Pupils uncover silent history of remote island community in award winning WW1 film

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A film about World War One veterans made by Primary School pupils from Britain’s most remote Island has won a national competition.

All four Fair Isle pupils uncovered real life stories of veterans in the competition, part of a campaign by the Royal British Legion Scotland to commemorate the centenary of WWI. The winning film ‘Our boys’ shows how the loss of life during World War One devastated the local community.

Royal British Legion Scotland, Scotland’s biggest veteran’s charity, announced that Fair Isle Primary is joint winner of the Primary Schools War Memorial competition with St Andrews Primary School in Dumfries.

Pupils filmed interviews with Fair Isle residents and relatives of veterans honoured on the memorial during their research. One of the stories uncovered by pupils at Fair Isle, where 26 went to war from a population of 139, features the story of the McLean brothers who served in the same division. The two brothers died 3 days apart in the trenches in France. The body of the older brother Kenneth was never found. 

Head teacher at Fair Isle Primary Nicholas Lucas said, “Of the 139 residents on Fair Isle at the time 26 went off to World War One and eight never returned. That’s a big part of a small community. People didn’t talk about it. It was so devastating and felt so strongly here. It changed everything on the Island. Speaking to people whose families were affected helped the pupils make a real connection to the War. It really brought it home to them.

He added, “World War One can be complicated to understand but going out into the community and talking to people really made it hit home to the children. The research has also helped them learn more about wider local history. Half of the Fair Isle men who died in World War One never made it to battle because they died of diseases. So the research helped the pupils understand about what health was like at the time.”

The joint award winning entry from pupils at St Andrews Primary was also a film produced by pupils and featuring pupils in character as local soldiers whose stories they uncovered during their research.

Pupils at St Andrews Primary were filmed acting as soldiers to relive the brutality of the trenches and what it was like to serve in World War One.

One local story uncovered was that of Norman MacWhinney from Caerlaverock, a Sergeant Major who was decorated with the Military Medal for his bravery. His platoon was near the river Aisne in France when he was hit by a German shell. He died in battle.

As well as online research and the roll calls on the walls of the memorial inside the chapel itself the pupils from St Andrews also got information from the ‘blue books’ records of service stored in the Chapel.

Teachers from across Scotland have praised the Royal British Legion Scotland project as an opportunity for children to develop an in-depth understanding of the impact world wars had on their local communities.

St Andrews Primary School teacher Joanne Aitken said, “The children have been so enthused by this project. It’s the first time they have learned about World War One. It was their idea at first to shoot the film as if they were in the trenches. Then the pupils decided they wanted to act in the film and get into the character of soldiers they learned about.”

She added, “I think all the pupils now have a global understanding what happened during World War One. The competition really brought it home to them. I think it gave them a chance to get a real breadth of learning, from how the War started to the experiences of life in the trenches.”

The prize is a tour and overnight stay for pupils from both schools on board an original Royal Navy War Ship and floating war museum in London. They will also present their research to veterans at the Royal British Legion Scotland annual conference.

The Royal British Legion Scotland, the country’s biggest membership veterans’ charity, organised the competition as part of its ‘Voices of Veterans’ campaign.

Kevin Gray, CEO of the Royal British Legion Scotland said, “The level of competition entries is exceptional. The film made by Fair Isle Primary pupils showed how much they had engaged with their history and war memorial heritage through the stories of real people. Well done to all for fantastic entry.”

Minister for Transport and Veterans, Keith Brown who helped judge the competition said: “The quality of the entries is very strong and shows the great creativity and imagination of the children.

“With more than 70 entries to choose from it is clear to see that young people have a thirst for knowledge about our history. Innovative competitions like this are an excellent way of teaching children about World War One.  The competition made such an impression that the Scottish Government is meeting the costs of providing a second top prize to the winners.”

As part of the competition all the research will be submitted to a national online archive of war memorials to help the War Memorials Trust find out about the condition of memorials and help preserve and protect them. Each entry will also help the Imperial War Museum to catalogue war memorials across Scotland.”