We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns

5th October 2022

Group photo from Newtonmore Hall (Photo Merryn Glover)

The day after the Royal Funeral I attended two extraordinary, special events in the Highlands of Scotland. I’d like to tell you about them.

They came about because of the presence of nine very particular graves in a cemetery, and because of a lot of hard work over a long period by some dedicated people.

The first event was on Tuesday morning at 11:30 at the war memorial in the middle of the small Highland town of Kingussie – the birthplace of the game Shinty, home to the Ruthven Barracks and a charming 2nd hand bookshop called ‘The Bookshop’. This was organised by the indefatigable Heather Taylor (nee Lawrie), who had done a truly remarkable job in focusing attention and mobilising support and money.

The occasion was the unveiling of a brand new memorial to the 14 Punjabi RIASC soldiers of Hindu and Muslim faiths who are buried in Scotland. If you’ve read my book then you’ll know the story. How Force K6 were gathered together in Punjab and came to France at the end of 1939 to support the British Expeditionary Force in France. How they were evacuated from Dunkirk to England, and then reinforced, and spent 3 ½ years in Britain training for an invasion of Norway that never happened.  How they were eventually sent back to India at the start of 1944, and absorbed into the vast Indian army effort in Burma. And how they left behind at least 60 comrades in the UK and Europe – men who had been shot up by the Luftwaffe, died on training or in POW camps or taken ill with Tuberculosis.

In the summer of 1942 they were sent to Speyside in the Highlands, arriving at Dalwhinnie railway station and then being posted in the surrounding villages. Their main hospital was established at the Aviemore Hotel, and the men who died there were all buried in the nearby cemetery at Kingussie, where space had been reserved for them. In accordance with Islamic tradition they were wrapped in a shroud and laid on their side with the faces towards Mecca. In due course after the war, official Commonwealth War Graves headstones replaced the temporary markers. These are just nine out of hundreds of such graves in Europe, remembering other Muslim Indian soldiers who lie alongside Gurkhas, Indian Christians, and near the cremation memorials for Indian Sikhs and Hindus. Four million men from South Asia served in the First World War and the Second World War, and around 150,000 of them died.

View of a cemetery

Kingussie Cemetery (Photo Ghee Bowman)

But these graves are special, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this is the largest concentration of Indian Army graves in Britain.  Secondly, these graves became the location for an amazing display of commitment and care by a local Highland woman: Isobel Harling.

During the war, Isobel was a Royal Navy WREN, driving ambulances at Invergordon, ferrying injured men from ship to hospital. During her leave she came home to Kingussie and saw the Indians of the RIASC around the town at the cinema and at ceilidhs – they were an everyday, familiar sight for folk on Speyside and in many other remote parts of Britain during the war years.

Isobel grieved when her younger brother John MacPhearson ­­­was shot down over Belgium. But she was grateful when she heard that local Belgian people were looking after the grave. So when she visited her family graves at Kingussie cemetery after the war, she was disappointed to see that the graves of the nine Indians were in a poor condition – nobody was looking after them. She decided to do something about it.

She came back on her bike with gardening tools and cleaned up the graves. She did that again when they needed, and again in November for Remembrance Day. And again and again and again for over seventy years. She referred to the buried soldiers ‘my boys’ and said ‘I have loved doing it. My brother died in Belgium and kind people there tend his grave for us, so here I can only do the same for those who are so far away.’

In 2020 – during lockdown – Isobel Harling was awarded the British Empire Medal. On Tuesday, Isobel attended the commemoration event at the new memorial at Kingussie, with members of her family. She is 99 years old.

Isobel Harling with Geraldine & Gaynoll Craig, Omar Sheikh and Saqib Razzaq (Photo Saqib Razzaq)

Also at the service were a number of local dignitaries including Alistair Irwin, a retired Lieutenant-General, past President of Legion Scotland and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.. His speech was uplifting and inspiring, and confirmed for me an emerging understanding that there are some elements of the establishment – at least in Scotland – that are truly committed to multi-culturalism. He quoted these words, attributed to the Turkish leader Atatürk, from a speech he gave at Gallipoli in 1934, having been at that battle himself in 1915:

You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace… You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

After the speeches, I took a look at the memorial itself. It’s a fine piece of work, in black Indian granite inscribed in golden letters. It lists all the 14 men of Force K6 who died in Scotland – the 9 buried in Kingussie, 2 at Dornoch, 1 at Grange, 1 at Aberdeen and one who was cremated at Aberdeen. Their names are listed here:

