Flying the Red Cross flag and protecting the local economy: Dunrobin and the Sutherland estate in wartime

Neil Bruce considers another aspect of wartime in the Highlands when temporary hospitals were established to increase the capacity of the health service. In World War One, Dunrobin Castle was ‘re-purposed’: initially envisaged as a major surgical hospital, it provided convalescence care until devasted by fire. Neil also looks at how the estate maintained the income of those of its employees who enlisted, a precursor to the job retention scheme during the Covid-19 pandemic, concluding with a final comparison between lockdown in early 2020 and wartime restrictions.

Around noon on Sunday, 13 June 1915, fire broke out within the Duke of Sutherland’s northern seat, Dunrobin Castle. News spread worldwide: within two days, Melbourne’s Argus reported ‘the fusing on an electric wire’ had caused its partial destruction.[1] An off-duty nurse, woken by the smell of smoke, raised the alarm and the estate’s fire brigade turned-out.[2] Realising flames threatened the oldest part of the building, Fire-master Horne, the estate’s architect, instructed the roof be cut to prevent fire spreading.[3] Newspapers reported that wounded soldiers were evacuated to safety.[4]

Dunrobin Castle

Two days following the declaration of war in 1914, the Duke offered Dunrobin to the Admiralty as a naval hospital and his yacht, ‘S Y Catania’ to transport the injured there. The castle was initially designated as the North Sea Fleet’s central surgical hospital.[5] In what today might be called a ‘whole system approach’, the Duke advertised for volunteer nurses and doctors as its staff.[6] However, wartime exigencies soon resulted in Dunrobin receiving both army and naval personnel to convalesce.[7] Within a month, ‘Catania’ was armed and on active service with the fleet, captained by the Duke with the rank of temporary Lieutenant-Commander, RNR.[8]

The Duke encouraged his estate employees to enlist, pledging that their pre-war income would be ‘made up’ if their service pay was lower.[9] This appears to have been influential in encouraging individuals to ‘join the colours’: eight months after war broke-out the Northern Times reported that the Duke had ‘paid hundreds of pounds’ to those on active service.[10]

Local efforts to save the castle’s occupants and contents were reinforced by the 2/5th Seaforth Highlanders, camping nearby.[11] Inverness burgh fire brigade arrived by special train, joining Ardross estate’s fire engine, Cromarty’s naval fire brigade and a party landed from a destroyer.[12] Lieutenant Liddell, leading the Seaforths sustained deep cuts when the roof gave way and he fell through a skylight.[13] The Sutherland’s family physician, Dr Simpson gave Liddell first aid, subsequently treating him at nearby Lawson Memorial Hospital.[14] Two naval men, Petty Officer Jones and  Able Seaman Reynolds, fell from a fire escape: they and an unnamed corporal, a wounded patient suffering smoke inhalation, were also admitted to hospital.[15] Alerted by telegraph, the Duke, Duchess and family members who were elsewhere on the estate, returned to find the fire had taken hold.[16]

The castle’s ‘new wing’, built between 1845 and 1851, was destroyed in ten hours.[17] When its tower collapsed, the large Red Cross flag which had ‘bade defiance to the flames’ fell.[18] After the fire was finally doused the following morning, insurance assessors were on site to assess the full extent of the damage to the building and its contents.[19] Dunrobin’s role as a hospital in World War One was over: a new ‘new north wing’ was built between 1917 and 1919.[20]

Photo: Permission given by photographer.

When World War Two broke out in 1939, the castle resumed its hospital role.[21] In August 1942, the Duke of Kent’s body was brought there: he and all, bar one onboard an RAF Sunderland plane which crashed near Dunbeath were killed. His body was ‘dressed’ by nursing staff and the local doctor, Dr Bertie Simpson, whose father attended to those injured during the fire in 1915.[22] The arrival and departure of the Duke’s body, and subsequent ‘flying’ visit of King George VI to the castle’s hospital were cloaked in official secrecy.[23]

Through this series of posts, what has been striking are the similarities between official and other responses during wartime and the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. In each instance, governments regulated the lives of individuals and community life for the common good, potentially curtailing their rights, liberties, wellbeing and incomes. The success of the respective regulations in force is measurable by the extent the population observed or attempted to circumvent them. One noticeable difference in March 2020 when ‘lockdown’ began, though, was that rural communities led government and other official bodes in actively discouraging those who sought remoteness. In the Highlands this created de facto ‘protected areas’, very different to those officially imposed in wartime.


