The Cold War thaw has reached Holy Loch in the remote Scottish Highlands, where America’s Poseidon submarines are pulling up anchor and taking half a town’s population with them.
The 4,300 local residents and the 4,000 U. S. sailors and their dependents knew that the thaw, coupled with the advent of the Trident submarines, would mean that the submarine repair and refit base would go.
But the announcement in early February that Holy Loch would close sometime next year was still a blow. “Base Bombshell,” cried the banner headline in the Dunoon Observer.
“It’s going to be a ghost town,” says taxi driver William Ferguson, who moved up to Dunoon four years ago when he couldn’t find work in southern Scotland.
In the 30 years since the submarines began stealing past the blue water bays and inlets of the chilly Firth of Clyde, Dunoon has grown accustomed to bulky Chevrolets with steering wheels on the wrong side, wide accents and the ubiquitous baseball caps and tennis shoes.
Dunoon and the Navy have been bound by ties of global strategy, economic dependence and affection. Ray Michie, the local member of Parliament, says there are 200 marriages each year between U. S. sailors and western Scotland lassies.
Most of the brides eventually go to America, but some Americans stay. Keith La Manque, who married a Scottish woman, heads the local Chamber of Commerce and runs a bed and breakfast near the base.
“There’s at least a dozen of us Americans who’ve stayed here,” La Manque says. “For the ones who’ve left there are a lot of phone calls, and when there’s another marriage people come from all over the world, from New Zealand to the United States.”
When the floating dry dock Los Alamos and the first of the submarine tender ships arrived in March, 1961, there were large protests--mostly by outsiders, locals say--and one confrontation in which sailors turned high-pressure hoses on protesters.
Driving the nuclear subs out of Holy Loch has been the dream of some left-wing Labor and Scottish National party members for decades. Now that it’s happening, some are complaining about the financial suffering and demanding U. S. reparations.
“I did a little jig for joy when I heard the nuclear submarines were going,” says James Sillars, a member of Parliament for the Scottish National Party. “We never wanted the bases and they have gone away and left us in a pretty bad position.”
Brian Wilson, a Dunoon native and the Labor Party’s spokesman for Scottish affairs, wants nothing from the Americans but their absence. “Dunoon has been used and abused by the American authorities for 30 years,” he says.
Before March, 1961, Dunoon survived on a bit of logging, some fishing, but mostly tourism. The rolling Argyllshire hills, the moderate climate, and the long sunsets reflected in the channel to the Irish Sea, provide excellent hiking, glorious views and picturesque seclusion.
The many Victorian guest houses dotting the mile-long Alexandra Parade once drew vacationers from Glasgow, 25 miles to the east by ferry and road, or 75 miles exclusively by road.
Dunoon now depends on the Americans, who directly or indirectly employ 20% of the local residents, according to a report by the Highlands and Islands Development Board.
The base is worth $22 million a year to Dunoon, which is isolated by the Clyde from Scotland’s commercial mainstream.
“It’s a devastating blow to the economy,” says Ken MacTaggert, an economist with the development board.
“We feel, irrespective of the legal agreement, the U. S. Department of Defense has a moral obligation to provide some compensation. We understand in other places, like the Philippines, they have done so.”
About two miles from Dunoon’s center, Navy boats ferry sailors to Los Alamos and the tender ship, USS Simon Lake, anchored in the bay. Almost all of the sailors work on the floating base and 1,100 single sailors live there too.
Taxis wait at the end of the long, guarded pier for sailors coming ashore to shop, drink or just kill time.
At $5 a trip into Dunoon, the sailors support 130 cabs--more per capita than anywhere in Britain, says the Taxi Owners’ Assn.
“Most businesses will have to cut back, not necessarily pare down staff but cut back on some of the merchandise,” says a shopkeeper in Bells of Dunoon, where many sailors buy their tweed Sherlock Holmes caps or trace their ancestral tartans.
Across the street at the Argyll Hotel, owner Murray Fletcher says, “We will recover, but it’s a sad fact of life.”
A 31-year-old Navy postal clerk from Garden Grove, Calif., who wanted to be called Tim, has been in Dunoon for five years. He fell for one of the many Scottish girls who come hunting in Dunoon’s bars and now has a 2-year-old child. But he says he’ll be going back alone.
“My girlfriend and me are like this right now,” he says, holding his hands wide apart.
“People don’t realize we feel real bad,” Tim adds, between pulls on a bottle of beer at Courtney’s bar where the sailors’ softball trophies are on display. “The decision came real quick. At least they could have given them a few years, but we’ll just be out of here--boom.”
Trudy Gillette was thrilled when her American husband, Keith, got a second tour as one of three Navy dentists at Holy Loch, and she isn’t keen to leave their spacious house, near a memorial to the Lamont clan slaughtered by the Campbells in 1646.
Gillette is president of the 65-member Officers’ Wives Club, which organizes an annual art show and last year donated more than $10,000 to local charities.
John Thomson, 80, Dunoon’s last mayor before the post was eliminated in 1975, refuses to be drawn into the doom and gloom.