Caithness Field Club

A Search for Uranium in Caithness
by Elaine Smith

Thirty years ago the Government decided to explore the UK for commercially attractive sources of uranium; the geology of Caithness made it a candidate territory for this exercise.

Consequently, on 16th August 1969, the 75' converted herring fishing boat, "Pentland Wave", sailed into Helmsdale harbour on charter from an important sounding "Institute" to carry out a 10-day survey for uranium round the north coast, from Helmsdale to Cape Wrath. Next morning a large van drew up on the quayside; it contained 6 young geologists and a heavy load of scientific equipment.

The experts proceeded to strap the apparatus on to the broad sun-roof of the boat, clearly expecting to collect, simultaneously, scientific data and a sun tan. The boat's crew, which comprised the engineer and the skipper, watched in dubious silence.

The team settled their personal gear in their cabins below deck and with great gusto proclaimed themselves ready for sea.

Slowly and carefully, Pentland Wave sailed out of the harbour into an on-shore force 4 wind. The orders were to stay within 50 metres of the cliffs and to go dead slow. Dodging lobster creels, the Pentland Wave edged around rocks and was soon doing what she most excelled at - "rock-and-roll" - in a large swell. Out of the wheelhouse windows, the crew watched as, one by one, the men were seen clinging anxiously to the ladder in an attempt to interrogate the screens of their machines. A polite suggestion was made to retire further out to sea where the boat's motion would be less, and then to take the machines down inside the wheelhouse where the instruments would be more accessible. This plan was promptly approved and implemented and, when the Pentland Wave returned to her "rock-and-roll" position under the cliffs, successful instrument readings were possible.

Armed with notebooks and eagerly watching the screens, the geologists were left to themselves while the two crew were intent on watching the echo sounder in order to keep the boat off the rocks.

Later the laconic and expressionless engineer observed that "they have all gone". One by one they had slipped away quietly to contemplate whirling stomachs instead of whirling display counters. The machines were impervious to the rolling sea and the absence of the experts. They were ticking away industriously and proclaiming hieroglyphics which were unintelligible to the crew and beyond reach of the eyes and minds of the geologists. Scientific progress was brought to a halt. A decision was taken to return to base for a discussion. Unfortunately the Pentland Wave had to wait, "rocking-and-rolling", until the tide was suitable to sail over the bar and re-enter Helmsdale harbour. The initial enthusiasm of the experts was somewhat muted.

By evening, with the boat safely tied up, the team had recovered, their strength was regained, and a committee meeting was held. The lads readily accepted the crew's advice to sail overnight round to Cape Wrath and do the Charter backwards in the lea and shelter of the north-west coast. While the crew took it in turns to take the wheel, the scientists "slept" until the morning, when they were surprised to find themselves underneath Cape Wrath.

The geologists ate a hearty breakfast and diligently recorded the data from their machines and studied the cliff and rock formations as the Pentland Wave glided steadily along. Appetites being restored, those not on shift duty made large sandwich rolls for "elevenses" and prepared feasts from the ice-box stores. It was suggested that they could trawl from the stern for fish - lines were soon put out and much fun ensued from pulling in tiddlers and a few better fish for the pot.

The age of the cliffs and varieties of the various species of rocks and bird life amazed and intrigued the geologists. At several points in the next few days they asked for the inflatable boat to be launched and went in to collect rock samples from the cliffs. After gradually winding past Dounreay and round through the Pentland Firth, a radio message was received to go in to Wick to pick up Dr Baxter, Director of the Research project, who was flying north to join the charter. Great activity took place amongst the team - tidying up, shaving, dressing smartly and getting ready for their "boss". With "Him" on board, everyone was on their best behaviour. Next morning, when heading round the east coast (fortunately the swell had abated) the skipper innocently shouted "who is going to make the rolls?" - HUSH was the answer; but Dr Baxter pricked up his ears and volunteered. This broke the ice and he too was soon spreading butter and going aft to fish.

Two or three more forays were made to collect rock and copious notes made on the activities of the machines, when on the last morning there were shouts of glee as the recordings showed deposits of uranium from off the Berriedale cliffs. The finding caused immediate launching of the inflatable, filled to capacity with the geologists, armed with pick-axes and tools. They returned with vast amounts of rock; the exhilaration was infectious and Dr Baxter requested an extra day of charter to re-do this area and to land some of his staff to collect soil from above the rock face. Monitoring backwards and forwards for the next 24 hours all men were on deck and no sleep taken, such was the excitement.

On August 26th 1969 the BBC T/V Channel 1 carried a Scottish news flash.

"A trawler has found uranium off the north-east coast of Scotland"

This proved to be the high point of the exercise. A proposal was made by the Institute to have an "on land" dig but, before this was authorised, further and cheaper supplies of uranium were discovered abroad and the Government did not carry out any further investigation into this Caithness find.

The Pentland Wave returned to base; the crew were a little wiser about the northern geology and rocks, and thankfully with a hull still intact, and not dragging any fishing creels back with her.

Hopefully, the scientists had learned a little about being sailors and how to live with the sea.

Published in 1995 Bulletin