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World War II plane propeller discovery sparks investigation on Arran

Written by Paul Williams
A plane propeller sits on the grass above three potato sacks.
World War II plane propeller was discovered wrapped in potato sacks in Coire a’Bhradain on Arran
The discovery of a propeller blade in a remote part of Arran, thought to be from a World War II plane, has sparked an investigation for our staff as they try to identify its origin.

A contractor working for our charity found the objects in an isolated location in Coire a’Bhradain, as he conducted peatland restoration to protect this vital resource in the fight against climate change.

The finding of the propeller blade has left our experts debating where it came from, as the location of the discovery falls outside the two previously known crash sites in the area.

Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology, said: ‘We are intrigued by the discovery of the propeller blade, which certainly looks to be from a WWII plane. There are two previously known plane crash sites further up the glen on the steep cliff side of Beinn Nuis, but this object was found outside the mapped spread of debris from both of these, which has caused some uncertainty about which aircraft they belong to.

‘The plane part was discovered when our contractor’s excavator bucket hit something solid and metallic. On closer inspection, we found it had been wrapped and tied in a potato sack, which added further intrigue to the find that lay some distance from the spread of the wreckage of the former crash sites. It may have been gathered during the clean-up of the site in the 1940s, immediately after the impact, or through subsequent work by the Trust in the 1980s. It’s too early to tell, but we are determined to get to the bottom of it.’

Man and woman hold an old plane propeller in a field of green grass.
Kate Sampson, Senior Ranger and contractor Stewart Lambie present their discovery

Derek continued: ‘We know from a previous archaeological survey carried out by Dr Terence Christian around the crash sites back in 2013 the extent of the debris fields, so we know there is historical merit to the findings; we just have to work out which plane the part came from to piece the story together. There have been six WWII plane crashes on Trust-owned land on Arran, which are now protected sites, so we have to work with the relevant organisations and follow procedures, such as informing the Military Crash Register, before any further work can be carried out.

‘The crash sites on the island have been well documented by Arran Museum, which has an informative display about the WWII aircraft involved, so we can narrow down the types of plane to a B17 Flying Fortress or a B24 Liberator, but both use the same sort of propeller blades, which adds to the confusion. From Dr Christian’s survey work in 2013, we know that the closest of the two sites to where the propeller blade was found is the B24 Liberator, which crashed on 24 August 1943 with the loss of all eleven crew and passengers. The bodies were recovered from the crash site shortly after, but the locations are still protected today under the 1986 Protection of Military Remains Act.

‘We are not permitted to remove wreckage from such sites without first obtaining permission – so the accidental discovery of a propeller blade, outwith the known spread of fuselage debris, that had obviously been previously moved is quite an unusual situation. We are working with an aviation and aircraft expert to identify the objects, and there is potential to match up the serial numbers of the parts to historical records held by the Military. This will help us get closer to the origin of this fascinating discovery, continue to share these stories, and remember those who lost their lives.’

An orange and black excavator with two men standing outside, one dressed in a high visibility coat and the other in a black jacket and orange high visibility trousers inspect the ground in a field next to the excavator.
Stewart Lambie and his excavator used in the peatland restoration work in Coire a’Bhradain where the propellor was discovered

Kate Sampson, Senior Ranger on Arran, added that the discovery demonstrates the importance of the Trust’s work to protect Scotland’s rich cultural and natural heritage for future generations.

Kate said: ‘The findings were made during our charity’s work to restore peatland in Coire a’Bhradain. Our peatland restoration programme not only helps to reinstate our beautiful landscapes but is also vital in helping to restore the peat’s carbon-storing properties to help mitigate climate change. I think our contractor was shocked when he saw the end of the potato sack sticking out of the bog, as his first thought was that it could be human remains. However, with careful excavation, the wrapped propeller was revealed with a rope still tied around it, and we suspect someone might have been dragging the propeller down the hill when it sunk deep into the peat, not to be recovered until now. Understanding the cultural significance of our peatlands and protecting this natural resource at our special places will help to ensure it benefits future generations in the long term. Our peatland restoration project is supported by the Scottish Government’s Peatland Action Fund, delivered in partnership with NatureScot.’

A plane propellor wrapped in potato sacks and tied with rope lies in boggy mud.
The plane propellor was discovered buried in the peat wrapped in potato sacks and tied with rope

Dr Terence Christian, Lead Archaeologist on the 2013 survey, said: ‘The discovery of this propeller blade outside previously mapped debris fields adds critical diagnostic information to the two aircraft wreck sites nearby: B-17G 42-97286 and B-24D 42-41030. Further analysis should enable archaeologists to associate the propeller with one of the two aircraft wreck sites and to adjust the aircraft wreck site boundaries to better preserve these important pieces of national history. The discovery was made wrapped in a potato sack during peat restoration works, suggesting removal following the crash event, but this hypothesis will need further study. The associated potato sack should provide a timeframe for the propeller’s removal from the main debris field, adding new information to the wrecks’ post-crash stories.

‘Historic and natural conservation are important initiatives to preserve and maintain both our historic past and the natural environment in which historic events were experienced. Aviation archaeology only recently began to be a focus of Conflict Archaeology. However, the National Trust for Scotland has been a leader in aviation archaeology and crash site historic preservation for more than a decade. I applaud the Trust for continuing their pioneering work in aviation archaeology and crash site historic preservation with the discovery and continued analysis of this WWII aircraft propeller.’

The work of our archaeological team, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2023, supports our charity’s vision to care for, share and protect Scotland’s nature, beauty and heritage for everyone to enjoy, as outlined in our 10-year strategy, launched in 2022.