By David Nicholls, former Leading Aircraftsman
One blustery day in the Spring of 1951 I found myself standing outside a collection of huts in the far North of Scotland near Durness. This was RAF Sango, a place I had only heard of a few days ago. I’d had a tiring journey. By slow steam train from HQ No 1 Ground Radar Servicing Squadron at Grangemouth to Lairg. The final 60 odd miles was over a single track road in a single decker bus driven by a friendly soul called Jimmy. No-one in sight as I stood there surrounded by my luggage and RAF kit. The bus reversed into the side road and as I stood there I could have sworn a young schoolboy who had been on board was driving it away. (I found out later that I wasn’t seeing things – the bus driver’s son did get a chance to drive the empty bus).
The wind howled through the 360 foot high steel radar aerials which dominated the skyline for miles around. The sea lashed angrily at the rocky coast line and the wind tugged at my RAF greatcoat as I made my way to the nearest of the wooden huts. I was greeted by a friendly Flight Sergeant with the words, “You must be the new driver – have you eaten anything on your journey yet?
After a welcome meal I was taken to my new quarters across the road and down a steep bank. I met the rest of my comrades and settled into life at the northernmost radar station on the mainland of Britain. There were about fourteen of us. Several RAF policemen (with dogs), cooks, a few radar technicians, an engine fitter, two general hands and a mechanic/driver – me.
The radar which had provided vital service during the world war was no longer operational but on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis until a decision would be made about its future. Some old wartime radar stations around the Scottish coast were being hurriedly converted to modern equipment to detect missile launches and hostile aircraft. The Iron Curtain was in place and the Russians threatened the West. Rumour had it that RAF Sango was to be upgraded and modernised too but the effort was concentrated on the east coast.
Sango carried on with us quietly guarding the site with its tall steel and wooden towers. A couple of diesel generator engines were kept going to keep the radar gear warm and dry in the brick buildings. My duties were to keep our sturdy Bedford truck in good order and to drive daily to Durness with the cook to buy groceries.
The main shop in the village was on the corner of the T junction of the road from Rhiconich with Balnakeil to the left and RAF Sango to the right. This shop sold just about everything needed by the local householders in that remote village. The other shop in the village was on the road towards Sango. A small shop run by a wonderful old man called George.
George had a soft spot for us RAF men and when we called to buy foodstuffs from him there was always a welcome and a cup of tea from the kettle he kept simmering on a large iron peat burning stove. He was full of surprises. One day I called in to his shop and found two other customers there. They were French girls staying at the Youth Hostel which was then in a large house near the bend in ‘The Loop’ road. George was charming them and chatting away in fluent French. Asked later where he had learned to speak the language he replied, “Och, I was in France with the Army in the Great War”. He wouldn’t tell us more about his war service – perhaps it was too painful for him. George was a character I will always remember with affection and respect.
Sometimes I had to drive to Kinlochbervie with the cook to buy fish straight from the seine netters as they unloaded in the evening. These boats brought in tons of herring daily which was loaded into trucks taking the fish South. We had an excellent cook at the camp and he made good use of that fresh fish. I learned a little of the hard life of these fishermen. Put to sea in the early hours of the morning, a days hard labour out in the Atlantic before returning to port in the evening. In really violent stormy conditions the boats stayed in the loch and even sometimes could be seen moored as far inland as Rhiconich.
Most weeks I had to drive to Lairg to pick up supplies and beer for the little bar we had on the RAF station. The only licensed premises where a drink could be enjoyed was the Cape Wrath Hotel, too far away for us so our bar was well used. I came to know that narrow road alongside Loch Shin, Loch More through Rhiconich and Laxford Bridge well.
As Summer arrived I explored the country around the camp. Just across the road from our living quarters was Smoo Cave. Though well known in those days it had no tourist signs or wooden walkway as it has now. There were far fewer houses to be seen then and many of them were crofts with their flocks of sheep grazing on the heather hills towards the seashore. In fair weather parties of us would walk across the heather towards the higher hills taking a packed lunch and returning tired out from the fresh air and exercise.
After a while I took a few days home leave and returned on my motorbike riding all the way from my parent’s home on the South coast. Now I was able to explore further. The wide sandy beach of Balnakeil was one of my favourite spots and I rode around Loch Eriboll sometimes seeing large ships sheltering in its deep water.