[1] Argus (Melbourne, Australia), 15 June 1915, 7. Newspapers worldwide reported the fire, including the New York Times, 14 June 1915, 16 and the Colonist (Nelson, New Zealand), 15 June 1915, 5. The Press Association and other London-based news agencies telegraphed the story. The Tasmanian Daily Telegraph headed its article ‘General War Cables’ which suggests it had past official scrutiny, Daily Telegraph, 15 June 1915, 5.

[2] Northern Times, 19 June 2015, One hundred years ago: 17 June 1915, https://www.northern-times.co.uk/news/from-our-june-19th-edition-158931/ accessed 8 September 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The patients were taken to an hotel in Golspie. The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6. Within a day, soldiers were transferred to the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V. A. D.) hospital at Ivybank, Nairn. The Scotsman, 17 June 1915, 9.

[5] Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1914, 3; The Scotsman, 7th August 1914, 6. The Northern Times carried the same story on 13 August, from Read All About It! The Highlands and Islands during World War One project https://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/1887/1/EN1887-dunrobin-castle-as-a-naval-hospital.htm accessed 7 September 2020.

[6] Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1914, 3. Volunteer medical staff were invited to contact the Duke at 35 Parliament Street, London, S W. He also encouraged those with ‘country houses’ on the East and South-East coasts, and around London to obtain expert advice as to how they could be made suitable as hospitals and for convalescence. The Scotsman, 8 August 1914, 9.

[7] John O’Groat Journal, 26 March 1915, reported the arrival of 19 soldiers from Scottish regiments, to recuperate under the care of ‘two professional nurses … and several local ladies’, from Read All About It: The Highlands and Islands during World War One project https://www.ambaile.org.uk/en/asset/show_zoom_window_popup_img.html?asset=43593 accessed 25 September 2020.

[8] Northern Times, 17 September 1914, from Read All About It! The Highlands and Islands during World War One project; Dear, I., The Royal Yacht Squadron 1815-1985, Appendix 2: Members’ yachts and their use in the First World War.https://www.rys.org.uk/assets/documents/appendix-2-ww1-yachts.pdf accessed 25 September 2020. The Duke’s captaincy was temporary, prior to his taking-up an army commission.

[9] Northern Times, 100 years ago (22 April 1915), 24 April 2015, https://www.northern-times.co.uk/news/from-our-24th-april-edition-160400/ accessed 24 August 2020. The Northern Times referred to both ‘every man in his employment’, and the ducal family’s employees: it has not been possible to confirm whether female employees were compensated for any detriment to their take-home pay.

[10] Ibid.

[11] It was reported that 800 soldiers and 200 locals were involved in fighting the fire and recovering property. The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6. Liddell was an ordained Church of Scotland minister who had joined-up four months previously. The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 4.

[12] Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7; The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6, 9. The Guardian advised that both Inverness and Ardross fire brigades arrived on the same train, whereas The Scotsman reported the Ardross fire engine arrived separately.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Scotsman, 14 June 1915, 6. The newspaper called Liddell, ‘Wilde’.

[15] Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7; The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 4.

[16] The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 3.

[17] Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7.

[18] The Scotsman, 15 June 1915, 4.

[19] Ibid; estate papers relating to the fire and rebuilding of the castle are within the Sutherland estate papers, National Library of Scotland, Acc.10853, (661 – 699). Many antiques and pictures which were saved suffered water damage, Manchester Guardian, 14 June 1915, 7.

[20] Sir Robert Lorimer’s firm was employed to undertake the redesign work. See University of Edinburgh, Special collections, Coll-27 (Gen.1963/58), Papers of Sir Robert Stoddart Lorimer, Files on Dunrobin and Woodhall / Juniper Green, Edinburgh.  

[21] https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/83/a5839383.shtml accessed 27 September 2020; http://www.historyofhighlandhospitals.com/index.asp?pageid=697271 accessed 27 September 2020.

[22] Caithness at war: week 156, 24-30 August 1942, https://www.highlifehighland.com/nucleus-nuclear-caithness-archives/caithness-at-war-week-156/ accessed 29 September 2020; Jean Cameron, People’s War, BBC Scotland, 21 September 2005, https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/83/a5839383.shtml accessed 29 September 2020.

[23] Jean Cameron, People’s War. The Duke’s body was placed in a locally-made coffin and escorted to Dunrobin’s own railway station by hospital staff and those patients fit to walk.

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