Gilmour and Susan Strang. – Submitted photo, Wreckhouse Press Inc. Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Gilmour and Susan Strang, from Scotland, are being recognized for their volunteer work, recording details of and cleaning the headstones of war heroes, and because of their tireless efforts, they have received the prestigious Spotlight Awards from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).Founded in 1917, the CWGC works on behalf of the governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom to commemorate the 1.7 million individuals who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars.

Their mission is to ensure that those who lost their lives are properly commemorated and remembered forever, and the CWGC has cemeteries, memorials, graves, landscapes, and records in their care in over 150 countries and territories, at 23,000 locations. For the Strangs, volunteering in this capacity was a natural progression.

“We’re both from Glasgow, which is where men of the Newfoundland Foresters landed at first,” said Susan. “So we were brought up in the city and then moved further and further north into the countryside, and I think my interest in graves came about with my interest in family history. Where do people come from? My mother had to leave her home during the Second World War because the Nazis arrived, and she had to leave, so there was always a connection.”

“My involvement is slightly similar. Susan’s mother ran away from Jersey when it was overrun and met her father in the RAF in the UK. And my father landed in Normandy and walked all his way up to Hamburg, where he then met my mother, who was living in Hamburg and had lived through the bombing, etcetera,” said Gilmour.

The Strangs are responsible for 13 cemeteries across Cairngorms National Park, encompassing 69 headstones, and they document the conditions of the graves by taking photos, and clean them by hand if required. The process of caring for these graves doesn’t take as long for them as it would for someone tasked with the responsibility of a larger cemetery.

“We could have been landed with a big cemetery in Inverness that’s got, I mean, one cemetery, has got over 100 of what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission calls scattered graves. These aren’t big, long military plots, but are sort of individual gravestones that are scattered through the cemetery. We’ve got, well, we’ve got one cemetery that’s got one grave. In fact, we’ve got two cemeteries that have got one grave,” said Gilmour.

“We are blessed that the Scottish gravestones are made of granite, which is really hard and it doesn’t stain. We’ve got some people who’ve got the limestone stones, and if they’re under a tree, they can go green in no time, which they need to scrub off.”

Cleaning the stones is a delicate process.

“The ones that are Commonwealth War Graves Commission stones, we are allowed to clean, but only with water, so no chemicals. It’s mostly just bird droppings or moss, so that’s not difficult,” said Susan.

“The other thing we have to check is that you can read whose grave it is. So if that becomes illegible, that’s something we would report to the Commission and they would then arrange for somebody to come out and make sure that the name is repainted, so that anybody coming to the grave can read it. We also make sure that the grass roundabout has been cut so that, again, you can read what’s said on it. We are very lucky in that our local council, they cut the grass in our cemeteries, so we are very lucky in Scotland. It doesn’t happen in England.”

“The Church of Scotland graveyards are all looked after by the local authority of the council, whereas in England they’re all meant to be looked after by the church,” added Gilmour. “And of course, the church, in a lot of cases, haven’t got the staff and the volunteers, and some of the pictures we see from the south, the grass, and the brambles, the blackberries are huge.”

“Our task is quite straightforward and we visit the graves about every four to six months, so sometimes in the winter that’s more difficult, but none of them are very far from where we live, so we choose the weather and go,” said Susan.

Among the graves that Gilmour and Susan are responsible for are the graves of the fifteen Newfoundland men who came to Scotland with the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit in WWII.

“They’re quite interesting, the graves. The stones all seem to have been paid for by their colleagues. So, unlike if they had served in the army or the air force or the navy, the government would have paid for their stone, these men’s stones have been paid for by their colleagues and often it says that at the foot of the stone,” said Susan.

“Some of them are quite of a similar style. Some are quite individual and they’re quite small. I think every man has his own grave, apart from in one cemetery where there are two remembered on one stone.”

Just because the stones are in a particular location doesn’t mean that’s where the men were actually buried. 

