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Why do a war mystery, an axe and a tweed suit feature in an Inverness wedding exhibition?

Lesley McRoberts with one of the dresses from 1942 on display at the exhibition. Picture Sandy McCook
Lesley McRoberts with one of the dresses from 1942 on display at the exhibition. Picture Sandy McCook

The young bride enjoyed just three years of marriage to her war hero before spending the next half century not knowing what happened to him.

Spitfire pilot Flt Lt Duncan McCuaig was shot down in 1944, but it took 50 years for Olwen Buchanan to discover exactly where and when he died.

Their fascinating and poignant story is being retold as part of a wedding exhibition being held in Crown Church, Inverness this week.

What’s in the exhibition?

The Crown Church wedding event, running from July 21-26 from 10am-4pm, features a collection of memorabilia from weddings down the years and the stories that go with them.

Like the axe given to a bride before her wedding in Malawi, the two pipers who turned up at the same wedding, or the newly-wed who thought a tweed trouser suit would be the ideal going-away outfit to a honeymoon hotspot.

The exhibition is the first event being held in the church as part of a major refurbishment to meet the future needs of the congregation and wider community.

Olwen Buchanan’s story has been re-told by her grand-daughter Alison Robertson, wife of Crown Church minister, the Rev Douglas Robertson.

Olwen Buchanan married Duncan McCuaig in 1941. The bridesmaid was Olwen’s sister Brenda, 9, now Brenda Martin, who lives in Fortrose.

Olwen was 19 and Duncan McCuaig 21 when they eloped and married in 1941.

Duncan and his brother Eric were initially conscientious objectors but soon joined the war, both flying Spitfires.

Eric was a fighter pilot and Duncan a reconnaissance pilot whose aircraft was unarmed for lightness and speed.

Eric was killed in August 1942 and in 1944 Duncan was shot down after taking photographs of a German aircraft factory.

He bailed out but his parachute failed to open and he was killed on impact.

Aged just 24, Duncan was buried in a local graveyard, his name marked on a simple cross.

His wife and family were told he was ‘missing presumed dead’ and eventually assumed he had gone down in the North Sea.

What a difference a letter makes

At the end of the war, his body was re-interred in a British military war grave at Sage, near Oldenburg.

But during the transfer, the name on the cross was misread as McCraig and the military authorities could find no trace of a pilot matching that name who went missing over Germany.

Duncan was therefore buried under a cross inscribed with the words ‘Unknown Pilot’.

In 1947, with all hope of Duncan returning gone, Olwen married Major Douglas Drysdale. They had five children, along with the daughter born to Olwen and Duncan.

It was only in 1994, a few months before Olwen’s death, that the mystery was finally solved.

Olwen McCuaig married Douglas Drysdale in 1947

Following extensive research by an amateur war historian in Germany and RAF cadets in Scotland, it was confirmed the ‘unknown pilot’ buried at Sage was indeed Duncan.

Flt Lt McCuaig was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his wartime exploits. A memorial service was organised by the RAF at his grave in 1996, attended by his daughter and her husband.

Duncan flew from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. In 2011, the base rededicated its ‘gate guardian’ Spitfire in his memory and with the markings of his plane.

Alison Robertson, whose middle names are Olwen McCuaig, has a son called Duncan. She said she is delighted to tell her family story at the Crown Church wedding exhibition.

“Duncan was one of thousands taken from us by war, but he’s our story and it does seem to capture people’s imagination.

“He was immortalised aged 24 in the prime of his life, a young good looking gentleman.

“There is something bittersweet and desperately sad about it. And yet, my granny went on and had a fulfilling loving family life.”

Who gets an axe as a wedding gift?

As well as family wedding photos, Alison has also donated Olwen’s wedding dress when she married Douglas Drysdale.

It is hoped Olwen’s sister Brenda, now aged 90 and living in Fortrose, will attend the Crown Church wedding exhibition.

Chrisanne Robertson said Olwen and Duncan’s story is one of many they have enjoyed hearing about.

She is part of the team organising the event.

“It’s been a joy and privilege to share in so many memories as the various mementos were dropped off.”

One of the exhibits is an imitation axe presented to Chrisanne before she married husband Stewart nine years ago.

The retired teacher as a member of the Highland Malawi Trust charity and visited the country regularly.

Chrisanne and Stewart Robertson with her wedding dress made from material from Malawi and a ceremonial axe which was presented to Stewart ‘to protect his new bride’. Picture Sandy McCook

The gift is a tradition where the bride gives her husband-to-be an axe as her ‘hunter gatherer and protector’.

The couple raised £4,000 in donations in lieu of wedding gifts which helped build a classroom block in a Malawi school.

Other stories to be elaborated on at the exhibition include the wedding where both the father and father-in-law of the bride booked a piper, without telling each other, or the pipers.

And the bride who went on honeymoon to Ibiza determined to wear her going-away outfit – a tweed trouser suit complete with fur-lined hood – for the entire journey from Scotland.

A special cake made for the exhibition will be cut on Saturday evening by Crown Church members David and Lucy Livingstone.

Church being upgraded

The Crown Church wedding exhibition is the first event at the church as it undergoes its revamp.

Lesley McRoberts, another organiser, said: “After a couple of years without celebrations of any kind, we thought it would be a lovely opportunity for some fun.

“Several couples in the congregation have missed out on significant wedding anniversary parties. This is a great excuse to be together in good times after the bad.”

In partnership with Highland Council, the church’s lower hall has been converted into a two-classroom nursery for the neighbouring Crown Primary.

The upper hall has also undergone a £150,000 refurbishment, while improvements to the sanctuary include upgraded lighting and audio/visual system.

This has been helped by a £74,343 grant from the Scottish Government’s Place-Based Investment Programme, administered by the council.

Elizabeth Benzie with some of the many dresses on show. Picture Sandy McCook

A new meeting room is being created. The lounge will host the Olive Grove Café which previously operated in Southside Road.

The congregation gifted £33,600 towards the Upper Hall upgrade and the Inverness Common Good Fund provided a £30,000 grant.

The Scottish Government also gave a £10,000 grant for improved insulation through the Climate Communities Action Fund and £32,500 through the Adapt and Thrive Programme.

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