ABBOTSINCH, Turnhouse, Renfrew, Macrihanish – if these names mean anything to you then welcome to a column that will appeal to aviation enthusiasts and history buffs alike.

In this third of a four-part series on the built heritage of Scotland brought about by transport I will be looking at constructions related to aviation that have had an impact on Scottish history and culture.

As with all my recent columns I will be choosing my own favourites and places I consider important, but I cannot say I have visited every site I will mention as to my shame I have yet to visit Shetland – an omission I intend to put right next year. If you care to suggest something I have missed out, then email me at

In the first column of this series I wrote about roads as far back as the Roman times and last week I dealt with railways and their stations and bridges, all of which were only built in the last 170 years or so.

Everything I will write about this week is less than 110 years old, but some of the locations have already passed into history as they are no longer with us.

I will be concentrating on airfields and airports, all of which I have visited, but will also mention factories which built aircraft and aircraft engines – and Scotland had more such facilities than you might imagine.

There’s no doubt that air transport has had a huge effect on the lives of Scots. Just ask yourself how many million journeys are made to the Continent each summer when not that long ago the main holiday journey in this country was “doon the watter” on paddle steamers on the Firth of Clyde. (I will be writing about transport by water next week.)

Our airports, particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh, are major employers and support tens of thousands of jobs in the tourism and financial services industries.

In short, you simply could not imagine modern Scotland without airports and air travel.

In my research for this article, I was greatly helped by a recently published book by the distinguished journalist Robert Jeffrey.

If you have any interest in Scottish aviation, I highly recommend his book Scotland’s Wings, published by Black and White Publishing.

Airports and airfields have had a huge impact on the landscape of Scotland and even those which are long since closed continue to have a presence.

How many people travelling on the A1 dual carriageway west of Haddington in East Lothian realise that the route partially follows the location of RAF Macmerry, which was an active military airfield for decades?

Or how many visitors to the Donibristle and Hillend industrial parks east of Rosyth in Fife know that these sites were once home to the famous HMS Merlin naval air station, later Royal Naval Air Station Donibristle, that was in active service for 42 years from 1917?

That original name is commemorated by Merlin Way at Hillend, while some of the hangar buildings are still at use at Donibristle, which was a vital repair centre for many years, fixing an estimated 7000 aircraft.

RAF Drem in East Lothian actually pre-dated the RAF as it was opened by the Royal Flying Corps in 1916.

It was originally called Gullane Aerodrome but later became RAF Drem and was briefly very famous as the home of the first fighter aircraft to shoot down Luftwaffe bombers, in October 1939. It is now home to industrial and equestrian activities.

Its neighbour in East Lothian, RAF East Fortune, also pre-dated the RAF, operating as a Royal Naval Air Service station from 1916.

In 1919, it hosted the launch of the R34 airship which made the first transatlantic crossing by an airship.

After post-war service as a tuberculosis sanatorium, RAF East Fortune was re-activated for the Second World War.

It is now the home of the National Museums of Scotland’s National Museum of Flight, with aircraft on show including a Concorde, a Vulcan jet bomber and a Supermarine Spitfire.

Sadly, not every former military airfield has found another use. Three years ago, The Ferret investigative organisation – whose work is often published in The National – highlighted former RAF airfields and an airbase as being in the top 10 by size of vacant sites in Scotland.

THESE included RAF Edzell in Angus which was one of the first airfields in Scotland and was in military service for 80-plus years until its closure in 1997 – some of its secret work during the Cold War is still classified.

It originally closed in 1957 and was briefly a centre for motor racing – the late great Jim Clark won one of the final races held there in 1959 – before re-opening under American control as a highly advanced listening post.

According to the Airfields of Britain Conversation Trust: “Edzell proved so popular with American personnel during its later service between the 1960s and 1990s as an electronic monitoring station that the base was voted the second most favoured overseas posting, only being beaten by Hawaii.”

Edzell is a huge site, and not entirely vacant as it houses some industrial facilities, with residential developments ongoing.

Staying in the north-east, Aberdeen International Airport at Dyce began life in the 1930s as a privately owned aerodrome built by aviation entrepreneur Eric Gandar Dower – later a controversial MP – who founded his own airline, Aberdeen Airways in 1934.

The RAF took over Dyce for the duration of the Second World War, and it was bombed several times by the Luftwaffe.

Dyce boomed in the 1970s after the discovery of North Sea oil, and became the world’s busiest heliport, housing whole fleets of helicopters that serviced the offshore industry.

One of the other airports which services the oil industry is Sumburgh Airport on Shetland mainland. It was originally laid out on grass links by Highland Airways in 1936, and was taken over by the RAF for the Second World War, before resuming life as a civilian airport.

Scotland’s islands are relatively well served by air, with RAF Stornoway transforming into one of my favourites, Stornoway Airport. But it’s an airport somewhat to the south on the Outer Hebrides which is arguably Scotland’s most celebrated airport.

