The lost Leith battalion
A building exists in Dalmeny Street, Leith, with a tragic legacy. The Royal Scots drill hall, constructed in 1901, served as a base for the 7th Leith Battalion of The Royal Scots Guards. On the morning of May 22nd, 1915, a group of territorial army troops would leave the hall and board a train. The men set out to travel to join the war effort in Gallipoli. They would change at Liverpool and there board a ship overseas, but on this morning, a solitary event would lead to a terrible catastrophe.
At 6.38 am on the morning of May 22nd, a manual error on the railway line would soon occur. The Liverpool-bound train collided with a stationary transport on wrongly scheduled tracks. The signalman changed the signal box at the remote location of Quintinshill, Dumfries, in error that morning. The impact of the speeding train would cause a devastating scene resulting in many of its passengers being killed.
A third train travelling north from London would also collide with the wreckage resulting in a disastrous scenario. Flames engulfed the carriages resulting in massive casualties that day. The aftermath of the tragedy would be listed as the worst train disaster in British history and forever known as the Quintinshill train disaster.
The bodies of the deceased were transported to nearby Gretna Green and laid out in fields beneath a sea of ghostly white sheets. The terrible loss of life would affect a generation of Leith residents. The deceased soldiers would come to be known as The Leith boys.
The military guard transported the bodies of the soldiers back to the Dalmeny Street drill hall, where they would be prepared for burial. The chilling display of a sea of white sheets masking the dead would bedeck the desolate hall that once housed the dead it now sheltered.
Interment commenced on May 24th, with the deceased transported along neighbouring Pilrig Street to nearby Rosebank Cemetery. A four-hour service would see the bodies lying in a mass grave that day. The people of Leith did not recover from the devastation that took their sons that day.
Over the coming years, the drill hall continued as a base for The Royal Scots Regiment. Sometime in the late 1990s, I met a man with a chilling tale to tell. He worked along with his wife as auxiliary staff at the building which was in the early stages of decommissioning.
It was the weekend, and the drill hall sat entirely vacant aside apart from the man and his one-year-old son in their upstairs accommodation, the boy was fast asleep, his father looking out of the living room window which overlooked the vast hall. He noticed something peculiar, his attention drawn to movement downstairs in the hall. Scrutinising the darkness, he could see nothing downstairs except the fading light relayed through the glass roof panels, nothing moved except the shadows of trees.
Moments later, he noticed movement again. Now anxious, he left the room and ventured down the stairs to the drill hall. He stood, stared into the darkness, the hall desolate and silent. The sound of nearby traffic the only constant to be heard.
Suddenly, an unexpected movement before him, slow and steady from the back of the hall. He called out trembling, yet authoritative.
“Who’s there? The buildings closed,” he called, to no reply.
Still silence within the hall, an ever more anxious man staring into the darkness… Something moving.
He moved, footsteps squeaking on the polished floor. Drawing nearer, he saw constant movement from the corner of the room, nothing returned his call, closer and closer he came to the shape. The light from the glass roof met the building’s beams, cascading shimmers of light on the rear wall then, a huge bang from the rear of the hall.
Startled, he looked for the side of the building where his son lay sleeping. The light from the living room still and without motion suddenly displayed alarming movement. Something was in the room.
He raced instinctively to his son’s room, he was asleep, with foreboding, he crossed the hall to the living room. The lampshade moved slowly, the glow of the television the only light present. His breathing hasty, his palms cold with sweat.
He switched on the light, things had moved. Objects from a bookcase lay strewn on the carpet, including his wife’s birthday card. Beside it, a large dark hued hardback journal lay open. He lifted it up, but did not recognise it.
It featured a list of names an exact date present for each entry. A list of the dead soldiers who lost their lives at Quintinshill.
That date was 22nd of May, his wife’s birthday. The same birthday she was uptown celebrating.
The falling book and the chilling coincidence puzzle him to this day. What moved the book that night? Was there relevance to the open chapter and list of the deceased? Who or what he encountered that day in the Dalmeny Street drill hall remains unknown…
The family ceased their duties as caretakers; the drill hall was decommissioned, whether the chilling events from the 1990s continued is unknown, one thing is for sure, if you are alone in the drill hall in the fading light, look into the darkness if you dare, you never know who or what you might see. ■