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The Sunday Herald

Village Set For War As US Navy Returns

By Alan Crawford

February 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002
SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

After 70 years of bombs, the residents of Durness are finally up in arms over the local firing range

They have rubbed along together for the past 70 years ... villagers wanting a quiet life and military commanders who had found the perfect place for the live testing of bombs.

But the arrival in Cape Wrath last week of one of the US Navy's most senior commanders has seen the relationship strained almost to breaking point.

Feelings boiled over last Wednesday evening at a meeting in Durness Primary School of the committee that liaises between the community council and the Ministry Of Defence.

The fury was was hardly quelled by MoD suggestions that the area could be marketed to "military tourists" who "would love to see live bombing". "It's a joke," said one resident. "People come out here for peace and quiet."

The scene was more than a little surreal. Rear Admiral David Hart of the US Navy, an extremely burly US lieutenant, various Royal Navy dignitaries, a man in army fatigues and representatives of the Royal Air Force had all turned out to face members of the community council and other local people. All were forced to sit on undersized plastic chairs designed for primary school pupils.

The local MP, Viscount Thurso, was also among the 40-strong crowd that squeezed into the classroom.

The MoD has been using Cape Wrath as a live bombing range for nearly 70 years with the tacit agreement of the residents of nearby Durness, mainland Britain's most north-westerly village.

But lately things have changed. A Nato exercise involving US forces on board the USS Enterprise over four days last summer opened up a gaping rift in the normally cordial relations between villagers and the MoD. Live rounds fired from distant ships over the horizon and a series of 1000lb bombs dropped from jets on to Garvie Island, barely five miles from Durness, caused houses to shake and sparked outrage among the civilian population.

Plagued by helicopters hovering overhead and stray US bombers armed with live payloads, the people of Durness and surrounding communities say they have had their fill of the armed forces. Now they fear things could be about to get worse.

"Last summer it was outrageous," said Monica Ross, a Durness crafts-woman and one of the most vociferous campaigners against the bombing.

"Normally, exercises involve just air-to-land tests on the island. But last summer it was like 30 years of exercises in three days. It was the worst there has ever been. It was deafening.

"Every so often we would get excessive bombing where the world shook. It was like a warzone, with helicopters at the back of the house from six or seven in the morning to 10pm. The jets were outrageous - they were so low that we phoned the police."

Colin Green, a local picture framer, added: "We have lived here for 10 years, and that exercise last summer was the most intimidating experience ever. Can you imagine a military helicopter right above your house? It is incredibly intimidating."

Under an agreed protocol, if the noise levels become intolerable, villagers contact one of three local "trusted agents" who then inform the military.

"If they receive complaints they're supposed to stop bombing," said Ross. "But it hasn't been working since the Americans came."

The presence in Durness last week of Rear Admiral Hart - no less than the deputy chief of staff for the US Navy in Europe - has fuelled fears that the Americans could be coming back to Cape Wrath for more.

The US Navy says Cape Wrath would never become a permanent base. However, it insists it is vital to train with "the allies", especially in the current climate.

And the locals remain wary. One reason is that President Bush has indicated that the US Navy will cease to use its live bombing range in Vieques , Puerto Rico , in May 2003, after a stray bomb killed a civilian guard and locals mounted a campaign against the bombing. Rumours are rife in Durness that the US may yet consider Cape Wrath, one of very few live bombing ranges in Europe, a suitable substitute.

Iris Mackay, who runs a shop in Durness and is one of the MoD's trusted agents, operates minibus tours round Cape Wrath in the summer months: at least, those periods of the summer when the single-track road to Cape Wrath lighthouse, which winds through MoD land, is not closed off due to live firing exercises.

"If they use the range for the days that they say, we are to lose 100% of our business with no sign of recompense or apology," she said. "They said they would not touch July or August and here they are touching July. They don't care a hoot. They have the land and they're going to do it."

Royal Navy Commander Bertie Armstrong, who is in charge of all RN installations in Scotland and who chaired the meeting, held up his hands and said: "I know you are not pleased. I understand. The best I can offer is I promise we will compress [the bombing] as far as we can."

It was not enough. Full-scale exercises are only possible in the summer, yet villagers receive no compensation for the intrusion into their lives during the high season. They also argue that the exercises put off tourists, the lifeblood of the fragile community.

Viscount Thurso, who has received representations from "a considerable number and variety of constituents" on the bombing, later said he would press junior defence minister Lewis Moonie on the issue.

"What's really called for is for the MoD to be sensitive to the fact that there is a four-month season locally and if you drive a coach and horses through that you are genuinely taking bread out of people's mouths," he said.

Arguments raged over compensation, but got nowhere. "Penny-pinching is the order of the day," said Armstrong. "The MoD are stretched like a drumskin. The firing range is just part of the background. Nobody sets up a business without knowing the conditions that prevail."

The MoD promised a noise and vibration monitoring exercise and categorically ruled out the use of depleted uranium-tipped shells. They pointed out that they had brought in a range warden to liaise with locals and that they spent (pounds) 145,000 in the area each year.

But it was the US rear admiral that people were most worried about. "We are going to seek every opportunity to train the way we fight," he said. "We are not going to fight by ourselves - it's a fact of life, whether a political reality or military reality.

"The US is not going to come and use Cape Wrath because it can't use Puerto Rico ," he added.

"Cape Wrath is one potential location and yes, we do need this range in terms of the opportunity to train with the allies. But the fact is it really isn't practical for us to come here. This is way out of the way and so it wouldn't be something routine whatsoever. It's not cost-effective."

Commander Armstrong later rejected the notion that the war on terrorism could spell an expansion of the range's activities.

"We have a finite number of ships," he said. "If anything, there would be unlikely to be more activity because the ships were deployed. But there has never been a clearer indication of the need for the range."

Later, Rear Admiral Hart, on his way to a dinner to which local people had been invited but which many rejected out of principle, said he was not surprised by the depth of feeling.

"Every one of us comes from somewhere," he said.

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