Case Study: An archaeology of the Newfoundland diaspora

Based on Sneddon 2007

The continuation of timber supplies was a significant concern for the British authorities during the Second World War. Timber was needed for construction, to furnish pit props for coal mines, for railway sleepers and telegraph poles, but there was a shortage of labour within Britain due to the war and there were also significant dangers associated with the importation of timber by sea. The approach adopted in these circumstances was to create the Women’s Timber Corps and to import forestry labour in the form of military forest corps from Australia, New Zealand and Canada and civilian units from Canada and from British Honduras (now Belize).

A black and white postcard showing a cluster of long and low rectangular camp buildings set within an upland landscape of rough ground and rock outcrops

Cairnbaan instructional camp, previously a labour camp in the 1930s, which was used by the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit (NOFU) for a while during the war. Temporary homes associated with forestry were present throughout Scotland, with the forest bothy a recurring feature of forests the length and breadth of the country. There is a considerable archival and archaeological resource relating to the use of forestry, and the Forestry Memories Project provides a useful guide in this regard: Image of Cairnbaan (JV-A5445) reproduced courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library

Between 1939 and 1945, 3,400 men came from Newfoundland in Canada to work here as foresters. The headquarters of the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit (NOFU) was in Edinburgh and the Unit operated at least 71 logging camps and related sawmills across mainland Scotland. The majority of these camps didn’t exist before the Unit’s arrival and had to be constructed for the purpose. Typically, the camps were constructed from wood, with concrete bases for some of the buildings. The structures included bunkhouses, a cookhouse, a dining hall, a recreation hut/canteen and the ‘fore peak’ where the camp foreman and his clerk and tallymen would work; there might also be stables, tractor sheds and other outbuildings. Extending out from the camp would be the sawmills and the roads, light gauge railways and other aspects of the logging infrastructure.

One of biggest and longest operating NOFU forests was Strathmashie, near Laggan in the Highlands, where there were at least five camps and two sawmills.  Today, Strathmashie Forest is managed as a partnership between the Forestry Commission Scotland and Laggan Forest Trust, a community development trust.  In 2005, Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division collaborated with Laggan Heritage to undertake a programme of desk-based research and archaeological survey and excavation in the Forest, with a particular focus on features associated with the NOFU presence there during the war.

Twenty-five sites of potential NOFU origin were identified, including camps, sawmills and transportation infrastructure.  The camps survive as tracks, platforms for buildings (the timber superstructures having gone) and other features.  In some places they are remarkably well preserved, in others they are more ephemeral and have been subject to greater subsequent development.  Trial excavations on a number of these sites demonstrated that excavation can identify evidence sufficient to determine the character and function of individual buildings and features and they showed that there is great potential for recovering evidence of the material trappings of daily life in the camps, not least in camp middens.  Analysis of the domestic accommodation can be combined with work on the logging and processing locations, as well as on the connecting infrastructure, to build up a rounded picture of life as a NOFU forester in the war years.  And this can be combined with the study of local graveyards, where headstones commemorate those who died during the brief stay here.

This mundane archaeology – concrete platforms, toothpaste tubes and ceramic cups, paths, tracks and forest railways – witnesses the working and living conditions, the tasks and routines of this short-lived Newfoundland ‘diaspora’.  It exemplifies the  archaeology of modern diasporas within Scotland.

Return to Section 3.3 Diasporas

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