Community marks centenary of air base

The comparative plaque and information board were unveiled by Magnie Williamson (left) and Crichton Irvine. All photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

A COMMEMORATIVE plaque has been unveiled at Catfirth, South Nesting, on Sunday to mark the centenary of the opening of the RAF station at Catfirth which also marks the 100th anniversary of the first ever flight to Shetland.

The station was the most northerly base in Britain for tracking and attacking German submarines towards the end of the First World War, using state of the art technology of the time such as Felixstowe F3 flying boats and wireless communication. 


The base was built during the winter of 1917/18. During its short period of operation from June 1918 until the end of the war around 450 men and five aircraft were stationed at Catfirth. The base was sold to a local contractor for decommissioning in April 1919.

On Sunday, the South Nesting community came together to mark the historic occasion as part of a series of events commemorating Shetland’s role in the Great War.

Following two songs performed by the South Nesting school bairns, the plague and information board was unveiled by local residents Magnie Williamson and Crichton Irvine in the presence of around 60 local folk and military representatives.


One who has always been fascinated by the Catfirth airbase is former South Nesting resident Simon Gunn who has researched the site for many years and is now publishing his book RAF Catfirth 1918: The Story of a First World War Air Station and the First Flight to Shetland.

Book author Simon Gunn.

The former arts teacher at the Anderson High School, who now lives in the Black Isle, said he started researching the history of the site when he and his family moved to South Nesting in the early 1970s.

Gunn even managed to communicate with the pilot who had made the first flight to Shetland, Arnold Massey, who was by then well into his eighties and was living in Canada.

“The base really became operational only in July 1918. Their job was to patrol the area between here and Fair Isle,” he said.


“There was a big mine barrier right from Shetland across to Norway, while the area between Orkney and Shetland were patrolled by these flying boats stationed in Orkney as well as here at Catfirth.”

The flying boats were cutting edge technology but as they were largely made of wood, they were vulnerable to poor weather and often unable to operate due to high winds or damage they had sustained during storms.

Local historian and curator of Shetland Museum, Ian Tait, said he was good to see local initiatives marking different aspects of Shetland’s War 1914 to 1918, including this one at Catfirth.

“The air base here was in many ways an example of what was to come in the century thereafter, when aviation became to dominate airfare,” he added.

Jennie Bradley welcomed everybody and thanked everybody who had contributed to making the event happen.