Burifa Hill – photography of Scotland’s wartime secret

Burifa Hill Gee Station

An impressive background for a desolate shell

Often in travel photography unplanned diversions deliver some of the best opportunities to make photographs. While I was visiting Dunnet Head – the northernmost point in Great Britain – for a personal photography project, I stumbled upon a desolate piece of wartime history. It made for an absorbing opportunity to refine my black and white digital photography work, and to explore a little-known piece of Scottish history. This is the story of Burifa Hill Gee Station – and of the pictures I made there.

Burifa Hill was an experimental radio station set up by the Air Ministry to guide Royal Air Force Bomber Command crews to targets in occupied Europe. Since German civil defence enforced blackouts, navigation was challenging. The Gee system helped aircrew to navigate by transmitting radio pulses from stations set across Great Britain: by comparing the pulse timings to a master station’s pulses, the aircrew could triangulate their positions. (The same kind of principle is at work today in GPS.) Using this system Bomber Command was able to launch raids into blacked-out occupied territory many hundreds of miles from the UK; in 1943 Burifa Hill itself was cited as having helped one crew launch a raid 620 miles from the base.

Burifa Hill Gee Station

Rusty barbed wire – no defence against a wandering photographer

Along with a nearby Admiralty station at Dunnet Head – overlooking the Royal Navy’s base at Scapa Flow – Burifa Hill was home to hundreds of service personnel, and everything needed to support them: the operations buildings and antennae themselves, power stations, sewage plants, accommodation and ablutions. All that remains now is a blasted heath strewn with collapsed chimneys, hexagonal concrete antenna bases and the gutted shells of brick buildings. Here and there you can see the porcelain remains of showers and toilet pipes, rusted power lines and barbed wire. To wander through this rotted place, abandoned to the high winds and passing storms, is to tread the same paths as men and women who once marvelled at its modernity. It’s at once humbling and eerie.

I spotted the site from the road to Dunnet Head – one or two old buildings are just visible along the skyline. It’s all accessible via a hill track, presumably the main service road from the site’s glory days. Such a lonely site demands a grim treatment, so I processed the photographs into black and white and adjusted the curves to create brooding scenes. A dash of grain achieved the archival look I was aiming for, while the skies called for a little additional work in Lightroom on clarity and contrast. I was looking for angles and scenes that recalled the site’s earlier vitality while still capturing something of its Ozymandian decay. I hope the pictures are suitably poignant.

Thanks to the excellent Secret Scotland for information and further reading about Burifa Hill and the Gee System.

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