Gordon Castle during the Great War


Gordon Castle during the Great War

On November 26th 1914 the normal ebb and flow of country life at Gordon Castle came to an end. On this day, at the behest of the Duke himself, the Castle and grounds were given over to the Red Cross for the duration of the war and became Gordon Castle Volunteer Auxiliary Defence (VAD) Hospital. Over the next four-and-a-half years thousands of badly wounded soldiers from across the British Empire, men who had served in the mud sodden and shell torn trenches of France and Belgium, would find a safe haven here. Staffed only by a small body of dedicated professionals, the great deeds achieved by Gordon Castle VAD Hospital in repairing the lives and limbs of these war worn and shattered men depended heavily upon the generosity and support of the Gordon-Lennox family and the people of Moray and Banffshire. Mirrored across the land, it was this voluntary effort and spirit of self-sacrifice that ‘kept the home fires burning’ during the darkest days of ‘the war to end all wars’.


Wounded soldiers arriving at Gordon Castle 1915

The Gordon-Lennox family’s unwavering commitment to the war effort was the latest chapter in a long tradition of military service. The previous century had seen both Gordons and Lennoxs serve with honour on the battlefields of Waterloo and Inkerman, while the Duke himself, along with his three sons, had all fought with the Brigade of Guards during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Now beyond the age of military service, the Duke, in his capacity as President of the Territorial Associations of Banffshire and Moray, took a leading role in the recruitment of volunteers for Lord Kitchener’s New Army. He did so with a heavy heart, knowing only to well of the sacrifice that lay ahead. By November 1914 the war had already taken the life of his youngest son, Lord Bernard, killed during the First Battle of Ypres.


Fochabers Red Cross VA Attachment 1914

In the era of the Great War the spirit of noblesse oblige still held sway. With privilege and wealth came responsibilities and duties. A cradle to grave welfare state was still a distant dream in 1914 and much of what we now expect the state to provide was catered for by private charities. In this respect, caring for the casualties of war was no different. Under the agencies of the Red Cross, Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) were raised from across the country for service both at home and overseas. On the home front the VADs were deployed to staff and run the thousands of civilian buildings then being requisitions as military hospitals. Amongst these were many of the country seats of Britain’s landed gentry: given freely in the spirit of noblesse oblige, their size, setting and comforts making them ideal places for recuperation. The Duke’s own daughter, the Duchess of Northumberland, was at this time President of the County branch of the Scottish Red Cross Society, and the Duke needed little encouragement in handing over the keys of Gordon Castle. Very soon it was to become one of the largest VAD Hospitals in the country.

Recovering Soldiers in the Square Fochabers

Recovering soldiers in the Square Fochabers

Forty rooms of the Castle were given over to the purposes of the Hospital. One hundred beds, spread over fifteen wards, were housed within the west-wing. Administration was handled in the central sections of the Castle. Nurses accommodation was provided for in the east-wing. The surgery was fitted out, at the personal expense of the Duke, with some of the latest equipment then available to medical science, including an up to date sterilisation unit. On each floor new washrooms were installed for the use of the patients. The kitchens, always the engine room of any stately home, were turned over to the business of mass catering, and with some style: game, venison and salmon were a regular feature of the weekly menu and the Castle gardens provided fresh vegetables daily. The ‘Circle’, thus named because of its appearance and shape, and airy and bright thanks to its glass roof, became the favoured place for soldier’s recreations. The majority of the Hospital’s wards were located off the ‘Circle’, which allowed even the most serious of cases to feel part of the entertainments therein, and every soldier was given free reign of the manicured gardens, woodlands and moorlands that formed the Gordon Estate.

