John L. Mowat

John Langskaill Mowat was born on 19 October 1878 at Cellardyke, Deerness, Orkney. He was the third son of Thomas Mowat and Barbara Langskaill who had married in Holm on 4 December 1873. Thomas Mowat’s parents were Thomas Mowat and Catherine Bichan of Newhall, Deerness. Barbara’s parents were Charles Langskaill and Jane Heddle.

Thomas, father of John and his siblings, was a maker of Orkney chairs and whilst untrained, had a knowledge of animals such that he was called upon where a vet would be relied upon nowadays. Cellardyke extended to only 18 ¾ acres, including Trowietoon, and Thomas farmed it as a tenant farmer, but was also a mason to trade.

John’s brothers were Charles born 1874 and Thomas born 1876, and one sister, Catherine (Katie) born 1875. Both Thomas and Catherine emigrated to America, Catherine having married James H Croy from Stronsay. Thomas married Jane Stevenson.

John Mowat went to school in Deerness, starting there in August 1884, aged 5, and leaving in May 1893 aged 14. Barbara, his mother, had died in 1882 of tuberculosis and in 1888, Thomas Snr remarried, to Robina Craigie (nee Foubister) of Mussaquoy. Robina was the grandmother of William and James Craigie who were both killed in France during WW1.

In 1901 John, aged 22, was working at the Hall of Essonquoy, known as the Barns, now subsumed into Kirkwall Airport. His employer was William Bichan, a Deerness man, and John is described in the 1901 census as a servant/ploughman.

In the 1911 Census, taken on 2 April 1911, John is working at the Hall of Essonquoy, for William Bichan and he is described as a horseman. On 1 June that year, John married Euphemia Mary Robertson (sometimes Robson). They were married at Euphemia’s home, East Greaves where her father Donald was a farm servant. Her mother was Betsy, nee Foulis. Euphemia herself is described as a domestic servant on their marriage certificate and she was 20 years old. Later that year, on 23 August, their only child, Mary Jane was born at East Greaves.

When World War 1 broke out in August 1914, John was already 35 years old. In October 1914 his cousin James Traill, Highland Light infantry, was killed in France. In January 1916 conscription into the British armed forces was introduced, for single men and childless widowers up to the age of 41. In May 1916, conscription was extended to include married men. There were categories of exemption and one category included farm workers. Orkney Archive holds records of those applying for exemptions, both successfully and unsuccessfully but John Mowat is not amongst them. From his Regimental number, S/16012 it appears he joined the Seaforth Highlanders, in Kirkwall, in August 1916, aged 37.

The only known photograph of John L Mowat is the photograph of him, in uniform, with Euphemia and Mary Jane. It was probably taken during his embarkation leave, prior to going to France, so perhaps around January 1917.

john l mowat and family 2

None of John Mowat’s Army records have survived, burnt during the London Blitz of 1940 when an incendiary bomb hit their storage place destroying 4 million World War 1 British Army records. It is probable he trained at Fort George, and then shipped to France in February or March 1917. On 20 March 1917, within days or a few weeks of his arrival in France John died of spinal meningitis.

John was buried at Heilly Station Cemetery which was the burial ground of the 36th, 38th and 2/2nd London Casualty Clearing Stations from May 1916, and the Army notified Euphemia of his resting place on 14 June 1917 in a letter, addressed to Mrs E Mowat, Drill Hall Cottage, St Mary’s, Holm, Orkney.

It seems likely that John took ill and died quickly given that he was buried in the cemetery used by casualty clearing stations i.e. there had not been time to move him to a hospital, over on the French coast. Meningitis was widespread in the cramped conditions of war-service and particularly prevalent in the first quarter of the year. It was mostly fatal.

On 21 November 1919 Euphemia received £4/1/9 War Gratuity calculated on the basis of John’s short Army service and even shorter overseas service.

Euphemia remarried in June 1919, to Andrew Flett and had a further family with him. She did not however forget John Mowat. Their grandson, Arthur Gunn from Stromness, recalls his grandfather’s commemoration scroll, memorial plaque and service medals on display in his grandmother’s home.

John Mowat medals