Rosalind Elder W.T.C #855

The "Lumberjills" of Scotland

(One of the stories from my book, Maples and Thistles)


It was the year 1942. The designated meeting place was “Under the Clock, Glasgow Central Station.” I was awaiting the arrival of the Forestry Commission representative who was to escort our group to a training camp in Brechin, Angus.  I had joined up only a week earlier and had no idea of what being a lumberjill in the Women’s Timber Corps. entailed.  A new experience I hoped.  What I did not realize was that I was going to work harder than I had ever dreamed possible. I was sixteen years old, but said I was seventeen and a half, no one questioned it, having passed the physical I was accepted. So...within a week I was on my way, I boarded the train with the other recruits with enthusiasm, but not without some apprehension.

Shandford Lodge Brechin, Angus

The training camp was in Brechin, Angus, a shooting lodge, a palatial home, obviously commandeered for the duration of the war. On arrival at Shandford Lodge, (Left) we were shown to our quarters, army huts with army cots, rough grey blankets, and outdoor toilets. The staff occupied the Lodge, our orientation took place in the dining room of the lodge, but other than eating meals there, we never entered. We were sub sequentially issued with black leather boots, overalls, uniforms, and of course, Wellington boots and a sou’wester. 
Time was of the essence, and none was wasted on preliminaries, training began in the morning so were advised to get as much sleep as possible. Scrambling around in a wooden hut washing and dressing in the cold damp November weather was something we had to get accustomed to. At first light, we clambered aboard an open lorry, and were shipped off to the woods, to begin our first day as foresters.

It was something of a shock when handed a six-pound axe and shown how to “lay-in” a tree.  With a short demonstration on the use of the same, demonstrations on the felling, snedding and the loading of tractors and trucks followed.  Crosscutting and the use of the bowman saw, levers, cant hooks and all the tools of the trade. Around noon we were issued with a cheese, or grated carrot between two slices of bread, we boiled billycans of water on an open bush fire to make our own tea. 
At 5 p.m., we were advised that dinner awaited us back at the camp, and that as we were only two miles away, we should start walking.  Most of the girls had huge blisters on their heels from the new boots; I decided to carry mine over my shoulder, walking the entire way in my socks.  Eventually we toughened up and proved that we could handle the job, by the end of the month’s training we were tossing logs, felling trees, cross-cutting logs and loading vehicles. I had elected to become a horsewoman; an old Irish man was the trainer, and in no time I was handling horses like I’d been doing it all my life. Several of the others became tractor and lorry drivers, but the majority were fellers, crosscutters, loaders, and measurers.  Being a horse-woman or teamster was the most arduous job of all, running behind a horse dragging trees was risky as well as dangerous as the others were felling trees all around me.  I had to be quick on my feet, and if the horse didn’t move fast enough I’d decided that I was not going to hang about.
Training completed, we were dispersed throughout the countryside to various forestry camps, I was sent to a new one in the Highlands, in the village of Advie, Morayshire. It was a cold snowy day in December when we alighted from the train at Advie station.  On the siding we noticed a row of empty flat cars waiting to be loaded, we guessed who would be providing the timber.  Fortunately, several of my friends were also assigned to the same place, by this time we had formed compatible friendships, and made sure to get camp beds alongside one another in the same hut. Our camp was set up in a field far from civilization; about forty of us shared two long wooden huts.  The ablution shed was in the centre, reached by a long duckboard.  A dining hut and cookhouse made up the remainder of our new home.
It was rugged, draughty and most uncomfortable, our only source of heat was a cast iron stove, which we stoked until it was red hot. We were told that our work was vital to the War effort, but this did not reflect in the treatment we received after the war when we were denied recognition as a service.  We numbered 6,900 members in the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps. in the U.K.  No change of occupation was permitted, nor transfers into what was considered the Senior Services.  Our uniforms were not ours to keep; we returned them after the war. 

Throughout the war, we were underpaid and most of it that was deducted for our food and lodgings, in wooden huts with no plumbing, or creature comforts! We were expected to produce enough timber to supply wood for props for the mines telegraph poles, blocks for roads, masts for ships, sleepers for railways, ladders, newsprint, gun mats and even crosses for graves for servicemen. We worked in all kinds of weather to do this, wielding a six-pound axe. I had been a junior in a public library in Glasgow, with prospects of moving up to assistant librarian.  I also found the lack of decent reading material a real hardship.  One of the girls had a phonograph, her favourite singer was Tony Martin, and I memorized lyrics to his songs whether I wanted to or not. We entertained ourselves as best we could; it was a drastic change from life in a big city.  The girl who owned the phonograph left on sick leave and later died of T.B.  One other girl took an overdose of aspirins and was taken to hospital, but was back in the woods the following Monday.

We had quite a number of unfortunate incidents; some of the girls got pregnant and had to be sent home, lots of hasty weddings.  British, Canadian, and Newfoundlanders surrounded our camp, needless to say, this created problems, and with not enough girls to go around, they often fought over us. Especially at the dances held weekly by the locals in their village halls.   We learned to dance reels, strathspeys and jigs in no time, it was a sight to behold the Canadians and Newfoundlanders doing the eightsome reels, strip the willow was a favourite of theirs, they could really let themselves go then, whooping and hollering.  No drink was allowed of course, but the troops had caches of it hidden outdoors in the bushes I expect.

