As First Minister there are few events that I attend more poignant than those to pay respect to all the brave men and women who have served in war, and last week I had the honour of representing the people of Scotland at two commemorations, in Portsmouth and Normandy,

to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

World leaders, the Queen and Royal Family came together with thousands of members of the public to honour those who served so bravely and the many who made the ultimate sacrifice, laying down their lives in defence of the freedoms we today often take too much for granted.

We were honoured to be joined by hundreds of Second World War veterans and I had the privilege of hearing first-hand experiences of the D-Day landings. These personal testimonies are especially important to hear now as, with every year that passes, there are fewer still alive with direct memory of the horrors of the Second World War.

At times like these it can be especially difficult to find the words to adequately convey how grateful we are for the bravery of these veterans and their comrades, though perhaps the greatest honour we can pay is by listening to their experiences and rededicating ourselves to the preservation of peace across Europe.


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One veteran I had the pleasure of speaking to was John Greig, from Dumfries. Aged 95, he spoke of his memories of landing on Sword Beach on the Normandy coast.

Like others, he ran into gunfire and was shot through the arm almost immediately

by a German sniper. His memories still seem very sharp and, as with the others I spoke to, it was deeply humbling to hear him recount his experience.

Scottish servicemen were among the first to land on Sword Beach, led by the then Lord Lovat, Brigadier Simon Fraser. He instructed his personal piper, Bill Millin who grew up in Shettleston, to pipe commandos ashore, despite it being against regulations at the time.

Aged just 21, wearing his father’s kilt and armed with nothing but a sgian-dubh ‘Piper Bill’ piped the commandos ashore, playing ‘Hielan Laddie’ and ‘The Road to the Isles’ whilst under fire from German troops.

His story has been long-remembered by many as a poignant moment in events which, as we now know, would become a turning point in the Second World War. And, in what was a collective effort on a monumental scale, there are so many of these individual stories of bravery and heroism.

Whatever their role, I cannot help but be in awe that thousands of men, some barely out of school, held such resounding courage under what must have been utterly terrifying circumstances. For those of us in this generation, it is simply unimaginable.

As well as being involved

in the landings themselves, there was a significant Scottish contribution to the preparations for the invasion.

Pier heads for the floating Mulberry harbours which were towed over to Normandy were built on Clydeside. Seaborne landings were practised in Easter Ross and in the Moray Firth, as well as at Arran, Loch Fyne and Scapa Flow. Training areas spread from Kirkudbright to Loch Striven to Gareloch.

It strikes me to think of

the profound impact these preparations must have had not only on the service personnel but on rural communities the length and breadth of Scotland, in knowing they were in anticipation of such significant events.


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As we reflect upon the atrocities of the War, we must also consider how it changed the world.

The promise out of the Second World War was a resolve for peace, and it

stood as a foundation of the establishment of NATO, the UN and some years later, the early formulation of the European Union.

These shared institutions and partnerships, with internationally-held values, were designed to prevent the devastation of war from ever happening again.

That legacy of countries coming together to stand against fascism in the preservation of democracy should stand today. We live in a time when the forces of intolerance, extremism and bigotry appear to be on the rise again. We owe it the war generation – as well as to the generations who will come after us – to ensure that these forces are challenged and defeated. The freedoms that D Day won for us are precious, but also fragile, and we must work to protect them.

In my conversations with those who have served in war there is often a common thread – they do not see themselves as heroes as they feel this is reserved to the fallen, and they are often very matter of fact about what they did.

In my view, they are all heroes. We must honour their sacrifices forevermore and learn the lessons of the Second World War so we can strive to ensure such devastating conflict is never repeated.


For while it is important to commemorate key anniversaries, our best tribute will be to defend and uphold the values and freedoms that they fought and, in so many cases, died for.