his plan had been to continue with the army for a few more
years then move into banking. It had all been decided by Father while
the boys were still at Harrow. Harry would take over the Lairdship of
Annshal on his father’s death and Robert would remain at liberty.
No one had expected Harry to die so young.
by default Robert was Lord Inverstarck and all that encompassed, most
of which he had no taste or time for. Hereditary was hereditary and not
even God could set that apart; to make the best of a problem was
Robert’s philosophy. Still, there were compensations, the estate (if you
included the properties in London) was relatively well off and Fiona
was proving herself to be a beautiful distraction. If they could only
rid themselves of that annoying husband of hers and the troublesome brat
she had given birth to, things might take a turn for the better.
With any luck, Ireland would keep Robert occupied and there would be no
reason to travel to France. He could be back in Annshal and in Fiona’s
arms by autumn.
Robert McAnders, Lord Inverstarck of Annshal, was to report to Dublin Castle by the 1st of April, 1916 and so the Ball was arranged for the previous Saturday.
was a dark early afternoon and there were still several weeks to go
before the clocks were changed. This was the first time it had been
tried and it kept the British in step with the Germans who were both in a
bid to save daylight.
It was one of the few things that would be saved that year.
on Annshal was invited to the Laird’s farewell and all were expected to
attend, that included men without legs and their sons. The Farewell
Ball was Fiona’s first real challenge in the House and there was much to
prove to herself and to the others. Proof that she was worthy of being
at the Laird’s side (and not just in his bed), that she was more than
just a grooms’ wife with ambitions and that she would make a worthy
spouse to Robert – if that chance ever arose.
These were strange
times, very strange indeed, and the old ways were crumbling in the hands
of the islanders. In the past Fiona would never have been allowed such
an important task as to arrange a party. She would have only been a
badly kept secret but things had changed and who really knew what the
world would become when the war was finally over.
The Staff, under
the charge of Fiona, had done their jobs well. Inverstarck House had
never looked more beautiful than it did that night with its face
scrubbed and brightened by the snow.The paths were marked by large
torches which could be seen from a mile away. Those who had the means
arrived by coach and the rest on foot. Men from the mainland, who were
not at war, were also invited and most of them made the effort to see
the Laird off to Ireland. Robert McAnders was an influential man and one
to be respected. It did them no harm, if they ended up in Ireland, to
have the ear of the one of the governors of Dublin Castle.
overlooked or by intention, no one had sent a pony and trap to the
Galbraith’s cottage. Sammy saw this as a sign that they should stay away
but Johnny was determined that they make an appearance. This had been
the way of things before the war and in his mind, it still was - nothing
Sammy pushed his father’s wheelchair in silence as
the snow built up in front of the wheels. This made the effort to move
his father very strenuous. The chair would grind to a halt, Sammy would
shove and then everything, including them, would shudder forwards. His
father ignored his son’s discomfort. His boy had legs and as such, he
should make use of them.
There was a time when Johnny Galbraith
had been popular and it had suited him to be that way. A sociable and
thick-skinned man was the only way to deal with the landed gentry that
was how they played the game.
When Johnny had been brought home,
the House had sent some horse tack over to be cleaned, probably at the
request of Fiona, but he had taken this as a patronising gesture. His
depression started in France, as it may have done for many men, but
Johnny had found that the act of just opening his eyes after sleep took
every sinew in his body. The sharp stab of realisation which followed
dreams was one of the most painful parts of his life. Johnny wondered
how many condemned men found a temporary solace in sleep and then a pain
in awakening that burned at their very souls.
Some men were born
for war and took it with an ease and perhaps such men were stupid or
brave – Johnny was neither of those. He looked into the eyes of the men
who were still to go to war and he noted their pity. It was obvious they
couldn’t comprehend his pain. To them, all he had done was make a wrong
turning into the forest of darkness but if he would only swing around
and chose a different path, it would lead him to back to the light. For
those who know depression it is not about taking the wrong road, it is
about the ground swallowing you up whole.
