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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
10th June 2010

Soldiering on...

And now I have liv’d—I know not how long,
And still I can join in a cup and a song; 
But whilst with both hands I can hold the glass steady,
Here’s to thee, my hero, my sodger laddie.

This week was a week of travel and enlightenment. Travel in relation to the places my committees were sitting this week and travel in the sense that personally I moved some things along in this working week.

I was back in the austere and grand city chambers in the great city of Glasgow. The equal opportunities committee met there this week to continue on with our inquiry into migration and trafficking. We met with people who have come to Scotland from the European union and people who had come as refugees seeking sanctuary and we met with people who had come as part of an organised work programme. The evidence was both disturbing and warming, disturbing in that in some cases people have experienced discrimination and warming in that they felt welcomed, supported and part of the community. We heard some very disturbing evidence about the exploitation of migrant communities by some private landlords. Infested properties, with little or no amenities and exorbitant rents seemed to be an experience of quite a few of our participants. I am proud to be a member of a party who in Government are tackling some of these issues and with Alex Neil taking on these concerns as Housing Minister I am sure we will have a system of support to be proud of. One of the best things I hear was from a man from Estonia who said he was drawn to Scotland because it believed in old style democracy, I think we believe in new style democracy too.

Tuesday I was up in Clackmannanshire with the education committee as part of our inquiry into education spend in local government. We had a very in-depth contribution from the chief executive Angela Leitch about the budget concerns they have, which was both interesting and informative. But I was concerned that she did not know how much liability she had with regard to PPP/PFI she said she thought it was about £6 million. Now maybe I am being a bit hard here but I think a £6 million chunk out of my overall budget before I can buy a pencil or employ a teacher would be something I would be very aware of. The legacy left to us by the last labour executive has meant that across Scotland councils need to take £244 million out of their budgets to pay fro the privatisation of our school estate……I think that’s shocking!

You may have heard that curriculum for excellence is a disaster, especially from the opposition however if there is one main thing that I have learned in our visits across Scotland as part of the education inquiry is that schools, councils and teachers are embracing and actually enjoying the new curriculum. I think the doom sayers are very wrong when they say otherwise because that to me is a sleight on all of Scotland's teachers who do a wonderfully professional job.

You will see above that once again I have quoted Robert Burns, My hero, My Soldier Laddie is the name of a wonderful book written by Larkhall man Duncan Brown. I was so completely enthralled by the book that I thought it merited a parliamentary motion and I was delighted to get cross party support which enabled it to be debated in parliament last night. I said in my speech;

When I say that Duncan Brown is an amateur historian, I mean that in the absolute best sense of the word – he is someone who pursues his passion for Scots history out of sheer love and an unshakeable belief in its importance, not for income or recognition. He is not attached to any academic institution, but has undertaken his research under his own steam, with painstaking dedication.

Duncan was lucky enough to count as a personal friend the late Nigel Tranter, whose books opened the eyes of so many of us to the endless thrills and excitement to be found in the tales of Scottish history and he continues to work in that tradition today. He’s also a very talented artist and a piper, by the way – I get exhausted just thinking about it!


There has been a long tradition of chroniclers like Duncan in Scotland, in local history and archaeological groups or just beavering away on their own, adding layers and nuggets of fact and detail to our nation’s story, sometimes small, sometimes monumental, but all enhancing our understanding and our enjoyment of Scottish history.

Often it has been these amateur historians who have provided us with the tales of the ordinary lives in towns and villages across the land – the farmer, the weaver, the rent striker, the dominie or the soldier – which bring the real depth, richness and colour to Scotland’s story.

I realise it’s a bit unorthodox to plug things in the Chamber, but I hope you won’t mind if I recommend Duncan’s book to you all. My Hero, My Soldier Laddie – the title comes from Robert Burns – is in the best tradition of the type of history I’ve been describing, and half of all the proceeds go to the Erskine veterans’ charity.

Duncan’s search for Scotland’s Victoria Cross recipients began by chance when he was playing the pipes at a wedding in Cheltenham, of all places, and a guest mentioned that she believed she had a Scottish ancestor, a David MacKay who had been in a Highland regiment and awarded the Victoria Cross. Duncan has painstakingly pieced together MacKay’s life story: he discovered that MacKay not only took part in the famous Thin Red Line during the Crimean War, he then, having been nominated by his fellow Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders for the honour. went on to be among the first group of men ever to be awarded the VC for the heroism he displayed during the Siege of Lucknow in 1857,

MacKay was badly wounded but survived and returned to Lesmahagow, where Duncan eventually traced his remains to an unmarked pauper’s grave. It was discovering that sad fate of a man who should still rightly be recognised as a Scots hero – regardless of our feelings now about the role of the British Empire in India – that prompted Duncan to go on to uncover the details of 172 Scottish VCs. Among those, he found that no fewer than fourteen hailed from the towns and villages of Lanarkshire.

