An Airman at Aird Uig, 1959-61

RAF Corporal Technician Pete Davis and his wife Hilary spend the first 18 months of their married life Lewis after he was stationed to RAF Aird Uig. They lived in Linshader and Aird. This is an engaging account of their time in Uig.

We are immensely grateful to Pete Davis and his wife Hilary for this warm and engaging account of the first 18 months of their married life, spent in in Linshader and Aird Uig, where Pete was a young Corporal Technician.  They were recently back in Lewis on  a short visit and we thank Barbara and Guido for putting them in touch with us. We are keen to have more stories and photos from anyone who built, worked in or served at the Camp in the 1950s and 60s, and will be writing to those who have already left comments to that effect.  Our main RAF Aird Uig page is here.

In 1959 I was a 23-year-old Corporal Technician in the Royal Air Force. I had been stationed for some time at RAF Beachy Head near Eastbourne in Sussex – an early warning radar site literally on the top of Beachy Head. There I met Hilary Macdonald who was a nurse in one of the local hospitals. We arranged to get married in the September of 1959. No sooner had we made our plans and I was informed that I was to be posted, in September, to RAF Aird Uig.

RAF Aird Uig was also an early warning radar site. The prospect did not enthral us, as there were no facilities for families at the station. The only slightly good thing was that postings to this station were only 18 months duration. Also, theoretically, one could request where the next posting might be at the end of your tour.

I applied for a delay in my posting date but did not expect to get it. In consequence we rearranged our wedding bringing it forward to 22nd August. No sooner had I done this than the unexpected delay was granted with a new date in November. In those days trainee nurses were not allowed to marry so Hilary gave up nursing. The wedding went ahead in August, as replanned, and we lived with her relatives for the next few months.

Despite the lack of family facilities at Aird Uig we were determined that Hilary would join me during my tour on the island. Amongst other things we bought a Morris Minor car with canvas top. The plan was for me to take the car up to Aird Uig and look for rented accommodation.

On the appointed day we loaded the all our worldly goods into a large tin trunk, put it in the back of the Morris Minor, and I set out for Scotland. It was a considerable journey in those days. The part through the Highlands was particularly interesting. I can’t remember if I loaded the car onto the Loch Seaforth at Mallaig or Kyle of Lochalsh. What I do remember is that they put slings under the wheels and dragged the car sideways across the quay and up onto the foredeck.

There were several other RAF personnel making the crossing and I was able to get some information about things to come from them. On arrival at Stornoway the car was dumped off the Loch Seaforth on to the dock. An RAF bus was waiting to transport the RAF people to Aird Uig and I arranged to follow it, not knowing how to get there any other way. The boat arrived in the early evening and in November it was getting dark. Following the bus right across the island, with the roads as they were then, was a bit nightmarish. Needless to say we made it and I was installed in the billet for the Corporals. If you visit Aird Uig today you will find all the RAF buildings still there but put to other uses. The technical site is still there but the radars have gone.

In the next few days I made enquiries amongst other airmen about available rented accommodation. There was not much on offer, it seemed. One of the Radar Operators, George Banks, and his wife Chrissie, lived at Linshader.  He said that his landlady was looking for another couple to rent a room. (Chrissie was a Lewis Islander.) Those who know the island will appreciate that Linshader is half way across the island, between Stornoway and Aird Uig. A long commute, especially if working shifts.

Never the less I arranged to visit Linshader and meet Mrs Mackay. After the inevitable hospitality with drop scones, crowdie and jam, washed down with tea, she showed me the room she was willing to rent and the rest of the cottage. The arrangement was that George and Chrissie had the downstairs room, we would have the room above them.   Mrs Mackay had the other upstairs bedroom and we all shared the kitchen, bathroom, lounge, etc. I can’t remember how much the rent was but it included electricity and peat for fuel. As it seemed to be the only option I agreed to take the room.

While having more scones and tea Mrs Mackay’s son, Murdanie arrived. Murdanie was home on leave from sea. I enquired where I could get oil for the car. He enthusiastically said he would show me and we set out for Stornoway. It didn’t occur to me that at that time of the evening nowhere would be open. We spent some time in Mac’s Bar but didn’t get any oil for the car. Mrs Mackay was not best pleased, I feel, when we returned later that evening.

I spoke to Hilary and told her all about our new home and we planned her journey up to the island. She arrived at Mallaig by train, a long journey from Eastbourne. I had gone across on the boat to meet her and on arrival at Stornoway we drove to Linshader.