  1. Abdul Rakhman, Naik, Dornoch Cemetery
  2. Ali Bahadur, Daffadar, Kingussie Cemetery
  3. Bari Sher, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery
  4. Dadan Khan, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery
  5. Fazl Ali, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery
  6. Ghulam Nabi, Driver, Dornoch Cemetery
  7. Karam Dad, Driver, Grange Cemetery, Banffshire
  8. Khan Muhammad, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery
  9. Khushi Muhammad, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery
  10. Mangli, sweeper, remembered at Aberdeen Cremation Memorial
  11. Mirzaman, Driver, Aberdeen Allenvale Cemetery
  12. Muhammad Sadiq, Naik, Kingussie Cemetery
  13. Muhammad, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery
  14. Mushtaq Ahmad, Driver, Kingussie Cemetery


The new memorial at Kingussie (Photo Saqib Razzaq)

The inscription at the top is interesting, being in 3 languages, and representing 3 religions. On the left is the istirja  – the traditional Arabic phrase spoken by Muslims the world over when they hear of a death. Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un – We are from God and to God we shall return. In the middle is a Christian cross and the words ‘God is Love’. On the right is a phrase in Sanskrit, translated as  ‘Body, soul and mind in the name of God’.

I found these three phrases – taken together with the speeches by Muslims, Christians and Hindus at the memorial – a remarkable testimony not only to the relationships made by Force K6 in the 1940s, but to the glorious reality of modern multi-cultural Britain. Force K6 may be seen as pioneers or harbingers of that multi-culturalism. As Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Clark said at the end of the ceremony, what makes these men special is us, the people who travelled to be there on that day, reflecting Scotland and Britain today. ‘We are their tomorrow’ he said – a fitting way to think about their legacy.


Evening Event

People arriving for the event (Photo Katie Lowther)

The second event was held at the Community Hall in nearby Newtonmore, the same evening. This was a sort of hybrid lecture-cum-performance. Maybe we could call it an ‘offering’. In fact, it was the mixed nature of the evening that made it so unique and memorable. As the organiser – the wonderful Merryn Glover – remarked at the end: we will never see this particular group of people together again.

That group included myself, Hamish Johnston and Colin Hexley, who all gave presentations. Hamish’s step-grandfather was Major Finlay of Force K6, who held a crucial post commanding the Supply Depot, which was responsible for storing food and forage to supply the men and animals of the rest of the Force. The supplier’s suppliers, you could call them. Hamish told us about Finlay and the men and their experience in Scotland, and related the sad story of Khan Muhammad, who froze to death on the slopes of Càrn Bàn Mòr above Glen Feshie, just east of Kingussie, and is one of the nine buried in that cemetery.

Colin Hexley is the son of Tom Hexley of Force K6, whose incredible story of escape I told some of in my book. During this event Colin told us much more about his father’s amazing travels. I won’t summarise them here, but I hope that some day somebody will write them all up. Hexley settled in Golspie after the war, where Colin his son still lives.

Colin Hexley describes his father’s journey through France (Photo Jemima Benbow)

Later we had a presentation from Saqib Razzaq of Colourful Heritage, whose organisation has been crucial in focusing attention, bringing people together and mobilising support around the memory of K6. Merryn Glover herself also spoke, adding to the rich tapestry of memories and impressions.

Merryn told a story that I hadn’t heard before (I love the way these stories keep coming in). She had heard from Seamas Grannd of Aviemore whose mother – Christina Mary Grant – worked as a railway guard at Aviemore Railway Station. He wrote:

“My mother and her workmates used to be invited up to the hotel to see the ‘Bollywood’ films and said you could always hear traditional Punjabi music coming from the hotel, especially the sound of drums. She talked very fondly about the soldiers, whom she met on almost a daily basis at the station.”

Merryn showed us a great photo – taken by Christina Grant – of a soldier called Muhammed Alhim at the station.

