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Saturday, 26 February 2011


I couldn’t help but notice after my recent blogpost that not one but two of my ancestors have had their whisky premises bombed out of existence in time of war. There was the Bristol Whisky Distillery, destroyed during the blitz on that city in December 1940 (admittedly some 113 years after the death of its former owner my 3x great grandfather Thomas Castle). And in an earlier conflict, the blended whisky warehouse in Leith part-owned by my great grandfather James Piper received a direct hit during the First World War.

I wrote a while ago about the reminiscences of one sailor in port at the time; he made the most of the gallons of “stagger juice” released by this explosion, which were flowing along the gutters of Leith like rain. Last week I came across some old notes I’d made from conversations with my grandmother in the 1980s, and they include a reference to the attack from a very different perspective.

I’d quite forgotten I’d made them – they date from an earlier and false start on the trail of my family tree and ended up as things do in a box of unrelated items buried at the back of the attic. Although my wife despairs, I thank goodness sometimes that I am a keeper and hoarder of archives – you just never know when they may throw up something worth the keeping and hoarding …

James Piper was very much alive at the time of the Leith bombing. After that event he got out of whisky and into farming; but at the time, he and his family were living in Cluny Gardens, a genteel street south of Edinburgh city centre and some distance away from Edinburgh’s northeastern port of Leith. Some of the grand houses of the area had been built by a Mr Gavine, the father of James' wife, Anne, including other houses in Cluny Gardens and in nearby Midmar Avenue.

Anne Douglas Piper nee Gavine (1870-1940)

On the night of 2nd April 1916, when their youngest daughter my grandmother Jean was nearly eight years old, Anne came into Jean’s bedroom and gently roused her. “Jean, wake up! I want you to see something.” My Granny stirred sleepily. “Come over to window and look outside. Something you’ve never seen before.” Jean was wide awake now and curious. “What, mummy?” And Anne replied, “There’s a zeppelin at the window!”

Zeppelin L14, one of two which carried out the raid on Edinburgh
on the night of 2nd/3rd April 1916
(pic from Edinburgh’s War)

Well that got Granny rushing across the room and, with the lights out to preserve the blackout, opening the curtains onto the bright moonlit night. The scene is so vivid, and that must be because of the way Granny told it to me 25 years ago. Sure enough, there was a dirigible in sight over Edinburgh – an unforgettable sight, and made all the more memorable the next day when Granny’s father James came home with a piece of melted glass two inches thick from the burnt ruins of his warehouse. The bomb which fell there had caused £44,000 of damage.

The zeppelins also targeted Edinburgh Castle,
hitting Castle Rock and nearby streets
including this spot in the Grassmarket outside the White Hart Inn

Repelled from the port by naval batteries the zeppelins turned towards Edinburgh itself and dropped several more bombs including one which plunged through three storeys of a tenement building in Marchmont Terrace very near Cluny Gardens, but failed to detonate. (The Edinburgh Evenings News has an excellent article about the raid.)

I met an astronomer last night who talked of how he works back from the known to the unknown; from evidence present in the universe now he and his colleagues can find their way back by deduction to how things must have been only a few million years after the Big Bang which started it all. I feel the same way about Annie Gavine. I never met her and can never know her. But through conversations with my mother and grandmother who did, I can imagine.


  1. I'm afraid the trade-off between my clutter crushed sanity and an occasional piece of interesting but not life-preserving information doesn't work for me. Lovely post though! :-) (Your wife x)

  2. Your grandmother's brother was my great great grandfather! Her nephew James Buchanan Gavine was my Grandpa! This story is so interesting. Can I link it to Ann on my family tree?

  3. Hi Ann, by all means adda link to your tree. And if you want, get in touch privately through my website (address above right). I'd be happy to share what I have on the Gavines and compare notes with you. I thiink your grandfather must be the James Gavine son of John Gavine and Maggie Buchanan? He emigrated to the US? I'd love to know how you fit in!


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