Wilfred Owen’s historic first steps in Edinburgh revisited

26th June 2017 Laura Hayward

War Poet Wilfred Owen’s historic first steps in Edinburgh have been revisited to mark 100 years to the day since he arrived in the city.

Organised by Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 – a committee consisting of representatives from Edinburgh Napier University, Scottish Poetry Library, Wilfred Owen Association, military charity Glen Art, Poppyscotland, and others – a unique re-enactment event took place at Waverley Station and along Princes Street this morning (26 June) as a programme of events to commemorate the centenary continued.

Arriving at platform seven on the Caledonian Sleeper, the event saw Owen, played by historian and teacher David Clarke, welcomed to the city by Edinburgh’s Makar Christine De Luca who recited Owen’s poem ‘Six o’clock in Princes Street’. The Caledonian Sleeper party were accompanied by Owen’s nephew, Peter, who also made the train journey to be part of the centenary commemorations.

Wilfred Owen originally arrived in Edinburgh from London by train on 26 June 1917 after being sent to the city to be treated for shellshock at Craiglockhart War Hospital.

The re-enacted arrival was also marked by music from violinist Thoren Ferguson. Thoren plays the Wilfred Owen violin which was crafted from the branch of a sycamore tree from the grounds of Craiglockhart to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Pupils from Tynecastle High School – where Owen taught English Literature during his stay in Edinburgh – were also present.

After the arrival, the event then replicated Owen’s journey along Princes Street, with the sound of pipers accompanying the party along Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare. A collection of World War One re-enactors from Scots in the Great War Living History Society and Poppyscotland collectors were also present along the street as they handed out leaflets of Owen’s poetry to passers-by. The party gathered outside the Caledonian Hotel – a location where Owen regularly met ‘the great and good’ of Edinburgh during his time in the city.

The party then retired to the Balmoral Hotel to recreate the breakfast taken by Wilfred Owen one hundred years ago, at what was then the North British Hotel. The breakfast was hosted by the Wilfred Owen Association. Veterans of today with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (known in Owen’s time as shellshock) joined schoolchildren, Peter Owen and Norman Drummond, the chair of the Scottish Government’s First World War Commemoration panel. The Wilfred Owen Association Breakfast was supported by a grant from Awards for All.

The commemoration was then recognised by a civic reception at Edinburgh City Chambers hosted by Right Honourable Lord Lieutenant and Lord Provost Frank Ross. A chance for reflection on the day’s event, it also featured renditions of some of Owen’s poetry by pupils from Tynecastle High School alongside a short speech by Poppyscotland chief executive Mark Bibbey.

Event organiser Neil McLennan and chair of Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 said: “Edinburgh was the centre of Owen’s enlightenment and where he crafted some of the most powerful poetry of the war. It is pleasing to see so many come together to commemorate this vital part of Edinburgh’s literary history. The co-operation of so many organisations and individuals is perhaps the legacy we want to learn and share from WW100 Commemoration events.”

Asif Khan, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, said: “If Owen hadn’t stayed in Edinburgh in 1917, he wouldn’t have met Sassoon, and so would never have written the poems that continue to influence our memory of WW1, and, perhaps even, our view of war generally. With that in mind, it’s only right that Edinburgh celebrate and recreate Owen’s arrival.”

Fiona MacDonald, director of Glen Art said “Glen Art support veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known in Owen’s time as shell shock. We believe that the most appropriate way to honour the memory of those whose lives were lost, or whose minds were shattered, a hundred years ago, is to support the veterans of today. So many great artists lost their lives in the Great War, from Owen, and Butterworth to Ivor Gurney who ended his days in a mental hospital and they must never be forgotten. It is a huge privilege to be part of these important commemoration events with young people, soldiers and veterans of today.”

During Owen’s time within Craiglockhart War Hospital, which is now part of Edinburgh Napier’s Craiglockhart campus and home to its War Poets Collection, he met Siegfried Sassoon and the meeting was to have a profound effect on his poetry work. It was at Craiglockhart that he wrote two of his most-revered poems – Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth.

The campus itself will tonight (26 June) play host to a special public lecture with Scottish military historian and expert in all things First World War Professor Sir Hew Strachan.

Sir Hew will share knowledge on the military and political situation in 1917 and will discuss how events of that year may have been the turning point of the war. The lecture will end today’s series of events.

Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal at Edinburgh Napier, said: “Edinburgh Napier is incredibly proud to continue to honour the legacy of Wilfred Owen’s time within Edinburgh. Our Craiglockhart campus and War Poets Collection are both visual and aural reminders of the impact the city had on his work and we’re grateful to be a part of a fantastic line-up of events to commemorate 100 years since his historic arrival.”

Further details on the Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 programme of events can be found at http://napier.ac.uk/wilfred-owen-100 or through the organisation’s dedicated Facebook group. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter by using #Owen1917.