I've been to some isolated and windblown spots, but none to match this -
- a curious monument to the Cold War. Gallan Head: a promontory on the far west of Scotland's Western Isles. It's where the road ends. A surveillance and early warning station in one of the most remote corners of the country keeping track of Soviet submarines and aircraft.
The RAF base was set up in the 1950s and closed a decade later. But it was only last year that a local community trust managed to buy the 84 acre site - on the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis - from the Ministry of Defence.
The photo below shows the base when it was in operation in 1958 (courtesy of David Lister and taken from the excellent Sub Brit site):
You may think that the green-painted buildings which housed the radar operations centre - designed to blend into the landscape and so, one imagines, escape the attention of Russian bombers - don't look all that desolate. OK. This is what's on the other side ...
The blasts of wind are much too strong for any trees to withstand - but there's a wonderful array of flora, notably the eye-catching cotton grass, and oyster catchers with their distinctive red bills nest here and make a loud fuss is anyone intrudes. It is a rugged and enchanting landscape.
The story of the base is told in this guide for guests of the (simply brilliant) SEAcroft B&B in the adjoining crofting village of Aird Uig
This map of the site - both the operational and residential sections of the base - has again been taken from the Sub Brit site. The 'head' of the promontory is a few metres to the north - and the crofting community of Aird Uig immediately to the south.
Of the array of buildings in which the RAF staff used to live, some have been spruced up, others are semi-derelict. The building nearest the former radar installations is now a welcoming open-all-hours cafe and craft shop (with honesty box) appropriately called The Edge - and the community trust's website gives a great account of the history of both the surveillance centre and the crofting community as well as sharing their plans for a transformation of the former base.
In the community cafe, there's a sign that's a reminder of the area's Cold War past - clever to put it on display!
The land at Aird Uig is steeply sloping at either side of a stream that runs into the Atlantic - tough land for crofting. There were once ten crofts here - there's just one working croft now. On the far side of the valley, the stone walls are a remnant of the old 'runrig' system. Each croft, as well as having its own plot for crops and livestock, had access to a section of the runrig land - but these alternated, so nobody was permanently stuck with the worst or most outlying parcel to cultivate and use as pasture.
And yes, the land really was cultivated - the furrows you can see are all manmade, to ease drainage but also to allow crops to grow on the crest of the ridges. What a daunting task to farm such difficult land - but when the crofts were set up in the 1820s, by men and women who had been evicted from a nearby village in the clearances, the barren and inhospitable landscape was part of the attraction. It was a spot so bleak and difficult to make a living from that they were unlikely to suffer a second eviction.
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Visited RAF site,probably in the 1970s as part of a BT team negotiating to put an aerial on the 600 ft mast there. The wing commander from Stornoway came up in his official car and the other ranks on site had got the best crockery out for us. The scenery was breathtaking.
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