Case Study: Skibo A: investigation of a WWII Canadian Forestry camp

Susan Kruse

The Canadian Forestry Company was active in the Highlands during World War I and World War II, bringing not only lumberjacks to the Highlands but also shipping over their own sawmills, believing the traditional ‘Scotch mill’ to be inferior. Wood was needed in wartime, in part for pitprops for mines, but also for shoring of trenches in WWI (Bird and Davies 1919; Wonders 1991).

The remains of these forestry camps tend to be ephemeral, as most buildings were constructed of wood. However, in the case of a camp near Loch Migdale in Sutherland it has been possible to link documentary evidence, oral history and remains on the ground to reconstruct one sawmill and camp. This work emerged from memories collected as part of the Woodland Trust’s Ledmore and Migdale Wood project (Kruse 2014).

There were three camps in the area, Skibo A at the eastern end of Loch Migdale (MHG60882), Skibo B on the Achue Road, and Skibo C at Clashmore (MHG60883). Each site had a hall where dances were held, attended by Canadians and locals. Documentary sources provide information on the units stationed at these camps and their output (Wonders 1991). Local memories identified the sites of the accommodation and the sawmill at Skibo A (see Kruse 2014).

At the accommodation area, near the end of the loch, no buildings survive, but there are platforms where wooden structures were probably located. The only remains are septic pits.

The area further down the path towards Spinningdale where the sawmill was located is currently (October 2020) an activity area for the Woodland Trust. There remains of the operation were investigated by two community groups, ARCH and NoSAS (Coombs and Kruse 2021). The memories of Hamish Matheson about the similar sawmill at Skibo B gave an indication of what to look for on the ground.

Logs were hauled to the area from the surrounding forests. A lade from a small burn was constructed to create a pond; the dam on the burn can still be traced, as well as remains of shoring where the pond was located. Remains of a timber bridge can be discerned where the lorries crossed to get to the pond. From the end of the pond is a small slope where logs were hauled up towards the sawmill. The concrete base of the mill is under moss and turf; its foundation is difficult to interpret, although someone with specialist knowledge might be able to shed light on this. The mill is likely to have been multiple storeys and built of wood, as shown by photos of Canadian mills elsewhere. Near the mill are lines of undulating turf which are remains of a large number of railway sidings, clearly visible on a 1946 aerial photograph, along with huge mounds of sawdust (see Coombs and Kruse 2021). The cut timber would have been moved around the site on bogies, until placed on lorries at a loading site which can also be identified on the ground, and then transported by road, probably to the railway at Dornoch or Ardgay.

Old photo of logs piled up in front of the sawmill.
Skibo A Canadian Sawmill
Part of the concrete foundations that have had the turf and moss removed.
Skibo A sawmill foundations.

The concrete foundation of a square building is visible near the area where timber was exported; this may be a guard hut. Other possible foundations could be discerned for other buildings. The sawmill is likely to have had a canteen area (unless workers used one in the camp near the loch), shelter for rain, storehouses, perhaps latrines and a small smithy. Two middens also survived, added to after the camp was deserted, yielding a range of bottles, ironwork and a spittoon.

The site is important in providing an idea of the layout of a typical camp, to aid identification of sites elsewhere. It also shows the value of combining memories with documentary evidence and physical remains. Although only investigated in 2015, some key informants have unfortunately passed away. Memories of other CFC sites (and indeed World War II remains) should be collected as a matter of priority. It also illustrates the necessity for small community projects to publish results. Information about the project was not carried forward on the Woodland Trust website upgrade.

Further information

Coombs, Anne and Kruse, Susan 2021 ‘Skibo A Canadian Forestry Camp. Results of a survey undertaken by NoSAS and ARCH 2014-2015’ (attached to MHG60882).

Kruse, Susan 2014 ‘Ledmore and Migdale memories’ (available from the ARCH website in the ARCH Projects folder, Ledmore and Migdale Woods folder)