THE MoD has come under fire after it was revealed a military exercise is planned at Cape Wrath bombing range in August, at the height of the tourist season.
Minibus operator James Mather, who uses the 11-mile track across the range to take visitors to and from Cape Wrath lighthouse, said he and others stood to lose out financially because access to the route is likely to be banned or restricted.
The lighthouse is a major attraction and has between 2000 and 6000 visitors a year.
Mr Mather made an appeal for compensation when the exercise was discussed at a meeting of Durness Community Council, on Monday at which military representatives were present.
He said: “The MoD has the power to use the range whenever they fancy but it is an unwritten law that July and August are left free for economic reasons. But they have picked one of the busiest weeks in the year which is not going down well. I am gravely concerned. We cannot budget for this.”
The 107 square mile Cape Wrath is the only live bombing range in Europe and historically, the MoD holds joint military exercises there twice a year, usually around April and September, and avoid the busy summer months in a tacit agreement with local people.
Three businesses are directly involved in the Cape – a ferry service run by John Morrison across the Kyle of Durness to Cape Wrath; Mr Mather’s Capeside minibus operation and the Ozone cafe and bunkhouse run by John Ure at the lighthouse itself.
However, there is also a spin-off to accommodation and food and beverage providers elsewhere in the area.
This summer’s multi-national operation is being called Saxon Warrior and is scheduled to run from Friday, August 4 until Wednesday, August 9 in the waters and airspace and on land ranges across Great Britain.
It will involve the US carrier George H W Bush, along with 15 ships and submarines and around 100 aircraft from the UK and four other nations.
Some 9000 personnel will take part in geopolitical and military scenarios aimed at improving combat skills and joint working.
Tain-based Major Phillip Curtis and Major Rik Karadia, who is understood to be part of the team planning Saxon Warrior, attended Monday’s community council meeting.
Mr Mather said: “It looks as if we are going to be directly affected but they were either unable to say, or would not say, whether the road would be closed every day or not.
“But they said they would ‘endeavour’ to tell us when or if there would be times that we would be able to get the minibuses through.
“I asked about compensation and was told that there was no mechanism for that, which is disturbing.”
Mr Mather also criticised the MoD for not considering the local community when drawing up plans for Saxon Warrior.
He said that red flags placed around the perimeter to warn walkers arriving at the Cape from the Sandwood End that an exercise was under way were supposed to be taken down during lulls in operations but this did not happen.
As a result, walkers who would have paid him a fare to make the return journey from Cape Wrath by minibus were forced to retrace their steps.
Mr Mather added the MoD should make use of local businesses.
He said: “One of the big exercises a couple of years ago at Cape Wrath required troops to be transported around the area. The MoD could have used the local ferry and our minibuses but instead took up their own boat and shipped over minibuses. That was seriously bad form.
“Our minibuses were sitting empty for a few days while theirs were scooting up and down the road.
“They tell us that for each exercise that is held, hundreds of thousands of pounds go into the Scottish economy – where is it going? There is not a penny of it coming our way and I feel that is pretty unfair.”
Durness Community Council secretary Sarah Fuller said permission to hold Saxon Warrior had to be obtained at ministerial level and the exercise was taking place in August because that was the only time the US aircraft carrier was available.
She said: “We have been assured that it is a one-off and is not going to be a regular occurrence. But it is unfortunate and means a loss of income for local businesses.
“The officers did say they would try to allow some access (to the Cape) but they could not guarantee it. They also said they would let us know as soon as possible in advance.”
Mrs Fuller said a meeting of the Cape Wrath liaison committee would be held in September at which their concerns would be aired. MP Jamie Stone is likely to be asked to attend.
She confirmed Mr Mather had been told he would not receive compensation but said the community council was sympathetic to his plight.
She said: “I do think they (the affected local businesses) have a fairly strong case [as regards to compensation for the loss of earnings resulting from the August exercise].
“The community as a whole are going to have to jump up and down because it is not just Capeside businesses that are affected – others in the village are as well if visitors do not stay.
“That is why we want go get a politician to attend the September meeting. We think it will give extra leverage.”
Newly-elected Jamie Stone told the Northern Times: “With a daughter in the armed forces, I completely understand the need for our country to be defended in a potentially dangerous world.
“And being fortunate enough to represent a tourism ‘must do’ destination like Cape Wrath, I know just how important our visitors are to the local economy.
“For this reason I am very keen to help bring about a satisfactory compromise and a way forward that is the best for all concerned.
“My offer therefore is to organise and chair a face-to-face meeting in Durness, or wherever is most convenient to all parties concerned. Amicable agreement and accord is my aim.”
A Royal Navy spokesman said: “The use of Cape Wrath for military training is vital in order to prepare the armed forces for operations worldwide. We recognise the impact that use of the range can have on local businesses, which is why we have a closed period when it is not in use.
“We make every effort to ensure this closed period is observed unless absolutely essential and make every effort to minimise the effect on local businesses when the range is active.
“The MoD does not compensate businesses for the impact of its use of its training estate.”