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6 Dec 2018

The symbolic tapner

Written by Ross MacLennan (Inventory Officer – North East)
A swastika carved onto the handle of a tapner, part of the Angus Folk Museum collection
A swastika carved onto the handle of a tapner
An infamous symbol carved onto a rudimentary farm tool hints at a lesser-known story of prisoners of war in Scotland during the Second World War.

My colleague Ross Hendry’s article introduced three local men with farming backgrounds and their knowledge of the agricultural tools in the Angus Folk Museum collection. I was reminded of one of these men when I came across a particular object. The first time Ian Bruce visited the collection with the Angus Members’ Centre, he found a curved, tipped knife lying in a wheelbarrow. He began to demonstrate the use of the tapner by swinging it down, hooking an imaginary turnip out of the ground and then topping and tailing it. Recently I recognised this same type of knife in a box. When inspecting it closer I discovered a swastika had been carved into its wooden handle.

A tapner, part of the Angus Folk Museum collection
A tapner

This really got me thinking (as many of the objects inevitably do) – why was such an infamous symbol carved on this farming tool? The swastika is an ancient religious symbol, used in many Eastern religions, and had become a worldwide symbol of good luck by the early 20th century. Could it just be that a farmworker liked the symbol, not knowing its future connotations? Or had a sweetheart or family member decorated the tool as a message of good luck to their loved one toiling in the fields? In the 1920s, the swastika was appropriated by Adolf Hitler as the symbol of the Nazi party in Germany. And so, was this the work of a local Nazi sympathiser? Or was it possibly a joke, sinister or otherwise, between farmworkers? After discussing it with Ian, the most logical explanation that we could think of was that it was the handiwork of a prisoner of war (POW) during the Second World War.

Thousands of POWs were sent to Britain during the war, and they were interned in camps across the country. From the official list of British camps, one was in Angus: Camp 275/275a Kinnell camp, Friockheim, Arbroath. Another was nearby in Kincardineshire: Camp 75/76 North Hill camp, Laurencekirk. Italian prisoners had been the first to arrive in Britain in large numbers, and were also the first to be offered agricultural employment. Britain was drastically short of men to work in agriculture, particularly from 1943 onwards. Within the terms of the Geneva Convention, POWs were allowed to work as long as it was not directly involved in the war effort, and many were willing to do so, with wages being the same as that of a British worker. However, they did not have the same freedom of spending or movement. These restrictions were gradually relaxed after the Italian surrender in September 1943. When the Italian men began to be repatriated, German POWs were offered the opportunity to work, provided that they were not ardent Nazis and they were trusted enough to work outside the camp. Many of them worked the land until 1948, with the process of repatriation continuing long after VE Day; some even decided to continue living and working in Britain.

Letter sent to prisoner of war at Kinnell Camp
A letter sent to a prisoner of war at Kinnell Camp

Despite it not being listed officially, Ian remembers a prisoner of war camp located just outside Tannadice, close to Broom Farm. He recalls Italians being based there initially earlier in the war, who were then followed by Germans from 1943 onwards. They stayed in the camp and would work in squads on the land, sometimes with guards in attendance and sometimes not. The tools that they would have used belonged to local farmers. Ian recalls that local people would often bring the POW sweets or meat such as venison. He does not remember any POWs openly displaying support for the Nazis.

For safety reasons, German POWs with strong Nazi leanings tended to be interned in separate camps to Germans who were deemed anti-Nazi. Camp 21, at Comrie in Perthshire, was where many ardent Nazis were detained in Scotland. However, it isn’t unreasonable to speculate that a prisoner of war decided to stamp their allegiance on this particular tapner during a break from the ‘neep-puin’.

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland’s material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

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