The following poem was written by Denis Muir to commemorate Britain's worst ever rail disaster, at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, just across the border from England. Denis, who shares my interest in railways, popped over to Langholm on Common Riding Day 1997, and I asked him for some of his railway material for Electric Soup.
Denis is a highly acclaimed local poet, and he has written a number of poems about railways, this being the most moving. I first read it some years ago, beside the up loop at Quintinshill, where it had been posted on the boundary fence, along with a memorial wreath.
| Q U I N T I N S H I L L |
By Denis R. Muir
Blacksyke Wood awakens still to the sound of a blackbird's merry trill.
His lonely tribute to the dawn is to remind us of that fateful morn
for eighty years have slowly passed since madam Fate her five die cast
to fall at random where they may on a perfect, cloudless, sunny day
- at Quintinshill.
She chose the place - she set the scene, near quiet, peaceful Gretna Green.
A train of Royal Scots, "Leith's Own" were battle-trained and leaving home.
Innocents but in their prime and eager for a distant clime.
From Larbert then, excitement high, they'd watched the lowlands passing by
- as day began.
In long descent the "Special" roars,
the rhythmic rails drum wooden floors
as a farm of fluorescent white
ghosts by in early morning's light.
An over-bridge's shadow casts
its hint of gloom but flashes past.
The rattling sound of sleepered joints;
a sway of unexpected points
- then C R A S H . . . . . .
With a roaring, deafening, shattering thud
the trains compressed to splintered wood.
Men crushed to death without a noise
or flung away like ragged toys.
Some scramble blindly, half in dream
bewildered by the wretched screams
to stare at what was once their train,
while trying to focus in the brain
- the question "WHY?"
C R A S H
A second fearful rending sound
comes ploughing through the cindered ground.
Men thankful once to be alive
are mown like corn before the scythe.
A blade of death - of flying steel,
distorted rails and fractured wheels
then, adding further to the strife,
a lazy flame explodes to life
- escaping gas !
The kindled coaches blaze alight;
adrenalin flows through fear and fright
as anxious helpers hear the cries
and fight to where their comrades lie.
Explosions - shots - the scorching heat
and cinders hot beneath their feet.
The panic of the searchers, crying
which petrifies the trapped still lying
- within the flame.
Survivors laid upon a field
succumb to death and quietly yield.
Midst dandelion; daisy; clover; vetch
a pall of death as soldiers retch.
Men of War struck down by chance
far from the poppied fields of France
or a muddy, bloodied, Belgian trench
instead a sickening, searing stench
- on Scottish soil.
Lost with the men - the Battalion Roll,
proof of the Scots horrific toll.
Nameless men for ever more
but known by God at heaven's door.
One sombre photo says it all;
their remnants mustered by a wall.
With staring eyes they line and wait,
distraught in grief yet ramrod straight
- the 7th Royal Scots.
There live yet men who remember well the piercing screams and mangled hell;
the line-side poles all burnt away; gun-metal tarnished bluish-grey.
The horrendous aftermath of fire with carriages for a funeral pyre.
Two hundred soldiers in the sun found death before their war begun
- in friendly fields.
Hardly anything now remains. Just empty loops and ghosts of trains.
Nothing but the "Guinness" book to remind us of the lives it took.
No memorial - no marble stone to mark the loss of boys half-grown;
no signal box - no bells that ring, but in Blacksyke Wood a blackbird sings
- at Quintinshill.
Denis R.Muir, Gretna Green.
8 May '85. - 4/5 Dec '86. - 12 May '90. - 6 Jun '94. - 30 May '95.
Northbound Class 86 hauled express approaching Blacksyke Bridge [05 Aug 97, 1955BST]
Digital Photo © I.W. Logan 1997
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A simple but beautiful Memorial Cairn funded by donations raised primarily by John Cameron Esq. of Stranraer, Chairman of the Scotland (South) Area branch of the WESTERN FRONT ASSOCIATION, and raised on a site overlooking the area of the disaster by kind permission of Adair Houston was unveiled by Mrs Buchanan of Newcastle, the "Last Survivor", on Sunday the 21st of May, 1995 at Gretna Green.
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1. Giving evidence, an Officer of the 7th Royal Scots said that his first and most vivid memory of the crash was the call of a blackbird in a nearby wood.
2. The Board of Trade enquiry blamed five distinct reasons as the main contributory factors for the disaster. The "five die" or dice of fate. If any one of them had "fallen" differently then the 22nd of May 1915 would have been just an ordinary day.
3. The long descent from Kirkpatrick Fleming; the farm of Cranberry and the over-bridge of the Gretna Green-Chapelknowe road are immediately before Quintinshill.
4. Many men having survived the initial crash were mown down by the second, in fact Peter Stoddart "the last survivor" of the Troop Train was extremely lucky. A "lowly pay-clerk" travelling at the rear of the train, he was knocked out by the first crash, recovered enough to escape onto the track and then re-gained consciousness flying through the air after the second.
5. The majority of the soldiers were either sleeping or dozing in their locked carriages.
6. Dandelion; daisy; clover and vetch. Some of the flowers that bloom in May. My yearly 6.49am walk is spent collecting as many flowering varieties as possible including grasses and fern and placing them on the rail bed of the "UP" loop beside the base of the old signal box. In 1990 I found the yellow poppies beside the ditch in the field below and would like to think that someone sowed them in remembrance of a loved one.
7. The Battalion Roll and finances of the 7th Royal Scots were lost in the inferno making initial counting and identification very difficult. A roll-call at 1130 was answered by only 52 men out of 500+. Many had accompanied the wounded to hospital; an unknown number had used their initiative and vanished over the fields never to be officially accounted for, some of whom I heard about from descendants, but most were lost in the fire. A rare photo exists showing a mustered few beside Quintinshill Farm.
8. One account mentions the sagging line-side telephone wires with the cups in place but no sign of any poles. All burnt away.
9. The original version of Quintinshill in May 1985 consisted of the first two and last two verses only. They were separated by the one word CRASH. Michael & Geoff Simkins of the National Theatre Co. asked me to complete it in Dec 1986. At the time of their visit there were very few people left locally who had attended the crash but we met some. They - like everyone I'd ever met, had a common bond - the frightening magnitude of it all. Communications were very poor yet word spread like wildfire and country people from an extremely wide area - and beyond, were quickly on the scene.
10. Bluish-grey pipes sticking out of the ash were rifle barrels. Tales of Officers shooting men may well have been true but most shots heard were rounds being detonated by the heat. There were though, self amputations to escape the wreckage.
11. That they never left Scottish soil was a bitter irony.
12. The loops are rarely used now although trains are run through at slow speed to prove their working.
13. Nothing is left but those empty loops; the large white sign and the blackbird. The old farm buildings were converted into cottages and finally demolished in the early 1970's but imagination can easily conjure up what it must have been like and the immediate and surrounding area is easily recognisable from the few photos in existence. No ghosts of soldiers - but there are of questions. Therein lies the attraction of Quintinshill. So many remain unanswered, so many have never been solved and never will be.
14. I fully support any move to place a permanent memorial on the site of the signal box or just below Blacksyke Bridge in memory of all who died. It doesn't really matter if it never reaches fruition though because it will always be remembered anyway. It's because of the name. Just the mere mention of Quintinshill is enough to stir the blood.
Denis R. Muir, Gretna Green.
The text on this page is © 1985-97 Denis R. Muir
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Electric Soup © I.W.Logan MCIT 1998. Last updated: 09 Jul 98 at 1400BST.