Now and Then
During the past century rapid changes have been made with regard to technology and engineering. This is evident in our own area, where over the years we have seen many changes. Almost everyone living on the Moray Coast is familiar nowadays with the sight of huge oil related structures being towed in and out of the Cromarty Firth, used as a maintenance and repair hub. They arouse little suspicion or interest in Seaboard community’s as they come and go. Had those huge giants appeared fifty years ago they would have been greeted with amazement by our parents and grandparents. Even twenty years ago, we ourselves would have been really excited to see just one, whereas now we may find more than a dozen in the firth at any one time.
Little did we foresee those monsters sailing by, even less did we expect them to be fabricated on our own doorstep, by our own local people. When Highland 1 was completed and floated out the whole of the Highlands shared in the excitement of such a gigantic undertaking. We watched until the jacket was completely obscured from sight. It was the same with Highland 2 and the other jackets which were constructed across the Cromarty Firth at Ardersier. Now they have become part of the everyday scene and we give them little more than a mildly curious glance.
During the period between World War I and II the Moray and Cromarty Firths hosted monsters of a different kind. Twice yearly the arrival of a large naval fleet at Invergordon generated interest for miles around. I was a little girl then, I would gaze in wonder at the aircraft carriers. There were usually three, The Furious, The Courageous and The Argus. There were battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and a whole flotilla of supply boats. Almost every boy in our village could identify the bigger ships and names like Rodney, Hood, Repulse, Renown, Nelson and Barham come to mind. During weekdays most of the ships anchored just off shore in front of Hilton, Balintore and Shandwick but at weekends almost the entire fleet sought shelter inside the Cromarty Firth. What a magnificent sight it was to see them all together! It was marvellous too, to see them all lit up while they lay just off the Seaboard Villages, to watch their search lights beam across the water was a sight to behold. There was a “crack crack crack,” as rockets were fired and we rushed to see how many lights we could count before they seemed to fall and disappear into the water.
It was interesting to watch one ship signal to another. Those familiar with Morse would try to read the message. Little did I think that one day many years later I would become a wireless operator and find myself communicating with ships and aircraft in this way. The rocket firing was the nearest thing to a fireworks display that we as children ever saw. The following morning we eagerly scoured the beach for any scraps of cordite which might be washed ashore to set alight in our own fireworks display. The beach yielded many treasures while the ships lay off shore, every scrap of wood that floated inwards would be collected and taken home.
During the ships stay there was always at least one shore exercise, or “sham battle” as we called it. When the guns blasted out school windows rattled and the glass sometimes cracked. Infant teachers had a tough time trying to pacify children who were scared stiff of the noise. Boat loads of men came ashore and barbed wire barriers were erected in various places. Strangely dressed creatures could be seen creeping through the many whin bushes which grew in the neighbourhood and civilians wisely kept well away. Results of the manoeuvres usually filtered through and there was sadness if we heard of any casualties. Sometimes the barbed wire caused injury and potholes too claimed some victims.
Invergordon became famous during 1931 when naval ratings, (enlisted personnel) mutinied there and the size of the visiting fleet was afterwards greatly reduced. I think the last time I saw a concentration of ships in the area was just before the outbreak of World War II. I can remember them steaming out hurriedly, no doubt eager to get into open water in case war was declared. The announcement was imminent.
As we know, World War II did come and for its duration the Cromarty Firth took on another role. Instead of ships one could see many Catalinas and Sutherland flying boats anchored there. I, like so many of my own age, became a member of the forces and was now serving with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, having been trained as a wireless operator. One day with a few friends I climbed Fyrish Hill and will never forget the view from the top. The aircraft anchored in the firth looked like giant silver birds as they gleamed in the sunlight. It was a beautiful sight.
Later on I was privileged to get a flight in one of those Sunderland Flying boats while it was on exercise. Its task for that day was “Circuits and Bumps”, in other words taking off and landing on the water. At first I was absolutely terrified but after I saw the water rush to meet me on several occasions I got more accustomed to it and settled down, it was thrilling too, to fly over my own home and over the north of Scotland. Another WAAF accompanied me on the trip and our aim was to gain experience of what conditions were like when sending and receiving messages in the air. Contacting the base was very exciting and during my spell on the key there was actually an engine defect and I was able to send the appropriate code. The defect was soon rectified and all was well. That was a memorable day indeed.
We mourned the departure of The Fleet and its many associations with the area and flying boats are now a thing of the past. While the North Sea continues to yield its treasures of oil and gas we will probably have the platforms and fabrication yards with us, what of the future though? With the years passing changes will surely come and I doubt if even the Brahan Seer will predict what they might be.