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The Not-So-Secret Nuclear Bunker Outside St Andrews

A visit to Scotland’s once underground government safe haven

“See for yourself how they would’ve survived and how you wouldn’t,” read the sign at the end of the driveway. As I approached the site, waved on by a group of men carrying replica rifles, the outline of a missile began to emerge through the dense fog. All of this, combined with a lingering hangover, made for an appropriately disconcerting start to my tour of Scotland’s Secret Bunker.


Built in 1951 and operational until 1993, the declassified structure now functions as a museum, open daily from February to October. The bunker is located about 15 minutes from St Andrews, with frequent signage ensuring — rather ironically — that it’s anything but secret.


Boasting over 20,000 square feet of prime apocalyptic real estate and reinforced by 15 feet of concrete and a pair of 1.5-ton blast doors, the bunker was originally designed as a radar station to provide a crucial early warning in the event of the ever-feared Soviet air attack. However, with the adoption of more advanced radar-jamming technology, as well as the preference towards missiles over planes, the entire radar system was made obsolete in only a few years, meaning the government had to adapt.


By the ‘70s, it had assumed the form for which it is now so well-known: a bunker ready to act as an emergency centre for the government in the event of a nuclear war. Its area of responsibility was the largest of any command centre of its kind, ranging from Fife all the way into the Highlands.


While St Andrews students rocked flared jeans and munched on prawn cocktails, the bunker was prepared to take up to 300 people in the event of a nuclear attack. This number included some of the most senior politicians in Scotland and reportedly even scientific advisors from our university. 


However, you wouldn't be able to tell all this from the outside. Apart from the odd missile carrier here and tank there, brought in as part of the bunker’s ‘90s conversion to a museum, it’s about as inconspicuous as can be. The entrance — now a well-stocked gift shop — was built to look like a simple Fife farmhouse. With all construction workers signing the Official Secrets Acts, and its thick reinforced concrete hidden behind a traditional stone façade, the building appears more like a potential venue for the next Barn Bash or Welly Ball than the entrance and former guardhouse for what its website describes as “Scotland’s best kept secret.”


“This bunker here is the best preserved across the UK,” said Dr Sean Kinnear. The current curator of the museum, Kinnear has trawled through the relevant archival material on the site and his academic works include an article investigating the architectural fate of four Scottish nuclear bunkers after the Cold War.   


Though I met him in the museum’s ‘Officers Mess Café’ — a place adorned with more Union Jack bunting than a jubilee street party — Kinnear insisted that we go to a more authentic environment to conduct our interview. 


For this, we ventured down to the bunker’s bottom level and into the private office for the Minister of State. With a large window overlooking the central control room, where entire government departments were reduced to just a few desks, this is where the most senior official in the bunker would have made the key decisions during wartime. 


The chatter of morse code filled the room. Like much of the rest of the bunker, the office has been kept as faithful to its historic form as possible: “What you see is what it was back then,” stated Kinnear. “It’s like a time capsule.”


He points out that even “the furniture we’re sitting on” is unchanged, and that the cabinets next to us “still have some of the original files.” This is a rather sobering statement, with some of the cabinets’ labels reading “Graves for Body Disposal” and “Refugee Camps.” 


Of course, this is an irrefutable part of the nature of the bunker. From the friendly ‘bunker cats’ that roam the halls to the German techno music video Kinnear says was filmed on-site, it’s sometimes easy to forget the bunker’s sobering purpose. Constructed during an age of near constant paranoia, it was a place in which few wanted to end up. 


If the Cold War turned hot, killing millions and destroying entire cities, officials would’ve had to make the unthinkable decision between doing their duty or staying with their loved ones. In fact, the museum describes how, during a 1988 war game in which nuclear strikes on Scotland were simulated, some of those involved simply refused to take part, already having decided they would remain with their families. 


Nowhere better embodied this than the bunker’s chapel. A consecrated area, according to Kinnear, it even functioned as a wedding venue in 1994. However, stepping inside, the familiar Anglican hymns playing over the room’s speakers only served to emphasise the world that would have been lost. You start to imagine the total fear and uncertainty that those confined to this underground fortress would have felt.


One of the bunker’s rooms has now been converted into an exhibition on the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, featuring a display of the group’s campaign materials. Spanning the multiple decades of the group’s existence, it demonstrates that despite the bunker being declassified and disowned, the anxiety that led to its construction still very much remains. As the museum’s website remarks, “fingers crossed the Government [doesn’t] ask for their bunker back.”


The bunker is a space laden with juxtaposition. Once presenting a horrible choice between home and duty, its website now advertises its “family friendly” facilities. It features a gift shop where one can buy trinkets ranging from cartridge keyrings in a range of calibres to ‘Peacock Ore’ gemstones that promise to contain “healing properties of Happiness and Joy.” The free WiFi also provides a connection to the outside world that defies the metres of reinforced concrete and Faraday cage attempting to block it out. 


And so, with the nuclear apocalypse now weighing heavily on my mind, I walked back up to the first floor of the bunker, past the weapons room and fallout monitoring stations, and up to the café to enjoy a surprisingly edible tuna melt.

Illustration: Isabelle Holloway


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