Bright future for families at old Cold War base in Hebrides

For years, the community of Aird Uig on the Isle of Lewis lived in the shadows of a former Cold War listening station that was surrounded by a 12ft wall and double lines of barbed wire.

Gallan Head in the north west of Lewis with the former RAF listening station pictured top right and the community of Aird Uig to the left. PIC: Gallan Head Community Trust.

A Keep Out sign was a clear indication of the hostile environment that dominated the Gallan Head peninsula - the most north-westerly point of Great Britain - for 80 years.

Just over two years ago, on a freezing cold day in a ‘howling gale’, several community members pulled down the sign in a symbolic statement of changing times.

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One of the old military buildings at Gallan Head, Aird Uig, Lewis, with residents working to secure a bright future for their community. PIC: Gallan Head Community Trust.

The land on which the MOD had operated was now theirs after a successful community buyout of the abandoned radar and communications site.

Fiona L’Estrange is a member of the Gallan Head Community Trust, which led the successful negotiations with the MOD over the purchase of land.

She said: “The day we had the buyout confirmed, we went up in a howling gale to the sign which basically said it was MOD ground and that you would be arrested if you went any further.

Dramatic skies - during both night and day - and clusters of islands are among the stunning views from the peninsula. PIC: Gallan Head Community Trust/Emma Iller.

“The sign had been there for many years and it wasn’t very inviting. We took it away and replaced it with a sign that said welcome.”

She added: “Recently we have had three new families moving into the village. The has been the first new blood that we’ve had for a some time. It’s very exciting.”

The trust describes Gallan Head as a place of strange beauty and powerful spiritual energy which offers tremendous views of surrounding islands, wildlife an unpolluted dark skies.

It is working to bring jobs, income and more residents to Aird Uig with social, cultural and health projects being developed to improve life in the community that sits on the very edge of the country.

The population of Aird Uig now stands at around 30 with many residents scattered over a collection of prefab houses - previously known as the domestic camp - which formerly served the RAF base.

Now a small visitor centre, Gallan Beag, is in place with residents drawing up plans for how they want the community to take shape.

Singing classes have started and chess nights are a big hit in a village that sits just a mile or so from the beach where the 12 Century Lewis Chessmen were discovered.

Talking telescopes have been installed in the visitor centre with a new astronomical society to be in place by the Summer Solstice next month. A great deal of anticipation surrounds a new arrival expected in the village - a community pizza oven.

At one time, there were more than 200 people living around the RAF base, which had its own cinema, shop and pub, when surveillance operations at Gallan Head, from where air and submarine movements were monitored, were at their peak.

The weather was so bad at the site that occasionally the aerial on the Type 80 early warning radar was damaged by the wind.

Wind speeds were so high at times that it was considered too dangerous to drive up to the headland to the operations site. Two vehicles were blown off the road with staff told to make their way from the village on foot, according to accounts.

The RAF pulled its main Rotor programme of radar surveillance from Gallan Head in 1964 but the station remained in service as a communication centre. Latterly it was use by NATO with the MOD pulling out altogether in 2010.

The domestic camp was sold off in the 1970s with civilians then slowly moving into the houses.

Several of the old military buildings remain abandoned on the headland with discussions ongoing as to how best to use this dramatic promontory that descends sharply into the often raging sea.

Plans are being developed for the Cetus Project which will attract visitors to observe and listen to the island’s rich marine wildlife during the day and then enjoy its spectacular views of the Milky Way at night.

Named after the whale constellation, the Cetus Project will create an observatory where the stunning astronomical formations that hang over this tip of Lewis can be viewed.

In parallel, a listening station for whales which inhabit the surrounding waters is also planned with Professor John C Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, patron of the project.

Mr Brown said: “The Aird Uig Cetus project to create a site for watching both whales and the sky is for me an exciting part of the community plans to create visitor attractions around the many natural environmental wonders of the area.

“While the unpredictability of Scottish west coast weather is not ideal for astronomy, that will be offset by the extremely dark and crisp skies they enjoy in spots like this remote from any urban lights - perfect for stargazing and northern light viewing. I wish them well.”

It is expected to take several years to get the Cetus project off the ground, with more modest changes being made at Aird Uig to strengthen the foundations of the community.

A polytunnel to grow fresh produce for the community is being sought and an arts festival planned for the summer. Opportunities for renewable energy are also being pursued.

“Our community buyout has given us a great opportunity. It falls upon us, the current resident population , to take care of their place and to make it attractive and sustainable for future generations,” a statement from the trust added.