Life in Linshader

Life soon settled into a steady routine. My work involved working shifts. The routine was; morning and evening on the first day. The next day was afternoon, and eleven pm to eight am the following day. There was then one day off, (sleeping). This was followed by a repeat of the first two days after which one had three days off, the first being to catch up on sleep.

As Hilary was, by our standards, rather isolated living at Linshader, I elected to travel too and fro for each shift. This meant that I was travelling approximately eighty miles a day. If I was duty NCO on the station I would of course not come home. George Banks worked similar shifts and he travelled separately on a motorbike. I would fill up my car with petrol at the wind up pump at Miavaig. If no one was about we would leave a note of how much we had taken and pay later. With all this travelling the car tyres soon wore out. I would take them off the wheels and make “gaiters”, cut from old tyres, and fit them inside over the holes and then put the tyres back on the car. Eventually I had to get some new ones from Stornoway. Travelling between Linshader and Aird Uig was pretty arduous especially when the snow came. With a couple of sacks of peat in the boot, to give the car some weight, I managed it without ever getting stuck.

Evenings would mostly be spent around the fire in the lounge. We would read, Hilary would knit or darn socks, etc. Later Mrs Mackay taught me to crochet. Supplies were obtained from a weekly visit from the Co-op van. Occasionally a van with fish would call. You had to buy the whole fish as there was no filleting or selling part of the fish. A big Minch eel or cod would last us for days. We also got occasional items from the Naafi Shop on the station. At this time we only visited Stornoway about once a month. Also once a month a catholic priest would come up from Barra and a Mass would be said on the station to which our spouses were allowed to attend.

Christmas and New Year were a little different to most of our previous years celebrations. I seem to remember we visited the camp, and then went with another couple to their rented accommodation for Christmas Dinner. At that time there was about four couples from the RAF living in rented rooms in crofts not far from the station. We would meet in each other’s accommodation from time to time for a chat, smoke and may be a meal. We all seemed to smoke hand rolled ‘fags’ at that time so someone was always rolling the next cigarette to hand round. Once in a while the RAF would run a liberty bus to Stornoway for the airman on the station. They could also travel on the bus that most days went to meet the boat for those travelling to and from the mainland. Personnel on the station found many things to occupy their time. There was a boat that could be taken out to sea to fish. One could of course fish in the lochs for trout, etc. A couple of the lads took up scuba diving and brought scallops, clams and lobsters up from the deep. Much of their time was spent playing board games and cards.

From time to time Mrs Mackay would leave to stay with her relatives on Bernera or her daughter Jessie. On these occasions we would look after the dog, chickens and the bullock. The dog, having no work to do, would herd the chickens, one by one at a time, out of the hen house. He would then put them all back, one by one. Needless to say, we didn’t get as many eggs as we might have done. The bullock had been brought back, from an island in the loch, for the winter and housed in the byre. One of our jobs, when Mrs Mackay was away, was to let the bullock out onto the moor to graze. He had been treated as a pet by Murdanie when a calf. Having been kept in the byre most of the time, due to bad weather, he was full of fun when let out. He would charge up the lane and bash the next peat stack, then turn around and rush up to you to “play”. It was very nerve wracking and difficult to avoid getting a prod with a horn. We learnt a few things from Mrs Mackay. She made great drop scones, crowdie, jam, and wonderful marag dubh and marag geal. She even made me a haggis on one occasion.

Early in the New Year we discovered we were to become parents. Hilary started knitting and I crocheted a shawl during our evenings around the fire. Hilary went once to Stornoway Hospital and afterwards was visited by the local District Nurse.  The Nurse had done her training in Glasgow and she had some remarkable tales to tell of her experiences there.

Life in Aird

In June Alec Gumbrecht, another RAF person, came near to the end of his eighteen-month tour. He and his wife had rented rooms from John [An Geal] and Maggie Maclennan at Aird Uig and with his help we negotiated a move from Linshader to Aird Uig. Mrs. Maclennan did not seem to think it was a problem that Hilary was pregnant and that the baby would arrive in September. We would still have six months of our tour to complete at that time. We were sad to leave Linshader as Mrs Mackay was such a nice person, but the travelling was a bit excessive.

At Aird Uig we had one living room and a bedroom and the use of the bathroom. We also had the use of the kitchen at the other end of the house. We supplied our own fuel for the fire in our lounge but could use their peat for the Rayburn range to cook on, etc. I can’t remember what the rent was but it included the electricity and the kitchen fuel.  Mrs. Maclennan was always worried that we were using too much electricity. As well as our selves and Mr and Mrs Maclennan their son, John Angus lived in the house. One of our jobs was to look after and clean the public telephone that was located in the entrance porch. On our recent visit we noticed it still is.