“None of them died in situations of conflict or it would seem, felling trees. A lot were accidents, but I know there was one man who died in Edinburgh and he was brought here to the Highlands to be buried beside his fellow colleagues,” said Susan.

“There are some records of who carried the coffin at funerals. Sometimes it was men from their home area or their hometown. Records are very sketchy. So the few that are there where they’re named, it’s very interesting, and it’s interesting for the people back home to know that their family took part in the service.”

Currently Susan is assisting an author who is planning a book about these loggers.

“The author, who’s associated with the Southwest Arm Historical Society, plans his next book to be about those loggers who did not return home. So that’s his plan and what I’ve been trying to do is gather the photographs for him. Unfortunately, like Newfoundland, our weather is often wet and green, but we’re doing our best to get a reasonable photograph, so that should he get to the point of getting his book together, that record will be easy for me to send to him,” said Susan.

“This is with the publishers at the moment, getting all the photographic work and everything set up as it should be for printing. I think what he’s found with the foresters, because there are little or no records, I think a lot of his information is oral. So he goes to meet families and he gets them to get the shoe box out with the black and white photographs and tries to get them talking about what they know so that oral record isn’t lost. I think that’s his real aim. He was an interesting contact that I met through Facebook during the COVID lockdown, because I knew nothing about these Newfoundland loggers until I met them in the cemeteries, and I thought, ‘oh, well, maybe somebody out there would be interested’. So that was really how the link was made.”

In 2016, the Strangs embarked on a project to visit the graves of every man named on their town war memorial. To date they have visited the graves of 58 of the 60 named, and their journey has taken them to France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and Lossiemouth. 

“They were from the First World War, the 60, and something like 50 per cent of the men in the town, because it’s quite a small town, enlisted and served within the war,” said Susan.

“We managed to visit 58 of the graves or memorials because most of them fell in Belgium and France and across actually quite a small area.”

“It’s remarkable how little driving you have to do between, shall we say, north, southeast and west of the cemeteries where they’re buried,” said Gilmour. “It’s a very concentrated area, which kind of brings it home to you just how intensive it was.”

“And we are now trying to visit all the graves of the 34 Newfoundland men who died and are buried here in Scotland and in the north of England. So I think we have 33 now. I think we just have one more to visit,” added Susan.

The couple were surprised, but proud, to win the Spotlight Award.

“We’re not really out there waving our flag. We just go about things quietly. So it was a bit of a surprise I suppose,” said Susan. “We were very honored to be part of a launch of the charitable arm of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.”

Neither Susan or Gilmour have any plans of slowing down.

“I’m still asking people, ‘have you got any records about men from Newfoundland who came here?’ Because sometimes you get surprising answers. Sometimes people go ‘What? Newfoundland?’ Because the other interesting thing about them was 700 of them formed the home guard at Inverness, and they were the only home guard in the United Kingdom made up of a foreign group of people, and I feel there must be some record somewhere, apart from just the fact that they marched on the day they disbanded. Because I think a lot of these men spent a lot of their off-duty time, in terms of when they weren’t logging or training to be part of the home guard should the German forces arrive on our beaches. Somewhere there’s some lost story that I’ll keep just quietly digging and asking about. I just think it’s a job never done, really.”

“Also, I think the confusion or the difficulty was that when the Second World War dead were being buried and commemorated, Newfoundland, of course, was sort of transferring from a dominion to a province of Canada, and I can imagine that, shall we say, the civil servants and the state officials had other things on their mind besides trying to work out whether these people should or shouldn’t be properly commemorated. I imagine that fell well down the to do list, unfortunately,” said Gilmour.

“I think that’s what my friend with the Southwest Arm (Historical Society) was trying to do with his new memorial, which, if you look up a picture of it, it’s quite interesting because it was about all who served. I think there was only one from his area that served. So it was about, I suppose, as you come up to the first of July, it’s about remembering everybody who served, not just in the military. So I think that’s the bit where we shouldn’t lose in all of this.”

By Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 19, 2023 at 06:00

This item reprinted with permission from    Wreckhouse Weekly News    Port aux Basques, Newfoundland
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