The Chain Mail

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By George, we’re at war!


One hundred years ago, almost to the day, the whole of Great Britain was mobilised for war – a war that would devastate Europe and change its face for ever. Scotland’s most remote military and naval installations – among them the natural haven of Scapa Flow in Orkney – were plunged into intensive activity.

Fort George, on the Moray coast near Inverness, was a state-of-the-art military complex when completed in 1769, but it had never seen combat. The Jacobites it was designed to quell had been successfully suppressed, and the fort soon adopted a role as an infantry barracks and training centre – a role which continues to this day.

With the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, this role was rapidly stepped up. From 1913, there had also been a Royal Naval Air Station nearby, flying Wight Pusher seaplanes from the Moray Firth.

On Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 August, Fort George will play host to Historic Scotland’s annual Celebration of the Centuries event. This is a spectacular festival of living history, showcasing numerous distinct eras from Scotland’s colourful story.

Fort George comes to life

Fort George comes to life

As you might expect, this year’s event will focus on three important anniversaries: the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944, and the aforementioned outbreak of war.

Historic Scotland recently commissioned some research on the roles played by our monuments during World War I from Edinburgh-based researcher Allan Carswell. We thought it might be interesting to share with you some of his discoveries about Fort George.

1) Britain declared war on Germany on 28 July 1914. Within a week, reservists had been called in to bring the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Fort George up to its full strength: 1,000 men. They began leaving for France on 9 August.

2) By 6 August, the first prisoners of war had been received at the fort. They were 99 German and Dutch fishermen, whose vessels had been interned. Their numbers doubled within a week.

3) On 16 October 1914, the wife of the Argylls’ Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel H.P. Moulton-Barrett, posted an appeal for warm clothing for the troops in the Aberdeen Journal.

4) As troops were transported south towards the front, some were seen to have snow on their boots. The rumour spread that they had arrived from Russia. This appears to have been a mis-hearing of ‘Ross-shire’.

5) The 7th, 8th and 9th Battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders were formed at Fort George and soon sent off to France, where they arrived in summer 1915. All three fought in September and October at the Battle of Loos, where they suffered very heavy losses.

6) Fort George recruited throughout Moray, the Highlands and Orkney, but the War Office bureaucracy also delivered ‘unsuitable’ recruits from England. In September 1914, the arrival of 50 recruits from Nottingham led the Scottish Command to complain.

7) In December 1914, 500 Canadians of the newly formed Newfoundland Regiment arrived at the fort. They had previously been encamped at Salisbury Plain in southern England and found Fort George comfortable by comparison. They were said to be well-behaved and popular with the locals.

Private Cask at the Fort. Copyright Trustees of The Highlanders Museum

Private Cask at the Fort. Copyright Trustees of The Highlanders Museum

8) A Highland Gathering was held at the fort on 6 June 1915. Private Crask of the Seaforth Highlanders wrote home about it, insisting, ‘I have never had such a good time in my life.’

9) The front might seem distant but the war made its threats felt. In June 1915, at least three German U-boats (submarines) were sunk or captured in and around the Moray Firth.

10) After the Armistice in November 1918, the German fleet was interned at Scapa Flow. When 1,600 German sailors were sent south in June 1919, troops from Fort George were sent to guard them at Nigg in Easter Ross.

The replica SE5A biplane. Copyright Frank Grealish

The replica SE5A biplane. Copyright Frank Grealish

This year at Celebration of the Centuries spectators will be treated to a unique aerial display as a restored Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft, which took part in the D-Day landings, takes to the skies with a parachute team leaping from the aircraft. And that’s not all, a replica SE5A biplane will take part in the event as well. The plane – which was one of the fastest of its time – will fly over Fort George on both days of the event. We do hope you’ll join us!


About Author

Andrew Burnet

Andrew Burnet works in the Interpretation Unit at Historic Scotland and was the main author of Mary Was Here, about the travels of Mary Queen of Scots. His epic poem for children about Picts and Vikings has yet to find a publisher.

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