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Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen

and T. Ratcliffe Barnett in Scotland

© By Pamela Blevins

By the time Ivor Gurney arrived at the Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, on 25 September 1917, Wilfred Owen had been in Scotland exactly three months for treatment of shellshock at Craiglockhart War Hospital. The young poets were separated by some 12 miles, a void that might have been bridged had Gurney been able to obtain leave during October.

Owen arrived in Edinburgh by regular passenger train from King's Cross on the morning of 26 June and enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the North British Station Hotel. Unlike Gurney, who arrived at Bangour in darkness after a 12-hour journey on an ambulance train, Owen made his way from Waverley Station to Craiglockhart in the comfort of a taxi. Gurney, suffering the effects of German gas, had to be carried on a stretcher from his crowded train to the hospital ward that would be his home for more than a month.

As an officer, Owen had his own room while Gurney was in a small shared room in a ward with dozens of other men. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen met fellow patient and poet Siegfried Sassoon in August and found the key to his "poethood". At Bangour, Gurney met Annie Nelson Drummond and fell in love. While patients at Craiglockart enjoyed a comfortable degree of freedom and were able to attend lectures and classes, play golf and participate in the cultural life of Edinburgh, the 3000 patients at Bangour were more isolated. Few of them were able to leave the grounds and spent their days and nights surrounded by men suffering from everything from shellshock to severe wounds to dysentary and scarlet fever. The pleasures they enjoyed came from conversations, ward parties, music, walks in the grounds and good food.

The hospitals were a study in contrasts. Bangour Village, the original name of the Edinburgh War Hospital, opened in October 1906 as a compassionate facility for the "mentally insane" where they could "best be provided for by isolating them in the country where they would benefit from the peace, solitude and fresh air while at the same time being more easily occupied labouring on the land". When it opened, Bangour, meaning "the hill of the wild goats", was set on 200 acres of woodland between 500 and 750 feet up the south side of the Bathgate Hills on land that was once the home of the poet William Hamilton. The hospital was a model of its kind, a place where the light airy buildings housing the patients were called "villas" and where the goal was to provide "a bright, cheerful effect" to ensure patients "liberty and freedom of action". The hospital was largely self-sufficient with its own farms, dairy, bakery, laundry, reservoir, power plant, private railway station for the convenience of visitors and staff, and a nursery which supplied flowers, plants and trees for all the wards even during the war. Among the founders of Bangour Village Hospital were the composer, folksong collector Marjory Kennedy Fraser and composer Alexander Mackenzie.

Bangour was converted to a war hospital in 1915 and the first patients arrived there in the early hours of 12 June. Most patients arrived between midnight and 4 a.m. The Edinburgh War Hospital was in the forefront of medical advances during the war particularly in xray, orthopedic surgery, bone grafting, nerve suturing and tendon transplants.

Upon his arrival at Craiglockhart, Wilfred Owen could see "nothing very attractive about the place" and called it a "decayed Hydro". It had been in service as a hospital for "neurasthenic officers" since the summer of 1916. Situated on 12 acres of ornamental grounds with spectacular views, the main building dated from 1880 and had originally been a hydropathic sanitorium. The site had been the location of Craiglockhart Castle, a 13th-century keep. By the 17th century much blood had been spilled there owing to feuds instigated by the Kindcaid family. In 1865, the City of Edinburgh Parochial Board purchased part of the land and built a poorhouse for men and women. In 1877, the Craiglockhart Hydropathic Company purchased some 12 acres in another section of the property to be used as a Hydropathic. The venture ultimately failed.

Owen and Sassoon found Craiglockhart depressing, shabby and melancholy, particularly at night when the demons haunting the memory of their fellow officers roamed the darkened corridors. The common bond between the two hospitals was a view of the Pentland Hills. While Wilfred Owen taught classes, made friends in Edinburgh, wrote poetry and explored the countryside around Craiglockhart, Ivor Gurney could only dream of visiting "Enbro". Yet had he been able to get into the city, it is likely that he and Owen would have met.

The man capable of bringing the two young poets together was the Reverend T. Ratcliffe Barnett, a Presbyterian minister in the Free Church of Scotland, who was serving as chaplain at the Edinburgh War Hospital located west of the city near Dechmont. Gurney's first encounter with Barnett came on the evening of October 3 when he attended an impressive lecture on Adam Smith given by the chaplain.

After 16 months in France, Gurney was starved for intellectual stimulation and was thrilled by both the lecture and the man who presented it. "I could have sat all night," he wrote the next day to Marion Scott. "He had a slip of paper with subjects for the next ten weeks, and O but I wished him to use them all - to start with Adam Smith and go on to Nelson!" (1) Within a few days, Gurney had made himself known to Barnett and a brief stimulating friendship was established.

