“No Keeping Well Back” : Eric Milroy

By Alec Ross

Somme Thriepval World war 1

Alec RossIt is said that we compress time when it falls within our own lifetimes, and expand it when we think of times past. But having the privilege of being here reverses the process. Today, the life of Eric Milroy isn’t our past but our present.

In the words of William Faulkner, that past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past.

When I was Lachlan’s age, I was brought up with the family legend that is Eric Milroy. The paradox is that as I get older, I get closer to my illustrious ancestor than I did when I was small.

Our vanity is to view the path of human civilisation as constantly upwards. Yet we seem to have hit a bump in the road, and it falls on all us to build bridges, not walls. To ensure that Lachlan and Romaine, and their children, never go through what their ancestors went through.

Their lives are separated from Eric Milroy’s life by two conflicts and the rise and fall of communism. Yet there are so many parallels. The challenge to American dominance. A Britain in decline. An uncertain Europe.

It is said that the past is another country – they do things differently there.

But if this incredible experience has taught me anything, it is this.

It isn’t.

And they don’t.

On dit que nous comprimons le temps quand il tombe dans nos propres vies, et le développons quand nous pensons au passé. Mais avoir le privilège d’être ici inverse le processus. Aujourd’hui, la vie d’Eric Milroy n’est pas notre passé, mais notre présent.

Selon William Faulkner, ce passé n’est pas mort, il n’est même pas passé.

À l’âge de Lachlan, j’ai été initié à la légende de la famille, Eric Milroy. Le paradoxe est que plus je vieillis, plus je me rapproche de mon illustre ancêtre que lorsque j’étais petit.

Notre vanité est de voir le chemin de la civilisation humaine constamment vers le haut. Pourtant, il semble que nous ayons rencontré un obstacle sur la route et il nous incombe à tous de construire des ponts et non des murs. S’assurer que Lachlan et Romaine, ainsi que leurs enfants, ne subissent jamais ce que leurs ancêtres ont vécu.

Leur vie est séparée de celle d’Eric Milroy par deux conflits et la montée et la chute du communisme. Pourtant, il y a tellement de parallèles. Le défi de la domination américaine. Une Grande-Bretagne en déclin. Une Europe incertaine.

On dit que le passé est un autre pays – ils y font les choses différemment.

Mais si cette expérience incroyable m’a appris quelque chose, c’est bien ça.

Ce n’est pas le cas.

Et ils ne le font pas.

Delville Wood speech.

Eric Milroy

Eric Milroy

“C’est un grand honneur pour notre famille d’être invité à cette tournée écossaise du souvenir.


Eric Milroy est le héros de notre famille et le chaînon manquant de notre famille.

Eric a joué pour l’Ecosse dans tous les matches de 1910-1914 et était dernièrement capitaine d’Ecosse.

Lorsque la guerre éclata, il rejoignit le Royal Highland Regiment et, en 1916, il fut promu lieutenant avec le 8 e bataillon du Black Watch.

Il y a 2 ans, nous avons vu l’arche commémorative haute de 150 pieds à Thiepval, où l’on peut voir le nom d’Eric Milroy avec plus de 72 000 autres personnes portées disparues. Au total, 31 internationaux de rugby écossais et 22 internationaux de rugby français ont été tués dans la Première Guerre mondiale 1.

Pour notre famille, la visite la plus émouvante il y a 2 ans a été à Delville Wood, où Eric a perdu la vie. La veille de sa mort, sa mère a reçu une lettre d’Eric l’informant qu’ils allaient avoir de légers ennuis demain.

Il ne revint jamais et pendant un an après sa mort, sa mère se rendait à la gare de Waverley à Édimbourg pour voir s’il sortait des trains de troupes. Pendant le reste de sa vie, elle a laissé la lumière du porche allumée pour qu’il voie son chemin. le chemin de la maison.

L’Entente Cordiale est encore très présente aujourd’hui et demain, le trophée Auld Alliance sera présenté au Stade de France. Cela souligne que l’esprit de l’Auld Alliance perdure.

C’est un jour de fierté, riche en émotions et que nous n’oublierons jamais. Pour mon petit-fils Lachlan, l’histoire est née et un privilège de voir où son arrière-arrière-grand-oncle s’est battu et est tombé.

Espérons que les 2 garçons ici ne subiront jamais un conflit similaire.

L’amour du sport de Marcel Burgun et d’Eric Milroy a été transmis de génération en génération. Peut-être qu’un jour Lachlan et Romain joueront au rugby pour l’Ecosse et la France.

“Off to France. Mother has speech to deliver – any chance of a translation?

Delville Wood speech.