One incident that enlivened our lives in that Summer was the arrival of an Anson aircraft on the beach at Balnakiel. It had been on a training flight with a number of trainee navigators on board and they had lost their way; too many cooks spoiling the broth perhaps. The fuel state became critical and the pilot made a forced landing on Balnakeil beach. It was a skillful wheels-up landing only damaging the tips of the propellers. As the nearest RAF station we at Sango had to find overnight accommodation for the crew and place a guard on the aircraft. Next day transport arrived to take our visitors away and a recovery party came to dismantle the plane and take it back to its base. We heard later that it was flying again a couple of months later.
There was tragedy too in my stay at RAF Sango. One of the RAF policemen had a motorbike and was involved in an accident in which a local man died. I do not remember his name or much of the details of the event but there was a traditional funeral and a small party of RAF attended as a sign of respect. I remember that the cortege walked to Balnakeil cemetery with the mourners acting as pall bearers in turn for the length of the last journey.
Life continued at RAF Sango – a pleasant backwater of the Air Force. No parades, no drill or any of the less enjoyable happenings of normal RAF life. We just carried on doing our job and enjoying the splendid scenery of the North of Scotland. I looked forward to finishing my National Service in this pleasant place. However fate had a different plan in store for me.
One morning in a rush to get one of our number into the village to catch the bus to Lairg for home leave I took a short cut down the narrow unmade track to avoid driving round the ‘loop’. As I turned the corner I saw to my horror an Austin Seven hauling itself up the steep hill towards me with no room to pass. I braked, the truck skidded, caught one wheel on the left side bank, flipped over onto its side and slid downhill coming to rest only a inches from the long drop to seaward. Somehow it had missed the small car much to the relief of the gentleman driving it. After making sure that there were no injuries my passenger gathered up his luggage and jogged towards Durness to catch the bus. The news of the accident soon reached the RAF station and I walked back there, shaken but glad to be alive. The next day a replacement driver and truck arrived and I returned to our HQ at Grangemouth in disgrace to face a Court of Inquiry and such punishment as the RAF decided to award me. So ended my time at this remote outpost.
I vowed to return someday but over fifty years were to pass before I got the chance. In 2008, I had a scary brush with the ‘old man with the scythe’. As I lay in my hospital bed recovering I determined to do some of the things I had been meaning to do when I had the time. High on that list was a return trip to Durness and some other places in Scotland where I had spent some five years of my young life. So in August I loaded up my motorcaravan, filled the tank with diesel and drove northwards.
I tried to use the same route that I used on my motorbike all those years ago but the roads have changed a lot since then. No motorways and fewer bypass roads in the 1950s. After Lairg the road has not altered much. Still a single track with passing places though the passing places now have a little diamond shaped sign to remind drivers to pull in safely. Passing Loch Shin the memories flooded back and I knew what to expect around each bend in the road.
Durness was a surprise. No general shop on the corner anymore but a Spar supermarket on the other side of the road. George’s shop was still there but much extended. Gone was the peat stove but the friendliness of the people was the same. A Tourist Information Centre, and many more houses that I remembered.
Best of all for me was a superb camping and caravan site with breath-taking views of the coastline. I quickly booked in, plugged in to the electricity and set up home for a few days Unloading my bike from its rack on the motorhome I cycled round the Loop. From Sango Sands caravan site I could see the hill where the radar towers had stood. Now only concrete plinths show where these monster constructions reared up into the sky. Walking over the fields I found the ruins of the building where we stored our petrol and diesel and the engine sheds. Walking further from the ‘Technical Site’ I came to the ‘Domestic Site’. Our old Mess Hall and HQ building is now a seafood restaurant. Our living quarters are the Youth Hostel. The Warden was interested to hear that the Hostel had originally housed a party of RAF men and kindly gave me a tour of the buildings. Nostalgic to stand in the same room that had been my home in 1951.
Down at Smoo Cave I saw the wooden walkways and the boat tour of the interior – none of which were there in my time. New to me too were the Community Centre and the John Lennon plaque. I visited the scene of my accident on the steep short cut to Durness village. The once rough track is now a metalled highway. (I’m sure if it had been before I wouldn’t have skidded disastrously). I cycled over to Balnakeil and took a photograph standing in the same position as I did to picture the stranded Anson aircraft all those years ago. Then a visit to the Craft Village, surely a must for any visitor, and bought some presents for my nearest and dearest back home. All too soon it was time for me to start the long drive back to Sussex. I’m glad I returned. Durness may have changed but the Highland scenery is still breath-taking and the friendliness of the people is the same. I shall come again next year.