These Hippies Are Camping in the Forest to Rid Scotland of Its Nukes

For 32 years, a group of activists have been living in camper vans on the west coast of Scotland in an ongoing—and mostly hopeless—effort to convince the government to get rid of its nuclear weapons. Could there be a breakthrough if Scotland votes for...

On the banks of Gare Loch, on the west coast of Scotland, a bunch of anti-nuke hippie peaceniks are taking on the might of the British armed forces and its nuclear submarines by living in camper vans. Faslane Peace Camp has occupied the roadside verge preceding HM Naval Base Clyde, home to the UK’s Trident nuclear missile submarines, for 32 years—more than three decades of sleeping in the forest in an effort to rid the UK of nukes.

This year's independence referendum, which would make Scotland its own country, raises the possibility that the Scots could actually get rid of the nukes on their soil. Meanwhile in London, the government is striking a deal tying the UK's nuclear future closer to the US. I decided it was a good time to pay the camp a visit. In the forest sat 11 caravans and two retired buses. The camp is decorated exactly as you would expect—like a bad trip. Painted peace symbols and flowers are interspersed with doomsday frescos of nuclear monsters eating humanity. Then there are the daubed motivational slogans like, “DON’T BE A COG IN THE MACHINE, BE A SPANNER IN THE WORKS!"

Last March, two Peace Campers, Heather Stewart and Jamie Watson, broke into the naval base and climbed onboard a nuclear powered Astute submarine. They stood on the deck ringing its bell as a gaggle of surprised police officers came running.

“How the hell did you get in here?” one of the officers asked as they were being arrested. It seemed a logical question, given the razor wire, the security cameras, the motion-activated alarms that run along the perimeter fence, and the patrols that circle the base.

In an interview, Jamie described the action in measured, tactical terms, like a special forces commander describing a successful raid. Heather then retold a more convincingly bumbling account and showed me the tears in her pants from the razor wire. “We hadn’t expected to get that far,” Heather laughed. “We aren’t exactly a crack team.”

Somehow, they managed it: In muddy trousers and woolly hats the pair strolled past dozing security guards on to the submarine.

But, having been arrested and after 33 hours in custody, the pair emerged to discover that nobody else cared. The media wasn’t much interested in publicizing their exploits and, except for some backslapping within the peace movement, the world moved on without noticing.

Mark Creaney

The moral outrage that nuclear weapons once fueled has long subsided and conversations now focus almost exclusively on their mind-boggling expense and the jobs that depend on their existence. “It’s one of the most disheartening campaigns to be a part of, really, because it’s been going 60 years and it’s got nowhere. They just keep getting better [nuclear weapons],” said Heather.

Mark Creaney, a former punk from Inverness who had been living at the camp for six months, agreed. “Most people don’t consider them the prime threat to our planet. It’s a bronze-medal campaign,” he said.

Some of the peace campers enjoying the sun

The activists are holding out for Scottish independence. September’s referendum is returning Trident to the limelight as the Yes Scotland campaign dangles promises of a nuclear-free country. But in London, government ministers have other plans. They’ve been quietly meeting with their American counterparts to renegotiate a treaty that would wrap up Britain’s nuclear future with the United States. The 1958 UK-US Mutual Defense Agreement (MDA) has long facilitated cooperation between the US and the UK on nuclear technology. However, according to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “collaboration between the two countries under the MDA has evolved to the extent that the boundary between the design and construction of UK and US warheads has blurred.”

A RUSI paper published in March explained that many of the “components within the UK’s current warhead are supplied by the US under the MDA, and the UK presently lacks the capability to develop domestic alternatives.” As such, “The future of the UK’s nuclear arsenal is therefore inextricably linked to that of the US.” The revised MDA is likely to be signed any day now.

We cycled to the top of a hill above Faslane and gazed at the bustling complex below with the Trident submarines in view. Between the red heather and the mountains on the horizon, the military base looked like a radioactive bunion on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

Britain currently maintains a stockpile of 225 Trident warheads, the majority of which are stored either inside active submarines or at the armaments depot across the water in Coulport. Alarmingly, a recent report from the Ministry of Defence disclosed that between 2008 and 2012 there were 262 nuclear safety incidents at the bases.

Given these alarming safety stats coming from a base storing loads of bombs that could bring on an apocalypse, you’d be forgiven for imagining that locals would support the Peace Camp’s long protest, but the activists aren’t popular with their neighbors. At night cars blare past the campsite and pound their horns, with drivers yelling “Fucking hippies!” at the beleaguered activists.

The nearby town of Helensburgh has a population of around 16,000. Trident alone is responsible for 520 jobs, while the base employs 7,000 naval and civilian staff. Jackie Baille, a Labour member of Scottish Parliament claims that Trident is responsible for over 11,000 jobs in the region. Without it, she argues, Helensburgh would be turned into a “ghost town.”

Every Wednesday the protesters stage a vigil at the South Gate of the base. Four Peace Campers and two Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) members are all that could be mustered when I visited. They huddled under hooded anoraks while an older CND man waved a flag at no one in particular. Cars and buses filed out of the base in spurts. Some offered small waves of encouragement. A few flipped the bird. “You’re all heroes,” somebody shouted sarcastically. Most just stared.

“Even if it’s just five people standing at a gate every week—it’s not really a thorn in your side—but maybe it just makes you aware: Your way is not the only way,” said Mark.

“I thought it would happen after Fukushima,” he continued.

“The revolution’ll be this year: The fracking will do it, when the middle class can’t insure their houses,” prophesied another camper.

Jamie was hoping the independence referendum would change things. “The people of Scotland will send a message that these things are not welcome here and happily there’s no where else for them to go… And the camp will be here for as long as it takes.”

Who knows, perhaps if Scotland parts ways with the rest of the UK, they won't have to live in the forest any more. If not, I feel like they'll be there for some time.

Follow Alex Rodin on Twitter.