By Mike Briggs
As they huddled, shoulder-to-shoulder, in their sodden trenches outside the French town of Festubert on the night of May 17th 1915, the men from Portree would have found only one thing vaguely familiar: the weather. According to official reports the 17th was a day of heavy rain and low clouds.
But whereas at home on Skye the cloud might just lift to give a momentary glimpse of the distant, majestic Cuillins or the mystical, moody Quirang, here in the bloody battlefields of the Somme the only view would be one of mud, shell holes, barbed wire and the all too proximate ramparts of the German front line.
There would be no larks rising from these spring meadows. The friends from Portree had left all that behind when they marched out of the village in autumn 1914, expecting to teach the Kaiser a swift lesson and return to their crofts before the year was out.
Their hopes were cruelly shattered, most tellingly in the Battle of Festubert which, over ten days, would claim 16,000 lives, among them 11 men of the Portree Territorial Batallion - known locally as The Saturday Night Soldiers - who were part of the 4th Cameron Highlanders regiment.
Two months earlier, Private John Kennedy, who worked for MacBrayne’s Ferries, had been the first of the Portree men to fall, fatally injured at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle, a terrible strategic failure during which 11,000 troops were killed, wounded or missing.
After the war 104 names would eventually be engraved on the Portree memorial, but it was at Festubert that the German maxim guns cut the mightiest single swathe through this small, Gaelic-speaking community of just 1,000 souls.
Now, 100 years on, the sacrifice of these men is being honoured in a series of events where Festubert and the Great War in general are to be discussed, explored and commemorated.
On Friday 15th May there is a conference in Portree’s Aros Centre with contributions from local and national historians. Professor Ewen Cameron, Trevor Royle and Professor Marjory Harper were all scheduled to speak.
The event is being coordinated by the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre which will have a year-long exhibition called “An Cogadh Mór: Remembering the Great War in Skye and Lochalsh”.
On the evening of Saturday 16th May there is a musical tribute in Portree Community Centre with a theme similar to the “Shinty’s Heroes” show at last year’s the Blas Festival. Broadcaster and shinty historian Hugh Dan MacLennan will narrate between musical contributions from Gary Innes, Allan Henderson, Linda MacLeod and others.
Earlier on the same day the focus is on the links, as rivals on the playing field and comrades on the battlefield, between the shinty teams of Skye and Kingussie.
The Portree Camerons trained in Kingussie with their counterparts before spending six months in Bedford and finally going to France in February 1915.
Many in the Portree and Kingussie companies, who fought together at Festubert, were shinty players. The Kingussie team which won the Camanachd Cup months before the outbreak of hostilities lost six members and the village itself would lose about 60 men in all. Among those killed in May 1915 was Willie MacGillivray, captain of the famed 1914 cup-winning team.
Festubert also claimed Company Sergeant Major William Ross from Portree who was part of Skye’s MacTavish Cup team in 1898. Ross was a local postman and he lied about his age so he could go to war with his mates. He was about 46 when he died.
The war claimed about 19 shinty players from Skye and it would be more than 70 years before the island club won another major senior trophy, the Camanachd Cup, in 1990. The winning team included two of Billy Ross’s great grandsons and was managed by a third.
The shinty programme over the commemorative weekend includes matches between the Skye and Kingussie senior teams, Portree and Kingussie primary schools, and the Skye and Badenoch ladies’ teams. The Skye second team will play Forces shinty club Scots Camanachd.
On the Saturday evening there is a civic reception hosted by Highland Council and on Sunday 17th one of Scots Camanachd’s former players, Padre Hector MacKenzie from Kilmuir on Skye, leads a commemorative service including a remembrance parade in Somerled Square, Portree, led by British Legion members from Kingussie and Skye.