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Castletown wartime memento to feature in Highland-wide podcast


By Gordon Calder

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The Custer tablecloth made by Isobel Custer features the signatures of 125 airmen. Picture: Neil Buchan / Castletown Heritage Society
The Custer tablecloth made by Isobel Custer features the signatures of 125 airmen. Picture: Neil Buchan / Castletown Heritage Society

A unique and poignant wartime memento containing the signatures of 125 airmen who were based at RAF Castletown during World War II is to be featured on a podcast as part of a Highland-wide initiative.

The memento – a tablecloth created by Isobel Custer – was loaned to the Castletown Heritage Society several years ago by her family and is often on view during wartime exhibitions at the group’s heritage centre at Castlehill.

But it is about to get a wider audience, as it has been included in the Highland Objects project – a series of short podcasts focusing on an object of cultural or historical significance in the Highlands.

Society chairman Neil Buchan said: “Within the collections and displays at the centre, there are a great many artefacts and records dating from World War II, including many relating to operations at RAF Castletown – a fighter airfield that was constructed at Thurdistoft on the outskirts of Castletown.

“The airfield became operational under No 13 Group Fighter Command in June 1940, and its strategic role was to defend the fleet in Scapa Flow and the north Atlantic.

“One of our artefacts is the tablecloth which is a unique and poignant memento of some of the service personnel who were based at RAF Castletown.

“The story behind it gives a flavour of the impact such a large military operation had on the village of Castletown and the surrounding area.

“The very existence of the tablecloth is down to the forward thinking of a young woman who captured evidence of an important but transient moment in history in a distinctive and personal way.”

Isobel Custer (left) sewed all the names onto the tablecloth.
Isobel Custer (left) sewed all the names onto the tablecloth.

Mr Buchan added: “One of the airfield beacons was located on high ground farmed by the Custer family at Durran, a couple of miles south-west of the airfield. When service personnel attended the beacon they would more often than not call in at the Custer farmhouse where good Caithness hospitality – tea, home bakes and such like – was always on offer.

“Isobel Custer had the idea of asking the visiting servicemen to sign their name before they left. She traced the signatures onto a white square linen table cloth which she then hand-embroidered in various colours.

“There are 125 different signatures captured on the cloth, the names revealing a fascinating mix of countries of origin of the personnel. After the war some of the servicemen returned to Caithness to visit the Custer family.”

The tablecloth was presented to the society by Isobel’s great-nephew, Rey Custer and his wife Pat, who live in Castletown.

They are delighted it is being featured in the podcast. Mr Custer said the tablecloth has the signatures and rank of airmen from Scotland, England, Norway and Poland, and explained that an airman from Dundee and another from England kept in touch with the family for many years and visited them.

“We thought the tablecloth would be of interest to the heritage society and gave it to them on loan. We are quite delighted it will now feature in the podcast,” Mr Custer said.

Isobel died in 1979 at the age of 76.

The Custer Tablecloth podcast includes Mr Buchan and Mr Custer who tell the story, and includes reminiscences by Rey on life at the farm during the war.

The podcast can be accessed via the news page on the Castletown Heritage Society website at www.castletownheritage.co.uk


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