Our bedroom was at the back of the house. Behind the house was the byre, which had a room for the tweed loom, right outside my bedroom window. The other end of the byre housed a cow. When I came off watch after a night shift my sleep was not always peaceful. First Maggie would take the cow out through the alley between the byre and my bedroom. Apart from the “mooing” it was not always the sweetest smelling cow. Later Maggie would go into the loom room to start the bobbin-winding machine, usually just after I had dropped off to sleep. Later John would come out and start weaving. You will all know that the “clack, clack” of the loom is not the most restful thing to have outside your bedroom window.

Sunday was different for us. The Maclennans would go to church. Usually Maggie would have boiled her Sunday mutton on Saturday night and on Sunday she would ask Hilary to put it into the oven to brown for their lunch after church. We were somewhat restricted on Sundays. For example, we were asked not to have the radio on. It was a very quite day. On occasions there would be “meeting” held in the house. At these times we would be restricted to our own rooms. We found the style of hymn singing at these meetings fascinating, and by our standards, most unusual.

We had the privilege of being invited to John Angus’s wedding in Stornoway. This was a big event with about four hundred people attending. I happened to have tape recorder and John Angus asked if I could record the wedding for him. In consequence we were seated at the top table with tape recorder. I think most of the other guests wondered who on earth we were. One of the interesting things was that people would get up and sing, usually without prior announcement, as far as we could tell. Needless to say all the songs were in Gaelic and some of them were very beautiful.

Eventually September came. Hilary went into labour while I was on duty on the camp and I had some difficulty getting away. We called the District Nurse and the three of us started out for Stornoway Hospital. Every few miles the nurse got worried that things were progressing too fast and we might have to deliver the baby behind a peatstack on route. We arrived at the hospital and I left Hilary, not expecting anything to happen too soon. I returned to duty on the station and later went to bed. The next day I discovered that a baby boy was born within half an hour of my leaving. I was in serious trouble for not ringing up earlier for news and to see how she was. About a week later we brought Mark back to Aird Uig. Hilary found it difficult to get organised due to the domestic arrangements and also need to be treated by Dr. Matheson for some time. She will tell you that he always warmed his hands before examining her.

About March the following year my tour at Aird Uig came to an end. We packed our worldly goods and baby into the car. Having said good by to all our friends and acquaintances we set off for Stornoway and the boat to the mainland. It took two days for us to reach our home in the south of England. We never forgot our stay on the island and have just revisited fifty years later. But that’s another story.

9 thoughts on “An Airman at Aird Uig, 1959-61

  1. …and that self same John Angus Maclennan (Bachan) used to drive the RAF bus to Stornoway every day. Once his gearbox went coming down towards Kinloch, east of Gisla, and all he had was top gear. He was supposedly heard to say to the RAF personnel on board, “Hold on to your hats, boys” as he sped down the hill and across the bridge in top!

    Speaking of Kinloch, I bumped into the Morrisons who lived in that house by the bridge in the late 50’s and left in ’61. Mrs Morrison and sons Kenny Dan & John Murdo are living in Inverie, Knoydart and Mrs Morrison is a sprightly 98 years old, but although almost blind is as sharp as a tack. Her late husband was employed as a stalker on Knoydart Estate and John Murdo is now likewise employed. Their sister Jessie is married in Fort William.

    I wasn’t inthe RAF, but I was employed as a Labourer during the school holidays when the new Mast (Mast na h-Airde) was being built in the late 60’s. Almost buried the foreman in one of the Mast’s concrete anchors when I was delivering a dumper load of concrete to the site. There were two dumpers and the other lad and I used to race through the camp gates and across to where the concrete pour was to be placed. Of course I had not taken into account that the ground was wet, when I applied the brakes and the dumper slid and hit the stay that was being cemented in the hole!
    Although the foreman was a Free Church Elder from either Back or Stornoway, who was always quoting Scripture at us young ‘uns, I have never seen someone jump out of a hole so quick and be so close to swearing as I did that day!! His face went from white to bright red, as he managed to splutter out, ” Get off that b…..dumper, boy, before you kill someone!”
    My initial reaction was to question why “someone” when it was only him in the hole! Such is the bravado of a teenage youth!

  2. Great memories which helped me to recall additional things that I had forgotten, due to old age! I missed Pete Davis as I did not arrive at Aird Uig until late October 1961, but worked as a radar technician just like him. John Angus was well known to all the single RAF personel due to his role of driving the liberty bus to Stornoway on Wednesday evenings and Saturday lunch times. Going hell for leather non stop on Saturdays in order to make last orders before the pubs closed at 1400.

