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1,000 attend rail disaster service

Published 23/05/2015

The Princess Royal lays a wreath at Gretna Old Parish Church
The Princess Royal lays a wreath at Gretna Old Parish Church

About 1,000 people, including descendants of those who died, have attended a service to commemorate Britain's worst rail disaster.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Princess Royal were among those gathered at Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh to remember the people who perished in the Quintinshill crash, near Gretna on the border, 100 years ago.

The disaster claimed the lives of more than 200 troops, most of whom came from the Leith, Portobello and Musselburgh areas surrounding the Scottish capital.

Several of the relatives of those who died had travelled from overseas to attend the service at the place where many of the soldiers are now buried.

It was early in the morning of May 22 1915 when a train packed with First World War troops travelling from Larbert, Stirlingshire, collided with a local passenger service.

A Glasgow-bound express train then smashed into the wreckage at the Quintinshill signal box, setting off a devastating fire which engulfed the troop train, packed with nearly 500 members of the Leith Battalion of the Royal Scots.

At least 214 soldiers of all ranks and 12 civilians were killed. Another 246 people were injured.

The troops were on their way to Liverpool, where they were due to sail to the frontline of the war in Gallipoli.

Royalty, politicians, military veterans and relatives of the victims also marked the anniversary with a special service in Gretna yesterday.

The day after the crash, according to the Royal Scots website, 107 coffins were taken back to Edinburgh and were placed in the battalion's drill hall in Dalmeny Street.

The following day, 101 coffins were taken in procession, along a route lined with more than 3,000 soldiers, for burial in a mass grave at the nearby Rosebank Cemetery.

The Royal Scots Association - supported by members of the 1st, 2nd and 6th Battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the descendant regiment of The Royal Scots - held today's commemoration event which began with a parade from Dalmeny Street to the cemetery.

After the service, the troops paraded along East Claremont Street where the Princess Royal, patron of the Royal Scots Association, took the salute.

Andy Kay, a member of the association, said the crash had a profound impact on the Leith Battalion and the local community.

"In those days of course there was no such thing as social security ... there was a collection which took £4,000, which in those days, 1915, was a huge sum of money," he said.

"That went towards partly building a memorial, and the money that was left went to relatives of the crash, and they also donated a bed to Leith Hospital."

John Edward, the great grandson of Private James McSherry, who was killed, has spent the past year reaching out to descendants of those who died so that they could attend the service today.

"We wanted to make sure that no one on the Sunday morning would be turning around and saying 'I wish I had known about it, I wish I had had the chance to remember my ancestors'," he said.

"So we got a Facebook page, we had lots in local radio, local newspapers, local historians were hard at work, and we just got the message out to them.

"Even in March we only had 30, and now we've got 150 coming here in the sunshine today, from Jersey, Ontario, the Isle of Wight, Wales, all over the place."

Mr Edward said the service also offered a chance to remind the wider community about the rail crash.

"I think because it was swamped with Gallipoli and all the other great battles in 1916 and 17, it was a relatively small number of people in the big scheme of things, but it had a huge impact for Leith, Edinburgh and Musselburgh," he said.

The Princess Royal later officially opened Scotland's First World War Centenary Wood in Edinburgh's Pentland Hills, unveiling a stone structure created as a space to rest, reflect and remember.

Anne planted a rowan tree to complete a grove within the woods dedicated to the hundreds of soldiers who died in the rail disaster.

A Rowan tree, known in folklore as the traveller's tree, was chosen to remember those who never returned from the long journey from Scotland to the front lines.

Carol Evans, director of the Woodland Trust Scotland said the woods were a "living, growing thank you to everyone who lived through the conflict".

"The woodland includes a special area to rest, reflect and remember the contribution of everyone involved in the First World War, and the grove created in memory of those who died in the Quintinshill Rail Disaster will stand in their memory for many decades to come," she said.

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