In fact, one in every 100 VCs ever awarded went to a Lanarkshire man, an astonishing record for our small county. Three recipients came from Carluke alone. I wish I had time to talk about every one of them, but having spoken about the first, I also want briefly say something about the last VC recipient, Bill Reid, who Duncan Brown was able to meet and talk to before his death in 2001. I feel a particular affinity with Bill, because he was originally a Baillieston native, like me.

In November 1943, the Lancaster Bomber that Bill was flying across the Dutch coast towards Germany twice came under attack. Bill’s navigator and wireless operator were killed and Bill himself was badly wounded and the plane’s oxygen system ruptured and hydraulics damaged. Instead of turning back, Bill brought his plane back under control, flew on and completed his mission.

After recovering from his wounds, Bill joined 617 Squadron with Leonard Cheshire - and on his first flight he fouled up his landing and knocked the tail off his plane. He had an endorsement put in his logbook and Bill later joked that he was surely ‘the only pilot to get a Victoria Cross on one trip and a red endorsement on the next.’

Bill was extremely modest about his bravery, and didn’t even tell his wife about his VC when he got married in 1952. Explaining later how he had been able to act with such heroism, he simply said:

“When you lost people who were your closest friends, the danger certainly came home to you. If you’d thought it would happen to you, too, you’d simply never have been able to fly again.”

It’s reading stories like Bill’s that really bring home, not just how much we owe men like him and his fellow VC recipients, but also how important it is that those of us living in Scotland now and in future generations continue to read and hear these stories and that we do not forget the extraordinary contributions that have been made by ordinary people to secure our freedom and democracy.

If you’re ever in Hamilton, I would encourage you to visit the memorial to the Lanarkshire VCs in the town square, which was unveiled in 2005 after a campaign by Duncan and a public appeal by the Hamilton Advertiser. The poem inscribed on the memorial, by 12 year old Anna Smith from Our Lady’s High School, captures the spirit of tonight’s debate for me:


  • The full text of the motion is:

S3M-06437# Christina McKelvie (Central Scotland) (Scottish National Party): My Hero, My Soldier Laddie, Commemorating Scotland's VC Recipients— That the Parliament welcomes the publication of My Hero, My Soldier Laddie by artist and writer Duncan Brown, the illustrated story of Scotland’s 172 recipients of the Victoria Cross (VC); notes that the book tells the individual stories of each of the 14 VC recipients who came from Lanarkshire, one in every hundred of all VC recipients ever awarded; further notes that, in 2001, Duncan Brown was instrumental in securing the raising of the monument that now stands in Hamilton Town Square to the memory of these 14 men, David Mackay of Auchenheath, Frederick Aikman and John O’Neill of Hamilton, William Gardner of Bothwell, Willie Angus, Thomas Caldwell and Donald Cameron of Carluke, David Lauder and John Carmichael of Airdrie, James Richardson of Bellshill, William Milne of Wishaw, John Hamilton of Cambuslang, William Clamp of Craigneuk and Bill Reid of Coatbridge; believes that the type of oral and social history found in My Hero, My Soldier Laddie plays a crucial role in uncovering, illuminating and preserving Scotland’s past and the lives of ordinary Scots who made extraordinary contributions, and congratulates Duncan Brown on his considerable achievement in this respect.

  • Half of the proceeds from sales of My Hero, My Soldier Laddie will be donated to the Erskine veterans' care charity.

Check out the contribution from Willie Coffey MSP it was absolutely wonderful
There was some fantastic contributions to the debate, you can read it here or watch it on this link

The pictures below show the Strathleven Artizans of which Duncan Brown is a member, supporting Duncan on the day at the debate in parliament. There is also a smashing picture of Duncan and Moi at the monument in Hamilton.

Artizans go to Parliament Duncan Brown and me with his fantastic book

Duncan Brown and Christina McKelvie Duncan Thomson and me

Freedom Hello

The Gangs all here

Tickled Pink

Have a wonderfully enlightening weekend.

Christina McKelvie MSP
Central Scotland

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