#AuthorSpotlight Marsali Taylor @marsalitaylor @AllisonandBusby

Marsali’s latest book ~

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Cass Lynch has achieved the post of third officer aboard her beloved ship, Sorlandet. They’re sailing from Norway to Ireland as part of the Tall Ship’s race when an unnerving early-morning encounter leads to suspicions that there’s a stowaway aboard – yet a police search finds nobody. Then one of the trainees goes missing … Cass and DI Gavin Macrae find themselves up against a ruthless killer.

Guest Post By Marsali Taylor 

A memorial trip to Serbia in honour of the work of Scottish women during WWI

I came to know about the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service via Aunt Ysabel, an indomitable lady with a halo of white curls. She lived alone in a remote cottage in the Highlands, rowed her own boat, knew every animal and bird on her patch, and enjoyed picnics and expeditions. In Edinburgh, we visited her for Easter egg hunts and Christmas parties, and when she died we bought her house there – and that’s how I came to inherit two battered black notebooks stuffed with drawings and photographs, and written in a crabbed, illegible hand: her diaries from 1916-17, when she was an ambulance driver with the SWH, attached to the 1st Serbian Army, on the Russian front.

I self-published the diaries as Forgotten Heroines. I sent a copy to Liz, my kind landlady of my University days, and still a good friend, and got an astonishing reply: ‘Did you know that Tony (her husband) is a great-great-nephew of Dr Elsie Inglis, who founded the SWH?’… and so I became an honorary relative on this week-long memorial trip to Serbia.

The dawn taxi to Heathrow went fine, but after that chaos struck – entirely appropriately, as Aunt Ysabel’s Transport unit caused Dr Inglis more bother than the rest put together. My Vienna flight was delayed, meaning I’d miss my Belgrade connection, and Austrian airlines spotted this, and kindly transferred me to a flight via Zurich … except nobody told me, so when I went to the desk to express concern about flight 2, the helpful lady said, ‘But you should be on your way to Zurich!’ Ah well … my basic German coped surprisingly well with an extra three hours in Vienna (‘Ein chocolade und ein sachertorte, bitte’), and I just hoped that my baggage would make it to Belgrade with me, otherwise I’d be turning up at the posh embassy reception in jeans, half an hour late …

It was a wonderful week. I knew it was going to be busy, but the scale of the celebrations took me by surprise. I was so moved by the way that gallant band of women, my Scottish compatriots, and their little, red-haired leader with the broad brow and luminous eyes, are remembered and loved throughout Serbia. Every hospital they worked in has a commemorative plaque, there were posters and exhibitions, and we, as fellow Scots and relatives of Dr Inglis herself (the party included her great-nephew and seven great-great nephews and nieces), were honoured guests of every town they had worked in. We met the grandson of a man who had been nursed by them: ‘If it had not been for them, I would not have been here.’

Truly, the Serbians are wonderful, to cherish that memory of their friends for over a century.

We began at the fountain in Mladenovac, which was erected in their honour in 1915 – Dr Inglis and her nurses were present at that first ceremony. A boy and girl in national costume welcomed us with bread – a sort of brioche – and salt, and then there were speeches – Hugh Maddox read one of Dr Inglis’s letters from Serbia to his mother, her niece – and children sang the national anthem. Wreaths were laid by the British, Canadian and American embassies, there was a short play about WWI soldiers, and then Tony played the bagpipes. After that there was a formal reception, with more speeches, and the first of several presentations of a quaich, a Scottish two-handled drinking cup, which Tony filled with whisky to pass round the company. The meal took two hours, and it was delicious and enormous – the first course was a cured meat platter which would have done me three days for lunch, followed by steak, salad, dessert. All the meals were lavish, and good, and I particularly took to burek, a sort of cheese pastry breakfast. My biggest regret was that due to antibiotics I could only sniff the quince brandy, and very good it smelled too.

That first day set the pattern for a very busy week. In the afternoon we went to the first of several exhibitions about Dr Inglis. The most amazing was in the former hospital – her hospital – in the town of Valjevo. A special room was dedicated to the Scottish women’s hospital, with the names of all the hospital staff on a white blind that was lit up by the window behind. A series of boards about Dr Inglis and her part in the fight for women’s suffrage led up a path between trees – we planted another one here. We had an exhibition of children dancing in the evening, energetic group dances in lovely costumes, Tony got out his bagpipes again, and Liz and I sang Scottish songs. We went to several churches, including to a beautiful service in one, with the bishop himself presiding, wearing a most gorgeous gold crown.

