Yesterday I was driving back to Dumfries having collected some donated food when......
Actually, that really isn't enough. Well, is it? No it isn't. Try again Frankland.
Yesterday I was driving back to Dumfries having picked up seventy packs of delicious sliced ham which are donated to us each and every week by the good folk at Brown Brothers in Kelloholm.
Much better. Any half decent foodbank must never neglect the hand that feeds.
Anyway. A few miles out of Thornhill I hit the tail end of a wagon convoy and I just couldn't be bothered with it. So I turned right onto a back road based alternative route which I knew full well would take ten minutes longer, wagons or no wagons. It would just feel like less. With better views. And I am lucky enough not to be beholden to one of the new digital delivery outfits which expect you never waste so much as a nano second of time or else.
So it was over the swollen river Nith and straight west through a curtain of rain to the village of Penpont. Somewhere either side were the hills of the Southern Uplands, but a settled grey mist put paid to my chances of getting a look at them. Wet cattle sulked on the other side of wet hedges. And the temperature readout on the dashboard said it was a mere 8 degrees. At ten thirty. As in batten down the hatches because the long winter is a coming.
As I entered the quietness of Penpont, I once again celebrated not working for a slave driving outfit as I was able to something I have been meaning to do for a while. I drew up by the war memorial. You can see it at the top of the page. Yeah? So I guess you can see why I drew up. It is a truly beautiful thing to commemorate something truly awful. I didn't want to merely take a moment to look at it. I also wanted to count the names.
There are forty.
Does that seem a lot? In some ways, maybe it doesn't. Forty souls of Penpont in the midst of a carnage which did for more than ten million. But to look at the number forty in that way would be entirely the wrong context. Well I think it would be, and I'm the one who's writing the blog.
I found the right context a hour or so later.
Wikipedia. A village in the Southern Uplands. Some co-ordinates.
Would the population have been much higher in 1914? Maybe, but I doubt if it would have been much. So 40 dead men represented 10% of the village's population. Or 20% of the village's male population. Or nearly 50% of the working age male population.
But that is only half the story, for there will have been many names which never made it onto the memorial. The wounded ones. The broken ones. The amputated and the blinded. The ones who were driven into madness. More Google told me that for every dead British soldier in the Great War there were two and a half who were seriously injured.
A hundred wounded guys to go with the forty dead guys.
So a hundred and forty dead or wounded men from a small Scottish village in the Southern Uplands that was probably home to not many more than 400 souls.
And yet Google also told me the percentage of dead and wounded in the United Kingdom as a whole was 7%. A mere fifth of what happened to the men of Penpont.
I cannot begin to get my head around what such a vast loss must have felt like in such a small community. I have witnessed at first hand the gaping hole the 96 victims of Hillsborough tore in the community of Liverpool. Those 96 dead people represent the greatest tragedy suffered by the UK in many, many years. And yet they make up less than 0.001% of the population of the city they hailed from. Penpont had to deal with 35% of its population not coming home or coming home all broken up.
Penpont is unusual only in the beauty of its memorial. The same story is told by memorials the length and breadth of Scotland. I guess I notice this because I was born and bred south of the border where the memorials can be every bit as beautiful, and yet they only ever hold a fraction of the names.
In the light of this, is it really all that surprising Scotland has struggled at times over the last century. Considering how many Scots were fed into the mincing machine of the Western Front it is a wonder the country managed to function at all. The fact that a nation which was home to 8% of the population of the UK contributed 25% of the 1914/18 death toll really should still be an open wound. But it isn't of course. Instead it is just another of those quiet, hushed up facts of the British State.
I have no doubt London will have a hundred an one explanations as to how this thing happened. And I have no doubt they will have a whole bunch of professors with lots of letters after their names who will come up with lots of reasons as to why such a disproportionate number of Scots met their maker in the killing fields of France. And I guess we will probably buy what they are selling us. We usually do.
In 1967 it emerged that the exact same two numbers had come together in America. Black people made up 8% of the population of the United States. However black soldiers made up 25% of the death toll in Vietnam. When the stats leaked out, black people were not best amused. They were pretty convinced young black soldiers were being used as cannon fodder from the Mekong Delta in the south to the DMZ in the north.
They kicked off. Big style. And Detroit burned for a whole long, hot summertime week.
I guess it is good we are better at taking it on the chin. When all is said and done, setting cities alight is seldom a good look. What really gets my goat are the smug, cocky voices from studios in Westminster who gleefully explain why Scotland is far too pathetic to manage on its own. I guess it is what you get in return for shedding oceans of blood in the sacred name of King, country and Empire. With so many laid to rest under the fields of France and Belgium, the fact Scotland is where it is at today it is a bloody miracle. Maybe such an achievement could be seen as proof positive we are a nation who can get up and dust ourselves down no matter how hard we fall. Not capable of being independent? Oh really?
I turned left in the centre of the village and turned south. After couple of a miles and I drew up alongside a rather derelict looking building. Peeling paint and a plaque on the wall commemorating the fact that in 1840 a guy called Kirkpatrick McMillan only went and invented the bicycle. Right there. In this old blacksmiths shop. In Kiermill. In the Southern Uplands. In Scotland.
I mean, for Christ's sake. I guess there are a few bigger inventions than the bike, but not very many. Just think of the hundreds and hundreds of millions who have used a bike to get from A to B in the 176 years worth of human history since Kirkpatrick McMillan came up with the idea.
Thought of in Scotland. Invented in Scotland. Made in Scotland. This small wet and wild place in the grey north of the world. The place which is deemed to be so pathetic that we can't even think of managing on our own. Because we are all fat and sick and idle and communist and drunk and violent and addicted to fried everything. Subsidy junkies. Schemies.
OK. We might have invented the bike. OK. We might have offered up a third of our young men to the slaughter. But never mind all that. Let's forget all about all that. Instead let's take the piss on the front pages of the Express and the Mail. Let's mock and deride like we once mocked and derided inferior blacks and Irish. Let's hang onto our last scrap of significant Empire like a spoilt child clinging to a stolen toy.
Yesterday was two villages on a rainy morning on the very cusp of Autumn. Two villages and way too many ghosts and seventy packs of ham all boxed up in the back of the van.