A year ago, John Calder - from Castletown - made one of his regular trips to the Castlehill Heritage Centre with a collection of artefacts to visit Muriel Murray, a volunteer and member of Castletown Heritage Society.
‘When John Calder, from Castletown, comes into the Heritage Centre carrying a bag, we know that there’s sure to be something of interest in it,’ says Murial. ‘What caught our attention on this occasion was a pocket-knife. On one side the maker had stamped “War Knife. 1914. Duralumin.” On the other side was scratched “7799. J McPheat. B Company. Ten RH”'.
John found the knife in a drawer at his father’s house. ‘We lived in Dunnet ‘til 1955,’ says John. ‘Then we moved to Castletown. When we flitted to Castletown the knife came. He took the knife with him. When they both - my father and mother - passed on, the knife was left in the house, and I went to live in that house then, and it remained in a drawer until about a year or so ago when I found it. So, I knew it was no use to us. It had remained in a draw since they had moved from Dunnet to Castletown, and I thought it might be of value to the Heritage [Centre].’
A search online led Muriel to the Royal Highlanders. Using the army number and the owner's name, Joseph Anderson MacPheat, the hunt for information began.
‘We’re always looking for a local connection to make sure that we have us a continuous story about things that come in,’ says Muriel. ‘Things are always more interesting if we can attach a person to it. So, we looked for any information we could find about the owner of the knife “J McPheat”. The regimental number was critical, for it provided - quite readily on the internet - the full name “Joseph Anderson MacPheat", and the fact that he had been in the Black Watch.'
Muriel trawled through military history websites and found that ‘some years ago, someone was trying to locate Joseph MacPheat’s war medals,’ which had been lost to the family. ‘So, I knew at that time somebody else was interested in Joseph MacPheat,’ says Muriel.
‘There the trail went cold,’ she adds, but Muriel persisted with her research and eventually... ‘A stroke of luck! Around the eleventh of November, a girl’s school in the north of England, posted on their school website that, as part of Remembrance Day’s activities, one of their pupils had been doing research on her Great-Great Grandfather... Joseph MacPheat!’
At Penwortham Girls’ High School, in Preston, Lancashire, a Year 9 student, Caitlin Jones, was studying the World Wars. ‘I found it quite interesting,’ Caitlin says. ‘So, I went home to research about my family. I found out that my Great-Great Grandad was in the [First] World War and I went to my Great-Grandad’s house to find out more about his story. I found out quite a lot of information. So, I wrote a research page on it. Which I then gave to Mr Herbert, and at that point I had to write it up for the [school] newsletter.’
Included were photos, family knowledge and a touching letter of reference from his employer allowing Joseph to join the army at the age of eighteen in 1914.
Mr Herbert, Associate Assistant Headteacher and Caitlin’s history teacher says: '[Caitlin] wrote a little bit more about the story for the school newsletter, which goes out every week, and we didn’t think much more of it, after that. It was just a nice piece to share with the community, the school community, wider community. And then, I think it was a few weeks later, the school received on our enquiries page, a message from Muriel.’
For Muriel, ‘the story came together.’ She wrote to the school and said that it ‘may be of interest that we have the knife belonging to Joseph MacPheat,’ offering to send Caitlin a picture if she was interested. 'We corresponded by email and the family were delighted that we had a photograph of the knife,' she adds. 'Then, we thought it was a bit churlish to hang onto the knife, since we had some very nice photographs of it.’
When Muriel told John how the story of his donated knife had developed they agreed to return the knife to the family of its original owner. Muriel discussed it with John and suggested they send the knife to Caitlin. John thought: ‘That is the right thing to do! To put it back to the family,’ says Muriel.
‘Well, I just thought it was the right thing to do,’ adds John, ‘because it was of no use to me really and it was a lot of use to who it belonged to, you know? It’s handed down now.’
