Saturday, 30 January 2010

SHE -Setters Hill Estate

For the first 10 years of RAF Saxa Vord there were no official Married Quarters for anyone not of senior rank. The average officer, NCO or airman who wished to bring a wife and family to Unst was expected to hire a dwelling in the community. In the early days with National Service, the average age of those posted to Unst was a lot younger than it was to become in the 60’s so, as time went on and the average age increased, the demand for housing grew.

It comes as no surprise to many that there were some funny rules in the “old days”. Married servicemen were paid a marriage allowance – in effect married people got paid more than their single workmates for doing the same job! This allowance was complicated by the fact that airmen didn’t get this allowance until they were 21 years old – officers had to wait until they were 25. Officers were also expected to notify their CO’s formally before getting married. Another oddity concerned postings to Saxa – for many years only servicemen could be posted there. Servicewomen were not allowed until much later (the 80’s I think). Whether this policy was for their own safety amongst a crowd of sex starved men or because of economics I don’t know. In those days there had to be female Officers where women were employed and of course separate billets/facilities.

By 1965 the MOD decided that there was a need to build an official quarter’s patch. The contract was awarded to Dorran Construction Ltd from Perth. Forty-seven houses and 15 garages for about £259,000 – a good investment, but there again when I joined the RAF the following year my pay started at £6.8s.0p per week (£6.40 in today’s money). A clip from the Shetland Times is shown below –Left click to enlarge
The construction company ran into financial difficulties before the contract was completed and that is referred to in this second Shetland Times Article:-

The next picture comes from an article featured in the RAF News in February 1967:-

The 2 photos below show parts of SHE soon after it was first occupied.:-
Some time later the estate was extended – the 2 storey houses in the photo below. Also of interest in the picture is the Baltasound Hotel (centre right) – translation for old codgers “The Springfield” or “Springers”:-

The sequence of pictures below were all taken earlier this month (Jan 2010) on a particularly dreich winters day – they may serve as a reminder to some of the many service families who lived there:-

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Power to the People (amended 11 Jan 18)

RAF Personnel, posted to Unst when the camp opened in 1957, were entering a different world. Most of them would have come from towns and cities on the UK mainland and be used to many facilities not available to Unst folk at the time. Many of the incomer’s families would have bought a TV set to watch the Queens Coronation in 1953. They would be used to electric kettles, irons and record players; whereas, Unst had no mains electricity before the arrival of the RAF. A few families had private windmills and charged batteries for lighting and radios, otherwise the use oil lamps for lighting and ranges for cooking were the norm.

 This led a few of the servicemen to feel that they were in the midst of a backward society.  In fact, many of the locals were better educated, better travelled and better skilled than some of the newcomers. A number of Unst folk had fought in WWII and had done National service. There had been many servicemen on Unst at RAF Skaw until it closed down and so the local population were more used to the incomers than vice versa.

Those members of the RAF who accepted that life on Unst was different, not necessarily better or worse, usually ended up enjoying themselves. Over many years it was said that more servicemen requested extensions to their tours at Saxa than at any other RAF Station in the UK. A significant number requested second and third tours of duty.
In order to operate the station it was essential that a Power House be built to generate electricity. 
The electricity produced was more than enough for the RAF and so it was possible to offer mains electricity to Unst. In fact the island was able to receive mains power before many other parts of the Highlands and Islands. Unfortunately, residents had to pay in the same way as other UK citizens.

In order to keep the generators running fuel was needed in fairly large quantities. Two large oil tanks were built by the pier at Baltasound.
The Unst History Group produced a booklet to celebrate the Millennium and it contained a picture, taken in the early  '60s, of some of the Power House staff. I have reproduced it below, together with the list of of people shown:
An article from the RAF News about the delivery of fuel to the RAF is below.

At some time, possibly in the 70’s, it was decided that Unst south of Baltasound would receive its mains power from the Scottish Hydro via Yell whilst the RAF would continue to supply to the north of Baltasound. With the RAFs need for standby equipment they were able to provide a more reliable service and there are stories of bad nights when those north of the voe were enjoying light and heat whilst those to the south were in darkness and cold. Eventually the Scottish Hydro took over supplying the whole island and the Oil Tanks were no longer needed. The last picture in this section shows what the area looks like now.


Monday, 25 January 2010

If God had not made the Island of Unst then the MOD would have had to invent it.

The title of this section is the first sentence of a large article in the Scottish Daily Express in October 1969. There is no doubt that the strategic importance of Unst was recognised by both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force from WWII or even earlier. During the Cold War the location of RAF Saxa Vord was critical in the NATO radar chain and, in particular, was essential in providing early warning for the UK Air Defence Region.

Left click to enlarge the picture below – for people with eyesight like mine additional zooming may be necessary.

Two items of note:

  1. The Saxa Vord Shop looks like the NAAFI Shop as I remember it.
  2. The DJ on the right of the article is Andy Parkinson who has been good enough to allow me to use some of his photos on this site.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Transmitter/Receiver Sites at Closure

Once again I'm grateful to John McMeechan for the use of these photos, taken of the Tx/RX sites in May 2006. (Left click on photos to enlarge).

Top Site after Closure

The radars have gone, though from a distance little has altered. There are no servicemen on site but civilian contractors visit to maintain some radio equipment ( I presume related to the oil fields which are active around Shetland). The perimeter fence is intact but for how long the site remains in its current state in Shetlands climate is a matter of debate. The photos below were taken in May 2006 by John McMeechan and when I visited in Dec 2009 (in a 50 knot breeze) there appeared to be no visible changes.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Views of the Domestic Site Just After Closure

RAF Saxa Vord closed in April 2006 after nearly 50 years of operational life. A section on the closure ceremony will be published in the next few weeks.  The photos below were taken by John McMeechan in May 2006 from the road up to the Top Site. They show the camp looking rather desolate.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Treasure Island - RAF News 1969

The RAF News published an article about Saxa Vord and Unst, written by Frank Murphy, in an issue dated 9 Aug 1969. Unfortunately the copy I have is rather well-worn but I’ve done my best to reproduce it in the 2 pictures below. Left click to enlarge the pictures but a certain amount of zooming may also be needed to read the text in the first picture.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Haroldswick School

Haroldswick Primary School was situated about a kilometre south-west of the RAF Saxa Vord Domestic Site. In the years 1957 to 1997 numerous RAF children will have attended the school. There were 2 other primary schools on Unst in this period at Uyeasound and at Baltasound – I hope to cover these schools in the future. The Haroldswick School was closed in 1997 due to falling roles and the Shetland Islands Councils desire to consolidate education in fewer establishments (save money).
A few years ago The Unst Heritage Centre moved into the old school and is open to tourists in the summer months. (Left click on photos to enlarge).
The final picture is of Haroldswick children outside the Methodist Kirk in a Sunday School Photo