From Record of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper
In last month’s article about the Stronsay Boy Scouts, I mentioned the role that James Sinclair Gorie of Clestrain played in the formation of the Stronsay troop of Scouts.
After spending much of his life in South Africa, Jim Gorie returned to his native Stronsay to retire at Hazelbank. With the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers in May 1940, he was called into service once more as officer in charge of the Stronsay Local Defence Volunteers, later to become the Home Guard. It was this involvement with the Home Guard that jogged my memory and brought to mind a rather strange event that occurred more than fifty years after the end of the war and the disbanding of the Home Guard.
As a little bit of background information, Jim Gorie moved to Kirkwall in October 1941 and my wife’s grandfather Jim Chalmers, who had served in the 1st World War, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and took over as officer in charge of the platoon, a role which he held until the Home Guard was disbanded in 1945.
Jim Chalmers bought the farm of the Lodge and moved there in 1945, farming there until the property was taken over by his son Bobby in 1962. It was then bought by Arna and I when Bobby retired in 1991. In May 1997 we decided we were going to build a silage pit at the Lodge and, to get the site ready, we had to remove a couple of small concrete sheds which had been erected by Jim Chalmers soon after he had bought the farm. These sheds had been used for keeping hens and pigs, both of which had been so important to the farming economy for many years, but the sheds were now redundant.
Robert Rendall, who worked at Midgarth with us for over forty years and stayed in the farmhouse at the Lodge after we bought it, was dispatched with a digger to demolish these old buildings and get the site ready for the new building and all seemed to be going smoothly and according to plan. Then came a phone call from Robert to tell me that demolition had come to a standstill as he had decided it wasn’t safe. When asked what the problem was, he told me I had better come over and have a look so off I went, wondering what could have happened. On arrival I found that Robert had pulled up the concrete foundations of the shed with the digger only to discover several hundred rounds of .303 ammunition, still in their cardboard boxes, arranged neatly in the bottom of the trench where the concrete foundations had been poured many years before! After much debate about what we could do with this, we decided we had better call the police to report this find and see what they would advise us to do. They seemed surprisingly uninterested and told us they would come along and have a look next time they were out in the island, and maybe take it away for disposal! Knowing nothing about ammunition and how stable it would be after lying for a long time, we weren’t sure what the next step should be and certainly didn’t want to risk hitting it with the bucket of the digger!
As we could do nothing more with site preparations until the ammunition was moved, we decided that it would have to be shifted from there and gingerly gathered it all up and put it in a five gallon drum, which it almost filled! We then topped the drum up with sand and set it aside to await future inspection and collection by the police.
Jim Chalmers, Arna’s grandad, had passed away by this time and her father Bobby knew nothing about where this ammunition came from or how it came to be buried under the foundations of a shed. On thinking back to some of the stories about the Home Guard previously related by Arna’s grandad, we could only surmise what may have happened. As the officer in charge of the unit, Jim Chalmers would also have been in charge of the ammunition and, when the Home Guard was demobilised, would have had to return all the rounds that had been issued. Being the army, I’m sure every round would have had to have been accounted for. I believe the issue was fifty rounds per man, of which a maximum of ten rounds could be used for practice.
As target practice was one of the more interesting and competitive parts of the Home Guard training, I understand that extra ammunition was sometimes obtained from some of the armed fishing boats and cargo boats that called in along Stronsay, who were quite happy to exchange a few boxes of cartridges for some milk, eggs or butter. As this practise would have been highly illegal, both from the point of view of the seamen handing over ammunition and from the locals handing over produce which should have been rationed, this ammunition would have had to remain very much ‘off the record’. It obviously couldn’t be returned to stores and, as the Home Guard’s .303 rifles had by now been returned, the ammunition couldn’t be used.
This would have become something of a concern and embarrassment for Jim as it would have been highly illegal to be holding this ammunition and it would also be very difficult to account for where it came from in the first place. The problem he was now faced with was how to dispose of this ammunition quietly, safely and permanently. With new sheds being constructed at the Lodge, it would have seemed an ideal opportunity to dispose of the surplus under the foundations, never to be seen again and no one any the wiser. He would never have dreamt that these boxes would see the light of day once more over fifty years later!
The drum containing the ammunition stood in the yard at the Lodge for months and it seems it had been completely forgotten about. Then one day a police officer called along Robert at the Lodge to check his shotgun licence and was quite surprised, to say the least, to have a drum full of ammunition set in the boot of his police car and to be told to take that back to Kirkwall with him! What became of it then I have no idea, but it may still be gathering dust in a ‘lost property’ office somewhere!
This article first appeared in the Stronsay Limpet – many thanks to them for permission to republish in The Orkney News.