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Military Connections

From ancient times people from this part of the world have frequently been employed in the armed force


Visit Leirinbeg Sango Radar Station

Visit Loch Eriboll for more military connections.


There are four distinct ranges in the Cape Wrath sector. 

1. The Naval Gunfire Support Range covering the whole of the land of Cape Wrath and is used for naval guns to practice shore bombardment. This range is usually used between four and eight times a year.

2. The Garvie Island Bombing Range is the only one in Europe where live one thousand -pound bombs may be dropped. When this range is active for live bombing the Naval Gunfire Support range is also activated because of the safety circle for live bombs includes part of the mainland. This range is the most used of all the ranges but it may only be used up to fourteen days in any month. Aircraft come from all over Europe to this range. The attack profiles bring the aircraft onto the range seaward at low and medium levels providing realistic training for ground and air crews and the random testing of production bombs in a controlled environment. It takes four years training for a combat ready pilot to drop one thousand pound bombs on Garvie.

3. Close Air Support Range uses target plots on the mainland close to the shore and live bombing is not allowed. It is normally used three or four times a year for air to ground cannon and rocket firing and inert bombing.

4. The Torpedo Range is an entirely off shore activity and the land is not affected.

The very highest priority is accorded to range safety and extensive checks are carried out to ensure both land and sea areas are clear before any firing or bombing commences. These checks are controlled from the observation position at Faraid Head. The Royal Navy who have command of the Cape Wrath and Garvie Island Range are eager to maintain good relations with the people of Durness and the importance of this range is regularly expressed.

Garvie Island Bombing Range is the only one in Europe where live one thousand pound bombs may be dropped and is crucial to the final training of fighter pilots in gaining the experience before being asked to perform in a battle situation. The MoD owns approximately two thousand four hundred and ninety hecta acres. They also own twenty point seven four nine hecta acres of headland within which is located the Range Control Tower facilities on Faraid Head. Administrated by the Office of the Flag Officer for Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland, HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Helensburgh. The use of the Range from July 1996 to July 1997 was sixty six days (Garvie) and sixteen days of Naval Gunfire. There must be no more than two hundred bombs and four hundred rockets released in any two month period.

There are few stories of serious problems although at irregular times in the past there have been complaints about unacceptable intrusion, disturbance and damage. The forming of a liaison group and creation of agreed procedures is an ongoing process of the community and MOD establishing working relationships. A free telephone line to the control is operative when the range is active and complaints have to be made directly. Damage from any military activity to buildings is recorded and inspected and compensation deals made individually. Should noise and vibrations be unacceptable there are four local people with authority to demand the activity is immediately stopped.

All possible measures are taken to keep interference with the normal everyday activities of people living and working in the area to a minimum and the ranges are only activated on days when noise and vibrations are estimated below certain levels. These levels were ascertained with seismic, geological and noise reverberation level research commissions and with meteorological reports on the day predictions are made as to the likely disturbance. The presence of military activity, which has a long history and is responsible for many disused brick buildings scattered around, brings locally welcomed civilian employment.

The MoD has an ongoing conservation programme with the aim of monitoring the effect of bombing on the seabirds. Cape Wrath Conservation Group has recently held its sixth Annual Meeting. (July 1997) The aim is to pursue a positive conservation policy, not by getting involved in active conservation management, but by establishing exactly what needs protecting on the site, deciding on a suitable conservation management plan and liaison with the bodies responsible for site management. Ministry of Defence policy states groups of this kind should be established in areas, which are subject to national and international conservation legislation. Cape Wrath contains a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area for Birds (SPA) under the European Directive  “Birds Directive” and it is vital the MoD are seen to be managing the sector correctly from a wildlife aspect. The Naval Bombardment Range of Cape Wrath and Faraid Head has accordingly a Conservation Management Plan 1996 – 2001.

