A champion north-east shooting club has been left counting the costs after firebugs torched outbuildings and equipment in what is thought to have been a deliberate attack.
Two sheds and a shelter were set ablaze at Kemnay Small Bore Rifle Club, “100% destroying” everything inside.
Witnesses reported an “unbelievably sized” explosion caused by burning gas canisters, with 18 fire-fighters needed to extinguish the flames.
A crew from Kintore was called to the scene at around 6.30pm on Friday, with a further two arriving as back-up from Inverurie shortly after.
At the weekend the remnants of maintenance equipment, targets and a chemical toilet could be seen among the charred and more unidentifiable items left strewn across the historic facility.
The structures that once housed them had been strewn across the ground by the fire and subsequent explosions.
The club has worked from the site since the Second World War and, in 2019, a five-strong team of its members was named national champions in their discipline.
Committee member George Mortimer said it was “clear” the fire had been started deliberately.
“There was nothing combustible in there without assistance,” he said.
“All of the infrastructure has been damaged – including two sheds which contained materials for competitive target shooting, two lawnmowers, two strimmers and a chemical toilet.
“It was all totally destroyed and the wooden firing point we had was razed to the ground.
“We’re going to have to rebuild, potentially at huge cost.
“It has set us back, no question.”
In recent months, members have been forced to take a step back from shooting, in line with ongoing coronavirus regulations.
And Mr Mortimer believes some people have since been using the site for other activities.
He said: “Covid meant we couldn’t shoot last summer season, so there’s been very little activity over the last year.
“I have been down a couple of times to check everything was OK and there was evidence people had been there.
“I saw a couple of chairs and we had a recycled plastic shelter that was melted.
“We think someone having a barbecue is the most likely explanation for that.”
Club chairman Michael Low was left “pretty shocked” by the incident and said there had been an “unbelievably sized” explosion involving items being stored at the site.
He believes the fire may have been started in a metal barrel used for burning garden waste.
Mr Low said: “It looked to be sitting in the middle of where we usually do the firing.
“Those responsible might have been sitting around it, telling stories, and it got out of control.
“It may not have been malicious, but we’ve had rain for the last few months so everything would have been pretty damp – and with the weather, it would have been one hell of a night to be out.
“I wouldn’t like to think somebody would have set it on fire on purpose.”
In 2019 a team from the club “defied the odds” to become national champions.
Lenny Thomson, Roger Esson, Steve Dalgarno, Malcolm Catto and Mr Mortimer came top of the RWS National Long Range League, which tests shooting at 50 metres and 100 yards.
The Kemnay club, which is thought to be one of the smallest in the country, became just the fourth Scottish cohort to take the title since 1926.
Mr Low added: “Undoubtedly someone will know what has happened with the fire.
“It may have been malicious or may not – maybe it was just a mistake and they scarpered.”
The group is asking anyone with information to contact police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.