A crowd of us gathered in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle on Thu 19 Oct to enjoy an evening of music, poetry and spoken word with the Scottish Poetry Library, Strange Town Theatre Company and NHS Lothian. 

Major General M L Riddell-Webster CBE DSO, Governor of Edinburgh Castle, welcomed us to the evening’s proceedings and provided food for thought by suggesting that whilst war continues, we continue to damage people as well as kill them. That set the tone for an evening that successfully combined entertainment with reflection on how we help those with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The evening began with violinist Thoren Ferguson playing a beautiful song of his own composition called ‘The Somme’, on a violin made by Steve Burnett, an Edinburgh based maker of violins, violas and cellos. Steve is interested in trees with a connection to local and historical figures, and has made, for example, a ‘Sherlock’ violin using a tree from Arthur Conan Doyle’s garden. 

Steve had wanted for many years to make a Wilfred Owen violin and the opportunity arose to use a branch from a sycamore tree in the Craiglockhart campus at Edinburgh Napier University, the site of the former hospital where many WWI officers, including Owen, recuperated. By August 2014, the violin was completed, and it has been followed by a Siegfried Sassoon violin and a Robert Graves violin made from the same large branch, after a local historian discovered that all three poets had met together at Baberton Golf Club in Edinburgh. 

Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library, part of the committee for Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017, shared a detailed account of when Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met in Edinburgh in 1917. He explained how Craiglockhart Hospital was a hugely significant place in the treatment of shell-shock, particularly the talking cure pioneered by two doctors, Dr Brock and Dr Rivers, in this centre of medical innovation. The work of these two men continues to be hugely influential in our treatment of PTSD and trauma. Colin Waters also discussed the way in which Owen’s time in Edinburgh helped him develop into a great war poet and argued that Owen’s war poetry is a key influence on how we view WWI to this day. 

A selection of poems was read throughout the evening by three talented performers from Strange Town Theatre Company. Naturally, these included several Owen poems but also poems by Siegfried Sassoon, E. Alan Mackintosh and Charles Hamilton Sorley. 

Further poetry was read by Tracey Harvey, a mental health nurse of nearly 20 years. She shared two poems that she had written: ‘Civvy Street’, dedicated to veterans and ,Thru’ the wa’’, dedicated to traumatised women. ‘Thru’ the wa’’ was a beautiful poem about loneliness and what neighbours mean to each other. Tracey also read a poem called ‘Describing Indescribable’ by veteran Kev “Weeman” Walker which detailed some of the horror of war in a very visceral and unflinching manner. 

The final speaker of the night was Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian. She spoke about the work of Veterans First Point (V1P), a new and growing Scottish charity that has been set up to provide support for veterans in a one-stop shop, as part of the NHS. The idea for the charity began when Linda met with a group of veterans in 2008 and they spoke about wanting to be heard and understood. 

V1P is set up around three central principles: Credibility, Coordination and Accessibility, and it is a unique service in that it employs veterans to act as peer support workers. The importance of a charity such as V1P was clear from some of the statistics that Linda shared with us. For example, 15% of those accessing V1P Scotland services consider their current living situation unstable and 37% have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. The initial problems that veterans report when first accessing the service are that 77 % suffer from anxiety and depression, and that 50% experience pain every day. In September this year, the Scottish Government committed to providing 50% of the funding for the V1P centres across Scotland; an acknowledgement of the excellent work they are doing. 

This was an evening that inspired real thought about what we do for veterans, how it is informed by the past, and the role that art such as poetry and music can play in expressing the horror of war. 

by Rachel Alexander 

Rachel is 35 and lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Follow her on Twitter at @rachalexwrites and Instagram at @rachjanealex

To find out more about the remarkable story of the Wilfred Owen violin, read this article at The Herald.