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‘Loching’ In to Naval History

It’s been a week of dramatic skies displaying clouds of all sizes, shapes and colours, ranging from deep purple to fluffy white. Some have hung over the peaks like wafting bonfire smoke, while others have made the mountains look like gently simmering volcanoes. Many of the bruisingly-dark clouds could not contain their rain any longer, releasing squally deluges in my path.  Others have dazzled in bright sunshine or turned golden in the rays of a setting sun.

Arriving at Aultbea on the shore of Loch Ewe I was immediately struck by the tranquillity which would have been at complete odds with significant naval events there 77 years ago.  Today, that episode is recalled in the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum which I visited.  It naturally concentrates on the bravery and fortitude of sailors from both the Royal and Merchant Navies who bravely sailed the 2,500 mile Arctic Ocean convoy route. Their job was to resupply Russia (who was fighting off Germany) by delivering all manner of provisions and munitions to the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel.

Being a sheltered deep-water sea loch which links to the Atlantic Ocean and is also close to the Arctic Ocean, Loch Ewe was a natural choice to base the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet: from here the ships could make a quick departure in either direction. With its tiered levels of sea and air defences, the Loch also provided protection for merchant ship convoys that assembled here, together with their naval escorts.

By 1941 HMS Helican, a shore establishment, was commissioned at Aultbea and the Royal Navy, supported by the other Services, moved into the town and its surrounding areas. Remains of that era can still be seen.  Aultbea Hall, built in 1941 to serve as a cinema and recreational facility for the servicemen and women, still exists and is used as a cinema today. A little further out at Mellon Charles, a large depot was created for the maintenance of the submarine boom defences that were laid across the Loch: some of the boom net anchors remain visible.  Here ‘Wrens’ were employed to repair the anti-submarine net hoops.

On my walk down the Loch’s eastern side to Poolewe, I passed the refuelling jetty which continues to be used by British and NATO ships. I also spotted the place where barrage balloons had once been tethered to deter German bombers. Heading up the other side of Loch Ewe I noticed traces of anti-aircraft emplacements at Firepower Bay and found remains of some coastal gun batteries at the Memorial headland.  Here, the Russian Arctic Convoy Memorial commemorates all those sailors, over 3,000 of them, who sailed from the Loch but never returned to home shores. Their terrifying deaths in those icy Arctic waters are unimaginable to me.

For the quiet and remote crofting community, the arrival of such an enormous influx of military personnel in the Loch Ewe area must have been daunting, almost intimidating at the outset. The Forces outnumbered the local crofters by 3-1, but everyone soon adapted. During an awful winter storm on 25 Feb 1944, it was crofters who initially went to the aid of the few survivors thrown onto rocks from the Liberty Ship SS William H Welch, wrecked close to Loch Ewe’s entrance.

Following Loch Ewe the shores of Loch Gairloch were my next destination. Gairloch itself is another small village which provides for the more remote hamlets on its peninsula.  At the furthest point the Rubha Reidh (meaning Smooth Point) lighthouse rests a little above sea level on rocks that slope gently to the sea.  It was built in 1912 and like so many other lighthouses, all the building materials were brought in via sea, after a small jetty had been constructed nearby.  Scotland's lighthouses owe much to the design and engineering skills of the Stevenson family; the designer of Rubha Reidh light, David Alan Stevenson, was from the fourth generation of Stevensons. Automated in 1989, the Lighthouse’s original Fresnal lens together with fog horn are now on display at Gairloch Museum.

Gairloch’s other shore took me through equally remote settlements which included Shieldaig, Badachro, Opinan and Redpoint.  Out to sea were the coastlines of Skye and its distant neighbour Lewis. Sometimes, the only clue to there being a hamlet ahead is a line of telephone or electricity poles planted across the secluded landscape. As bus services are non-existent, these isolated places, once self-sufficient, now require all inhabitants to own a car or a good pair of walking boots.  I for one can vouch for the walking distance to their nearest village store!

See Photo Album No 43 – ‘Loching’ In to Naval History