February 10, 2016
Whales and tea at Gallan Head
A windswept promontory on the most northerly tip of the Western Isles has been owned by the Ministry of Defence since the 1950’s. It’s been many years since Gallan Head saw active service as a listening post for Russian subs during the cold war. Last month this tiny community voted overwhelmingly in favour of buying the base from the MOD – with plans to continue its listening role but this time only for whale songs. A modest crowdfunding appeal has been launched to fit out a tea room.
A former Cold War surveillance station on a remote Scots island is being taken over in a community buyout and will be transformed into a major nature reserve.
The completion of the takeover by the Gallan Head Community Trust (GHCT) will kick-start an environmental project to create local jobs and reverse decline at Aird Uig, on the Isle of Lewis, the most north-westerly point of the UK.
The backers of the 84-acre buyout claim it would unlock ‘the Seven Wonders of a Secret Land”.
Projects are already underway to help the local economy by creating work and learning opportunities for local people.
Locals are also hoping to set up a dark skies space observatory at the old radio and radar installation which was set up at Aird Uig, Isle of Lewis, 60 years ago.
The site was part of Nato’s early warning system against Soviet submarines and aircraft, but the Ministry of Defence has no further use for the derelict buildings on the 84-acre clifftop site.
The trust also hope to place a hydrophone in the sea to pick up the sound of whales for visitors to hear.
Only 29 people were eligible for the vote about the purchase from the Ministry of Defence, which passed in a landslide vote of 21 to two, with a turnout of 79 per cent.
The buyout is the result of successful completion of the Scottish Government Community Right to Buy process.
GHCT says the MOD has been very supportive and helpful throughout the rigorous process, but that still left significant challenges to tackle.
It seemed at times that the community might not be able to find the resources to take on the land, but after more than 100 meetings all obstacles were overcome.
Artist and author Jill Smith, chair of GHCT said: “We are so fortunate to have this opportunity to share our amazing landscape and heritage to benefit our own and neighbouring communities. The Trust is highly motivated to make the most of the opportunities we now have. Small steps are already making a big difference. On behalf of the Trust I would like to express our great appreciation of the help and support we have been given by so many people.”
Jane Macintosh, head of strengthening communities at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) said: “Along with HIE and Scottish Land Fund, I am delighted that the Gallan Head Community Trust has completed their successful community buyout, which is a tribute to the hard work the group and community have invested in the project.
“Acquiring the land will give the local community the resources and control they need to deliver innovative projects for the benefit of people living in and visiting the area, to protect and promote their natural environment.
“We are looking forward to working with the trust in the future to help them realise their ambitions, and HIE is delighted to be supporting their crowd funding campaign to raise money for their exciting environmental projects.”
The community plans to return the land as much as possible to its natural state and to achieve a blueprint for conservation and land use consistent with a remarkable natural environment.
The Trust has applied for remediation funding and awaits a decision next month.
Working with partners SA Instrumentation and Stornoway Astronomical Society, the trust is striving to deliver the first phases of development during 2016.
These include the installation of a marine hydrophone so that visitors can “have a cup of tea and listen to whales”; and hopefully the installation of a planetarium inside one of the former MoD buildings.
A crowd-funding campaign is being launched today www.crowdfunder.co.uk/whales-and-tea .
Funds will go towards the creation of a visitor centre for opening this summer.
Martin Hayes, GHCT project manager said “Our approach will be to develop in small steps, engaging the community, our partners and the public at every stage.
“We especially want to involve young people wherever we can and we hope that our projects will help to encourage young families to settle here. Our flagship project, CETUS, aims to establish a multi-purpose observatory for the study of dark skies and marine wildlife”.
CETUS Patron, Astronomer Royal for Scotland Professor John Brown, is to visit Aird Uig soon to meet local people.
Whilst visiting, the professor plans to visit the Nicolson Institute to discuss opportunities for encouraging and recruiting student interest.
Work has begun on converting a house for use as the Gallan Head visitor centre, and health and safety improvements are underway to make the land safe for public access.
An opening celebration is planned for May.
A smaller celebratory gathering takes place today and will replace an imposing “keep out” sign with something more aesthetic and much more welcoming.
From that point, the land will be accessible to all comers and its secrets revealed for the first time in 65 years.
The Seven Wonders of a Secret Land are:
1 Geography The most north-westerly point of the UK, overlooking the fishing grounds of the beautiful Loch Roag: West to Greenland: North to the Faroe Islands, spectator to the journeys of the Norse and the Vikings, the migrations, the convoys, and the shipping routes of today. Some of the UK’s highest cliffs and biggest sea caves.
2 Landscape In a National Scenic Area, breath-taking views north to the Islands of Berisay, Old Hill, Pabbay, up the west coast of Lewis, across the Barvas moors, over the Uig and Harris Hills, down to St Kilda (on a clear day”!) and across to the Flannan Isles. “Amongst the finest scenery anywhere in Scotland”
3 Dark Skies There is no light pollution. On a clear night the milky way appears as a white stripe across the sky. A very good vantage point for the aurora borealis.
4 Contemporary History 100 years of surveillance through two world wars. An important part in the cold war and in operation through to 2010.
5 Heritage The Norse occupation, early theologians, the greatest fisheries, evictions and migration, last stand of the Lewis Macleods, prehistory settlers, archaeological mysteries, the missing lighthouse men; all happened here.
6 Marine wildlife Whales including Orca, Pilot, Humpback, Minke; Basking Sharks; Sunfish and porpoises, dolphins and seals. FIsh shoals and many seabirds. Amongst the clearest and least polluted of Uk waters.
7 Weather Anything can happen at any time – but you can see it coming! Wind speed in the January 2015 hurricane were estimated at 170mph. Waterfalls sometimes go uphill, sea spray crosses the peninsula from west to east.
The buyout has been made possible by funding from the Scottish Land Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Big Lottery, and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
The Comhairle’s Chair of Sustainable Development, Councillor Alasdair Macleod congratulated the achievement of the trust.
She said: “Ownership of land that has been denied to the general public for so long as a prohibited area in Uig, Isle of Lewis will ensure that the community improves their environmental, social and economic well-being and the Comhairle congratulate their successful effort to acquire their land.”