How Benbecula Airport transformed island life

Peggy MacPherson at BEA desk, Christmas 1957. PIC Benbecula History Society.

Peggy MacPherson at BEA desk, Christmas 1957. PIC Benbecula History Society.

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From Cold War rockets to the possibilities opened up by passenger planes, the impact of one tiny island airport on community life is being documented for the first time.

The social and cultural importance of Benbecula Airport is to be assessed as part of a EU research project that is charting changes brought by air travel to some of the world’s smallest communities.

MacBraynes bus waiting for arrivals at airport. PIC Benbecula History Society.

MacBraynes bus waiting for arrivals at airport. PIC Benbecula History Society.

An airfield was to first open in the north west corner of the island, close to the village of Balivanich, during WWII with the Ministry of Defence significantly upping presence since then.

READ MORE: Island of the week: Benbecula

The airfield became the control centre for the Hebridean rocket range, established during the Cold War in South Uist, and is now the site of Benbecula airport.

During the 1950s, activity increased again with the building of an army base and the launch of passenger flights.

Princess Anne at Benbecula Airport on  26 April 1985. PIC Benbecula Heritage Society.

Princess Anne at Benbecula Airport on 26 April 1985. PIC Benbecula Heritage Society.

With a population of around 1,200, the airport has been an employer for two or three generations of the same family in some cases, said Dr Graeme Baxter, research fellow at Robert Gordon University’s business school.

And with passenger planes speeding up journey times to the mainland, Dr Baxter said it was viewed locally as a defence against depopulation.

Dr Baxter is currently stationed at Benbecula Airport to interview passengers and other locals about the airport’s impact on the community.

He said: “Certainly its importance as a local employer has been touched on by many but a lot of people have also referred to it as a lifeline service.

A No 220 Squadron Fortress IIA seen 'bombing up' with depth charges at Benbecula in  May 1943.
PIC 

Air Ministry WWII Official Collection 
/Royal Air Force official photographer

A No 220 Squadron Fortress IIA seen 'bombing up' with depth charges at Benbecula in May 1943. PIC Air Ministry WWII Official Collection /Royal Air Force official photographer

READ MORE: Life in 1950s South Uist uncovered in rare photographs

“Patients travelling to hospital in Stornoway and Glasgow for hospital patients will usually travel by aeroplane off the island, for example.

“Others see it as a prevention to depopulation with people able to travel for business on the mainland but continue to live on the island.”

The airport, described as the Gateway to the Uists, handles 32,000 passengers and 3,700 aircraft movements a year. Passenger planes fly between Glasgow and Stornoway.

During WWII, Benbecula Battle HQ was built by the airport to protect RAF Benbecula in the event of invasion.

Heavily reinforced to resist attack by enemy attack, the headquarters was fitted with a concrete roof over two feet thick.

Its rubbled remains sit around 40 metres from today’s airport.

The research team for RGU have mounted a photo exhibition at the airport in order to gather views and memories from islanders.

The work is being carried out as part of SPARA 2020 (Smart Peripheral and Remote Airports) which brings together partners from Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Norway and Australia in order to deliver increased innovation within the public service provision of airports.

Airports at Lerwick, Orkney and Skye are also included in the study along with other sites in Norway, Sweden and Ireland.

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