Wartime memories at Midlothian college

Putting on the Blitz takes place at Newbattle Abbey College on Saturday
Putting on the Blitz takes place at Newbattle Abbey College on Saturday

An historic Midlothian building’s forgotten role as a World War Two training camp will be celebrated at a major event on Saturday.

“Putting on the Blitz” at Newbattle Abbey College will see the launch of a documentary and a book telling the building’s remarkable wartime story. The event will also include an exhibition of artefacts and photographs from the period, military vehicles, 1940s entertainemnt, games and makeovers and the transformation of the college’s cafe into a wartime NAAFI canteen.

The college, just outside Dalkeith, had been open for less than three years when it was requisitioned as a training camp on the outbreak of war in 1939.

It provided training for both the Royal Army Medical Corps as well as the Auxiliary Territorial Service, often known as The Women’s Army.

When the war ended in 1945, Newbattle spent three years as the No 1 Army Formation College, providing training to demobbed military personnel, to give them skills to resettle in civilian life. A wide range of courses were provided, in everything from commerce, photography and secretarial skills to physics, chemistry and architecture.

Former trainees from the college, housed in a former Cistercian monastery dating from the 16th century, were tracked down and interviewed by project leader Charlotte Johnson.

She said: “I interviewed eight veterans, aged between 89 and 97 and from across the UK, for their memories of Newbattle. It was great to hear them reminisce and bring back to life what is largely a forgotten story.

“They were all very generous of their time and happy to pass on display items from the time. One woman gave me a beautiful doll which she knitted for her daughter while at the college and another man gave me his father’s military jacket and a photograph of him wearing it in a line-up outside the college. I have travelled across the UK, heard some great stories and been given lots of tea and cake!

“I have spoken to wireless operators, military drivers and hairdressers - it’s been so interesting to hear their fondness for their time at Newbattle.” The documentary will be shown on a loop at the Putting on the Blitz event, as part of Doors Open Day, and 500 copies will be available to share with veterans and those with an interest in Newbattle’s history. “One of the veterans, 91-year-old Isabella Hamilton, will attend on the day and we would love to see any other people who were at Newbattle,” said Ms Johnson.

The year-long project, Sharing Our Heritage, has been supported by a Heritage Lottery Grant and Ms Johnson has pieced together the story of Newbattle’s wartime history from the Imperial War Museum in London, National Records of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland and newspaper archives as well as local libraries, a variety of other museums and personal recollections.

Ann Southwood, Principal of Newbattle Abbey College, said: “Doors Open Day is always a wonderful event, when people get the chance to see the Abbey’s spectacular interiors, but this year will be extra special as we recreate the wartime atmosphere at Newbattle and share an important part of our history which is not widely known.”

“Putting at The Blitz” takes place from 10am-4pm. Admission is free.