Eric Milroy

Eric Milroy

It is a great honour for our family to be invited to this Scottish Remembrance Tour.


Eric Milroy is our family hero and the missing link in our family.

Eric played for Scotland in all matches from 1910-1914 and latterly was Captain of Scotland.

When war broke out he joined the Royal Highland Regiment and in 1916 he was promoted to Lieutenant with the 8th Battalion of the Black Watch

2 years ago we saw the 150 foot high memorial arch at Thiepval where the name of Eric Milroy can be seen along with more than 72,000 others who were posted as missing. A total of 31 Scottish rugby internationals and 22 French rugby internationals were killed in World War 1.

For our family the most moving visit 2 years ago was to Delville Wood where Eric lost his life. On the day before he died his mother received a letter from Eric warning her that they were in for some slight trouble tomorrow.

He never returned and for a year after his death his mother would visit Waverley Station in Edinburgh to see if he came off the troop trains.For the rest of her life she left the porch light on so that he would be able to see his way up the path to home.

The Entente Cordiale is still very much in evidence today and tomorrow the Auld Alliance Trophy will be presented at the Stade de France.This underlines that the spirit of the Auld Alliance still lives on.

This is a proud day full of emotion and one we will never forget. For my grandson Lachlan it is history brought to life and a privilege to see where his great great great uncle fought and fell.

Let us hope that the 2 boys here will never have to endure a similar conflict .

Marcel Burgun and Eric Milroy`s love of sport has passed down the generations and perhaps someday Lachlan and Romain may be playing rugby for Scotland and France.”

Alec sons & granny

ERIC MILROY LETTERS  : Eric MacLeod Milroy (4.12.87-18.7.16)

The letters from France are all written in pencil on small squared sheets of paper. The envelopes that survive are addressed to 2 Gordon Terrace, Edinburgh.

1. A  letter with a drawing of a pony,  written as a child to “My Dear Jenny “from “Your loving brother Eric”
2. 9.4.14
3. 17.1.15
4. 2.10.15
5. 3.10.15
6. 6.6.16
7. 10.7.16
8. Last letter 13.7.16
9. Two Delville Wood cuttings from Times.

1.My Dear Jenny

I have not much to say, but I was just going to tell you about the pony it is a grand wee thing it would’nt trot when you rode it, it always walked this is what it is like


the square on its side is ment to be white. I was in bed yesterday and part of to-day, but I am up now. Your loving brother Eric

2                                                                                      9th April 1914

My dearest Mother,

Terrible long time since I wrote you last, but I really have not had time to write you a decent note. I am quite glad to get back to the trenches for a rest.  We got in again this morning. I am acting O.C.of A Coy with McLaren as the only other officer; for two days I was alone. For other two days I was on a bombing  {alert/street??}. So this is the first of me as far as writing is concerned.

Many thanks for your letters, especially the details of the Zepp. raid.  I really don’t think there is much to worry about, though of course they make a horrid noise.  It is like a tremendous lot of the Hun’s efforts, for moral effect. He possesses all kinds of grenades & things which do no damage outside a few yards but they make an appalling din, the idea being to make us lose our heads.

It is only another {match} up against the Hun. He won’t get much mercy anyway when the Jocks really get in amongst him.

Socks will be welcome, we really can’t have too many, though of course it is not nearly so bad nowadays with good weather.

Haggis and toffee are still trumps. Helen tells me that she &Mrs Urquart have settled to go out to W.Linton before the flitting. I am jolly glad they are getting away for a  holiday.  I have told her that if they are there when I get  leave –which is very little nearer- I will certainly go out there too.  You and the Lil Kid will just have to come out too. The Lil Kid could perhaps travel for a week.  But we need not worry about that until the leave train comes in.

No more time just now.

Ever yours


3                                                                                        Nigg


My dear Mother,

Many thanks for your letter & the parcel which arrived here safely.  You however forgot to enclose Madge’s letter & I am consequently in ignorance of what Fred is thinking of doing.

I hope that by this time Aunt Jessie has recovered & is out of bed.

Tell Kennie Smellie from me that someone had been pulling his leg. The officers are a very decent crowd, though naturally lacking considerably in experience of war, though we have, I think, five men who have seen active service.

I have a letter from Helen in which she says that the gloves are excellent. I have, of course, told her that if they don’t suit she is to change them. But apparently she does not wish to. Thank the kid for her agency.

I have not yet received my cheque book from Cox & Co & I am told that it may not put in an appearance for some time. So will have to postpone settlement for some time.

Did I tell you that I had ordered gum boots. They have now arrived and I am now one of Harry Lauder’s regulation horse Kilties, except that I have not yet received my kilt. My great-coat & other items have all arrived now.

