Most readers will remember the familiar side-loading car-ferry MV “Columba”; in fact she is still a regular visitor to the island in another guise. Anybody who ever travelled on her will recall the unusual layout, the extensive accommodation, and the remarkable hermetic seals surrounding all the external openings. She was one of three special vessels of a so-called “citadel” class, built during the Cold War on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland and chartered bareboat to David MacBrayne Ltd.
The ships were all built in 1964, and were aptly named as “citadel”, being modern versions of a mediaeval impregnable keep. They had huge hydraulic doors to isolate the main structure and high-grade spraying equipment with which to encase themselves within a veritable ball of seawater, a continuous douche. Apparently they could also be pressurised to further resist ingress of chemical, nuclear or biological contamination. Two decontamination chambers were mounted on deck, to permit suitably suited individuals to make forays from within the citadel as need arose.
The equipment was maintained in functioning order until each vessel left service. MV “Columba” was the last to be sold off, in 1988. Many of her passengers will have wondered why such a vessel had so many cabins, deployed as she was upon short passages within the Inner Hebrides; and no-one can have failed to notice the single rabbit-hole access for passengers port and starboard, or the extraordinary guillotine doors athwart the car-deck.
The idea, presumably, was that in the event of nuclear war the vessels would be withdrawn from service and redeployed as safe command posts for important functionaries, lying at sea in a cocoon of water until such time as the radiation had died down a bit. One imagines that the crews will have been expected to loyally assist in operating the vessels and one might further imagine that the ships’ companies would have had to include a suitable number of females of suitable age and nubility as to assist in the necessary regeneration of the nation. Indeed, one could speculate as to whether the list of proposed female participants was refreshed from time to time, like TV presenters – and if so, upon what criteria. The 50 years embargo on secrets is now up, so perhaps that information is available?