Barnett was no ordinary minister, a fact that Gurney detected immediately, noting that his chaplain was "...a Truth-teller, Lecturer on English Literature, Mountaineer, Lover of Men, Music, and Books." (2) But there was much more to this dynamic middle-aged man with his "eyes that can look you through ...fine head with a Roman nose defiant at the fore....A great man to finish with whose aim at present is to set men at ease when they talk to him".(3)

Thomas Ratcliffe Barnett was born at the weaving village of Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire on 23 December 1868, the son of James Barnett and Janet Ratcliffe. He was educated at John Neilson's Institution at Paisley, the University of Glasgow and the United Presbyterian College, Edinburgh. He was ordained on 20 October 1899 and inducted to Fala, Blackshiels in the Lammermoor Hills.(4) He and Margaret (Maggie) Muirhead Forrest were married in 1900 and had two daughters, Margaret and Janet (5).

In 1914, he was called to Greenbank Church in the Morningside section of Edinburgh and a began a highly successful ministry there, focusing drawing on young people to the parish, swelling the congregation of fewer than 300 members to 850 and eventually raising thousands of pounds to build a new church during his long tenure.

However, the outbreak of war cast a shadow over Barnett's plans for growth in his new parish. Soon members of his church were dying in France and the Revd Barnett's monthly message in the church publication Leaflet reveals how deeply he was affected by the war and the suffering of the men and women at the Front. In summer of 1916 at the age of 48, he joined them, serving for three months at a YMCA hospital hut at Étretat, France. As a result of this heart-rending experience, he volunteered to serve as chaplain at the Edinburgh War Hospital, some 16 miles west of the city. In addition to conducting Sunday services, he spent Wednesdays meeting with the patients and ended the day with a lecture, usually on English literature, at 6 p.m.

When Gurney met him, Barnett was already an established author with seven popular books to his credit. Between 1913 and 1915, he published Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk, The Winds of Dawn, and The Makers of the Kirk and would go on to write another ten books before his death in 1946. Like Gurney, Barnett loved nature and walking. He was a keen observer and was essentially a travel writer. The majority of his books deal with his impressions of different places in Scotland, the people who inhabited them and their history. Barnett's books reveal him to be a humourist, poet, artist and above all, a mystic who understood and respected Celtic legends and beliefs. He was also an accomplished musician who played the violin and bagpipes and performed in public.(6)

On 8 October, Gurney wrote to Marion Scott to tell her that Revd Barnett was away for a week but that when he returned he would try to arrange an outing for Gurney in Edinburgh, "a complete tour of everything that can be packed into a short stay". This letter is important because in it Gurney mentions that Barnett was a "great friend of Lord Guthrie who owns the R.L.S. (Robert Louis Stevenson) house" at Swanston. Craiglockhart, where Owen was in hospital, Swanston and Morningside, where Revd Barnett lived and where his church was located, are all within a short distance of each other.

Owen had been introduced to Lord Charles Guthrie by Arthur Brock, his doctor at Craiglockhart.(7) Guthrie, a judge, historian and friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, liked Wilfred immediately and was so impressed by the young soldier that he talked him into helping him do some historical research in the Edinburgh libraries. Owen was far from enthusiastic about the assignment and felt he had fallen into "a trap".

"I was not all that keen, & pleaded in vain my ignorance & my hatred of legal matters," he wrote to his mother. "But I had to meet him this morning in The Advocates' Library, & have now my work cut out." Owen had previously joined Lord Guthrie for tea and commented that his host was a "most courteous gentleman withal, and no lady has ever given me tea in so fine a manner". They had their tea alone in "Stevenson's room, but scarcely a word was spoken of him!"

In the meantime, Revd Barnett had returned to his duties at the Edinburgh War Hospital and resumed his meetings with Gurney. He had learned of Gurney's "literary dealings" and gave him a copy of Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk which he inscribed "My House an Ever Open Door to You".(8) The inscription refers to an experience Barnett had in Galloway. In his essay "The Hidden Sanctuary", he writes of hearing about a church "among the trees" where it was "the desire of the minister that the door of the church should never be closed." As a Presbyterian minister he had also heard his denomination called "the religion with the closed door", since the churches were only open on Sunday for public worship but closed the other six days of the week thus denying parishioners access. He could not believe that the door of the little church in Galloway stood open all night so he set out at night to see for himself.

"There was a touch of frost in the September air...[as] down the road I wandered to the gate and up the pitchy avenue under stilly trees," he wrote. Beyond the gleam of graves, he saw the church and groped his way to it in the dark, passing his fingers along the wall until he found the door. It was standing wide open and he could find no means to close it.

"Wayfaring men...might slip in here to sleep, to make a vow, or to pray," he wrote. "After all, was it not their Father's House? Who then dare close the door? I looked at the stars quivering above the graves and wondered what God thought of our narrow ways. Then I went into the pitch dark church and made my vow. From that day to this the door of another church has been open every day of the year."

Time was moving fast. Wilfred Owen was expecting orders to leave Craiglockhart any day and Gurney could not obtain leave to get away from Bangour. Ratcliffe Barnett had no choice but to postpone his plans to treat Gurney to a tour of Edinburgh and to introduce him to Lord Guthrie and other members of the cultural community of the city.