The use of the location as a live firing range has a mixed effect on the ecology, as military use will almost invariably result in damage. The damage can be inshore shell holes that quickly become colonised by small aquatic life, plants and animals diversifying the habitats in the longer term. There are characteristic factors identified, influencing management including detailed effects of the general marine environment, ownership of the land, visitors and access to the sector. During tupping and lambing seasons, the use of the range is kept to a minimum and for long periods each year there is a total ban on all live firing to coincide with particularly delicate natural cycles. Since 1932, intensive bombardment has not appreciably affected the colonies. Undoubtedly live firing cause damage and the death of some wildlife. Despite the clear inference that such activity does not deplete the quantity or variety of wildlife it will always remain a reason for adverse criticism from those who do not wish the Armed Forces to train onshore.

The Conservation Group is closely linked to a Wildlife Study Group that conducts a week long annual expedition to the site during the breeding season between May and August called Operation Auk, supplemented by periodic visits throughout the year. The first Operation Auk took place in 1993, however since 1988, Cape Wrath SSSI has been involved in investigations into the effects of the MoD�s bombing activities on nesting seabirds, gathering of site information and bird ringing studies and since 1985 an annual survey by MoD personnel and associated civilians has been carried out at Cape Wrath. There are about twenty volunteers taking part in the Operation AUK from all the branches of the forces and civilians.

There is a live bombing range used by all branches of the services that has been present here since before the 2nd world war. Comprising much of the land towards the Cape and neighbouring Garvie Island, this is the largest live bombing range in Europe. It is the only one in Europe where live 1000 pound bombs may be dropped, and is crucial to the final training of fighter pilots in gaining the experience before being asked to perform in a battle situation. Perched at the east end of Balnakeil beach on the most northerly point of Faraid Head is a small building for the Air Traffic Control for Cape Wrath and Garvie Island Ranges. Fortunately most activity takes place out with the main tourist season and visitors are often unaware when the range is active

On occasions after notification of the ranges being active and local civilians involved are prepared nothing, materialises and peculiar reasons eventually emerge. The latest was the Spanish Navy Boats failed to turn up. The day’s activity is cancelled.

In the last thirty years three occasions have arisen causing adverse concern. A helicopter crash into the side of a hill above Loch Croispol around 1979. In approximately 1976, a bomb exploded outside the range and caused shrapnel to be a danger, with the hitting of a local woman while collecting winkles on the Kyle of Durness. She was treated on a naval ship for minor injuries and received a couple of hundred pound compensation. In 1993, aircraft were fourteen kilometres off course and confused Am Balg in Sandwood Bay with Garvie and dropped two one thousand pound bombs. Hill walkers reported the incident and notwithstanding the episode happened half a mile off shore and no one was hurt. It was very frightening for people in the area. This matter took five years to come to the attention of journalists when it became television and newspaper news although discussed at the Liaison Group meeting in 1994.

September 11th 2001

There has been notification that HMS Exeter was in the area and had a few hours that could be used welcome visitors from the local community. Three members of Durness Community Council chairman Kenny MacRae, Jock Sutherland, Jack MacPherson, David Ingles the local policeman, Graham Bruce from Durness Primary School, Ronnie Lansley and Yvonne Davidson correspondents for the NT from Durness and Kinlochbervie made the party complete. After a knuckle-riding voyage in a small rib from the harbour at Kinlochbervie and what appeared a precarious climb to the ship the party were warmly greeted on board HMS Exeter. The plan was to give the visitors a three � four hour trip out into the Minch and be aboard the ship while several manoeuvres were demonstrated. The tour began with a slide presentation and after about five minutes was interrupted as the ship was put on full alert with orders to make way to the mid Atlantic to give air defence after the news of the catastrophic events in America. The ship at this point was eight miles out and action began all around. The visit was cut short and the visitors returned to shore as soon as the distance for the rib to travel was reached at about a mile and a half from shore. The appointment was an experience the party will remember for a long time. The captain and the crew could not have been more accommodating and were full of apologies. Some of the crew were emotionally disturbed as the news was breaking and on the deck many were in tears as the spoke into mobile phones. A quick presentation was made to the Community Council Chairman and Head teacher of fired shells from the ship as a memento. This was an instance when the group were reminded of the importance of the Cape Wrath Range to the Armed Forces in defence of democracy.

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