HL Deb 04 June 1957 vol 204 cc211-6

3.23 p.m.

VISCOUNT ELIBANK rose to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to matters relating to the installation of the Guided Missile Range on the Hebridean Islands; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving the Motion which stands in my name, I think it appropriate that I should explain in the first instance why and how it appears on the Order Paper. Some months ago, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, intimated to me that he and the Secretary of State for Air, Mr. George Ward, were to visit the Uist Islands, and would let me know when they returned. He was kind enough to inform me about ten days ago that they had paid their visit to the Islands, and as a result of that information I placed this Motion on the Order Paper in order to enable him to give the House an account of his visit and any information that he thought suitable in connection with it.

It may not be inappropriate if I recall that the matter first arose in this House when I put a Question to the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who at the present time, if I may mention it incidentally, is the highly popular and successful High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Australia. On October 27, 1955, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, whether Her Majesty's Government could indicate the sites which were examined for a guided missile range in the North West of Scotland and the Hebrides, other than on the Island of South Uist, and whether they could state the results of such examinations. A debate followed my Question on a Motion moved in a forceful speech by my noble friend Lord Polwarth, in which the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, showed that it was [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 194, col. 102]: only in the islands of North and South Uist and Benbecula that all the essential features "— that is, for the establishment of a guided missile range, for teaching our Forces the use of guided missiles— were present.

After some considerable differences of opinion relating to the holding of a public inquiry, that situation was finally accepted by this House and by Parliament. But I may say that, although the military arguments for the rocket range were accepted, many of us were not at all impressed by the arguments advanced in some quarters that one of the accompaniments to the range would be to bring great prosperity to a backward Hebridean island. It is true that benefit will be derived from rebuilt roads and bridges and such amenities, but South Uist is no miserable, poverty-stricken desert as is sometimes imagined. It is one of the most prosperous communities in the Hebrides, with good crofts and flourishing seaweed and tweed industries. As regards North Uist, it is true to say that the seaweed and tweed industries are still in their infancy, and although many crofters may now be working on the Sollas Aerodrome, when that work is completed they will have to rely on tweed and seaweed to help them to live. Much the same conditions exist on Benbecula as exist on North Uist.

The work of installing the guided missile range is now in hand, and the process of settling claims by the crofters and others is, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, knows, now nearing completion, following on the sitting of the Land Court in the month of April at Balevanich. Since the Land Court first came upon the scenes under an Act which, I perhaps; may be allowed to say, was introduced into the House of Commons by the late Sir Donald Maclean and myself, the crofters of the Highlands and Islands have always held the Court in the highest regard, and probably at no time has their confidence in the justice administered by the Court been greater than during the conduct of its proceedings at Balevanich under the fair and understanding chairmanship of Lord Gibson; and that confidence was, I am certain, felt by all, on both sides, who took part in the hearing.

If I nay introduce for one moment a personal note, it is that for some twenty years I lived on the very shores of the broad Atlantic, with the Islands of Mull, the Garvellachs, Colonsay, Islay, Jura, Scarba and Luing, circling our view to the West, and northwards towards Skye and the Uist group of Isles. It is small wonder, therefore, that the Island of South Uist, of which Her Majesty the Queen last year when she visited it said, This heavenly Island!I love it", should have figured much in my thoughts and activities in recent years.

On several occasions in the last two years I have asked the Government whether, in all the arrangements connected with the guided missile range, the Air Force authorities will have continuing regard to the safeguarding, so far as is possible, of the elements of Gaelic culture, and of archæology, and all the rare bird life on the Islands. My Questions in that respect have been reinforced by similar Questions addressed to Her Majesty's Government by the noble Lord sitting opposite, Lord Saltoun, and by my noble friend Lord Haddington. When I use the term "Gaelic culture", I mean Gaelic as distinct from Celtic. Though it is true to say that usage has made it convenient to employ the term "Celtic", "Celtic" cannot be properly applied to what is really Gaelic, and it is quite misleading to apply the term "Celtic" to the Gaelic language.

It may with truth be said that, from a cultural point of view, South Uist is one of the few parts of the Highlands still retaining its Gaelic culture and ways of life. It is indeed the citadel which keeps alive the Gaelic tradition and poetry and its collection of folklore and proverbs. These considerations will, I hope, be borne constantly in mind by the Defence and Air Ministries and by the Air Forces on the Islands. I hope also that they will remember the words of a distinguished soldier, Major-General Douglas Wimberley, Colonel of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, who commanded the famous 51st Highland Division from 1941 to 1943. Speaking as Chairman of the Annual Piping Competition of the Uist and Barra Association on February 16, 1957, General Wimberley, in a reference to the establishment of the guided missile range in the Uist Islands, said that these Islands were the acknowledged last stronghold of all that was best in Gaelic culture, and it would require all the Islanders' resolution to hold on very lightly to their culture, their Gaelic, their Highland ways and their ceilidhs in the days that lay ahead. It is my earnest hope that, so far as is possible, the newcomers to these Islands will assist the Islanders in the task laid down for them by General Wimberley. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I come into this matter on two points particularly. One is that in South Uist—and, I think, in North Uist—there are believed to exist, on very good and strong grounds, a large number of wheelhouses, one of which has been excavated practically as it was left by the people who deserted it. A great many others are also known to exist on these Islands. They are the last relics of what is now a completely forgotten civilisation. I think I am right in saying that the dating is not exactly agreed yet, but it is before the days of St. Columba. If this rocket range is established there, it will mean, probably, that a great many of these wheelhouses which are not visible but which are covered up by the sand dunes will disappear finally. The first question I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who is going to reply is: what steps have been taken to excavate these wheelhouses and learn all that can be known from them?

One could have wished—and perhaps the noble Lord will have something to say on this point, too—that a great many of the mounds where these wheelhouses were thought to exist would be left undisturbed, because science is always advancing and we are always finding how to learn more from the places from which we excavate. Some of them might have been left to the future, for the greater technical resources and probably the greater intelligence of our successors. I should like to know what has happened and what is going to happen about these places, because it is certainly a matter of great interest. It is a great credit to a country that it takes care of its archæological remains.

My other point, referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, so well, concerns Gaelic culture. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will I think agree with me that the point that has always lain between us is this: that I wanted Her Majesty's Government to put a considerable sum of money, say £40,000, at the disposal of the appropriate Scottish historical and scientific department in Edinburgh for them to complete as soon as possible their investigations into the Gaelic remains in South Uist before they were entirely obliterated by the influx of the new population. It is absurd to say, although I have seen it said by a responsible member of Her Majesty's Government, that the influx of a great new population will not obliterate many of these things in the minds of the people who are there. They are traditional.

Anybody who has been to the Western Islands knows that the people there will sometimes do their best to entertain you with a ceilidhs—although sometimes they are too shy to get one going because you are a stranger. Investigation is difficult. It takes people who know their ways to settle down and make investigations and record what will so quickly be oblitera'ed. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will, I think, agree with me that when I spoke about opposition, it was always conditional opposition; it was opposition unless a sum was provided for that purpose. I should be sorry to believe that it was not going to be provided. I should very much like to hear what the noble Lord has to say on that point.