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Archaeology InSites

Faslane Peace Camp, Argyll and Bute

Conflict and contemporary archaeology

Archaeology has developed many strands of study from period-focused specialisations to landscape survey. In recent years, ‘Contemporary Archaeology’ has developed as an emerging field. Contemporary archaeology is the archaeology of us: it focuses the archaeological lens on our recent and current practices in order to understand how we behave, interact and survive on planet earth, and beyond (for a more detailed explanation see Graves-Brown et al 2013).

Within contemporary archaeology lies the study of protest. Protest studies are where archaeologists and others investigate events, places and people connected with resistance against a state, a political ideology or a military installation. An example of this is the work being undertaken by researchers to record protest camps. These camps were built in order to prevent the destruction of certain landscapes by disrupting construction work. Other protest projects have considered Cold War military sites in America and Britain, which have long been the focus as sites of protest (Badcock and Johnston 2013).

Faslane Peace Camp was established as a protest site in reaction to the locating of nuclear bombs on the Firth of Clyde during the Cold War. The history of the navy in the Clyde is beyond this InSite post, but the naval presence in Gare Loch began in 1942 when a dockyard was established as part of the Second World War military expansion. Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde (HMNB Clyde) is usually referred to as ‘Faslane’, which was the name of the bay on the shore of Gare Loch where the base was built. In addition to the Faslane base, is the Coulport weapons base on the east side of Loch Long.
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Faslane: an archaeological perspective

Faslane Peace Camp is the oldest protest camp in Scotland that was set up to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. In the early 1960s, Holy Loch, which lies to the west of Faslane, became the base for a fleet of American submarines designed to carry Polaris nuclear bombs. At the time, protests against nuclear weapons were developing in England, at places like Aldermaston and Foulness. Around the country, different activist groups undertook non-violent direct action which in 1960 included protests at Holy Loch (Otter pers. comm.). However, it wasn’t until 1982, when the submarines were fitted with Trident bombs, that a peace camp was established at Faslane. At one point there were two camps, situated at the north and south gates into the naval base. Today, the camp is situated near the south gate and is formed by a stretch of colourful caravans, single decker buses and temporary buildings, along the east side of the A814 Helensburgh to Garelochhead road.

The camp occupies a narrow strip of woodland owned by West Dunbartonshire Council. It is bounded on the east by a modern wall that delineates council and Ministry of Defence-owned land and on the west by a colourful picket fence and roadway. Among the caravans and buses are a kitchen, workshop and other features including a cherry tree that was planted on 6th August 1985 by two survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. The tree has painted plaques and small statues placed around its trunk. It also has a range of mementos hung on its branches. Throughout the camp there are other features such as carved and painted rocks and wood carvings.

Archaeologically, the site is indicative of communal living, potentially comparable to previous examples of temporary camps found in the past. However, unlike these, Faslane has developed as a result of a shared ideal to rid the landscape of the nuclear arsenal. Understanding the underlying reason for the creation of the camp is something that archaeologists strive to comprehend when studying older examples of temporary camps, such as Mesolithic sites (for an InSites example see: https://canmore.org.uk/insites/3). In terms of recording Faslane, we could map the location of each structure and identify the activities that take place in the different parts of the camp. But that would only be part of the story. We could also record the locations and activities of the non-violent direct action that protesters have undertaken since the early 1960s. This would enable archaeologists to look at the distribution of the locations of protest around the Faslane base. Finally, as camp members and other protesters possess the greatest knowledge of how the camp developed, changed and functioned, it is essential to ensure that they are the ones who are enabled to discover and narrate their archaeology.

A visit to Faslane Peace Camp is an enlightening archaeological experience. The people who live in the camp are friendly and welcoming to all-comers. Their colourful presence and shared vision of hope can be inspirational and lies in stark contrast to the dark, foreboding submarine base on the other side of the road. This tiny strip of land, the people and the structures present has much to offer in understanding the archaeology of protest today and also in considering the global-political situation that led to the presence of a nuclear arsenal set beneath the tranquil waters of Scotland’s west coast.

Reference:
Anna Badcock and Robert Johnston (2013) Protest, in Paul Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison and Angela Piccini (eds.) (2013) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, Oxford University Press.
Dr Alex Hale, with thanks to Laurens Otter and Faslane Peace Camp members.
Please be aware that this site may be on private land. For more information regarding access please consult the Scottish Outdoor Access Code