The knife was despatched to Mr Herbert at school. ‘After taking it out and showing it a few members of staff,’ says Mr Herbert, ‘I took it straight to show Caitlin and, yeah, it was just a great moment! It happened that it, kind of, caught Muriel’s eye and had this name on it and she wanted to Google it and that’s how it came about but when I held it - like with a lot of historical artefacts - you just, it gets you thinking about who’s held this or what circumstances and because the carving itself isn’t very neatly carved, is it! It’s just, kind of, etched in with, I don’t know, a nail or something like that, it makes it even more personal.’
1. Caitlin Holding Her Great-Great Grandfather's 1914 Duralumin War Knife (Detail, Front) at Penwortham Girls' High School. Preston, Lancashire, England. 2022. 2. Caitlin Holding Her Great-Great Grandfather's 1914 Duralumin War Knife Engraved With 7799 J. McPheat, B Company, 10 Royal Highlanders (Detail, Reverse) at Penwortham Girls' High School. Preston, Lancashire, England. 2022.
Caitlin took the knife home that day. ‘That was just as emotional. When my mum saw it, she was, like, oh my God! You know? And we decided to take it round to my Great-Grandad’s to show him. He just cried. It was a really special moment,' says Caitlin. 'My Great-Grandma was even, like, oh my God! I can’t believe it’s come back. All the way from Scotland back to its own family.’
For Duncan, the knife is a bit of a mystery: ‘I never saw that knife in my life before it came here. And I saw everything that my father had. There was not a lot. I mean, look. Let’s be fair. Men were coming out of the war... mangled. Really mangled. My father was one of them. He was very badly wounded. He was very, very, badly gassed and he had no teeth. He lost his teeth through gas as they did. And they wanted to forget more than remember. So, they didn’t have a lot,’ says Duncan.
Joseph went to France in 1915 and transferred to Salonika which was ‘a terrible place,’ says Duncan, ‘My father came back with, I think it’s called Dengue fever. He finished up in a hospital in Malta.’ After being evacuated to Malta in 1916, Joseph was transferred again, briefly, to the 9th before joining the 1/7th.
Looking towards a framed picture of his father: ‘On the original photograph, at the bottom of it, is the name "Nigg" and that’s where the photograph was taken. That’s where they were prior to going to Passchendaele,’ he says. ‘They then said you’re fit enough. You’re on the boat. And go to Passchendaele... right? Look in your map and it’s north of... it’s near Invergordon. And all it was, was, a massive wooden... village, with troops. And they collected them there – in The Black Watch – and they said right go to Passchendaele.’
Muriel's research discovered that after three years of action, Joseph, was engaged in the massive effort to secure the town of Ypres; a strategic point which could block the German army from accessing the French coastal ports. In the early hours of the first day of the battle of Menin Road Ridge, Joseph was caught up in a shower attack. He sustained serious shrapnel injuries to his left arm. Cut off from his comrades he lay injured on the battlefield for nearly two days. Finally, he was picked up by Canadian troops from either the Pioneer Corps or the Expeditionary Force. Joseph was taken to a casualty clearing station and eventually invalided home. He was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the War Medal and the Silver War badge as a soldier discharged through injury.
At some point after the war, Joseph left employment on the farm and became a French polisher. When he married Mary Smith, a childhood friend from Logierait, ‘he was living in an industrial area of Glasgow in the shadow of the iconic Finnieston Crane’ says Muriel. ‘He died in 1936 leaving a widow and one son, Duncan. Joseph was typical of many thousands of young men from a very ordinary background who answered the call-to-arms and played their part in a war which changed the face of history.’
Duncan has visited the Menin Gate with his son. Emotionally, he relives the experience: ‘I stood there. And I looked at these names. And there was this silence in between the bugle sounding off and sounding in the valley. I looked at these names and, on that monument alone, in the Menin Road only, there’s twenty thousand names and they don’t know where they are. It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it?’
Looking into the distance and then towards Caitlin, he offers: ‘My father’s always with me. He always will be. And, er, I hope that this dear young lady here will continue. And her mother! Just keep it alive a wee bit,’ he says. ‘Jo MacPheat. Joseph Anderson MacPheat was a soldier. Badly wounded. Died a young man; he was only forty when he died.’
