The short, active service
life of Lieutenant J.E.M. ‘Jimmy’ Atkinson of the 7th Battalion
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders came to an abrupt end at 3pm on June
Surrounded by enemy
soldiers near the French town of Saigneville on the River Somme with a
life expectancy measured in minutes, the 26-year-old scrambled to his
feet, hands in the air and surrendered to five years of captivity as a
prisoner of war in Germany.
Mr Atkinson, who died in
1997, would always remember the exact time of his capture - it was just
after his Army issue wristwatch was shot off.
Had the German marksman
been fractionally more accurate, the world would have been deprived of
one of the most popular Scottish country dances ever devised.
The robust but graceful
Reel of the 51st Highland Division, worked out in the grim confines of
German PoW camps, is still danced around the world wherever half a dozen
itchy-footed Scots gather.
For Mr Atkinson, of Alloa,
Clackmannanshire, and his contemporaries in pre-war Scotland, country
dancing was part of everyday life. Later, as he and thousands of his
fellow Highlanders were being marched 1,000 miles through Holland and
into Germany in June 1940, his thoughts often strayed back to the dances
he had attended. The tramp of the marching feet took on the rhythms of
the Strathspeys, reels and jigs to which he had whirled his fiancée around the floor.
Years later he was to
remember: ‘I started thinking about dance tunes to keep my mind clear
of grizzly thoughts, and I began to get this idea for a dance.’
At the core of the dance
was the cross of St Andrew and the flash, or badge, of the Highland
division to which his regiment belonged.
At Oflag V11C, Laufen
castle near Salzburg, he joined a reel club formed by Lieutenant APJ ‘Peter’
Oliver of the 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. The two men discussed
the dance forming in Mr Atkinson’s mind, and, with the help of Lt Col
Tom Harris Hunter, of the Royal Army Service Corps, a former chairman of
the Perth branch of the Scottish Country Dance Society, worked out the
dance that is essentially the same reel today.
On Hallowe’en 1941, in
Oflag V11B at Warburg, Westphalia, Major General (later Sir) Victor
Fortune, officer commanding the 51st, approved the name The 51st Country
Dance (Laufen Reel).
The Germans had paid
little attention to the whistling, stomping Scots PoWs — until Col
Harris Hunter decided to send the dance instructions to his wife in
Scotland. To the uninitiated guards, the written steps — ‘Cast off
three places, five to eight lead to top corners nine to 12’ looked
suspiciously like code.
An NCO was given a
demonstration. Mr Atkinson noted: ‘I think they thought we were
completely mad, but the steps got through to Harris Hunter’s wife in
The reel became an
immediate success in wartime Britain. The then Queen, now Queen Mother,
persuaded the Scottish (later Royal) Country Dance Society to include it
in its book of dances, even though it did not conform to its standards.
In peacetime, Mr Atkinson
married Heather Young, went back to his prewar work in an Alloa paper mill, and
raised four children.
A charming man with a
twinkling sense of humour, he was always mildly amused and bemused by
the worldwide success of the dance.
‘I just hope I brought
a little happiness to people,’ he said.