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).

Belgian Needlewomen in Scotland


Within rich histories of migration and resettlement, the stories of female refugees are often unheard. Many early historical studies into the movement of people fails to question not only why women moved, but where they went, and, importantly, how they integrated. Yet research clearly shows that refugee and migrant women had their own networks and utilised them as a means of settling in a new country. Scotland’s Belgian refugees were no different. One example of the existence of specifically female refugee networks in Scotland during the First World War can be found among the pages of the local and national press.

In May 1916, the Daily Record (26 May 1916, p.4) reported on the opening of a ‘Charming Exhibition’. Installed to ‘augment the Glasgow Corporation Belgian Refugee Fund, and thus extend the scope of operations’, a sale of lingerie, embroidery and lace which showcased the work of female Belgian refugees, was opened on 15 May. Held at 281 Woodlands Road, a building in Glasgow’s West End which had once been the German Protestant Church, the two-day exhibition was ‘creditable alike in artistry’. Declaring the sale open, Mrs. Dunlop, wife of Sir Thomas Dunlop, Glasgow’s Lord Provost, said she had visited a number of Belgian homes in Glasgow and ‘had been very much struck by the fortitude displayed by the Belgians in their midst’. Following her opening speech Mrs. Dunlop was presented with a ‘fine specimen of Chantilly lace’ before a ‘charming little fellow, Master Emile Petaille’, aged 3, ‘stepped forward, and proffered a splendid bouquet’. Concluding her opening speech, she remarked that the exhibition gave attendees ‘an opportunity of seeing what clever needlewomen the Belgian ladies were’, the ‘exquisite variety of their work reflecting the highest credit on the deftness and skill of the makers’.

Yet this was not the first time that the publication had drawn the attention of the Scots to the art of Belgian lace-making. Indeed, an article published in the months following the outbreak of war in 1914, highlighted the skill. While the writer informs readers that the ‘bravery and fortitude of Belgian troops before overwhelming odds has left the world in admiration’, it was the women of Belgium who ‘had been famous for years to the feminine mind for achievements much more pacific but quite as wonderful’ (Daily Record and Mail, 7 October 1914, p.7). Records, namely the Mitchell Library’s Belgian Refugees database,  demonstrate that a number of these needlewomen arrived in Glasgow during the First World War. Listed on the database are, among others, Maria Van Herwegen, Liege; Yvonne Morseau, Ghent; Eliza Hoywegan, Antwerp; and Malvina Vanderberghe, Breedene. As these women settled in Glasgow or the surrounding area it is possible that some of them were involved in the 1916 exhibition, for all of the sale items were made by Belgian refugees in the Corporation Belgian workrooms’. The workrooms were supervised by the Glasgow Belgian refugees’ ladies committee. After the war, four of the leading lights of the committee, all married to Glasgow magistrates, received MBEs in recognition of the charitable support they had offered Belgian refugees in supporting initiatives such as the lace making workrooms. The accompanying image, taken from the Baillie, the in-house publication of Glasgow Corporation, shows the four women.

Demand for the intricate items of embroidery was great. Readers of the Daily Record were advised that while the unprecedented demand at a former sale had meant that ‘the articles bought had to be retained to allow orders booked to be fulfilled’, on this occasion ‘purchasers will be able to take the goods with them’. It was not only Glasgow’s local population that was afforded the opportunity to purchase these Belgian-made goods. In the same year, Aberdeen’s Trinity Hall hosted a similar sale, the proceeds of which would ‘partly go towards the maintaining of the Belgian ladies’ locally while any surplus would be ‘sent to the Aberdeen Home for Belgian Refugees in Glasgow’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 30 November 1916, p.3). The following year, a notice was published in the Dundee Courier (11 May 1917, p.1) advertising a ‘Sale of Belgian Lace Embroideries and Other Goods’.

The goods, made by a ‘party of twenty female Belgian refugees in Glasgow’, who ‘worked under the direction of a Madame Neumer’, were sold under the auspices of the Dundee Women’s War Relief Committee. The benefits of sales such as these were twofold. For the refugees, the process of gathering together to make the items provided a comfortable space where they could meet with fellow Belgians and, perhaps, recall collective memories of home. On a more practical level, the proceeds raised through the sale of the goods helped to support refugees and, to an extent, relieve local authorities of such a heavy financial burden. More than this however, it perhaps offered the Scots a small glimpse into the lives of the newly-arriving refugees, bridged the gap between refugee and host country, and allowed Belgium’s female refugees to, in their own way, make their mark on Scotland.

