Alexander Ormiston Curle: An Antiquarian in Edinburgh during the Great War

An Introduction to A.O. Curle

Alexander Ormiston Curle was born in 1866 raised in Melrose in the Scottish Borders. His father, a lawyer by profession, was by no means an antiquarian, but he certainly pursed antiquarianism as a hobby. It was a hobby that he would later share with two of his sons, Alexander and his elder brother James. As a young boy Curle had already begun collecting small antiquarian trinkets, he was particularly keen on collecting tobacco pipe bowls. It was during these fledgling years Curle’s antiquarian interests began to take hold. Initially, however, Curle followed his father into the legal profession but he always found the time to indulge in his love of antiquaries. Between 1896 and 1908 Curle found time to publish some eleven archaeological papers. He was rapidly becoming one of Scotland’s leading antiquarians. His talents had not gone unnoticed; Curle’s antiquarian passion was soon to become his profession.

In 1908 Curle was appointed Secretary of the newly established Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments (see Figure). It was a role normally reserved for a civil servant, but Curle’s expertise and knowledge of the field made him the perfect candidate. During his time as Secretary from 1908 to 1913 he personally oversaw the inventories of Berwickshire, Sutherland, Caithness and Wigtown. Charged not only with overseeing these inventories, he was also responsible for preparing material, and organising how fieldwork should be undertaken. Such was the significance of his efforts that his work in Berwickshire and Sutherland would later be described by the Commission’s historian, John Dunbar, as the ‘heroic days of fieldwork’. if not heroic it was, at the very least, a pioneering effort.

371006V3 - curle in study

When war broke out in the summer of 1914 Curle had already established himself in his new position as the Director of the National Museum of Antiquities. He had resigned from his post at the Commission in June of 1913 and although he was now a Commissioner his focus in the summer month of 1914 was on acquiring new antiquities for display. Even then Curle found time to visit the Commission’s staff in the field, aiding their efforts in the Inner Hebrides in July and August of 1914. Soon, however, the War on the Home Front would dominate everyday life in Edinburgh and as resources dwindled Curle had to turn his attention to protecting the Museum’s collections. Without funding the Museum was put into a state of hibernation by 1915. Looking for something to occupy his time, and perhaps overcome by a sense of duty, Curle devoted his time to the War effort, signing up as a Special Constable. It was a worthy pursuit now that Museum activity was severely restricted. Curl would carry out his role dutifully throughout the conflict, eventually rising to the rank of Special Sergeant by 1918. Throughout the war Curle continued to make entries in his personal journal as time allowed.  His entries provide us with a window into everyday life on the Home Front in Edinburgh; a glimpse into Edinburgh’s war and the public response to events in Europe.

 The War Begins

During the Summer of 1914, as treaties and alliances began to unravel in Europe, Alexander Ormiston Curle was hurriedly travelling around Scotland. He had held the position of Director of the Museum of National Antiquities for a little over year and was determined to make his mark. Items of Scottish antiquity worthy of display were to be sought out and acquired. By August his travels had brought him to the Inner Hebrides, in particularly the ancient monuments to be found on Skye. Antiquities were awaiting discovery, potentially new collections for the Museum. There was much to be done. His travels happened to coincide with the work of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland who were conducting an initial survey of Skye’s ancient monuments. for their inventory program. Hazarding that he might be of assistance Curle exercised his rights as a Commissioner to join them in the field, eager to investigate the archaeological features of the Western Isles and indulge his antiquarian passion.

The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on the 4th of August 1914. The gravity of the event was not lost on Curle. His diary entry for the 13th of October, his first following the outbreak, simply stated that the events leading to war would be ‘retold in many a printed book for years to come’. The effects of the war were immediate. The country began to galvanise, Curle wrote, as ‘political factions became instantly welded together’ and ‘patriotism sprang to the fore’. There was no hiding from the war. Edinburgh was littered with recently mobilised territorial troops, red cross motor vehicles and military personnel. But, this was still a war that would be over by Christmas and life continued, largely, as normal. Work at the museum, however, had slowly ground to a halt. Curle had lost his museum assistant – who was serving at the Craigleith Military Hospital – and a lack of funding saw the Museum’s operation brought to a grinding halt. Curle was left with little to do.