On the train journey
home he would constantly stare down, always at the floor, never wanting
to catch sight of someone smiling or even worse laughing, for in that
lay contamination. He had to protect his anger. His anger helped him
The drive in front of the House was not built to
accommodate a wheelchair so Sammy pushed his father around to the back.
It was here that the party was centred. The pipers stood in the snow
playing a merry tune and would continue for several hours before they
were allowed time in front of a large fire and a dram of whisky. There
was a blast of heat and the smell of drink as some of the Highland
dancers reeled their way on to the snowy courtyard and back through the
Inside the House Inverstarck held court, yet always
circling within reach was Fiona who would not be presumptive enough to
stand next to him.
In one corner of the ballroom were the Reverend
Winters and his beautiful daughter, Isla. It had been the intention of
the Reverend to keep her at home that evening but, as his wife had
stated, if Isla was not exposed to the more gentile society of Annshal
then she would continue to make contact with the lower classes. The
Reverend agreed but with one proviso, Isla was to move no more than two
feet from his side.
What the Reverend Winters failed to observe
was how much Sammy and Isla were in love. They had known each other
almost all of their lives and instinctively knew what the other was
thinking. She had seen other boys and he had kissed most of the other
girls on the island, but in the end they always found each other, like
magnets in a fog.
All Isla had to do was look towards a door and
Sammy knew what she meant. She whispered something into her father’s ear
and he reluctantly waved her away.
“Are you all right here father?” asked Sammy, never taking his eyes from Isla.
“Be quick Sammy, whatever it is, I don’t think my presence is much appreciated and keep away from that old goat Winters.”
Sammy found a large heating stone by one of the fires and placed it under his father’s chair, to hold it fast.
“I won’t be long.”
“See that you aren’t.” His father was decidedly agitated.
Isla and Sammy found sanctuary in a small cupboard in the upper floor and closed the door on all their problems.
was much about that evening to keep Johnny looking at the well polished
floor: people were dancing, smiling and laughing, everything that he
had once enjoyed but had buried in France. Still, he had to be here even
if it was only to see Fiona. When they say that war is expensive they
rarely mean the ammunition.
Inverstarck was called upon to make a
speech about how the estate was in safe hands, Johnny wondered if this
meant Fiona.And then it happened, Robert McAnders called Fiona to his
side. Whether it was his imminent departure or a foolish action fuelled
by drink the result was the same. He was letting the world know that
this was his woman and in front of her own husband. Even the Reverend’s
What was going through Johnny’s mind could only be
guessed at, but there he was sitting in his chair and pointing the gun
For a few moments no one moved then two things
happened simultaneously. Fiona stood in front of Inverstarck whispering
‘he won’t shoot me’ and the other thing was a servant made a leap towards Johnny’s gun causing it to fire.
The blood gushed from Fiona’s chest as she fell.
the cupboard on the upper floor, Sammy and Isla were so caught up in
the act of making love that they were oblivious to the noise of the
They did not make that same mistake with the second one.
was a crisp, cold November day and the crowd pulled in their coats
tightly around them. A general silence descended as the coffin rolled by
drawn by six horses on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery. As
the cortege turned at Hyde Park Corner shoulders moved up and down and
some sobbing escaped, a young voice cried out, ‘Goodbye Dad’.
When he arrived at Whitehall and after King George 5th unveiled
the Cenotaph, there was a two-minute silence. Then he drifted homeward
to Westminster Abbey where he was carried to his final resting place
guarded by one hundred holders of the Victoria Cross. Earth from several
battlefields was placed in the grave including several barrel loads
from Ypres; it would let him feel at home and in the Abbey, he need
never be alone again.