Yesterday, being Saturday, we had no afternoon parades & four of us walked to Nigg Ferry where we had tea in the Inn.  Tea took a long time to appear but it turned out that the delay was due to the baking of scones (your soda type) which were served up piping hot – Excellent.

I propose to cross to Cromarty some day. There is a fine wooden pier at the Nigg side nowadays, no leaping for the sand ; and the ferry is run by a man who is paid by the Government. No fares for crossing.

There is also a boom across the mouth of the firth, anchored by dredgers every few hundred yards.

Last night it snowed & this morning also there were showers, but it does not feel particularly cold.

Really nothing more of interest. Colonel Macrae Gilstrap has not yet returned from leave. So I have not been presented yet.

With love



[ Helen was Helen Urquart, his fiancée.  The family sometimes holidayed at Cromarty and indeed Hu-hucontinued to do so well into her seventies. Cox and Co were the Army Agents.]

4.                                                                                SAVOY HOTEL,


2nd. October 1915

My dearest Mother,

I have time to mscrape you a line while waiting here to see one or two of the officers who are going across, before I go on to lunch with Reynell[?] at the Thatched House Club.

We expect to go by a train at 5.40, so may put in a matinee.

I went to Cox’s this morning  & find I have several small quidlets. So I have sent Helen a signet ring, at least I have ordered one. I hope it will be decent; I ordered one quite plain.I am also trying to get Black Watch brooches for yourself, Madge & Jenny but have not succeeded so far. However you never can tell.

I am sending some snapshots, which I forget to put out of my case & don’t want to take with me.   They are mainly taken at Gullane, Helen, the Waterstons  etc.   Keep them in my snapshot book, will you?

The men have now arrived. So I must close.

Much love,



P.S. Remains of a book of stamps enclosed. Probably not of any use to me for a while.


5 .                                                                                       Somewhere in France


My dear Mother,

My address at present is 11th Black Watch, attached 9th Infantry Base Depot, B.E.F.   We had a very good crossing and the weather here is glorious. Apart from the big camp and the troops no sign of war here.  We have no idea how long we are likely to remain here. It may be some considerable time, but I will of course be writing you as often as possible.

The journey was very interesting and amusing at the same time, and so far with odd meals here & there we have had plenty of opportunity of airing our French, which needless to say is very sketchy & causes some sport.

Now we have just been told that the mail is due to go out. So cheer O. Will let you know when there is any word of getting a move on towards the firing line, which is at present many miles away out of all sound.

Cheer O!



13th. July 1916

My dearest Mother,

I have only managed to raise one envelope today as we are all on our last legs for them.  So I am sending this   enclosed with one to Helen. She will probably know whether you will be home from Portpatrick or not, and so time may be saved in the end.

We are in for some slight trouble to-morrow.  So I am just warning you that there is to  be no “keeping well back” then.

Glad to hear that J.G.K. is due home.He will appreciate it, I guess.

I am not away from the Battn. , as M.G.O. though I [feed deleted] do not feed with “D” Coy now. I get on fine with Hqts.

Give my love to them all. Glad to hear that Rowatt has had a week-end with the Harpers at Sutton.  He will be full of Kid stories.

Transport time which corresponds to your post-time. So cheery O!



P.S. You are rather a ripper, mother mine        Eric

 “Keeping well back”.  Eric was scrum-half for Watsonians and Scotland and it was a family joke that “Bud”,his mother  , who worried that he would be injured, used to tell him as he left the house for a match  to “keep well back”.

Eric was at Delville Wood with the South Africans and the 8th Battalion of the Black Watch. He was posted “Missing, presumed killed” on the 18th July.

Delville Wood Battle July 1916

Delville Wood Battle July 1916 Photo credit: Ed. H.W. Wilson [Public domain]

His mother clung to the hope given by the word missing and for many years hoped he might return. She left the light on in the front room at Gordon Terrace so that he would find his way if he came back at night.

Eric Milroy is commemorated on the Thriepval Memorial and on the family gravestone in Liberton Cemetery.]


Some letters to Eric’s sister Jenny survive, written by their second cousin Hugh McMinn who seems to have been posted to northern France as a Railway Transport Officer. There are a few references to Eric:

a. From West Leigh, Woodland Road, Derby , August 24 (postmarked 1913):  “Mrs Potter is delightfully Scotch – a daughter of the manse from a place called Strathaven – Ashby who was in the South Africa XV with Eric is ‘locuming’ for the Dr.”

[Eric  Milroy and W.J.Ashby of Ireland were both on the 1910 tour to South Africa , later classified as the first British Lions tour there.]