On 29 October, Wilfred Owen learned that he was to be "boarded next Tuesday -- and be sent away...I am rather upset about it," he wrote to his mother." Owen was discharged from the hospital on 30 October, declared fit for light duties. He spent several nights of his three week leave in Edinburgh but any chance of a meeting between Owen and Gurney was now lost. By 4 November, Owen was back in Shrewsbury visiting his family before returning to France. He had exactly one year to live.

On the day Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart, Ratcliffe Barnett invited Gurney to play the piano for officers at the Edinburgh War Hospital. He performed an ambitious programme of Beethoven, Bach and Chopin and was pleased to report to Marion Scott that the officers "listened beautifully" while "Mr. Barnett...listened in a pure ecstasy." Gurney had copied out "By a Bierside" for Barnett who insisted that he sing it for him along with "The Folly of Being Comforted". The evening was a great success and Barnett returned home to Morningside full of joy.

Two days after his acclaimed hospital performance, Gurney learned that he was to be discharged. "This chuck-out is unexpectedly early," he told Marion Scott. On 5 November while Wilfred Owen was in Shrewsbury writing to his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney was finally "roaming about Edinburgh" but alone as he waited for a train to take him south to London for a reunion with Marion Scott and a 10-day leave.

Shortly after Gurney left Edinburgh, Ratcliffe Barnett decided to give himself over completely to his work with sick and wounded soldiers. He applied for and was given the rank of Chaplain to the Forces and served in that capacity full-time at Bangour until the autumn of 1919. The board of Greenbank Parish insisted that he continue to be paid his stipend and Revd Barnett gave part of it to the Edinburgh War Hospital to supply "comforts" for the soldiers.

After he returned to Greenbank, Revd Barnett focused much of his time on young people in his parish. He established a Young Men's League of Service and encouraged its members to run weekly clubs for crippled men and boys in the poorer parts of the city. This eventually led to a project known as the Cripple Lads'Club which in turn led Ratcliffe Barnett to found the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital for Crippled Children in 1932.

In 1925, Revd Barnett added the title Doctor to his name when he was awarded his PhD in literature by the University of Edinburgh. His thesis was entitled Queen Margaret and the influence she exerted on the Celtic Church in Scotland. He published this work in 1926 under the title Margaret of Scotland, Queen and Saint. Dr. Barnett did not find time to resume his writing career until 1924 when his book The Road to Rannoch and the Summer Isles appeared.

He retired from his ministry on 31 December 1938 but soon after he was called back to fill in for the new minister who had been called up as a Territorial Chaplain. However, Barnett's health broke down and he was not able to continue his work. He did, however, publish one more book in 1942, Scottish Pilgrimage in the Land of Lost Content. For his remaining years he never again enjoyed good health but one of his friends commented that "his spirit must have been often cheered by the memories of his rich and varied ministries, his walks among the hills, his friends in all walks of life and his friends among books [and] the inward eye that is the bliss of solitude".

T. Ratcliffe Barnett died on 20 February 1946. He kept the copy of Severn and Somme, which Gurney had inscribed: "To that Bon Chaplain and Good Friend T. Ratcliffe Barnett, this Highly Expensive Book from Ivor Gurney, December 1917, Seaton Delaval". Inside the book the Revd. Barnett kept a photograph of Gurney, newspaper clipping of reviews and copies of Gurney’s obituary.


1. R.K.R. Thornton, Ivor Gurney Collected Letters, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1991, p. 335.

2. Ibid, p. 345.

3. Ibid, p. 345.

4. Like many people living in the Lammermoor Hills region, Ratcliffe Barnett was intrigued by Lady John Scott, composer of "Annie Laurie", who had been born and raised at Spottiswoode on the other side of the hills. Her name and her exploits were legendary. Barnett devoted part of his essay "Home of My Heart" in his book Scottish Pilgrimage in the Land of Lost Content to this "little Scots gentlewoman...full of music and poetry".

5. Janet Barnett, who worked as her father’s driver, retired to an Edinburgh nursing home where she lived until her death in 2001 at the age of 96. Her sister, Margaret, a teacher, died in 1992 at the age of 91. Mrs. Barnett died in 1952.

6. Barnett's books occasionally contained one or two of his poems as well as beautifully drawn and sometimes whimsical maps complete with sea monsters, spouting whales and ships. His mysticism is reflected throughout his books in observations such as "Mountains always speak with a mystic voice to those who love them. But that voice can only be heard by those who climbe and it is heard best by those who climb alone. You must woo Nature in solitude and silence if you would enter into her secrets." Gurney's friend Marion Scott was also a mystic who shared Barnett's beliefs and vision and who sought solace in mountains. They never met.

7. Charles John Guthrie was born in 1849. His father was Thomas Guthrie, one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland. Charles Guthrie and Robert Louis Stevenson were both members of the Speculative Society, "a snobbish literary and debating club". Guthrie amassed a notable collection of Stevenson's letters and published Robert Louis Stevenson: Some Personal Recollections in 1920.

8. Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk, published by T.N. Foulis in 1913 is a particularly fine edition. Bound between warm brown boards with gold embossing on the cover and printed on high quality paper, it contains ten colour plates of paintings by R. Gemmell Hutchison, R.S.A.

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