On the sacrifice of life, Caitlin thinks it’s ‘unbelievable, that many people! You don’t even know how to describe it really,’ she says. ‘It makes you quite speechless, to be honest, because so many people, basically, risked their lives, you know, and a lot of people didn’t make it out. It’s quite scary to be honest.’
Of the many soldiers who returned from the war and didn’t talk about their experiences, Duncan asks: ‘Were they trying to cast it away from their mind? Did they not want to re-remember? I don’t know. But they didn’t come away from there untainted, shall we put it that way?’
But, of course, by not discussing the past we lose the opportunity to learn. I think of Caitlin’s extensive family and her facility to ask questions and get answers. I wonder how Duncan feels: ‘If you can sort of, wind it back; I would have liked to have asked these [questions]. I never had the chance,’ he says. ‘I think in 1918 everybody concerned wanted to forget about this war. Oh, you were in the army, were you? Next question? I think it was a bit like that. Just a wee bit. Just a bit.’ But keen to express the importance of experience: ‘I could say to this bonnie lass here, you know, two minutes silence at Menin Gate every night, I could describe it to her. But she will never, never, sense that sense – that feeling – until she’s stood there. And if she does, and be lucky to stand there for those two minutes, it might flood in through her brain ah, Grandad said this! There is a strange feeling, because if you want to be reminded, look at these twenty thousand men! Where are they?
Muriel suggests that it’s important for our young people to connect with these tangible links to the past: ‘There is so much more opportunity for doing it now than there ever was. When I learnt history at school, it was a case of learning dates of battles and kings and queens, and now people have such encouragement to delve into social history,’ she says, ‘and it’s a history of people, not kings and queens, that is really important. And far more interesting than dates of important battles; that, I suppose, did change the course of history. But, much more interesting and much more available to make a link with; the stories of ordinary people. And through the likes of Duncan, we have discovered, of course, the battles that were important - the failures, and the disasters - and all that war implies. But it all comes through one person.’
‘I think they’re incredibly important,’ Mr Herbert offers. ‘I think, whenever you get artefacts out in the classroom it suddenly brings history alive, and when you hold it in your hands... just holding them, it makes it a little bit more real and it’s like that with any historical period but when there’s a real personal touch, it makes it even more special.’
‘It‘s great when students take on their own research for their family history,’ says Mr Herbert, ‘and it’s one of those topics that - every year - there are a number of students that get really enthused, like Caitlin did, and then go home and talk about it and then discover their own family stories.’ He adds: ‘She had some fantastic photographs of her Great-Great Grandfather and, of course, it was a relatively happy story because he survived the war, didn’t he!’
Mr Herbert points out that the story 'would never have happened in any other era of the school’s history.’ Muriel sees that people are more interested, more engaged with social history as a result of the internet. She is animated when she explains: ‘Without the internet this story would never have come to light... Without the ability to make the links we would never have known about Caitlin, and consequently Duncan and his search and so on. So, it would have all been untapped territory and it’s absolutely through the internet.’
They say timing is everything. For Mr Herbert, fate has, perhaps, played a hand: ‘The fact that at the very same time that Caitlin had written her article this knife was brought into the Heritage Centre... because if that hadn’t aligned then she wouldn’t have received the knife and there must be a certain degree of fate about it because, of course, if the knife had been discovered - or been handed in - a week or two before, Caitlin wouldn’t have written her article and that wouldn’t have existed on the internet. So, I do think it’s almost like a miracle, isn’t it, that it’s ended up back with the family because realistically the knife probably wouldn’t have been put on display in this Heritage Centre. It would have been catalogued and put in a drawer and it was only because of the curiosity of Muriel that it actually... she was just curious to find out who this person was!
I just think it’s quite inspiring what Caitlin’s done, and I think it’s going to really, kind of, provoke me in the future to think, well, if a student does have a story, a personal story to tell, just to put it on the newsletter. To encourage them to write it because you just don’t know what might come of it. It might be nothing, it might end there. It might be a good story. It might end up with something like Caitlin’s story with something really personal that the family can really cherish. So, I think - going forwards - I think, I’m definitely going to make sure that these kinds of stories are available to be Googled on the internet using our newsletter, and you never know what might turn up.