    Its strange that during my 18 month stay at Aird Uig, when I had some of the best times of my life, the greater majority of the other airmen seemed to be just wishing time away until they could move on to the next posting. However, since deciding to write my memoires about my time in the RAF it has been good to come across other people who also have very fond memories of their time at Aird Uig.

  3. Hello Jeremy.

    I think I must have been at Aird Uig at the same time as yourself.

    The whole time I was there I was obsessed with the sea, diving and sailing, plus hiking over the island, and sometimes writing in the Echo.

    I bought the car which Alex Gumbrecht writes about, and dumped it on fire over the cliffs at the end of its life – remember that?………..Eric

  4. Eric, I may have a photo of your car going down the cliff. I was a technician at uig from August 1961 until march 1963.
    Robert Allen

  5. I was an SAC Clerk Secreterial posted to RAF Aird Uig striaght from my trade training at RAF Credenhill. I was only 18 and I seemed to have upset one or more of the instructors on my course. Although I passed out in 2nd place in my trade training (out of around 30) when the postings were given out my destination was given out at the end, almost as an afterthought. There were postings to Fontenbleu, Canada,Cyprus, Hong Kong Singapore etc, in fact, mine was the only one in the UK.
    In the event, after the first shock, I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of duty. As an induction in the month following my posting in December 1061 I was among a sizable group of airmen stranded in Achmore by severe snow storms.
    Being a single man and with no real ties at home I took every opportunity to go to Stornaway whenever I could. I once missed the bus back to camp, woke up on a trawler (fortunately in harbour) and managed to scrounge a lift back to camp with the postie. I remember we formed a football team from the camp, confidentally expecting that we would marmalise all teams on the Island. In fact it turned out the other way around and we were soundly thrashed most games.
    During my time there and ornathologist fell to his death from the cliffs just outsde our billet. We didn’t know so at the time, of course, although the worst was feared when he went missing. Eventually he was found jammed between some rocks at the foot of the cliff. It was speculated that he was perhaps using binoculars and perhaps in doing so lost his perception of where he was treading. It was very sad and I remember that the party who found him were traumatised.
    Generally when not down in Stornaway or at one of the bothes I amused myself on the camp. I was very close friends with the Medical Orderley, who, perahps unwisely, was in daily charge of the sick quarters. I once tried going out for a run but a mist quickly feel and after a few scares I found my way back to camp with some difficulty. In the circumstances one could see how one might soon get lost in poor weather. I realised why resue shelters were dotted around the Island.
    Generally I have happy memories of my time on the Island although I have to say that Sundays did drag a little.

  6. I was posted to Aird Uig as a National Service radar operator, in late Spring 1958 and there until the same time in 1959. I totally agree with Pete Davis that once you had got over the first 3 months you soon realised it was a magical place and we were fortunate indeed to spend time there. I recall a guy who went missing for a few days, not sure that it was the same guy as in other accounts, we were in the same billet and I met him afterwards. He told me that he had spent some time in hospital with a load of alcholics drying out and it put him off the drink …for a while at least.
    The RAF benevolent Fund bought us 2 brand new sailing dinghies which I think we kept at Loch Roag. What a wonderful place to be introduced to sailing and I do not know why I did not do more sailing then, as when the facilities and funds became available I bought my first 11ft dinghy which 20k sea miles later has been upgraded to a family yacht of 11m, Uig has a lot to answer for.
    I read also Sam Webb’s piece with interest, the NAAFI and Uig Bioscope were up and running by the time I got there.
    I also remember the guy who lost his false teeth in the harbour, the night out and the morning after. I think that was the night that one of our number got arrested for fighting in the dance hall and when about to leave Stornoway on the camp, bus we stopped at the police station, all got out and demanded “our boy” from the bobby at the desk, much to our surprise he gave him to us without charge, mind you were were all pissed and gung ho for dismantling the building otherwise.
    On the Stornoway dances which have thus far (excusable in your married state) been neglected, the ratio of lassies to lads was always about 3:1 and it was normal in an “excuse me” dance for your partner to change 3 times in the one dance. On the down side the sauncy lasses were generally built not to blow over in the frequent gales and had, according to a chum “bra straps like webbing belts”.
    For my sins I am crap on names and cannot recall anyone by name from my time there. I was the guy who counted cards at 3 card brag and pontoon, with a trials bike. Jim Sey, AC2 to SAC at Aird Uig

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