From nuclear-bomb-proof bunker to Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020
The stark, monolithic concrete block that is now Gairloch Museum is part of a history of military and civil defence that may seem out of place on the coast of the remote North-west Highlands of Scotland. However, the Royal Navy sent warships on exercise here from the 1890s on, Loch Ewe was a naval base in World War I and used for convoy gathering during World War II, and the army established its Fieldcraft Training Centre at Poolewe in 1943.
From being allies in the latter part of World War II, political hostility had quickly developed between the two power blocs led by the Soviet Union and the United States. As the ‘Cold War’ developed from the late 1940s, Wester Ross was once again in the mindset of the War Office. Characterised by threats, propaganda and indirect warfare, for example over Berlin, the fear in Britain was of Russian bombers flying in to drop lethal atomic bombs.
To counter such an attack, six sectors were set up to monitor air raids, using information from radar stations. The Scottish sector HQ was at Barnton Quarry, near Edinburgh. It communicated with Anti-aircraft Operations Rooms (AAORs) for each of four Gun Defended Areas (GDAs). One of these was built at Gairloch for the Loch Ewe GDA, in (probably) 1953. AAORs were purpose-built, to cost £25-30,000 and designed to give protection against the heat and blast effects of a nuclear explosion, but not radiation. They were severely functional, reinforced-concrete bunkers to one of two standard designs, depending on the local landscape and available building materials. The other three in Scotland (Inverkip/Clyde, Craigiehall/Forth and Rosyth, and East Kilbride/Glasgow) were partially underground, whereas the Gairloch AAOR had both floors above ground. It should be noted that it never was the ‘radar station’, though local people called it that, perhaps because of the communication mast prominent outside.
Although no original War Office plans of the Gairloch AAOR survive, similar bunkers had a double-height operations/plotting room at the centre of the building, overlooked by a viewing gallery, circulating corridor and control cabins. The remaining rooms were operational (such as signals and telephone) or staff facilities for male and female Army officers and ranks, including rest rooms, mess rooms and toilets.
The community within the bunker would have been completely self-contained, able to withstand weeks of isolation from the outside world, with a NAAFI, ventilation system, air conditioning and back up batteries for the generators. The double steel blast-doors at front and rear were protected by open-sided concrete blast wall porches. There were no windows.
Operations was planned to be carried out by the personnel of Army 78 Brigade, supported by civilians. Their role would be to receive the reports of the approach of hostile planes from RAF stations, via Barnton Quarry. They would then transmit the details of direction and height to local gun sites, which would take action if interceptor planes failed to deter the intruders. However, in 1956, before it was ever used, aircraft and nuclear bomb technology had developed to such an extent that the Gairloch AAOR became redundant for its intended purpose and so (as elsewhere) was decommissioned.
In the late 1950s, parts of the building were adapted to serve as the Ross and Cromarty Roads Depot. The gallery overlooking the central plotting room was taken out, as was the external protective blast porch and original front door to create a wider opening fitted with a roller shutter door. Fortunately, the original back blast porch was left, still to be seen today.
When international tensions escalated again, particularly at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, part of the Roads Depot was re-designated the local Civil Defence Area Control Centre, linked to Inverness. If required, following a nuclear attack, the staff here would control and co-ordinate the distribution of food supplies, rescue casualties, find accommodation for those made
homeless, dispose of human remains, prevent disease and advise the public on the effects of, and protective measures for, nuclear fall-out. However, with relations improving between the USA and USSR, the UK government announced, in January 1968, that home defence would be placed on a ‘care and maintenance basis’ and the almost-completed conversion work was put on hold.
In the 1980s, as events world-wide revived Cold War fears, the AAOR was once again resurrected for Civil Defence, this time as a Regional Standby Emergency Centre. And, once again, the crises came to an end just as the final construction work was close to completion. The new blast doors and decontamination showers installed to make the Centre fit to support the continuation of government and services in the aftermath of an atom bomb were, fortunately, never needed.
So, the Roads Depot continued to operate from the ‘bunker’ and, for a time, the caretaker’s house became the local library. In 2010, Highland Council confirmed its intention to move the Roads Depot to the quarry outside the village and to sell the site. However, the volunteers of Gairloch Heritage Museum recognised its potential to provide the space and facilities they had been looking for to secure the future of the Museum. The Council generously agreed to transfer ownership as a community asset. Thanks to the funding and grants awarded by national, public and private organisations, and a remarkably successful local fund-raising campaign, the AAOR was transformed into the new Gairloch Museum, sharing its premises with West Highland College. It opened in July 2019, with facilities for heritage, learning and community use. The story of this unusual building is now told in the Three Wars Gallery, where a model displays the layout, with booklets available in the Museum shop.