At the lake, Gordon Castle

At the lake, Gordon Castle

The running of the Hospital was in the hands of a small band of professionals. Administration was the responsibility of the Medical Officer, the first MO being Dr Mann of Fochabers who, along with the Duke and his daughter, organised the original transformation of Gordon Castle into a VAD Hospital. A succession of able Matrons ensured that the highest standards of care were maintained: two of them, Miss Ethel Burgess and Miss E.B. Davidson were later awarded the Royal Red Cross in recognition of their invaluable war service. Two Sisters made up the full compliment of professional staff; Sister Macbeath and Sister Buchan fulfilling this vital role during the hectic last eighteen months of the Hospital’s life when the wards were never less than full. But look beyond these fine professionals and we find that the entire general nursing staff was comprised entirely from local volunteers. Women young and old came from every Speyside parish, from Elgin, from Lhanbryde and from Lossiemouth, to offer sick and wounded men – men who had seen the worst that Man can do – the comfort and care needed to nurse them back to health.

The first beneficiaries of this care were twenty four men who had landed in Belgium and France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914: that small band of professional soldiers described by the German Kaiser as a “contemptible little army”. They arrived by train at Fochabers’ little terminus station, having embarked from hospitals in Glasgow and Aberdeen, and completed their journey by private motor cars courtesy of the Duke and other wealthy locals. Their wounds were multifarious and many were ‘cot cases’; the rather euphemistic term then employed to describe the seriously wounded. Most would stay between one and two months before being discharged. Over the next four-and-a-half years 2718 non-commissioned officers and men drawn from every part of the British Empire would make this same journey: from the hell of the Somme and Passchendaele to the tranquillity of Speyside. In these years the Castle and its grounds would become synonymous with the familiar blue of the soldier-patients, bandaged limbs, broken bodies on the mend, all smoking the inevitable ‘gasper’, now only the rattle of the gamekeeper’s gun to disturb the peace.

Asides the best of medical care, Gordon Castle VAD Hospital laid on a plethora of sports and entertainments to help their soldier-patients along this long road to recovery. The Recreation Room was cosily furnished and always warm, with a piano in one corner, gramophone in the other, a generous stock of books and magazines and plenty of popular board games such as bagatelle, chess and draughts on hand. The bright and airy ‘Circle’ was the regular venue for concerts; the music and entertainments often provided by the staff and men themselves, complimented on occasions by the Fochabers Concert Company and other well known performers. As was the tradition during their rest times in France and Belgium, the men themselves would often stage concert parties where they were the stars: a rare chance to dress up and sing a few ribald ditties. Then there were the dance parties, the Duke making the magnificent ducal dining room available and fitting it out with a stage and all the accoutrements of the concert hall.

Outdoor activities were equally popular. The ducal motorcar was often requisitioned to take parties of men out for a picnic at by the sea at Lossie, Garmouth or Spey Bay. Sports were ubiquitous. There were old favourites like football, cricket and golf. Others, such as quoits, croquet and boating offered NCOs and men the chance to sample sports more normally favoured by the officer class. And of course, their was always the opportunity to try your hand at fly-fishing on the Spey.

Gordon Castle fête

Gordon Castle fête

A great favourite of the soldier-patients, staff and the local community were the annual summer fêtes held in the grounds of Gordon Castle. These philanthropic and entertaining events provided a chance for everyone to gather together, to raise money for charity, and to bring back a little of the simple joy and colour of the life that had existed before, as Foreign Secretary Earl Grey had put it, “the lights went out across Europe”. These joyous occasions would live long in the memory of all who were there.

Now those memories themselves have passed from the living. On May 19th 1919 Gordon Castle VAD Hospital closed its doors to its last soldier-patient. All that is left to show that the flag Royal Red Cross Society once flew above Gordon Castle is a plaque on the north-west gate which reads:

To record the use of this dwelling as an Auxiliary Hospital during the Great War, and thanks of the Scottish Red Cross Society, to the generous donor – April 1919


Please click on an image to see a large version.

In the writing of this brief history of Gordon Castle VAD Hospital we are indebted to the Fochabers Folk Museum & Heritage Centre for the wonderful photographs adorning this page and to the Local Heritage Centre for Moray in Elgin for providing a copy of Under The Red Cross: Gordon Castle 1914-19 (1921) from which much of this history is derived.