Event Report: ‘The sudden experience of defencelessness: civilians facing invasion, Belgium, 1914’

The second event in the series of collaborative workshops on First World War civilian war trauma funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was a lecture by Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Pennsylvania State University (currently Leverhulme visiting Professor University of Kent), entitled ‘The sudden experience of defencelessness: civilians facing invasion, Belgium, 1914’.

The event was well attended by historians and researchers, as well as postgraduate and undergraduate students.

Sophie’s though provoking and moving lecture discussed the sudden trauma experienced during the outbreak of extreme violence following the German invasion. Sophie used Aarschot in Brabant which was invaded in August 1914 as her exemplar. Mass killings of civilians provoked feelings of defencelessness and mass flight elsewhere in Belgium and within days flight to the Netherlands, France and Great Britain.

Sophie pointed out that even during mass flight there was a desire to uphold the structures of the state with local authorities and particularly local mayors acting as figureheads for the upkeep of normality and for preserving the dignity of survivors and resisting the effects of the invasion by local communities. Sophie also discussed the refugee exodus and differences in treatment of refugees in the Netherlands, France and Great Britain. She ended her lecture by discussing the return of refugees who were often left homeless, and faced resentment among those who had remained in Belgium. By the early interwar period the German atrocities against civilians in Belgium and France which provoked the mass exodus were being forgotten and have only been recognised once again in the context of civilians targeting in more recent wars.

Sophie’s lecture was followed by a sustained period of questions from attendees which included a group of Dr Jenkinson’s final year undergraduates taking her special subject course, Immigration to Britain from the 1880s to the 1980s. The Q&A session revealed the limited support for traumatised civilians during the invasion period and the fact that the suffering and losses of refugees were unmemorialised in their communities in contrast to the monuments recognising the sacrifices of military and civilian casualties.

After this excellent lecture our next event will be Workshop 3 – on Friday 13 October, (time to be confirmed), when Dr Tracy Loughran, University of Cardiff, will give a lecture followed by a discussion on ‘Mediating Emotion, Making Trauma: Doctors, Patients and the Construction of “Shell-Shock” in First World War Britain, at the University of Strathclyde, which will be held jointly with the Centre for the Study of Health and Healthcare, Universities of Strathclyde/Glasgow Caledonian University. This event is free but, for catering purposes, we ask that you please register by sending an email to

Exhibition review: ‘Scribes and royal authority: Scotland’s charters 1100-1250’


Exhibition review: ‘Scribes and royal authority: Scotland’s charters 1100-1250’, National Records of Scotland (Matheson Dome, General Register House), 5 April-17 May 2017

The idea of an exhibition examining subtle changes in administrative documents may not immediately appeal to the general public. In a way, this is true: how and why legal documents were written, what patterns are evident and how they reflect an emerging form of scribal standard could be topics at risk of putting off even a determined casual observer. A new exhibition (open for six weeks) at the General Register House, Edinburgh does very well to outline exactly why this assumption is incorrect.

Charter by King Maclcolm IV

Charter by King Malcolm IV

Often the history of twelfth- and early thirteenth-century Scotland is the story of leading monarchs: David I, Malcolm IV, William I. They are credited with introducing out-of-the-box (assembly required) institutions to the kingdom – ‘feudalism’, burghs, reformed monastic foundations, foreign settlers, castles. This ‘Scribes and royal authority’ exhibition turns the focus instead to those individuals and the materials they produced in the phases of transformation of the kingdom.

The exhibition makes no bones about the scarcity of the surviving evidence from this era of Scottish history; the panels accompanying the exhibition outline in admirable though depressing detail how much has been lost forever. The monasteries of the south-west (Dumfries and Galloway), for example, are wholly unrepresented in our reckoning of charters – the legal documents at the heart of this exhibition – in this early period.

The low volume of evidence has not hindered the piecing together of the story of how and through what means Scotland was ruled as a medieval kingdom. A total of fourteen charters from two important landholders in the period (Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh and Melrose Abbey in the Borders) tell how incidental changes and trends reflect the choices made by the scribes of charters. The large, calm handwriting of monastic scribes, who more often than not penned religious texts instead of legal documents, developed into a more business-like form as they borrowed and mimicked the style of royal scribes. Decorative flourishes, peculiar letter forms or more restrained writing bring out not only these developmental patterns but also the characters and attitudes of the people themselves – several of the charters were by the same scribes. How these changes reflect

The rarity of these documents, and that they have never before been assembled for public view, should be emphasized too. It is fantastic to be able to look at document that are almost 850 years old, and so clearly pick out recognisable and unfamiliar names and places. Seleschirhe for Selkirk, Gilandrea the dapifer (‘meat server’) and Castellu puellar – ‘Castle of the Maiden’, Edinburgh itself. Though the exhibition is small, it is rich in content and worth taking time to experience in its fullest. At £5, the exhibition catalogue is a little flimsy, but is worth the price for the high quality images of the charters on display and the commentary on handwriting.

