Hearts’ Remembrance Weekend
Last February I decided to follow a British club for a season. My choice was Hearts. There were many reasons for this: the salvation by Ann Budge and the fans, the fact that Hearts would play in a lower division after 31 years at the top level, the 140th anniversary of the club, the stadium, the club colours, the city of Edinburgh and the four Edinburgh derbies, although I already had made the decision when the Hibs went down. But the main reason was the story of the team of Hearts that 100 years earlier fought in the First World War. Seven players died and several others were injured. The sacrifice meant Hearts didn’t win the title in 1915. In 2008 I’d read the book by Jack Alexander about McCrae’s Battallion (where the players at Hearts were assigned) and the story has fascinated me ever since. On the first of July 1, I was in Contalmaison and there I noticed how special it was. Despite the Edinburgh derby and the games against the Rangers, for me the “Remembrance Weekend” was the one I looked forward to the most.
Saturday was the match of the season for me. A game I really looked forward to. Not even the match itself, but everything around it. Before the minute of silence a lone piper played “The Floo’ers o’ the Forest”. That is a very old song about the “Battle of Flodden” and the sorrow of the women and children of Scots who were in massacred at that battle. The minute of silence after “The Floo’ers o’ the Forest” followed was touching, but the lone piper impressed me even more. At the moment he started playing the crowd was quiet. It was not like a minute of silence in The Netherlands, where people tend to cough deliberately, where people giggle and phones go off. It was just really quiet. You just heard the bagpipes, the rain falling on the roof, a seagull and sobbing people. I think it felt inappropriate to go filming, but I am glad that someone did it. If you click here, you can see it. It was really a lump-in-the-throat moment.
During “The Floo’ers o’ the Forest”, the players stand together. That was done deliberately. Hearts and Raith Rovers were the clubs with the most players in McCrae’s Battalion. The club from Kirkcaldy lost seven players who volunteered for the battalion. Three of them died on the battlefield. To make it even more special: the great-grandfather of Raith Rovers player Liam Fox served as a volunteer in McCrae’s Battalion. It must have been very special for him to stand there. Both clubs are playing this season in commemorative shirts. Hearts got a sober top without a sponsor and with the old logo, while Raith Rovers has an away shirt without a sponsor, but with the text “Remember”. Now the problem is that both shirts are dark and that can be a problem. Fortunately, the Scottish FA had some sense of tradition and gave Raith Rovers permission to play in their away shirt.
The match itself was very mediocre. Hearts won 1-0, but that wasn’t really important. After the game I had met some fans of Raith Rovers, who I had met a week earlier at Linlithgow Rose v Raith Rovers. After that game I had ended up in the pub with them and that turned out in a great evening. Now I saw them in a pub next to Haymarket Station. The Raith Rovers fans also thought it was a beautiful, solemn commemoration. Very ‘dignified’ with the lone piper and the minute of silence. They expressed the fear that the remembrance at Ibrox would be very tacky. Of course it was. They decide it was appropriate to remember the fallen by firing a cannon. In the stadium! The next day it was Aberdeen v Celtic and some away fans thought it was a good idea to disturb the minute silence by singing out loudly. Fans of the Old Firm like to draw the attention on them by negative behaviour. Sadly they get that attention.
Next morning there was a commemoration at the Haymarket Memorial followed by a lunch organized by the McCrae’s Battalion Trust. It was an honour to be with that lunch, because that was a really intimate thing with around 150 people. The commemoration at the Haymarket Memorial, where I might have come along a hundred times since I live here was early in the morning. There were 2000 people at the Haymarket Memorial. This too was very well organized. Solemn, but with good speakers. And not too long-winded. The Haymarket Memorial is a Hearts monument, but there were also representatives from Raith Rovers, Falkirk, Dunfermline and Hibernian, clubs who also had players in McCrae’s. I saw many friends at the memorial. One of the representatives of the McCrae’s Battalion Trust actually wanted me to lay one of the Poppy wreaths at the monument, because of my reasons to follow Hearts. But he couldn’t find me. It would have been a very great honor, but I think there are other people who had more right to do it as me.
The lunch of the McCrae’s Trust was at The Royal Scots Club. This is an elegant venue in the centre of Edinburgh. I had a wee problem because I have no fancy clothes. I’ve not even wore a tie in my whole life. But I tried my best and got away with it. It was a great afternoon with a varied program. Someone told a story about the Hearts players in World War I, there was an barbershop quartet, two comedians (Tam Cowan, who I thought was very good, the other had quite old fashioned jokes), there was a raffle (unfortunately I didn’t win anything) and there was an auction. The masterpiece were two framed and autographed shirts from Hearts and Raith Rovers. I was thinking about bidding. Maybe even 100 pounds, but the opening bid was already 500 pounds. Eventually someone bid £1000 for it and won. In hindsight I could have won it, if I had sold my kidney the day before.
What always strikes me with the Scottish is that food is not so important to them. We got soup and a Sunday Roast for lunch. It certainly was not bad, but I had expect something else in such a fancy hotel. There wasn’t even a dessert, which Tam Cowan rightly slagged in his speech. But where food is not a priority for the Scots, drinking is very important to them. This was done plenty. I’m actually not a big drinker, but at the end of the lunch I had already drank for about four liters of alcohol that day. After the lunch we went to the Oxford Bar (a well known pub in Edinburgh for those who read the books of Ian Rankin about Inspector Rebus). In that pub I was introduced to David Speed, the club historian of Hearts who told me some interesting stories. My favorite was about the cat Blackie who is on the team photo which was just taken when the players of Hearts had applied for McCrae’s Battalion, but I also liked the stories about the origin about the shirt, a letter on behalf of the King of Belgium to the club has been sent to thank them for their participation in World War I and the vault where two thirds of the historic Heartsmaterial.
The best thing about days like this, is that they always pan out differently than you expected. In the Oxford Bar I met a Swedish guy who liked, just like me, to visit different football grounds. He had been in the UK the whole week to see some football matches. From St. Johnstone v Motherwell to Brighton v Wigan. He had just returned from Sunderland v Everton that afternoon. He even had visited Willem II on his football trips. Of course he didn’t go to NAC, which is the right decision. Unfortunately, the Oxford Bar closed at 23:00, which was a bit sad, because I enjoyed the day so much and I didn’t want it to end. Luckily there was Pam. I had already noticed her during lunch because she wore a dress with poppies. She knew a pub that was open till three o’clock. A few minutes later I wandered around Edinburgh with a Belgian, a Swede and a Scot (this is like the beginning of a bad joke). Pam appeared to me already follow on Twitter and was an avid Jambo who had even lived in my street. Around two o’clock there came an end on this day and hence to the “Remembrance Weekend”.
Whatever happens to Hearts this season, it’s already pretty brilliant. This weekend will be one of the highlights of the season, although I hope they will win the title. Hearts is a special club and every day I am happy that I chose them as the subject of my book. A book about Manchester United will sell much better, but this is a once in a lifetime thing. So it is very important to follow a club that I like and were there is a real story to tell. I don’t believe in fate, but it’s very typical that at Hearts everything comes perfectly together. It’s a pleasure to follow this club. On Sunday someone said to me: “Although you are not a Hearts supporter, you are part of the Jambo Family” and it really feels that way.