Indian soldier 1943

Muhammed Alhim at Aviemore station in June 1943 (Photo by Christina Mary Grant)

What lifted the evening above a more traditional presentation-oriented event was that the presentations were supplemented by music and prayers. So the spiritual and the artistic side of life was added to the memories, facts and analysis presented.  Local musician Hamish Napier played some beautiful tunes on flute and keyboard, music which evoked the harsh nature of the surrounding mountains as well as the warmth of the people. The Imam of Inverness Mosque Tayjul Islam gave the adhan  – the call to prayer, recited the Surat al Baqara from the Qur’an, and a prayer of blessing at the end. To hear these prayers recited so beautifully in a village hall in a small Scots village was remarkable, but also a fitting reminder that everywhere the Punjabi men of K6 went, they established a place to pray five times each day, and are remembered for that.

Imam Tayjul Islam from Inverness Mosque (Photo Merryn Glover)

For me, the part of the evening that brought it all together best were the two songs from Inverness woman Sonia Imran. Sonia has lived in the area for 11 years, having been brought up in Pakistan, where she sang at school and college. She offered us a traditional Punjabi folk song called Jugni and the Arabic song Talaʽ al-Badru ʽAlayna – a song of welcome sung to the Prophet Muhammad when he arrived in Medina. Sonia’s haunting rendition brought together the Islamic side of these professional soldiers with the warmth of the welcome they received in the Highlands. This song somehow encapsulated the whole event.

Sonia and her family with Ghee and Merryn (Photo Katie Lowther)

The final element of the evening was the delicious Punjabi food provided by Amjid and Alina Mehmood, who run the takeaway opposite the hall in Newtonmore.  The lucky few in the team were given a delicious biriani before the event (and I love biriani). Then the whole of the audience were furnished with pakora, samosa, sweets and masala chai during the interval. I was very happy to eat up all the pakora on our table. Mehmood (who came from Mirpur – where some of the K6 men originated) very kindly did not charge for the food, but instead asked us to donate to the DEC Pakistan appeal. A grand total of £665 (plus more donated online) was raised.

Two people eating South Asian snacks

Delicious snacks (Photo Katie Lowther)

While the men of K6 and Isobel were the pioneers of this trans-national friendship, the current modern reality is represented by Mehmood, Sonia and her family, by Merryn, Hamish and Colin. I was truly proud to have done my bit to help bring these people together and to keep alive the memory of those pioneers from the 1940s.

As I looked back at the day as a whole, I was struck by how inclusive it had all been. This aspect was encapsulated by the two children from the Primary school who spoke so clearly at the memorial. They talked of how the memorial reflected the schools values – their school is one of the UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools – and placed special emphasis on the way their school aimed to be a ‘welcoming’ space for all.

Two children from Kingussie Primary School (Photo Merryn Glover)

It’s wonderful to see how in this small town (as in Crickhowell and Ashbourne and other places they stayed) – their story is still a live topic that people of all ages know about, including the schoolchildren.

During the ceremony at the memorial, the men of K6 were repeatedly referred to as Jock Tamson’s Bairns. As somebody who was brought up in England, this phrase was new to me. I soon learned that it is a reference to a minister of that name in Edinburgh, who referred to his congregation as his ‘bairns’,  a Scots word for children. Its meaning is simple – we are all the same in God’s eyes. As a Quaker, I find this sentiment very familiar and very reassuring. Using it in this context – Indian soldiers far from home, in a country where they might be seen as colonial subjects  and experience racism – I think it’s the right phrase. Maybe I’ll adopt it myself, and become one of Jock Tamson’s Bairns as well.

Taken all together, what the day reminded me was that the K6 story is truly a trans-national story. It’s not just a story of Indian soldiers, although it very much is such a story. And it’s not only a story of Scotland. It’s both of those, and more. It’s as much about Scotland, France and Wales as it is about Punjab. It’s about now as much as it is about then. It’s about meeting, encounter, friendship.  More than anything else  – I believe – it’s a story about people coming together in dark times, and seeing each other’s common humanity. It’s a story of hope for today, and for tomorrow.

In this small town in the Scottish Highlands – as in other small places around the UK – they are remembered. Some things are changing for the better in Britain.

The hall is ready (Photo Katie Lowther)


The author

Ghee Bowman

Ghee Bowman was born in England in 1961. After careers in the theatre, education and the voluntary sector, he returned to university in 2014. He is married with two grown-up daughters, and lives in Exeter.

‘The Indian Contingent’ is his first book. His father WE Bowman wrote the noted spoof climbing book ‘The Ascent of Rum Doodle’.

Ghee is a story-teller, Quaker and a leader in the Woodcraft Folk, a voluntary youth movement for children and young people.