ON May 8th it will be exactly 75 years since VE Day. There aren’t many people still alive who remember it. But there are some. We should speak to them while we still can. And listen to them. We might be surprised by what they have to say.

Why surprised? Because our impressions of VE Day tend to be draped in flags and taste of tea and beer and sound like Churchill and Vera Lynn, and while all of that is true and important, it’s only one aspect of what happened. To get the whole picture, we need to pick a few of the individuals out of the crowd. We also need to speak to the people who weren’t at the party, for their own reasons. They are the story too.

But let’s start with the celebrations. Let’s push right into the middle of the crowds and see what it was like. We’re in George Square in Glasgow. The evening of May 8th, 1945. It’s packed. People are dancing jigs and congas in front of the City Chambers. Children are climbing on the statues. Fireworks are being let off. And by midnight it’s still going. The pubs ran out of booze in the middle of the afternoon. People are tired and happy but mostly happy. The Glasgow Herald describes it as a fine, robust, and joyful night.

There were similar scenes elsewhere. In Greenock, there was singing and dancing in the streets. In Falkirk, a pipe band paraded round the town centre. In Perth, the church bells peeled. And then there was London, of course. Thousands headed for Buckingham Palace and Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. The King and Queen appeared on the balcony five times and Churchill spoke from the Ministry of Health building in Whitehall. “In our long history, we have never seen a greater day than this,” he said. It was a festival for the victorious.

But back in Scotland, in the town of Bridge of Allan in Stirlingshire, a young woman called Catherine Drummond didn’t see any of the celebrations. She had her eight-month-old daughter to look after and she was still mourning her husband John, who’d been killed in action. Catherine was 21 when she married John and 22 when he died.

Mrs Drummond is now 98 years old and lives in a flat with her daughter, also Catherine, in Dunfermline, and when I call her up on the phone, I ask her about her experiences during the war, about what VE Day was like for her.

“I was very sad to tell you the truth because I’d lost John,” she says. “He was doing sorties in Europe; in Italy. He was up in the air for about an hour and the plane crashed into the sea. Two bodies were found, but two bodies, the pilot and my husband, were never found.”

Mrs Drummond’s husband, who was from Londonderry, had been an air gunner and the young couple had met when the teenaged Catherine was posted to Oban as a wireless operator with the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force; she was a WAAF. There are pictures of her in Oban with the sun on her face looking happy, and she was. She did her job and in her free time went to dances, or played table tennis, or cycled. Her upbringing had been strict and restrictive and here she was, independent, fit and busy. A lot of people say it about the war and Catherine Drummond says it too: it was one of the happiest times of her life. She and John married and she fell pregnant.

But then: the telegram. It said John was missing, presumed killed. It was August 1944. Catherine’s baby was born a few weeks later, in September. “It was terrible,” she says. “I got no help and I just carried on. So when it came to VE Day I was sad. John and I had a life planned out, we would go to Canada, but it wasn’t meant to be. So on VE Day, I didn’t see any celebrations. I was too busy and too sad but in another way I was very glad for all the boys and girls who came home.”

It took her a while to recover, she says. “I didn’t finally give up hope until the POWs came home. I was hoping, you know.”

After the war, Catherine Drummond’s pension from the Air Force was only £4 a week so she had to go out to work, and work hard. She did shifts in a paper shop from 7 in the morning until 6 at night, then went home, had her tea, and went out again to wait on tables. Her parents looked after her daughter.

It was a tough life, she says, but that’s it was like after the war. VE Day was not some kind of panacea. Mrs Drummond remembers getting coupons to buy furniture and rationing continued right into the 1950s. I ask her how long it took to get back to normal. “I just carried on,” she says.

The historian Derek Patrick, who lectures in history at St Andrews University, says this was a fairly typical experience for people on VE Day.

“Realistically, there was no sea change,” he says, “nothing changed overnight. You’d start to see POWs returning to the country but it took a long, long time to get things back on an even keel and towards normality. And there were one or two complaints – in Dundee, there was a report about a queue outside a post office and people were described as being in an angry mood – they’d come down to draw their pensions and allowances only to find the place closed.”

The war had also set up an expectation of change in Britain that VE Day could not deliver. “There was a level of hostility and resentment – it happened after the First World War as well – that they were promised a land fit for heroes but it was a false dawn,” says Patrick. But the change did come in the end. Churchill, to everyone’s surprise, was not re-elected. A new Labour government came in with new ideas.

“After years of war,” says Patrick, “there was perhaps a determination to see this project through and you can attribute a lot of the changes we saw, like the NHS, to the war.”

You also have to remember the experiences of people like Catherine Drummond. “Loss was never too far away,” says Patrick. “So there were mixed emotions on VE Day. There was also a very real awareness that the war in the Far East was still going on. This is a moment to rejoice – Europe has been pulled back from the precipice – but this is only one step on the road to victory.”