I think things like this really do, kind of, motivate you as a teacher! To make you think, actually, what you’re doing is worthwhile.’
Caitlin has definitely been inspired and I wonder, as a young person exploring the internet, what she thinks: ‘Being surrounded by young people all the time you see a lot of negatives. You see things happen. You hear these awful stories but it’s amazing how sometimes there are still, like, great things like this that can come out of such, like, not a bad place but what’s perceived as quite a bad place now, isn’t it? You don’t often here things like this so, yeah... to be honest I agree with Sir, like, I’d love to hear of other students going through a similar situation as this. It is, it’s really close to home, and I know that many families would love something like this.’
For Muriel, an outward look might be an answer to a less uncomfortable and more positive internet experience for young people today: ‘The facility that the young have now of using the internet, and social media, and all these things that are possibly very useful things – can be harmful – but they’re extremely useful,’ she explains, ‘and I think it’s because it’s opening up the world, as I said. It’s maybe... maybe we should concentrate on focusing the young people away from themselves and towards other people because social media can make them turn inward and reflect totally on themselves. And the internet can allow them to do the exact opposite by opening up stories and experiences of other people and they can learn from that.’
I think of the day the knife came into school. I happened to walk past Mr Herbert, very excitedly, showing the knife to Mrs Pomoroy, the Headteacher, on a corridor. Timing is everything. What really struck me at the time was how that knife had been carefully packaged... in an iPhone box! Mr Herbert said: ‘Oh. Look. How wonderful it fits’ and I said ‘Look! It’s in an iPhone box. How great is that!’ I had to ask Muriel: ‘When you sent the knife down to Penwortham Girl’s High School it was in an iPhone box. Could you just tell me about that... probably just a box or was there...?
Bursting into laughter, Muriel bestows: ‘Yeah, well, I thought it was very apt that the modern and the ancient – or the not-so-ancient – were coming together. It also happened to fit very neatly into the box. But yes. I did think it was quite appropriate.’
Back in Duncan’s living room, towards the end of our conversation, I ask Duncan what it was actually like to physically hold the knife. Caitlin offered: ‘The emotions?’
‘You can’t, you can’t put,’ a long pause, ‘words to that,’ says Duncan. He coughs, and after a further long pause... ‘Cut’. I cut the recording.
When we return, with a deeper tone, I ask Duncan what can Caitlin’s generation do to make the world a better place, to solve the mess that seem to be reoccurring: ‘Caitlin and her kind have got a lot of hard work ahead of them. That’s the only thing I can say. Its go, go, go. In time to come, I’ve no doubt that people in high-ranking places will do the same stupid things that my people did, you know?’ Says Duncan. ‘Well, we do try. I don’t know, could we try a bit harder maybe? How can you, for instance... how can you put a forget-me-knot blanket on Ukraine? You can’t. It’s too big. It’s stupidly too big. It really is. Erm... and I don’t know... well, we’re afraid of him putting his finger on the nuclear button, aren’t we?
To Caitlin, I ask how her generation is going to fix the things that our generations have made a mess of. Pausing for thought: ‘I have no idea to be honest. It’s a big mess,’ she says. ‘I do often think, you know, why hasn’t the world learnt from previous situations? Why do we have to keep repeating the same cycle with war? To be honest, I’m just hoping there’s some way out there that will… not sort it out for sure but, like, do you know what I mean, like, stop it in a way?
Sitting with her Great-Grandfather, Caitlin turns to Duncan and says: I’d just like to say that, you know, I’m glad that I’ve done this for you. I feel, like, I’ve… I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel like I’ve done something special for you and made you feel happy if that makes sense.’
Quickly, Duncan replies: ‘Finalise it by going to Aberfeldy, ok?’ Caitlin says: ‘Yeah, I’ll get my mum to take me.’
‘Yep, she will! She will, she will, she will. Yep. That’s where I’m going to finish up,' says Duncan. ‘My father is buried in Aberfeldy... And that’s where I’m going. I’m going back to my father and so is my son.’