After almost a year had passed since Curle wrote of the outbreak of war he returned to his diary. By now the country was gripped by war, and rapidly realising it was woefully unprepared. The ‘civilised world’ was at war, wrote Curle, and the effects were being felt on the Home Front. The sense of hope and of British pride that had swept the country only a year ago was already dwindling, replaced by fears that the country was simply not ready for the fight. The Museum, which had been in a mothball like state for almost a year was forced to close it’s only remaining service, the library. The Treasury was hurriedly syphoning off any remaining funds for the war effort. Meanwhile Curle was looking to contribute to the war effort, to fulfil his sense of duty.

Too old for military service Curle instead signed up as a Special Constable, supplementing the beleaguered Edinburgh police force. Their duties were at first quite nominal, but as the force grew in size Curle and his fellow special constables were granted ‘more serious employment’. Duties ranged from lining the streets during a military parade to taking a policeman’s beat for a few hours on a Sunday. It would not be long, however, before Curle’s duties adopted a more serious tone.


April 2nd 1916 was like any other Sunday for Curle. It was, he wrote, a ‘perfect spring day’ a welcome reprieve after an unusually ‘long and story winter’. Making the most of the afternoon Curle walked for some ten miles around Edinburgh before returning home. Settling down with a volume of poems in the evening, Curle enjoyed a welcome moment of relaxation. It was short lived. Around nine fifteen the lights ‘suddenly sunk to a dull glow’ it was, noted Curle, the ‘recognised warning for a coming air-raid’.

The family was instantly awake. They charged down to the basement to seek shelter from the impending air raid. A ‘horrible gloom’ had descended upon the house, with only the still burning electric filaments providing flickers of light. Curle had just enough time to collect his flask and some chocolate, and once sure his family were safe in the basement he set off to reach the Museum. Surprisingly the trams were still running, and Curle managed to catch a tram at Stockbridge. He arrived at the Museum just before twenty to nine. The air thick with anxiety.

The German zeppelins were somewhere above. Lurking, lingering in the clouds. Drifting silently overhead casting shadowy figures. Spotlights sliced through the overcast sky searching for pencil-like objects drifting ever closer to the city. Curle stood at his post, waiting. More than an hour passed when the eerie silence was broken by a distant boom. It was not long before the sound of explosions began to punctuate the night air. The rising cacophony became ‘alarmingly loud’ as Curle counted each explosion and noted their general direction. Initially to the North, the sound of devastation moved from East to South. Then silence. ‘There was a pause’, wrote Curle, ‘and we hoped it was over’. But it was for the briefest of moments. Ten minutes passed before ‘the evil work began again’. Another ten explosions rung out across Edinburgh, and then ‘all was quiet’ and Curle was left wondering ‘how much of Edinburgh lay in ruins’. The fate of his family weighed heavily on his mind. Across the city to the North East the sky was lit red as the whisky store at Leith Docks burned. By morning rumours of the raid were rife around the capital. Edinburgh had survived largely unscathed, if not a little rattled.

Jutland, Somme and War’s End

The evening of May 31st 1916 was like any other for Alexander Ormiston Curle. Having returned from his duties with the Special Constabulary and assured that all was well at the National Museum of Antiquities, he settled down for the evening. Little did he know that the fiercest naval battle in history was raging in the North Sea. By the early hours of June 1st the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet would be in disarray, only just clinging onto their grand claim of masters of the high sea. The much fabled Grand Fleet had sailed into battle against Imperial Germany’s Navy. The Kaiser was keen to prove a point, the British were to be defeated at their own game. It was to be the only significant naval encounter of the Great War, a test of British resolve in the face of their enemy. The outcome may not have been decisive for either side, but it’s effect on the war was. The Royal Navy was left shaken, and the Imperial Germany Fleet would not leave port for the remainder of the war.

Many of battleships that made up the Grand Fleet’s order of battle were docked at Scapa Flow and Invergorden, but there were still some stationed at Rosyth. It had been difficult to conceal the mass of naval activity around the dock yards. Only days before these lumbering giants of steel and iron had majestically steamed away into the North Sea, slipping over the horizon to join the rest of the Grand Fleet.

By morning news was filtering back to the Home Front of this historic battle. Curle wrote in his diary of being ‘thrilled with details of the great naval battle’. It was the cause of much distraction at work noted Curle. Edinburgh was rife with rumour as word of the battle quickly spread from the docks. The Royal Navy had surely maintained control of the high seas?