Frank Coyle knows what that feels like. Mr Coyle, from Govan, was serving in the Far East when the war in Europe ended so for him there was little change and even when the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, the fighting went on.

“When the Japanese surrendered, I had expected it,” he says. “But things did not really change at that point as I was still in action and still fighting. There were many renegades who just couldn’t admit defeat. My duties included disposing of weapons taken from the Japanese. You did what you were told.

“Eventually, I was demobbed after being shipped back home in 1947. The Navy told me I was in debt! I said: ‘How can I been in debt? I’ve not spent anything in two months!’ I received £18 for my demob payment and a suit. It was a grey, striped suit. And I went home to continue my life.”

Mr Coyle is 93 now and was 18 when he was called up and, like Catherine Drummond, remembers some of the positives of being in the armed services during the war. His early life in Govan had been a struggle – he was the main breadwinner for his mother and siblings, working as a delivery boy – and, again like Mrs Drummond, he found that life was hard after the war too.

“It was hard to get work,” he says. “They had to take me back for the job I had before the war, but they didn’t want to keep me. So, I found work at a foundry. It was very hard work and you had to make a certain amount of castings a day. I did that for 15 years.”

Some veterans simply could not adjust to life after the war, such as Jack Patterson. Mr Patterson served on the Arctic Convoys taking supplies to Russia and it was a hard, dangerous life, but when he returned to his village, Thornhill near Dumfries, after VE Day, he found he couldn’t settle. So he decided to take up a three-year commission with the Navy. “So many people were being demobbed at that time,” he says, “and I think the Navy was becoming short-staffed.”

Part of the problem for Mr Patterson, who’s now 95, was that the war had changed his life profoundly, and him too. His family had not been well off and as a child he’d only been on a train once when he was taken on a school trip to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. Later, before he joined up, he’d been working in a factory.

“I was glad I joined the Navy,” he says. “I was a village boy and I felt I knew practically nothing, but what I learned in the Navy was incredible. The places I got to travel to. It’s an education in itself and you couldn’t get a better further education than I got in the Royal Navy. I was a boy when I went in, but I considered myself a man when I came out.”

As for VE Day, Mr Patterson remembers exactly where he was. “I was doing patrols in the Pentland Firth,” he says. “U-Boats were surrendering, and one surrendered to us. We took it to Loch Eriboll in the north of Scotland. It was the first time I’d seen a U-Boat. I thought it looked sinister and bigger than I thought it would. It looked sinister because it was all enclosed. We knew at this point that the war was nearly over. Thereafter, we went back to Londonderry, then to Cardiff and we were paid off. It was finished.”

Except that it wasn’t – not for Jack Patterson, not for anyone. After finishing his duties in the Pentland Firth, Mr Patterson was sent to HMS Illustrious and to Colombo, via Malta and Bombay, and on to Singapore. “While en route to Singapore, the Americans dropped the atom bomb,” he says. “ We didn’t know the bomb had been dropped until we reached Singapore and that everything was over.”

After his time in the Navy, Mr Patterson worked as a postman but the war remains the most significant experience of his life. “To me, the Second World War was the most important thing that ever happened in my life,” he says, “along with the introduction of the National Health Service and the European Common Market.”

This is a constant theme of veterans’ experiences: the war transformed their lives and their time in the armed services was often happy, but they were happy too on VE Day, when the war in Europe was over. The historian Derek Patrick points out that people had been anticipating the end of the war for some time because of the collapse of the German forces and the advance of the Allies towards Berlin, and some people couldn’t wait to get the party started.

“People were anticipating it and wondered when do we actually begin to celebrate?” says Patrick. “And there were sporadic outbreaks of celebrations – in some of the smaller towns and villages, you find people celebrating early and jumping the gun a wee bit.” On May 7th, the day before VE Day, the fire service in Glasgow complained about being called out to some 70 or 80 bonfires. The service was worried about what would happened on VE Day itself.

As it happens, people were pretty well behaved. Some young people were arrested in Townhead on the 8th for stealing wood to feed bonfires but the celebrations in Glasgow were exuberant and peaceful. In Royal Exchange Square, a Dutch sailor climbed on top of the statue of the Duke of Wellington and did a mocking impersonation of Hitler. He also addressed the crowd and, in broken English, thanked the Scottish people for the brave part they had played in the liberation of his country.

And then it was over. The lights in George Square were turned off and people started to meander home. Hostilities had officially ended at one minute past midnight on May 8th and the party ended at half past one in the morning of May 10th. But Churchill was right when he said in his speech on VE Day that there was toil and efforts ahead. The war in the East would go on for several more months. And for people like Catherine Drummond, and Frank Coyle, and Jack Patterson, there was the struggle to return to normal. What they realised later was, after the war, normal had changed.

For more information on VE Day, visit learning.poppyscotland.org.uk/VEDay75. There is also information about hosting virtual VE Day parties at poppyscotland.org.uk/VEDayParty.