Our third day took us out into the country, to Banja Bashi, to visit the grave of Evelina Haverfield, and the hospital named after her. I felt a particular affinity with this visit, as the Hon. Evelina Haverfield had been the boss of the Transport, and Aunt Ysabel was her second-in-command, so she’s often mentioned in the diaries. After the war, Haverfield and her lover, Vera Holme, returned to Serbia and set up an orphanage in Banja Bashi – we met the great-grand-daughter of one of her orphans. Haverfield caught a fever and died early in 1920, but the town has never forgotten her. Her grave was beside the church, looking out over the country she’d loved. We then lit candles and laid flowers on her grave.

Our visit to Kragujevatz was particularly moving. We went to the graves of the three nurses who died of typhus soon after their arrival – there was an epidemic, brought by the Austrian prisoners. The sight of these Scottish names on white graves, surrounded by black marble and mosque shapes, under this alien blue sky, suddenly brought it home to me how far they’d come from home, only to die here – and I found myself in tears as I went forward to lay the white rose our hosts had given me. Luckily emotion is okay in Serbia; our French-speaking escort, Velibor, who had curated the best exhibition, held my hand rather tightly and said soothing things. After that we went to the building which had been their hospital, which is now a Red Cross centre.

In the afternoon, we went out to the Memorial Park, the execution site druing the German occupation of World War II. We visited only one of several memorials, ‘Interrupted Flight’, a great V shape of grey stone, with faces and hands struggling to free themselves. It commemorated the massacre of 300 pupils and teachers, in retaliation for 30 German soldiers killed in a partisan ambush. Seeing it, hearing the stories, I understood better the bitter feelings we came across in Guernsey, also occupied territory, where the resistance weren’t supported by many local people, for fear of reprisals. Ten killed for every one of theirs was German policy. We who lived out the war in the security of our island need to be reminded of the horrors of war in other places; and I came home determined to do anything I can, however trivial it seems, to help maintain peace between nations.

Hotels! We were at a different one each night, ranging from the baroque magnificence of the Hotel Moscova in Belgrade, to a simple, spotless basic motel in Mladenovac. My favourite was the hotel Przac in Kragovac: we arrived there after dark, and wound up a hill between trees and cliffs, up and up, with the coach only just squeezing between the rock walls, and the hotel looming like Dracula’s castle above us. Inside, I had practically a suite, with steps leading up from the bathroom level to a bedroom with a balcony and a spectacular view over the town. The “motel” in Lazerevac was very plush, completely new, and with a swimming pool outside – empty, alas, ‘It is too cold for us,’ the waiter explained, on a day when all our British ankles had swelled from standing about in 30 degrees.

As for the people, I can’t even begin to describe their kindness, or the warmth of their welcome. Four people came with us all the way. Vlada was a friend of Alan Cumming, organiser of the trip, a Scot who discovered the story of Dr Inglis while on a football trip to Serbia, and who’s now the expert in charge of their website, http://scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk  Vlada’s a professional translator for Chinese and English, so he became our walking dictionary. Velibor and Mira had both researched the Scottish women in Serbia, and created some of the exhibitions we’d seen, and Mira’s husband, Bob was also an historian. Bob and Mira had excellent English; Velibor was fluent in French, so we had great fun being Continentally flowery with each other. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with the Serbian three-kiss greeting, and shown proudly round their city – ‘You need to come back and stay longer!’

Then it was time to go home. We had a riotous last evening at a café where friends of Velibor’s were playing traditional Serbian music, interspersed with Mull of Kintyre in our honour; a last day of visits to to the military hospital and cemetery, then a drive through suddenly autumnal countryside, with the dark-ening trees sharp against rolling hills of gold maize stalks and fawn grass. The wooded hills were tinted with bronze, like an old postcard, and the roadside trees had lemon-yellow leaves. The sky was thick Scottish grey, with clouds stretching down to pat the heads of the dimmed hills. The bus got emptier as we reached Belgrade, and people went their separate ways: home for Mira and Bob, Hungary for Tony and Liz, a group to the airport. There were hugs, three kisses, a few tears, and promises to all meet in Edinburgh for the centenary of the death of Dr Inglis in November, and again in Serbia – God willing! It had been a wonderful week.

(Some of this article was first published in the e-zine Mystery People, http://www.mysterypeople.co.uk  a group created by Lizzie Sirrett to encourage crime writing.)

You can order your own copy here:

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Merry Christmas from Kelly & The Team, thank you for all your support and love in 2017.

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