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Duncan Buchanan - Boy to Man
(May 1900 ­ Oct 1972)


World events
As the 217 day siege of the British garrison at Mafeking came to an historic end and British armed forces continued the fight in China that was the Boxer rebellion, in Scotland, Duncan Dewar Buchanan was born. The fourth child to Duncan Dewar Buchanan and Sarah Buchanan (nee Jamieson) arrived on a warm Thursday the 10th May 1900.

The Buchanan family lived in the busy, cobble lined main thoroughfare of South Street Bo´ness, where the majority of the town´s bustling shops were situated and housing was generally two or three stories. The clamour and sparks from the famous ironworks and the briny smell of seafront salt-making and local distilling created a rich atmosphere that permeated everyday life but which went almost unnoticed by the eleven thousand souls who lived there.
South Street Bo´ness - Francis Frith collection.

Two hundred years previously, the town´s port had been the second largest in Scotland and remained a hub for exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of coal to the continent and iron and pottery worldwide. The majority of the male population´s lives centred on the clay and coal industries where in the mines daily life threatening hazards included Blackdamp and Firedamp as well as flooding and rock-falls.


Blackdamp is an asphyxiant, reducing the available oxygen content of air to a level incapable of sustaining human or animal life. Firedamp is flammable gas found in coal mines and when accumulated in pockets in, when penetrated, the release can trigger explosions.


Early years
Duncan´s early years were dominated by his three older siblings; Henrietta aged eight, born 7th April 1892, Archibald aged five, born 10th March 1895 and Margaret or Maggie, aged just two and born circa 8th January 1898. As the family grew so they moved homes, twice in the eight years prior to his birth and again the year after, all in the same street! His father, Duncan senior, was a dock labourer, and enjoyed the morning´s one minute walk along cobbled streets to the harbour at Bridgeness. With the winter behind them, the short walk with friends and workmates was a joy and also meant that the freezing outdoor conditions, chilblains and numb feet, were a thing of the past and would not return until next year. Arriving shortly at the yard, he was given his tasks for the day. On most shifts this would mean a lengthy list of ´errands´, moving goods to and fro, ship to shore and vice versa, but during this particular period, entailed cutting up old ships with the new-fangled acetylene torch.

The average pay that men like Duncan senior earned, almost 4 shillings a day, was barely enough to feed two, let alone his family of six. As young Duncan grew, he started school for a remarkably short nine years, compared to 21st century standards. The basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (´the three R´s´) were taught alongside catechism and then he was considered ready for the wider world. Maturing quickly, out of necessity, he was also allowed to venture further afield by himself. Before he was Ten he visited his father at work, the one minute journey his father had taken took significantly longer for a boy who had better things to do. Arriving at the docks, he stepped carefully around the boxes and crates containing all manner of interesting goods, and listed to the hustle and bustle of a busy sea port before tracking his father down amongst the sparks and clamour of the cutting yard. These forays and stories of the sea as he heard as he grew up would ultimately influence him. He left school at just 14 to start work.


Oxyacetylene welding (and cutting) is a process that use fuel gases (or liquid fuels such as gasoline) and oxygen to weld or cut metals. Developed by French engineers Edmond Fouché and Charles Picard in 1903. The flame from the torch burns at about 3,773 K (3,500 °C; 6,332 °F).


Evidence of this next part of his life is scarce but I imagine that there were small jobs such as an errand or delivery boy that he could have tried that would contribute to the family fortunes however by the time war broke out in 1914,he was still too young at 14, to join up. The British Forces recruited some 250,000 boys under eighteen during ´the Great War´, but Duncan stayed at home. As an impressionable young boy, the outbreak of war sounded like an adventure but also frightening one. With only censored newspapers and an occasional trip to the cinema to watch the Pathé newsreels, factual information was difficult to get. The Government propaganda tended to focus on successful battles and heroes rather than the horrors of the trenches and the mass casualties.


Before conscription began in 1916, children were encouraged to challenge parents through posters and news articles, so no surprise if the maturing Duncan had asked his father why he hadn´t joined up? His father however was in a scheduled occupation, as were many other men, who felt they too needed to earn wages locally for their families.

British Library


Financially things were never easy with six mouths to feed. Mother Sarah, as many other women, needed to find work. The local munitions factory, Nobel´s Regent factory in nearby Linlithgow, needed ´Munitionettes´ and the factory preferred women for this unpleasant and dangerous job as they had nimble fingers for dealing with fiddly shell caps and fuses! This was not the norm at the time as most, if not all, munitions factories were originally unwilling to accept women workers however as more men went away to war and Government pressure stepped up they had little choice. Food for the family of course and ´Keeping the home fires burning´ was essential!

A working life
The following three years also remain a mystery but, at the age of Seventeen and now a young man, Duncan began life as a miner in preference to becoming a front line soldier or sailor. He started ´down the pit´ in July 1917. However, in October, just three months later, his life changed and on 16th October 1917, he signed up (on the dotted line) with the Royal Navy. So what made him change his mind during that short period? Perhaps pressure from mining colleagues or snippets of news about the Battles of the Somme and Verdun which were raging or the effect of the Americans entering the war, whatever the reason.

A few weeks before, merchant ship losses in the September totalled 42 vessels and recent naval losses at Jutland included the world´s first battle cruiser HMS Invincible. Her destruction at the climax of the battle, along with all but six of her crew of 1,031 would haunt survivors and mourners alike for the rest of their days. Casualties included; First Class boy Andrew Turnbull Sinton aged 17 from Edinburgh and Signal boy James Bald, also 17 and from Edinburgh. This was very close to home for Duncan and joining up was a courageous decision for a young man Daddy, what did you do in the GreatWar?

One of the survivors from HMS Invincible was a marine, Bryan Gasson who had a remarkable escape. He was located inside HMS Invincible´s ´Q´ gun turret when it was struck by a shell and hurled into the sea:

     "Suddenly our starboard midship turret manned by the Royal Marines was struck between the two 12-inch guns and appeared to me to lift off the top of the turret and another from the same salvo followed. The flashes passed down to both midship magazines. The explosion broke the ship in half. I owe my survival to the fact that I was in a separate compartment at the back of the turret".
Bournemouth University

It´s not clear whether Duncan served on ´active´ shipping or not. His service certificate notes service on HMS Pekin and HMS Victory which were both shore establishments.
National Archives

Duncan remained in the navy until December 1919, a year after war ended and then returned to continue his mining career. Shortly after arriving home he married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret, on the 30th April 1920 at the United Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. They would go on to have four children, all girls, and many grand-children during their lifetime. Duncan senior continued working as a dock labourer at the main shipyard in Bridgeness, where they were commissioned to break-up a flotilla of German submarines. Other cargo ships and P&O liners such as the "Oriana and the "Orvieto" created a local spectacle when after being rammed up onto the beach at full steam, they were also ripped apart. My memories of him at the age of 65 were of a tall but stooped man with swept back white hair, stained brown with nicotine from the almost permanent ´Navy Cut´ cigarette he held between his fingers. When he died in 1972 he had outlived two of his four daughters,Marie, Magga, Isa and Jean.

Frank T Connelly October 2019

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