DOUG Dougal sells poppies. But he is not wearing one. “I gave it to a customer,” he laughs, pointing at a nearly empty cardboard display of remembrance badges, “because we are selling out.”

The 52-year-old is manning a “poppy up” shop right on Edinburgh’s main drag, Princes Street. From his vantage point, a foot above the pavement, he reckons half those passing, like him, do not have a wee red flower on their lapels.

“They’ve probably lost them,” he jokes. “At least that is what they tell us.”
Mr Dougal and his colleagues have been selling poppies and poppy merchandise for three weeks. Remembrance Sunday, 100 years from the end of the First World War, is four days away. 

So stocks are running low. Badges go fast. But so do poppy windscreen scrapers, pens, tote bags, clothing and even spoon rests.  Behind his counter, Mr Dougal has a row of nearly empty cardboard boxes. 

That pleases Mark Bibbey. The chief executive of Poppy Scotland is looking at the last brooches on display, sparkly poppies for £25. 
“I keep buying these for my wife,” he says, “and I have to keep buying them because she keeps giving them away.” 

HeraldScotland:

Poppy Scotland's chief executive Mark Bibbey with poppy seller Shield Skeldon. All Pictures by The Herald's Gordon Terris

Mr Bibbey’s charity makes and sells five million poppies every year, one for nearly every Scot. But in the last decade or so they have also licensed merchandise. This is proving a real fillip to their finances. Because this no ordinary charity: its fundraising largely comes in a single annual rush.
Poppy Scotland – the trading name for the Earl Haig Fund Scotland – raises more than half its normal annual turnover in just a few weeks in October and November.  

Last financial year, according to its annual accounts, Poppy Scotland raised just over £5 million in unrestricted funds, 56% of it from the Poppy Appeal. Much of that cash goes to pay for poppies from its factory, employing disabled ex-servicemen.  But its healthy surplus is spent on other veterans who are struggling.

It is a strange beast, Poppy Scotland. Its products, its poppies and wreathes, help us remember those who fell in wars few of us can remember. Yet its services help those who survive conflicts still fresh in our minds.

HeraldScotland:

Poppies

Mr Bibbey recognises this dual function of his charity. He is now standing amid thousands of tiny wooden crosses – each remembering those lost in conflicts new and old – and reflecting on the flower that gives his organisation its name.

The poppy was designed to remember those lost in “the war to end all wars”, a conflict that ended 100 years ago. Some think the time has come to let the symbol go. Others fear – a decade after the last First World War Tommies died – that it is losing its potency 

Will the poppy now wilt? “I don’t think it will,” says Mr Bibbey.  “The real challenge is for it be relevant,  beyond 2018. There are a lot of people who are worrying that after next Sunday, Armistice Day, we just drop off a cliff.”
It is not just the old Tommies who have gone. Britain used to be a martial state, Scotland a martial country. Few families in the 20th century were untouched by military service. 

The poppies were designed to remember an army of civilians, not professionals; of ordinary men who were called up or volunteered to serve. Britain once had millions under arms. Now it has fewer than 200,000. The men – and increasingly women – who now serve do so as professionals.

HeraldScotland: Mr Bibbey

But, this, stresses Mr Bibbey, has a real effect on remembrance. The military family is shrinking. And fast. The youngest Scot to have experienced national service is 74.
“The fact is that those with a personal  connection to the military understand better what it means tosupport remembrance and those people who joined the military.

“The Second World War and National Service generation is dying off. Our demographic is looking pretty weak. We are going to go from an armed forces community in Scotland of about 470,000 to half that by 2030.”

The “armed forces community” means serving personnel, reservists and regular, retired personnel and their family and dependants. It now makes up less than one-eleventh of the population. Within a decade it will be less than one-twentieth.

HeraldScotland:

Jane Price selling poppy merchandise

This does not mean that the need of Poppy Scotland’s beneficiaries is reduced. Veterans are now presenting with complex, expensive needs.

“People are more damaged”, Mr Bibbey, a former Royal Marines officer, explains. “Those with extremes of injury are dealt with by the system. What we are picking up is not those who come straight out of the military but those who have been out for some time and particularly those who have mental health issues.

“This can manifest itself in general reduction in life quality, in an inability to get a job, or hold down a job, or housing issues, homelessness.”

Poppy Scotland teams up with other third-sector organisations to help such vets. This work is paid for by poppies. So keeping the integrity of the symbol is crucial.

READ MORE: Trevor Royle on the conflict that would never end for so many survivors

Mr Bibbey served in Northern Ireland so, he says, gets the “sectarian thing”. He is also “aware of” the role the flower plays overseas, where it has come to be a symbol of Ukraine’s struggle with Russian-backed separatists.

Football bodies, sensitive to such international contexts, objected with Scotland and other home nations putting poppies on their strips.

Mr Bibbey is relaxed about criticism: “The poppy represents remembrance for those who fight wars and the funding goes to support those who were damaged by wars. It is not in any way, shape or form, a statement about the cause of those wars.

“Wars are declared by politicians and fought by people and it is the people that the poppy is about. Now, on the other hand, there are people who use the poppy in what we would say is an inappropriate way. If they are using the poppy in an inappropriate way and it is our trademark, we can do something about it.”

How does he feel when he sees people with swastika tattoos wearing poppies? “Uncomfortable,” he says. “But it comes down to freedom of speech.”

HeraldScotland:

Ronnie Wilson

At the Remembrance Garden, Mr Bibbey greets an old volunteer. Ronnie Wilson, 83, a former Queen’s Own Cameron Highlander, is part guide, part counsellor for those with stories to tell as they plant their little crosses. He has seen protestors too.

“There are anti-war guys sometimes,” Mr Wilson says. “I spent my 21st in a ditch in Korea. I don’t like war either.”