Those with an interest in the wider project, of which the exhibition forms one output, should visit

William’s research is funded by the AHRC, in partnership with RCAHMS

Funded PhD Studentship on Indyref 2014



Application deadline: 8 May 2017

The Faculty of Arts and Humanities is pleased to invite applications for this fully-funded AHRC PhD Studentship (fees and subsistence at current AHRC UK/EU rates). The studentship includes a 6-month placement at the National Library of Scotland.

The Studentship: 

The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was clearly a major historic event. How will it enter the historical archive, and the stories told by future researchers and citizens about the meaning of ‘indyref’ 2014?

This PhD project will explore a series of questions and challenges related to the National Library of Scotland’s ‘Collecting the Referendum’ project, an ambitious two-year project to collect the documentary record of this event in a wide range of formats: print and digital, social media and websites, archives and moving image.

These questions include: 

  • To what extent, and via what practices, was the indyref ‘remembered’ even as it was being experienced? (That is, how did campaigners and commentators try to position 2014 within stories looking back on it from the future?)
  • How was the indyref collected (and made collectible) in the midst of the campaign?
  • How did its self-conscious ‘historic’ quality affect the way indyref 2014 was documented and recorded?
  • How will future researchers interpret records and narratives of 2014 which exhibit this self-conscious ‘historic’ quality, i.e. which seem to ‘memorialise’ indyref in advance?

The student’s doctoral work will investigate both the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of indyref collecting. It will examine how archives of the 2014 referendum are constructed and used (both physical and digital), and the various factors that shape how the makers and users of such collections view the narrative possibilities and complexities presented by their materials.

While the student will have freedom to shape the exact parameters of the project, it is likely to involve research into recent Scottish political history, archive studies and digital collecting. Some awareness of relevant cultural and narrative theory, and digital humanities research methods, is preferred but not required.

The PhD student will be jointly supervised by Dr Scott Hames at the University of Stirling and Dr Amy Todman at the National Library of Scotland, with input from a wider supervisory team including Dr Peter Lynch (Stirling; expert on Scottish politics and referendums) and Eilidh MacGlone (NLS web archivist). Collaboration with the Scottish Political Archive, based at the University of Stirling, is an additional dimension of the project, supported by our archivist Sarah Bromage.

At Stirling, the student will join a lively community of PhD students linked to the Stirling Centre for Scottish Studies. At the National Library of Scotland, he or she will have the opportunity to work closely with curators and web archivists, and gain valuable research and technical skills.

How to Apply: Applicants should have a good undergraduate qualification and a relevant Master’s degree in any related field of expertise. Experience of the following areas of study is particularly welcome: history, archive studies, politics, cultural theory, digital humanities, cultural studies, Scottish studies. You will have some experience of relevant research methods (but note that research training is a key part of the studentship).

NB the AHRC rules governing this scheme note that if a student does not have experience of formal postgraduate study, they may be eligible for a studentship only if they can demonstrate evidence of sustained experience beyond undergraduate degree level that is specifically relevant to their proposed research topic, and could be considered equivalent to Master’s studyApplicants in this category (i.e. without a Master’s qualification) should include with their application a 1-page statement outlining the ‘specifically relevant’ skills, experience and knowledge they have gained ‘beyond undergraduate degree level’, that ‘could be considered equivalent to Master’s study’.

For further details on eligibility criteria, including UK residency, applicants should check the AHRC website (

The application: Applicants should submit:

  • a summary curriculum vitae (max 2 pages)
  • an example of recent academic writing (e.g., MSc/MLitt chapter or undergraduate dissertation)
  • a short statement (1 page) outlining your qualification for the studentship, and initial thoughts on how you’d approach the project
  • the names and contact details of two academic referees

Submit your application via email to Dr Scott Hames ( and Dr Amy Todman ( Applications will close 8 May 2017 at 4pm. Please ensure your referees are able to provide (on request, via email) an academic reference by 19 May, 5pm.

As noted above, applicants without a Master’s qualification should submit an additional 1-page statement outlining their ‘specifically relevant’ skills, experience and knowledge that could be considered equivalent to Master’s study.

Interviews will be held on Tuesday 23 May at the University of Stirling.