We soon found that “Mr. Coutts’s Jubilee Band ” was a far cry from “Joe Loss and his Orchestra.” Eventually, we formed out own concert group.  I took part in a number of skits and sang in the choir.  We made many friends among the boys from the Canadian Forestry Corp, and the Newfoundland Forestry Unit. My particular job as a horsewoman was strenuous, after the lumberjills had felled the trees, I would move in with the horse, tie a chain around the bole of the tree and attach it to the swingle bar.  Then, leading the horse through brush and around stumps, deliver the tree to the girls in the clearing.
Here the trees were cut into mill logs, pit props, telegraph poles and pulpwood, crosscut and loaded. I worked mainly with Belgian breed horses, Clydesdales, and a Highland Garron named Tommy, he bolted one day and ended up in a bog.  It took four men most of the day to dig him out.  One of the Belgians named Nancy had a bad habit of swinging her rear hoof, kicking out for no reason.  On the way to the stables, we passed the local post office, when the postmistress’s dog barked at her heels she kicked him and broke his leg. After that, none of us wanted to work with her, so an Italian prisoner was assigned Nancy, which proved to be a good choice as she behaved better for him  My quota was about sixty trees a day, five and a half days a week.  In the summer, we worked until 6 p.m., until dusk in the winter.  We Scots were given New Year’s Day off in lieu of Christmas and Boxing Day; our annual leave was one week, the other services received 28 days. It was not long enough to go anywhere to rest up or recuperate.

There were several accidents of course, forestry being one of the most dangerous occupations.  My friend lost the top of the finger of her right hand, and was unable to dress or take care of herself for some time. I helped when I wasn’t in the woods, but mainly she just hung about camp until it healed sufficiently to return to work.  Our half-day off was on a Saturday, we hopped on our bicycles and rode the ten miles to the nearest town for an afternoon at the pictures, a snack in the cafe, then on to the local dance. We danced every dance!  Jitter -bugged and waltzed to the music of the Canadian Forestry Band, they were terrific! We rode our bicycles home after the dance, another 10 miles at least.  The night ride along the quiet, dark country roads was an adventure in itself.  It was eerie!  the sound of scurrying in the bushes, owls hooting and small animals squealing.  It was worse on a bright moonlight night when the trees cast weird shadows. We covered those roads at break neck speeds, and being city raised made no attempt to investigate the strange noises.

I was quite happy being outdoors all summer long, tanned and healthy.  I particularly enjoyed the beautiful scenery of my native land, watching the golden eagles fly over the heather hills, seeing the morning mist lift from the mountain tops on my way into the woods.  In the spring, we heard the cuckoo call echoing across the valley.  Early mornings found me up at dawn, shoveling out the stables, feeding, watering and grooming the horses before starting work; it was no fun in the winter.  Falling out of bed, going through the creepy old churchyard on the way to the stables with my paraffin lamp held aloft was scary, especially through the graveyard.

However, when I reached the age of 17 and a half I decided that it was time to join the W.A.A.F.  As I was now of age to do so, I traveled to Inverness to the recruiting office to enroll? After interviews and medicals I was accepted, I was delighted and looked forward to joining a senior service. When I informed the W.L.A.T.C.  that I would be transferring they refused to allow the transfer as they considered my work essential to the war effort and that I was of more value there than anything I could do in the W.A.A.F.  They won their case and I was forced to continue on in the Timber Corp until the war ended.   I was promoted to leader-girl, the only “rank” in the W.T.C. I wore a special badge on my sleeve, and received an extra 10 shillings, I smile when I remember my whistle and alarm clock.

We had Italian and German prisoners-of-war working beside us, the Italians used to sit on a pile of logs at lunch-break, singing “O Sole Mio,” as though their hearts would break, all they ever wanted was to go home to sunny Italy and make love, so they told us. My job was to ensure that they and the others did not linger over their break periods; the prisoners found it highly amusing when I blew my wee whistle to signal their return to work.

When the war in Europe finally ended, we were engaged primarily in thinning out trees, we were not released then, and the Corps was not disbanded until 1950.  A number of us were preparing to marry our overseas fiancés, this allowed us to leave the Land Army Timber Corps.  It was eight months after the war before I was demobbed, and then only because I married an overseas serviceman.  Contrary to popular belief the Timber Corps and the Land Army farm personnel  were not interchangeable, neither one could perform the duties of the other without further training, which of course, would be an expenditure that the department would not consider. We were transferred to Loch Striven, in Argyleshire, clearing the forests in Toward, burning brush and thinning again.  By this time, I was strictly a measurer or scaler as it is called nowadays.

From Dunoon we could travel to Glasgow by steamer; this of course, meant an eight-mile cycle trip to the nearest bus stop, and afforded those of us who originated from Glasgow a one-day visit, and was well worth the effort... I have fond memories of my Women’s Timber Crops days, and when I reminisce, I think of sunshine, laugher, the scent of freshly cut wood and the voices of the lumberjills calling .......  




Copyright © R. Elder May 2007


In Scotland, "You can still hear the wind whispering in the trees"