From Rouen, Feb 1st (postmarked 1915): “First I must say how glad I am Eric has got a Commission. – its all right being a private at home under decent conditions but it is very desirable to be an officer out here- I had a very cheery card from him from his chilly resting place [ probably Nigg].”

c. From Northern Railheads, November 4th. (probably 1915): “No doubt you have heard of the second piece of bad luck in missing Eric – really it is most unfortunate and when the history of the War is written I think the incident of his being outside and me inside the buildings of a wayside station in Belgium unknown to one another will be hard to beat.”

6.                                                                                                       6.6.16

My dear Mother,

Just a scrape to let you know that we are now safely & comfortably settled in billets for some 10 days anyway.  I have a very fine room with a very fine bed – a red tiled floor & a large room, as rooms go.

We have been here since the night before last but no mails have gone out since. We had good marching weather during our trek & have now got things cleaned up after it.

I have had letters from several folks lately,  Mrs Wm Sturrock, also a parcel from her; and letters from Douglas Urquart & Billie Robb.  The latter was quite near where we stopped for the night but I did not know.

Will write again tomorrow if possible seeing this is so short.

Yours in haste              Eric

[The artist Alick Sturrock was a family friend ( and a Watsonian).  A painting of a clump of trees , probably at Little Boreland, is still in the family. When he visited he always gazed at the painting of clouds by Campbell (now owned by Eric and Poppy) and was teased by Rowatt Milroy that he was trying to learn how to paint clouds like that himself.

Douglas Urquart was presumably the brother of Eric’s fiancée Helen.]

7.                                                                                          11.7.16

My dearest Mother,

I am afraid you will be getting worried about me but I hope you have got some of my fieldp.cs.  Anyway I am still fit & well & after quite a decent sleep am getting a letter written in the hope of getting it sent off today.

I got your parcel last night and it was more welcome than any I have had since I came out . We have now been eight days without kit apart from what we can carry in a haversack which is naturally nearly full of food, as that is the first consideration.  But so far I have got a towel & shaving kit & one extra pair of socks. So you can imagine how welcome your pair of socks & food is, not to speak of the cigarettes.

Now don’t imagine that we are having a very bad time because it “micht be waur” by a long chalk.  For one thing it is fair  & what a difference that makes!

Besides out of the eight nights, three have been in quite a fine dugout.  Otherwise a scrape in the side of a trench & a waterproof sheet go a long way.

I got your letters telling me of your visit to Portpatrick. I hope you have a very good time,  ma mere.  I will send this to you there.  It is a splendid start for the new agent for you to cash a cheque.  Tell him from me that he must be very hot stuff to attract custom from Edinburgh like that.

I hear from Helen that Jenny is off to Deeside & was expecting to meet Uan [?] in Aberdeen.  But what I don’t know is who she is going there with  .

Hope Rowatt got his weekend with the Harpers at Sutton. Loud laughter from Marga!

Now mother mine, cheer o & don’t worry.

Yours ever


[Rowatt and Jenny  (known to us as Chimp and Hu-Hu) were Eric’s brother and sister. Jenny ( I think she was the eldest of the family) never married  , according to Chimp “because none of her young men were ever good enough for her”. Chimp was classified unfit for military service and became the Secretary  (i.e the administrator) of the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh which worked on animals.  He was a devoted Watsonian who seldom missed a rugby or cricket match at Myreside and accompanied the team on cricket tour to Ireland.

The other daughter was Madge (my mother’s mother, ) who by this time had married Dr Fred Harper.  I don’t know whether “Marga”  is Madge or perhaps her baby, my mother, who was Margie, with a hard  “g”, born  18 January 1912. Almost certainly the latter as Madge appears in other letters as Madge and Chimp was good at making children laugh: I can remember being helpless with over-excited  screams as he made “ piles of Andersons  and Darlings” on the floor of the sitting-room in Abbotsford Park.]

Memorial Arch Murrayfield Stadium Scottish Rugby_Union_Remembrance_Eric Milroy and Marcel Burgun Auld Alliance Trophy

Memorial Arch Murrayfield Stadium Scottish Rugby Union Remembrance Eric Milroy and Marcel Burgun Auld Alliance Trophy photo credit: Patrick Caublot (]

Milroy's Mother Trophy GWC

The Eric Milroy Trophy, presented by Milroy’s mother to George Watson’s College in 1920, continues to be awarded for kicking every year in school. Winners have included the Scotland internationals Douglas Kinloch Anderson, Gavin Hastings, Scott Hastings. Photo credit: Mémoire Rugby Events (]

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