The Timber Industry

The Timber Industry

During World War I timber was essential to the war effort. At the Front the armies walked on timber, the lorries drove on timber and the railways needed timber. Ammunition was carried in wooden boxes, duckboards in the trenches were made of timber and it was wooden stakes that held the dreaded barbed wire in place. At home, make-shift training camps and prisoner of war huts relied on timber structures.

Not enough timber could be milled at home hence, initially, it was necessary to import timber to fulfil requirements. By 1917 submarine warfare had made the large scale movement of cargoes such as this very difficult and a national War Timber Commission was established to try to address the issue.

In Moray the timber industry was relatively healthy at the outbreak of war, and indeed Moray was the leading forestry area in Scotland. There was a variety of sawmills, for example, Jones & Sons, Buckie, who had set up a sawmill on the Fochabers Burn in 1913 and who would expand their yard in Buckie during the war.

In Elgin, Watsons was to prove vital to the local war effort, while in Forres, John McDonald & Company, previously Menzies, was able to secure Government contracts only to see its mill burnt to the ground in October 1916, a fire which almost set adjacent railway trucks ablaze. In addition, there were several local sawmills across Moray.

It is known that by 1916 women were working as foresters in Moray and by 1917 the pressing need for women in the timber industry was confirmed at a national level by the setting up of the Women’s Forestry Service as part of the Women’s Land Army.

However,  it is perhaps the Canadian Forestry Corps that best captures how the need for timber was addressed, with four camps being established in Moray between June 1917 and July 1918, with a further camp at Broadshaw on the Moray/Nairn Border, the timber worked there being in the Darnaway Estate of the Earl of Moray and on the Estate of Moyness, the property of the Earl of Cawdor.

On a Sunday early in June 1917 The Forres Gazette reported that "a party of about one hundred and fifty Canadian soldiers arrived at Forres by afternoon train". Their destination was Sluie near to the Forres to Grantown Road. "The unexpected incursion of the military caused a great deal of inconvenience in the town. With the assistance of the municipal authorities billets were found for the visitors and in the course of the evening the police had to intervene and induce shopkeepers to open their premises and supply necessary provisions".

That somewhat unfriendly welcome was forgotten and the Canadians established themselves as part of the Moray landscape with further camps at Knockando in November 1917, Orton in March 1918 and Scurrapool, again near Forres in July 1918, these camps being in area No.51 which stretched from Moray to the very north of Scotland.

Their output was impressive:

Broadshaw under 106 Company produced 758,287 cubic feet, Knockando also under 106 Company produced 399,520 cubic feet, Orton under 120 Company produced 538,517 cubic feet and Forres(Sluie) and Scurrapool both under 122 Company produced 599,918 and 166,459 cubic feet respectively.

Equally impressive are the structures they built to support their operations as evidenced in the pages of The Northern Scot Christmas Numbers.

The operation at Broadshaw, regarded as typical of the camps, was described by Rev C. W. Bird of the Timber Supply Department in a Government Report of 1919.  An extract is from the publication 'The Canadian Forestry Corps: its inception, development and achievements'. HMSO 1919 by CW Bird and JB Davies is included below.

Also impressive was the Canadians' determination to bring part of Canadian life to Moray as illustrated by the demonstration of baseball in the Cooper Park, Elgin, also involving some Americans.

The dramatically increased timber operations had adverse effects on Moray's roads, particularly those near to the sawmills and timber camps. In December 1917 The Forres Gazette reported that a meeting of the County Road Board, Mr Mackessack, Ardgay, presiding, had indicated that Mr Gray, representative of the National Road Board, had visited and found the roads in a poor state for timber traffic and had suggested that the Board might get German POWs to do the repair work. There is no indication that this was ever pursued!

While the influence of the Canadians on the timber industry was strong, also influential was the dramatically increased involvement of women, particularly in the sawmills, now regulated as Government sawmills.

Watson's Mill in New Elgin Road, was National Sawmilling Factory No. 5. In January 1918 The Elgin Courant reported that "women were now seen doing what has always been identified as purely men’s work". Indeed, the women sawmillers could be seen in trousers! Their day started at 7 a.m., their weekly wage being 23/6, with girls of 18 earning 15/- to 16/- a week. When qualified as 1st Class Workers women could earn 27/6 a week. Tellingly, the report concluded "the work is by no means child’s play".

Much more of the story of Moray’s timber industry during World War 1 needs to be researched and told, not least the story of the timber camps and the work of the women, but there is little doubt that it was vital both to the war effort and to the local economy.

If you have any knowledge of the timber industry in Moray during World War 1 or would like to become involved in researching that story please contact Moray’s War. 

Photographs courtesy of The Northern Scot.

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A temporary timber bridge constructed to cope with the heavy loads of timber moved from the estate of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon at Fochabers.
Transporting timber from Orton Camp.
Women working in a Morayshire Forest.
Staff of National Sawmilling Factory No 5, New Elgin.