Barra Airport is located at the firm Traigh Mhor beach on the west side of the island and famously is washed twice daily by the tides.

It was as long ago as 1933 that it was first used as an airfield and scheduled services began in 1936.

It is now a major tourist attraction in its own right and travel to and from Barra Airport is usually only disrupted by the odd stray sheep or stranded dolphin.

Other RAF bases and former bases abound across Scotland and many, such as RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss, have played a huge role in military operations, though it has to be said that the UK Government has treated Kinloss and RAF Leuchars in Fife quite abominably.

Nevertheless, they were important centres for employment for decades and were centres of their local communities.

Like RAF Dyce, several military airfields transformed into civilian airports, the most famous of which I named at the start of this column.

I’ll start with Abbotsinch, which became Glasgow International Airport. It began life as RAF Abbotsinch in 1933, and by the start of the Second World War was home to No 602 City of Glasgow Squadron.

The airfield was transferred to the Royal Navy in 1943 and became known as HMS Sanderling – Glasgow Airport has a Sanderling pub to mark this stage of its history. Abbotsinch was one of the first airfields to have a squadron of jet engined aircraft: the de Havilland Vampires in the 1950s.

On October 31, 1963, Abbotsinch transferred to the Air Ministry and with a new terminal designed by Sir Basil Spence, it re-opened as Glasgow Airport, developing rapidly and becoming Glasgow International Airport after it was bought by the British Airports Authority.

GLASGOW has continued to expand, and in 2007 it was targeted for a terrorist attack in which civilians, including baggage handler John Smeaton, tackled the terrorists, one of whom died from burns after he set fire to himself.

Glasgow Airport replaced Renfrew Airport as the city’s airport, but Renfrew still has a distinguished place in Scottish aviation history, not least because of its distinct design which featured a futuristic parabola arch.

When it switched to commercial use after the building of a passenger terminal in 1954, it soon became clear that Renfrew needed to expand but could not do so because of land constraints.

Hence the transformation of Abbotsinch – and there’s no little irony in the fact that the last flight out of Renfrew in 1966 was to the new Glasgow Airport a few hundred metres away. Renfrew Airport is long gone, the site now occupied by a Tesco store and part of the M8 motorway.

RAF Turnhouse on the west side of Edinburgh also pre-dated the RAF as it was opened under the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and was home to No 603 City of Edinburgh squadron – which intercepted the first German air raid on the UK of the Second World War, shooting down a bomber into the Firth of Forth – and many other RAF units leading up to and during the Second World War after it was expanded in 1939.

After the war, like many RAF airfields, Turnhouse was opened up to commercial traffic by the Air Ministry and a passenger terminal was built in 1956.

When 603 Squadron was disbanded in 1957, the commercial side of Turnhouse expanded – though there was an RAF presence on site until 1997 – and the first international service began in 1962 with flights to and from Dublin.

When the British Airports Authority acquired the site, it became Edinburgh Airport and has developed massively to become Scotland’s largest airport by passenger numbers, due in part to the arrival of budget airlines Ryanair and EasyJet.

Though its future is uncertain and has become something of a political football, Prestwick Airport is Scotland’s largest airport by land area.

I’m well aware that there was an RAF Prestwick, but it was merely attached to the airport of that name, as Prestwick Airport (sometimes designated Glasgow Prestwick, though I don’t hold with that confusing assignation) was built by Scottish Aviation in the 1930s.

Interesting historical note: the firm’s headquarters was previously the Palace of Engineering at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, the building being taken down and reconstructed on its new site for the company.

Scottish Aviation remained a force in the industry for decades, its most famous product being the Jetstream line.

For my money, Campbeltown Airport is one of the most interesting airports anywhere. That’s because it used to be RAF Macrihanish, renowned as Scotland’s “secret” airbase with a strategic importance for, in turn, the Royal Naval Air Service, the RAF, the US air forces and Nato.

Originating as an airfield in 1918, Macrihanish Aerodrome was used for early transatlantic radio experiments before the arrival of airships, which moored at the site.

It was at its busiest during the Second World War and its runway of around 10,000 feet is one of the longest in Europe.

It was long reputed that one of the hangars was used to house nuclear weapons at a time when the US military were regular visitors.

One local told me many years ago that she knew that the Allies were going to invade Iraq due to the number of American bombers using Macrihanish as a staging point.

Scotland once had several aircraft factories associated with aviation, with the most famous being the Rolls-Royce plant at Hillington, which manufactured the wondrous Merlin engines which powered the Spitfire fighter and Lancaster bomber. Beardmore at Inchinnan, and Dalmuir and Blackburn at Dumbarton also provided aircraft that were vital to the services.

I will look more closely into such factories in a future series I am planning on Scottish industrial landmarks.