65063: The Brenish Odeon: Uig in WW2

Life on the home front in Uig, during the Second World War (Uig News, October 2002)

The Second World War brought many changes to Uig, and none more so than at the upper end. After war was declared, young men and some women volunteered or were called up for active service, and these people endured life-changing experiences. Some sacrificed their lives and some were permanently disabled. Families were disrupted and crofts lost essential workers. " When I was called up I was as green as a leaf, but when I returned I had learnt a thing or two. My outlook on life was totally different." Veterans of the First World War, and anyone over sixteen joined the Local Defence Volunteers. They drilled and practised shooting their 303 rifles on the machair at Ardroil, under the command of Capt. Duncan Maciver.

In the summer of 1941, lorries appeared in Brenish and Mealasta, and a team of men put pegs in the ground. This alarmed some crofters because the pegs were in the middle of their potato patches, but to the delight of all, jobs were offered to everyone. Boys under eighteen, who to this day swear that they had to work harder than the men, got eleven pence ha’penny per hour, and the men got 1/6. The contractors were Simpson Cooke of Nottingham.

There were concrete bases to lay, roads to build and nissen huts to be erected. At Mealasta there were to be nine nissen huts, two gantries for the masts, an air-raid shelter and some wooden buildings. Nissen huts came as complete kits with sheets, windows, nuts and bolts etc. Gravel for the concrete was quarried by hand at Carnish, close to the bridge (this was the start of gravel quarrying in Carnish). To everyone’s relief no work took place in the potato patches until after lifting time. Flight Sergeant Blundell ran an unofficial bar and you could get a "screw top" filled from the 35-gallon keg, for a shilling.

The Brenish buildings took a little longer to complete and were the main barracks, with some of the huts interlinking to make a dining hall with a stage. Another group of huts were linked to make the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Airforce Institution). These were sited around the area which is now used as the Brenish sheep fank. Across the road were the Officer’s quarters. There were about thirty huts, three air raid shelters and a powerhouse with Crossley engines and a generator.

Further huts were constructed at Geodha Sgoillte where there was also a radar scanner inside blast proof walls. All these installations were manned by two hundred or more RAF personnel, mainly British, with a fair number of New Zealanders and Canadians. Jeff Pitch, a Canadian, still keeps in touch. The guards were army personnel of the Cameron Highlanders, and they lived at Mealasta and Geodha Sgoillte. The RAF boys went up in vehicles to do their watches.

In November 1942 there was a memorable day. With their pockets full of hard-earned cash, the Home Guard members dressed in their uniforms and presented themselves at the newly opened NAAFI bar. Calum Buchanan No11, Breanish declared the refreshment to be the best beer he had ever tasted. It was specially brewed strong ale and was sold for 10d (old pence!) a pint. The bar was only open to servicemen and ex-servicemen, and women never attended. Shortly after this momentous event, dances and film shows were started. These happened every two weeks in the dining hall, which soon got the nickname the Brenish Odeon. A fifteen-year-old Neil Latimer, who had come from Glasgow, was the expert and he was able to fill in everyone on the latest news of the "filums" and the actors and actresses. The film shows and dances were attended by anyone from their teens to thirty or more. A gramophone or local musicians provided the music.

The dances were especially attractive to the thirty or so young women of the district. Peggy Murray, never felt lonely or isolated at the school at Mangersta road end, and Katie Anne Macritchie No12 Ardroil fondly remembers the arrival of the lorry that took them to the dances and returned them safely home afterwards. The NAAFI had its attractions for the young men, being staffed with girls from Ness, Point and Crowlista. Incidentally, many of them subsequently married locally. The manageresses came from the mainland but some were more local; Murdina Campbell was from Ness and she later married Malcolm Mackinnon No18, Brenish. There were also ENZA concert parties who stayed for two weeks and were then replaced by another group. There were usually three men and three women, who sang, played instruments and performed sketches.

News of the progress of the war was listened to on the wireless. These were wired up to accumulators, which were charged at the camp. However, almost the only people who had wirelesses were those with a disability, such as blindness or partial deafness. There was one at the Browns house, No7 Islivig, and there was another at No6 Brenish, the home of two bachelors, which was the men’s ceilidh house. Listeners were warned in advance of important speeches and announcements, which would be broadcast at nine-thirty in the evening. A dozen or so would crowd round the set to hear Winston Churchill’s latest stirring words.

The radio station at Mangersta was a naval communications installation. This opened in 1943, but there was no NAAFI or facilities for locals there until after the war.

The end of hostilities did not mean that the camps closed immediately, but VE night did mean that all rules were relaxed. In the dance hall alcohol was consumed, and women were served in the bar. Fortunately for Iain Tobaigh, he just happened to be on leave, and he was able to take full advantage! "The night was well worth remembering, I’ll tell you!"

There was a gradual demob of personnel until the camps at the far end of the parish closed in the summer of 1946, and the buildings were left empty. The Crossley engines at the Brenish powerhouse were transferred to Mangersta where they replaced the Caterpillar engines. There was also a certain amount of "beach combing on the QT." The windows were no good because they had frosted glass in, but doors, partitions and floorboards were "liberated." In July 1947 there was an auction of the remains.

Mangersta was transferred from the Navy to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and a bar and cinema opened in 1946. Once again Iain Tobaigh and Peter Macleod, No4 Mangersta, were able to attend the opening! The Highlands and Islands Film Guild sent over films to be shown every two weeks. The showings alternated between Crowlista School and Mangersta station.

So life during the war years was very severe for some, but much pleasanter for others. Rationing of food hardly affected people in Uig, their mail was all censored as the islands were Restricted Areas, but for many there was more money than they had ever seen. They could buy "exotic" foods at the NAAFI store and the "entertainment," which had been at most three dances a year in Brenish School, was almost unlimited.

Iain Macdonald No1 Islivig and Dave Roberts No 8 Islivig (thanks to those who are mentioned in the text)

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