Wednesday 26 October 2022

Honouring the heroes of the Russian Arctic Convoys during WW2


It was a great honour last week (October 2022) to visit and perform in the Russian port city of Murmansk - the only city in the world inside the Arctic Circle - to honour and represent the brave British, American and Allied sailors who took part in the Russian Arctic Convoys during WW2.
The local TV news station in Murmansk gave permission for me to share this clip, one of several features they carried featuring myself during our week long stay in the city.
The broadcast is in Russian and there are no English subtitles. However, the images are striking.
The clip also features UK citizens Glenn Elder, former councillor and Baillie from the great city of Glasgow and Cumbrian born historian Alexander Hill who now lectures at Calgarry University in Canada. Alex speaks fluent Russian. The 'PQ' lettering in the background was British code for the convoys during WW2.
As well as piping at Murmansk's deeply impressive WW2 memorials to the fallen, I also performed at the gravesides of young British and American sailors who perished during Nazi air-raids over the city and docks. In the evenings I joined British, Russian and Slovenian musicians and dancers for shows at various venues around the area.
This was a deeply personal visit for me. Two of my Great-Uncles sailed on the Arctic Convoys. One, a Gaelic speaking crofter from the Isle of Lewis called John MacKay, survived the war. The other, Adam Hogg from Melrose in the Scottish Borders did not.
Both these brave individuals and the thousands of other ordinary young men who defied the ice seas, U-boat torpedoes, Luftwaffe bombs and atrocious Arctic conditions to make what Winston Churchill described as "the worst journey in the world" are hailed in Russia to this day as heroes.
The convoys carried vaste quantities of weaponry, munitions, much needed raw materials and food to help the Soviet Union's war effort against Nazism.
In the current international situation I do understand that my visit to Murmansk may be seen as controversial. However I firmly believe that music, personal contact and reminders of our shared humanity can be a force for good in troubled times.
I was invited to Murmansk by the Moscow Caledonian Club who organised an academic, cultural and commemorative program entitled the Arctic Brotherhood Forum. This brought together British and Russian scholars, musicians and dignitaries. I wish to thank organisers for the invitation and fellow musicians and performers for joining me in Murmansk. Big shout out also to family and close friends for supporting my decision to attend.
I was brought up to believe that there are always two sides to a story. Indeed, as the current European crisis demonstrates, there are probably multiple perspectives on any complex situation.
I am no politician, I am a piper and a musician. However, I do know that a good musician listens and until our political leaders find better solutions to the challenges we face it is important that we all listen, even to those with whom we profoundly disagree. From attentive listening greater understanding, perhaps even peace and harmony may emerge.
The citizens of the Murmansk region turned out in great numbers to support the shows and live performances. I had an absolutely brilliant time making many new friends. The Russian people were just lovely. We were made to feel so welcome. I shook hands everywhere, wore my kilt proudly, wandered the streets freely and never once felt threatened or intimidated. Have to say I never saw anyone resembling an 'Orc' either. (sic)
Of all the 'Allied' nations of WW2 Russia paid the most terrible price. The UK and USA combined lost around one million lives. The Russians lost 27 million. For Russians, even among young people today, WW2 is known as 'The Great Patriotic War'.
In my humble opinion the failure, perhaps even refusal, of many Western leaders in my lifetime to publicly acknowledge these colossal loses and show empathy towards the Russia people perhaps goes some way to explaining the root cause of today's tragic and bloody conflict, certainly from a Russian perspective, in my humble opinion.
It was an honour and privilege to visit Murmansk to help cherish the memory of the millions of Russians and thousands of British and Allied sailors, not forgetting the courageous Norwegian resistance fighters who gave their lives in the cruel Arctic in the hope that future generations might live in peace.

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