I am mystified when I come across the former RAF base at Aird Uig - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am mystified when I come across the former RAF base at Aird Uig

About midday I came across a remote loch near Peter's Port in the extreme south-eastern corner of Benbecula Island. I took a few photographs of the fantastic scenery and then lay down on a grassy bank by the edge of the loch near a derelict pier and out of sight of anyone on the road I had just driven along. Since the road ended at the derelict pier, I assumed I was safe from being overlooked so I put my headphones on, started one of the Linguaphone tapes playing, and repeated phrases and sentences out aloud when the tape told me to. I closed my eyes and dozed off.

Above: This is my car parked - supposedly out of sight at Peter's Port - while I practised my Russian
I woke up some time later when the end of the end of the Russian tape was reached. I could hear voices close by, behind a rocky outcrop. Not wanting to spoil my idyllic day by meeting anyone, I remained still and closed my eyes again. I listened intently but could not make out what was being said. A few minutes later I heard a vehicle start up noisily and move away. I waited a few seconds then removed the headphones, got up and peered carefully over the edge of the rocky outcrop. I saw an RAF Land Rover driving down the road I had come up about an hour earlier. It was going fast and leaving a great cloud of dust. The occupants were clearly in a hurry. I wondered whether they had seen me with headphones on and had heard me apparently having a two-way conversation in Russian with someone. I wondered if the cleaning lady at the Lochmaddy Hotel had reported her encounter with me to the police? Had the RAF sent someone out from Benbecula to follow me and see what I was up to?

When the RAF Land Rover finally disappeared around a distant bend I noticed something I'd not seen earlier: there was a small enclosure set well back from the road and surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. In the centre of the enclosure was a metal, cupboard-like construction with a VHF radio antenna mounted on the top. A gate secured by a heavy chain and lock was on one side; a notice on the gate stated something like "RAF PROPERTY. Sensitive radio equipment critical to flight safety. KEEP OUT."

Did someone think I was a spy because I was heard speaking Russian near an RAF radio installation, or was that merely another coincidence? Had I actually been a spy, I would probably have arranged my belongings in my hotel that evening in such a way that I could have detected next morning whether or not they had been examined. But I wasn't and I didn't, so I don't know whether they had been!

Above: The pier at Ullapool in 1977
There was another curious incident a few days later when I was driving north across the island of Lewis and Harris. I was heading back towards Stornoway where I was booked on the late afternoon ferry to Ullapool. I still had time in hand when I came across a very narrow road leading uphill off to the left, signposted to Aird Uig. The name on the signpost and on my Ordnance Survey map meant nothing to me. Eventually, after winding gently uphill for several miles, I was brought to a halt by roughly hand-painted, fading 'No Entry' and 'Keep Out' signs on a rudimentary fence across the road. It was obviously an abandoned military site of some sort, but I knew instantly that I had been there before. I got out of the car and studied the scene closely. I looked around to see if there was anyone I could talk to but there was no-one in sight; indeed, I couldn't recall seeing a single soul or vehicle since I'd turned off the main road towards Stornoway about half an hour earlier.

As I continued to stare, more memories stirred. I could identify the prefabricated hut in which I knew I had spent a night, or nights at some time in the distant past. I could see the building that had been the guard room and I could recognise the layout of the main camp roads, one of which led uphill to the headland beyond overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It was a most unsettling experience because I couldn't imagine why I would ever have had a reason to be there before. After perhaps 15 minutes studying the scene, I suddenly realised that if I didn't set off back to the Ullapool road, I was in danger of missing my ferry connection. The journey right across the island from west to east was about 35 miles and I reached Stornoway Harbour with just a few minutes to spare. Once I was on board the ferry, I asked a couple of crew members if they could tell me anything about Aird Uig. One had never heard of it and the other had heard of a village of that name but didn't know anything about a military base there.

On my return to North Luffenham I searched all my diaries and flying log books, but I couldn't find any reference to Aird Uig and I seem to have forgotten about that mysterious military base for the next 24 years. Then, in 2001, I discovered from the Internet that Aird Uig was once an RAF radar installation where a massive Type 80 air defence radar was in operation in the early 1960s. Type 80 Radars were state-of-the-art in the 1960s. At that period, I had been an Air Electronics Officer on No 18 Squadron at RAF Finningley and we used to fly electronic counter-measures sorties to test the efficacy of the UK air defence radars. During my time on 18 Squadron I was sent on several official visits to Type 80 radar sites to talk tactics with the operators. Those visits were always classified Secret, so I never made any mention of them in my personal diaries - but I still have clear memories about the ones I know I visited. Perhaps I made such a visit to Aird Uig but, if so, I have absolutely no memory of how I got there or when.

Postscript. In  2015 I came across several Internet sites, with then-and-now pictures, about Aird Uig and the former radar station on the Atlantic headland. Since finding those pages I am even more certain I was there in the 1960s but I must have been brain-washed on my return!

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