Belgian Refugees in Scotland’s Northern Regions

During the First World War, a number of Scotland’s cities and towns played host to large numbers of Belgian refugees. While Glasgow absorbed the majority of these refugees, to the order of almost 20,000, a number of other, far smaller, towns found themselves home to large numbers of new faces from the Continent. Many rural regions of England and Wales similarly played host to Belgian refugees, as demonstrated by recent historical research, and the rural localities of the north of Scotland were no different.

In October 1914, in one of the publication’s first allusions to the arrival of Belgian refugees, the Perthshire Advertiser (17 October 1914, p.2) informed readers that Mr. Hamilton-Smith, of Ellengowan, Almondbank, had ‘granted a cottage on his property for the use of Belgian refugees’. The cottage was furnished in preparation for their arrival and was ‘occupied by a party of seven’. Less than four miles away, in the same month, ‘a batch of Belgian refugees were housed in the vicinity of Perth’. According to the report, a representative committee based in the Fair City, had, for some time, been searching for a suitable building to accommodate the ‘Belgian peasants who have been obliged to seek refuge in this country’.

It was in the village of Methven, to the West of Perth, that appropriate lodgings were found and a range of houses known as Drumtochty, shown in the above image, were secured. The building was ‘in every way suitable for such a purpose’ and, after the execution of a small number of repairs will ‘make for the comfort of our Allies’. The following week news came through on how the new arrivals had settled into their new surroundings. Readers of the Perthshire Advertiser (17 October 1914, p.2) were advised that ‘the Belgian refugees at present in Perth have been roaming about the city during the past few days and have enjoyed themselves much. The old buildings of the city have a special attraction for them’. The author of the report made special mention of ‘how aptly the Belgian pick up the English language. Already they are able to make themselves fairly well understood to their hosts’.

The early months of the war also saw Belgian refugees settling further north, in Crieff and Pitlochry. In October 1914, a party of 63 men, women, and children, were reported to have arrived into Crieff sent on from Glasgow where they had been put up as a group at the Great Eastern Hotel, Duke Street a 300 bed hostel for homeless working men in Glasgow given over to house Belgian refuges on arrival for a few days. These included Joseph and Adelina Van der Plas and their seven children aged 15 to 3 who had fled after the occupation of Antwerp.

On arrival at the train station they were ‘conveyed to the Strathearn Institute, where a large company of local ladies and gentlemen’ headed by Walter Mungall, Provost (1913-25), ‘awaited their arrival, and extended a warm welcome to them’ (Dundee Courier, 23 October 1914, p.4). The following month ‘seven families of Belgian refugees to the number of twenty-six arrived in Pitlochry, the party being welcomed by Lady Lunn’. On this occasion, the train brought more than human cargo—a parrot was included in the luggage of the refugees ‘being carefully carried by its owner in a cage, which but a few weeks before had hung in a happy home in devastated Belgium’ (Perthshire Advertiser, 18 November 1914, p.6).

Belgian refugees continued to arrive in Scotland’s towns and cities until the cessation of hostilities in 1918. When war ended, efforts were made to repatriate the Belgian refugees and, by April 1919, reports suggested that only 400 Belgian refugees remained in Scotland. In some cases, the good wishes extended to the refugees upon their arrival were similarly extended upon their departure. Indeed, a ‘party of Belgian refugees’ who had been residing at Dell Farm, Kingussie, ‘were handed £20 as a parting gift’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 25 March 1919, p.2).