Potential applicants are strongly encouraged to contact Dr Scott Hames ( and Dr Amy Todman ( for ‘further particulars’ of the project, or with informal queries.

Finding Belgian Refugees through the digital archive

Wednesday 22 March saw the launch of the first in a series of workshops, run as part of a new project ‘Uncovering civilian war trauma among female Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War’. Delivering her lecture ‘Finding Belgian Refugees through the digital archive: developing and using First World War digital collections’, Professor Lorna Hughes, Chair of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow, provided a fascinating insight into the world of archival digitisation. Using examples from her own research into Belgian refugees in Wales during the First World War, Professor Hughes showed us how close engagement with an ever-growing collection of digital archives could ‘give voice to those on the margins of the past’, in this case the Llanfair Belgians.







To an audience of historians, researchers and archivists, Professor Hughes told the story of the Lienknechts and the Gubels, Belgian refugees who arrived in the village of Llanfair in 1915. Describing some of the techniques employed to unearth their story, for example searching digested newspaper collections to identify data clusters, Professor Hughes enhanced what we can learn about refugees from, at times, impersonal official documents with local, individual responses to the arrival of Belgians during the First World War. From letters detailing the creation of the Llanfair Belgian Refugees Committee to ‘Thank You’ cards from those refugees for the people of Llanfair’s ‘great kindness’, it became clear that, by going beyond official documents, the story of wartime refugees in Britain can be much-enhanced.

Following Professor Hughes’ lecture, and continuing the theme of digitisation of Belgian refugee archives, workshop participants were invited to look at a selection of collections held at the Mitchell Library relating to Belgian refugees in Glasgow. Dr Irene O’Brien, Glasgow City Archivist and Andrew Gilbert, Assistant Archivist, Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board Archives, produced a range of materials which joint project coordinator Dr Jacqueline Jenkinson had identified as illustrating linked records which may benefit from a digitisation project. These included the Glasgow Corporation Belgian Refugees’ Register 1914-15, Poor Law Registers and asylum admission registers 1914-18 to demonstrate the variety of sources that can be used when researching the story of Belgian refugees in Glasgow and the surrounding areas, and in particular when exploring indications of war trauma on the Belgians living in Scotland.

Illustrating the richness of the material, our attention was brought to the stories of Angeli Vrebos and John Witineur, seen in the accompanying photograph, two Belgian refugees admitted to Gartloch Asylum during the First World War. Described in the records as ‘foolish, troublesome and demented’ and ‘dull, stubborn and sensitive’ respectively, the hardship and trauma that dominated the stories of Vrebos and Witineur is etched on their faces and captured by the photographs taken upon their admittance to the asylum.

Overall, the afternoon was a fantastic introduction to the story of Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War and, we hope, successfully whetted the appetite of the attendees for future events, the next of which will take place on Wednesday 19 April, 2-4pm, at the University of Stirling, Division of History and Politics, Pathfoot Building, room C1/2. Joining us from the University of Kent, where she is currently Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Pennsylvania State University, will speak on ‘The sudden experience of defencelessness: civilians facing invasion, Belgium, 1914’. A buffet lunch, served from 12.30, will precede this event. This event is free but, for catering purposes, we ask that you please register by sending an email to by 10 April 2017.

Launch of exciting new collaborative network!

Uncovering civilian war trauma among female Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War

We are pleased to announce the launch of a series of workshops, run as part of a new project ‘Uncovering civilian war trauma among female Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War’. An exciting collaborative venture funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the project intends to stimulate research on the timely subject of civilian war trauma via a case study of female Belgian refugees in Scotland during the years 1914 to 1918. Preliminary research shows that among Scotland’s c. 20,000 wartime Belgian refugees were dozens who applied for poor law assistance. Early analysis of these cases indicated 40% of female and 25% of male Belgian refugee applicants were diagnosed as suffering ‘insanity’, yet they presented with symptoms of trauma. Four events, held throughout the year at locations in Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh, will further examine these findings and offer attendees an insight into a range of topics including the settlement and treatment of Belgian refugees in Scotland and the notion of ‘shell-shock’ in First World War Britain.

The first of these four workshops, ‘Finding Belgian Refugees through the digital archive: developing and using First World War digital collections’, includes a lecture from Professor Lorna Hughes, Chair of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow, and will take place on Wednesday 22 March 2017, 2-5pm, at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. Lunch is provided from 1pm. Attendees will also be given the opportunity to view a range of resources on Belgian refugees held at Glasgow City archives.

This event is free but we would be grateful if you could indicate your intention to attend by emailing

We look forward to welcoming you to our inaugural event!