Graeme Wilson, musical director and conductor of Kirkcaldy Orchestral Society (KOS), tells the story of how KOS revived the musical legacy of a forgotten WWI soldier.
Too often, Remembrance Day is confined to just one day in November and to only those that died within the lifetime of the person remembering. But the point of remembrance is to honour and retain the memory of countless military and associated people who have given their lives for the safety and security of others. WWI still features strongly in our minds and hearts. Remembrance time highlights the selflessness and bravery of very many unknown and named soldiers, such as Private Robert Dunsire VC.
Bert Hannah, a Kirkcaldy local, has researched Dunsire for over eight years, and his work helped raise awareness of the young Fife soldier, his bravery and his early death during WWI. Dunsire was born in Buckhaven in 1891 and died in France at the age of 24, only a short time after he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for bravery in the face of enemy action. As a young man, he was an accomplished musician. He played violin in local groups, such as the Dysart Gospel Temperance Orchestra and the Buckhaven PSA (Pleasant Sunday Afternoon) Orchestra. He also played cornet with his brother John in the Dunnikier Colliery Band.
'He would play to his fellow trainees in rest periods as they prepared for trench warfare. Unfortunately, his instrument went missing on the way home.'
Robert Dunsire had taken a violin with him when training in the South of England. He would play to his fellow trainees in rest periods as they prepared for trench warfare. Unfortunately, his instrument went missing on the way home. During his short furlough before receiving his VC medal at Buckingham Palace, Robert was presented with a replacement violin, made by Kirkcaldy joiner and woodworker Peter Berry. A few years ago, that very violin turned up in a Dundee sale-room, and when its provenance came to light, it quickly landed at the door of David Rattray in Kirkcaldy. A stringed instrument maker and expert of international repute, David restored the violin to playing condition, for it to be first played by Vince Gray at a Kirkcaldy Galleries event in 2019.
Private Dunsire’s violin in the hands of KOS leader, Vince Gray
The life of Robert Dunsire was commemorated in the 1916 song ‘Private Dunsire VC’, written by Felix Slevin and Gordon Mackenzie, with evocative lyrics like: 'He was only a humble miner / But he heard his country’s call'. Bert Hannah sought to include music in his research, so he brought the song to the attention of Graeme Wilson of KOS. Graeme Wilson used the Dunsire violin to record an instrumental version of the song. The music has now been orchestrated by Dunfermline composer and KOS musician John Gourlay, and works very well as a march.
KOS gave the first performance in this format on 5 October 2021 at the opening concert of the 2020/21 season in Kirkcaldy’s Old Kirk. At the concert, Bert Hannah gave a short talk about Robert Dunsire and the musical context.
Bert Hannah addressing the audience at the KOS concert on 5 October 2021
In attendance were Robert Dunsire’s living family relatives, shown here alongside Dunsire’s violin.
Right to left: John Gibb (Dunsire’s great nephew), John Gourlay, Vince Gray, Bert Hannah, Margaret Gibb
Later this year, the orchestra will record the instrumental version for their website. There is also a plan for the Langtoun Singers to record the music in its proper song format. It is hoped that these musical contributions will provide a fitting musical tribute to Private Dunsire VC and to the work of Bert Hannah. The recordings will be made by a senior student from Auchmuty High School, along with principal teacher of Creative Industries Craig Cuthbertson.
Find out more about Bert Hannah's work on Dunsire's life on his dedicated website.