War studies trigger a battle close to home

16th April 2010 at 01:00

As the ribbon was cut and the memorial revealed, the tears began to flow. A campaign that started nearly 70 years ago had come to an end, thanks to the determination of P6-7 pupils at a school in Kilmarnock.

None of this was planned. The 18 Gargieston Primary pupils were working on a Second World War project when they found out through a local historian, Frank Beattie, about a little-known tragedy.

While the devastation wreaked 30 miles away in Clydebank is well documented, Kilmarnock suffered only one bombing raid during the war. The story goes that German bombers, scanning the ground below during a May 1941 blackout, spotted glowing embers on a train. They hit Culzean Crescent, a stone's throw from the train line.

Four people died. John Bissett, 52, was deaf and it is unknown if an inability to hear the air-raid siren contributed to his fate; his housekeeper Dorothy Armour, 51, had only been working for him for five days. The other victims, mother and daughter Janet and Alice McGeachie, aged 68 and 42, lived in a neighbouring house.

Relatives at the time lobbied for a memorial, but their efforts came to nought. Until last month, there was no visible reminder of Culzean Crescent's war dead.

The Gargieston pupils were energised by learning of a bombing that had taken place only two miles from their school; they willingly sacrificed lunch breaks and free time after school to a new cause.

They started fundraising for a bench and plaque. They wrote to East Ayrshire Council for permission to place a memorial in Culzean Crescent, and a bench was provided from surplus stock by the neighbourhood services department.

They also wrote letters to descendants of the bomb victims - now living as far away as Canada - inviting them to the unveiling of the bench, and the plaque they had designed for it.

The World War project, which began in October, had run far longer than anticipated. But P6-7 teacher Shona Lawson was encouraged by her head, Christine MacLean, to take as long as needed: "She said, `If something's good, you should go for it.'"

The ceremony took place on March 18. Four surviving relatives cut the ceremonial ribbon: Mark Bissett - who travelled from Banffshire - and Ronalie Walker, grandson and granddaughter of John Bissett; Ian Crooks, grandson of Janet McGeachie; and Graham Jack, her great-grandson.

Some of 2010's Culzean Crescent residents were also there.

The atmosphere was "charged", says Mrs Lawson. One girl was overcome with emotion as she read the names of those who had died. Some of the 50 people gathered were around on that fateful day in May 1941, and shared their memories of the bombing.

But the children, in some respects, knew more than their guests. Their research has uncovered details that were little reported at the time - perhaps, says Mrs Lawson, because the authorities did not want to draw attention to the bombing.

Just as the bench will keep the memory of the four victims alive, the pupils hope local libraries will soon be stocked with another memorial. After the Easter break, the group wants to put together a book marking the events of May 1941 and the school's response to them.

Mrs Lawson has been taken aback by the project's profound impact, having brought abstract historical events closer to home. She saw first-hand the depth of feeling evoked by tragic events so many decades after they took place.

It is "by far" the best project of Mrs Lawson's teaching career and "caught the imagination of every single one of the pupils", she says.

No trace was found of living relatives of Dorothy Armour. But the Gargieston pupils sent a letter to the local newspaper, the Kilmarnock Standard, and are still hoping for a belated response. The end date for this project is not yet in sight.


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