For seven days his grave lay covered by a
silk funeral pall. One week later, a temporary stone sealed his grave
and on it was written:
"A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This."
a handful turned up at the funeral, Isla was there of course and her
father, who led the service, but most of the islanders stayed away. Not
because they disliked Johnny but they felt it would displease Lord
Inverstarck who had since left the island for Dublin. He had sent word
to the hospital in Glasgow that Fiona should receive the best of care
and that he would pay all her bills, and that was the end of that as far
as Inverstarck was concerned.
Sammy was sad that he never got to
say goodbye to his father. By the time both he and Isla had heard the
gunshot and appeared in the ballroom, his mother’s wounds were being
tended to and his father body was lying slumped over the chair bloodied
and alone. No one was taking care of him. The ballroom had been cleared
of everyone apart from Inverstarck and a few servants. It was obvious
now that his father must have assumed he’d accidentally killed Fiona and
then turned the gun on himself.
Sammy had an emptiness that
gnawed at his stomach and finished in his heart. He felt alone and dizzy
and he was just about to topple into the grave when Isla gripped his
hand hard and pulled him back from the edge of several dark things. One
of those dark things was the thought he was having about killing
Isla guided Sammy away from the Churchyard, holding
his hand for the very first time in public. She looked at her father
daring him to object but instead Winters cleared snow from Johnny
Galbraith’s grave and let a tear fall from his eye. The minister was as
only as strong as the enemies he had.
Sammy and Isla went back to
his house and lay by the fire holding each other until the sun came up
yet, peaceful as this was, nothing could erase the cancerous thought
that was eating at his brain. He must kill the Laird, this, the man who
had stolen his mother and caused his father’s death and who had fled to
Ireland without visiting her in hospital in Glasgow. The Laird would be
better off dead.
“Are you feeling happier my wee lamb?” asked Isla while stroking her boy's hair.
“I am now.”
Isla smiled, completely misunderstanding the comment.
the first day alone 40,000 people had come to visit him when the Abbey
doors finally closed at 11pm. By the following year there had been
millions. On November the 11th, 1921 a slab of black Belgium
marble was used to finally seal the tomb. Engraved on the marble, in
brass made from melted ammunition, was a further inscription which ended
with the lines:
“THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
Sleep well my friend, sleep well.
had so much to tell Sammy yet his mind seemed to be elsewhere. He was
agitated and continued to talk about leaving. She felt if the war
continued as it had done he would be leaving soon enough.
after his father’s funeral, he did leave. There was a ferry that went
from Glasgow to Dublin and called in at several islands on the way. It
only stopped at Annshal once every three weeks and today was that day.
Sammy packed his bag and wrote a letter to Isla. She would find it
propped up beside the fireplace when she called looking for him. He took
a Bible and a silver chain to which was attached a blue medallion.
Sammy’s father had been given it by his mother to pass on to his
sweetheart. His father, Johnny, had given it to Fiona who had left it at
the cottage on the night she packed her bags.
He also wrote a
letter to his mother, one he been composing most of the night. This too
was to be left on the fireplace but when the time came, he ripped the
letter in half and threw it onto the fire.
He lifted a shirt that
belonged to his father, took in the smell of the man who was no more,
then walked out of the cottage.He may have been too long looking around
for as he arrived at the pier the ferry was already leaving.
didn’t go now, he knew that holding on to that much hate for several
more weeks would destroy him. He swung his bag over his shoulder and ran
as fast as he could. Sammy flew down the pier and when that ran out,
he jumped the ten or so feet to the edge of the paddle steamer. He just
made it, and as the ferry was leaving the harbour, Sammy found himself
holding on to the side of the boat for dear life.
“Give me your hand boy and I’ll help you up”.
Sammy couldn’t make the face out at first as the low winter sun was blinding his eyes.
“Come on now.”
Sammy reached out and caught the man’s hand. It was strong and it pulled him up the side of the ferry without a struggle.
“The name’s Shamus.” He said.
If only Sammy had listened to his instincts and not grabbed that hand.
bobby stevenson 2016
Photo of Annshal island taken by Tom Stevenson