We’re Dooned, we’re all Dooned!
In the age of austerity that surrounds us today, government worry about wasting money on ventures which swallow vast sums of cash. Often we look back when things seems more straight forward, where everything was built without the problems that modern projects seem to encounter. But was that really the case?
During the First World War the conflict in the air was changing fast and Britain was having real problems. There was a requirement to teach pilots and aircrew the art of aerial gunnery. Colonel Sefton Branker convinced the government to establish a gunnery school, based on a site in France. What was required was an inland body of water with steep hills surrounding it for target ranges. Loch Doon in East Ayrshire was selected for the new school.
The location was remote, lying on the border of East Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. Construction started in September 1916 with a railway being built to supply the material. The level of Loch Doon had to be raised by 6ft to provide a suitable area for seaplanes to land and take off and to provide hydro power to the site. 15000 construction workers and 500 servicemen had to be transported and accommodated as well as the illegal use of 1300 German PoWs. They all required buildings, power, heating, water, food, entertainment and of course toilets with requirement for sewage works.
On the east side of the loch, a flat area of boggy ground was chosen as the airfield. A seaplane hangar was built to the north of the main airfield site.
Target ranges were to be built on the remote west site of the loch with piers and jetties constructed, before the ranges could even built. But this massive project started to go wrong, very wrong indeed.
At the airfield, the hangars and associated buildings were built whilst attempting to drain the bog. But after 56 miles of drainage pipes and tonnes of soil, the bog refused to be drained.
The airfield was abandoned after 6 months work, the hangars dismantled and a new airfield built almost 8km to the north by Dalmellington. The problems mounted up; the site was too remote, the new airfield too far away, the weather and topography limited the amount of flying time. Additional work was required at the new airfield to divert the River Doon in a new channel lined by tiles, to allow the level of Bogton Loch to be reduced. With improvements to aircraft, the techniques to be taught at Loch Doon were no longer valued. Finally, the need for the railway to be extended to Loch Doon by means of a tunnel was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The government called a halt to any more work and as quickly as it came it was dismantled and abandoned. The costs were never revealed in total but between £350,000 and £3 million was spent, which is between £16 million to £137 million at today’s prices.
Much of the site was lost when the Loch was raised some 10m in a 1936 hydro scheme. But recent aerial images taken when the water was extremely low, down to 1916 levels, revealed much of the site. In particular the hangars for the airfield and for the seaplane have been revealed. Detailed examination of these images have allowed us to record the true scale of this site and identify key parts of the site which have been submerged for decades. The Commission in partnership with Historic Scotland have recorded this site in more detail as part of The First World War Audit Project to record the surviving remains of the great war.
This massive construction project was a complete and utter failure, ill-conceived and over budget. What it does leave us with is the physical remains of a very ambitious scheme and a unique perspective of the remains of an extensive complex of sites for civilians, military personnel and prisoners of war.
This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.