Memories of the fallen still resonate

Cpt Ian Mackenzie

Liberal Democrat MP JAMIE STONE recalls a painful childhood memory and why it reminds him of the importance of a united Europe

It was the late 1960s, it was March, and my parents had left the Highlands for a few days in order to try to sell their wares in London – they ran a small cheese business.

As I was still at school and had to stay behind, I was sent to stay with two elderly spinster sisters called Mackenzie.

My word, they were kind people: and more than that, they were erudition personified. For they were both of the first generation of Scottish females to graduate from Edinburgh University.

In among all their learning – none of which they seemed to have forgotten – there was a practicality and bluff common sense. They were not given to hyperbole or undue sentimentality – and that was why I was so surprised when I came back to their house after school.

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Both of them, Catherine and Dorothy, were clearly not themselves. Indeed, they were damp-eyed and given to pulling their handkerchiefs out of their sleeves. I looked down at what lay before them on the table. It was an ancient. yellowed newspaper cutting – the death notice for an Ian Mackenzie.

He attended Tain Royal Academy in his home town, and then Fettes in Edinburgh, and finally an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford – a spectacular entry to higher learning in which he ranked higher than a fellow Balliol undergraduate that same year, the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

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Then the Great War came and Ian volunteered for the Seaforth Highlanders and the Western Front. He served right through the war, gradually rising in rank, until Germany's last 'big push' in March 1918, only months before the Armistice and peace.

But it was so long ago. God forgive me, but I was startled and embarrassed by these two ladies grieving in this unexpected and public way. I didn't know what to say. And of course I now realised that this particular March day would have to be the anniversary of their beloved brother Ian's death, wouldn't it? I mean, the First World War was all about those poems we were learning in English and stuff in history.

And yet those two old ladies and their tears...

Now that I am at the age I am, I can see that it would have been like yesterday to them.

In their minds Ian could have stepped in the door the same cheerful young man that he once had been – and with all that promise before him, promise that was utterly wasted. One letter that he had written from the Western Front expressed an interest in joining the Civil Service after the war.

The distance back in time for Catherine and Dorothy was the same as it is from today until my school days, the day of my tale. This vivid memory still seems like yesterday to me.

I now completely understand why Catherine and Dorothy were so sad that day. I guess that if one single event during my life instilled in me the realisation of the sheer horror and insanity of war in Europe, then this was it.

Of course I am a European. It would be a betrayal of the memory of two very special ladies if I was anything else.

Jamie Stone is the Liberal Democrat spokesman for the Armed Forces and MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

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