Tales of the battle quickly turned sour by the afternoon. This had been no victory. Those lumbering giants of iron returned, batter and bruised. Shadows of their former self as they crawled back into port. Some failed to return, claimed by the North Sea. They were replaced by a steady stream of wounded sailors, stricken by the events that had unfolded only hours earlier. The docks were lined with the bodies of the dead and the wounded, awaiting their fate.

Special issues of Edinburgh’s evening papers revealed the truth of the fight. The Royal Navy, wrote Curle, had ‘suffered a partial defeat at the hands of the enemy.’ The thrill, the excitement, the elation, that had enveloped the nation began to give way to a ‘great depression’. The mighty Grand Fleet had been dealt a hammer blow. The following morning The Scotsman published the story of the battle, accompanied by a letter from Sir John Jellicoe – the Commander of the Grand Fleet – who, as Curle wrote, put ‘a rather different complexion on the result of the fight’. It did little to counter the list of Royal Navy vessels that failed to return home. Fourteen ships and some six thousand men now lay at the bottom of the North Sea. For Curle and many other it was the first time doubt began to creep into their mind, lingering in the background of their thoughts. The effect on Home Front morale could not have been more profound.

In December of 1916, not long after he had written of Jutland, Curle wrote of the Somme, perhaps the most significant battle of the Great War. The battle had reached its conclusion on a month before. The battle had begun on the 1st of July and reached it’s conclusion on the 18th of November. It had been nearly four months of bloody fighting. At the conclusion of the Somme a new wave of hope passed over the nation remarked Curle. ‘The spirit of the country is magnificent, and everyone seems ready to make what sacrifices may be called upon to make with a good grace.’ The battle of the Somme may have brought the nation close to defeat, but in it is resolution, and with the Allies claiming victory there was a sense, at least, that total victory might be possible. But, there would be another two years of conflict before the nation would finally be at peace once again.


January of 1918 in Edinburgh a strange machine had appeared on the Mound. A mechanical beast stood guard, looking out toward Princess Street. It was the ‘tank’, the cutting edge of military technology. The latest machine devised for the purpose of killing. It was to turn the tide of war. A more efficient way of killing. Many had heard of this monster of steel and iron, few had seen one. Now the curious public had a chance to see a tank up close, a chance to interact with this innovation of war. The pride of British technology. The tank was there to drum up subscriptions for War Bonds. It had, Curle recalled, ‘done tremendously well.’ Despite the weather, which had been unusually cold, the queue of ‘would be investors […] sometimes stretch 3 or 4 deep as far as the Scott Monument’. By the end of the week some £4,000,000 had been subscribed.

Morale was high on the Home Front. The United States and joined the war and rumour spread of a new offensive on the Western Front, one which would break Imperial Germany’s back. But, before the Allies had a chance the Kaiser threw the dice one last time. In March of 1918 the German army launched its last great offensive. Initially it was a success and Curle wrote in his diary that ‘we have been passing through the most critical days in the history of the British Empire’. Curle never lost faith in the ‘valour of our men’ who ‘held up [against] the thirst of the Hun when almost within sight of complete success’. But, the nation was still shocked that the Germans had attempted such an audacious attack when their own outlook was so ‘hopeless’. Curle then recorded, in detail, the events of that final offensive before noting; ‘it is most important in a journal such as this to record matters which the official chronicles may pass over, small details which posterity would like to know of but which the historian will give to heed to.’ His journal was a repository for the experiences of the war; experiences which history books might overlook. Day-to-day events, the ‘(extra)ordinary in the ordinary’.

The Great War ended on the 11th of November 1918 at 11am. ‘Yesterday was truly a Red Letter Day in the calendar of the British Empire for on it the armistice was signed which brought hostilities to a close, and signified the total defeat of Germany and the passing of the German Empire, as we have known it.’ There was wild rejoicing throughout Edinburgh, the city ‘let itself go in a way I have never seen it do before’ wrote Curle. The news had only reached the city when the sounds of fog horns boomed out from the ships in the Forth. Church bells rang out across the city in a cacophony of joy. ‘Shouting and laughter came from all directions’ wrote Curle. The family celebrated that evening and Curle treated himself to a bottle of 1820 sherry, it was his only bottle, ‘but no occasion can ever more worthily merit the drawing of the cork’.


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