HMS Sutherland visits affiliated county

Visiting an affiliated town or city is always an exciting time for both the ship and the local community but for HMS Sutherland being affiliated to a whole county brings its own challenges.

There was a warm Highland welcome for HMS Sutherland as the frigate paid a rare visit to her spiritual home.

Based in Plymouth, the warship faces an 1,800-mile round trip if she wants to call on her namesake county.

With no port in Sutherland capable of accommodating the 4,500-tonne warship, the ship put into Invergordon in neighbouring Ross-shire after a busy late summer/early autumn on patrol in home waters.

The people of both Ross-shire and Sutherland made each and every one of us feel very welcome during this visit – we sailed content in the knowledge we have re-affirmed our bond with local communities.

Lieutenant Commander George Blakeman, weapon engineer officer

Sutherland is among the UK’s largest (over 2,000 square miles, or about the size of Norfolk) but with a population smaller than Helensburgh’s, spread across villages large and small from the Dornoch Firth to Cape Wrath, 90 miles away on the Pentland Firth.

A sizeable proportion of the 12,000 inhabitants were welcomed onboard for a reception and display of what the ship and crew can do, attended by Sutherland’s Lord and Vice Lieutenants, and numerous community leaders.

Tours were given to potential recruits, Sea Cadets and Sea Scouts and a small contingent from the frigate got stuck into community projects.

There was also time for some football, rugby and visits to local tourist attractions of nearby Inverness including Loch Ness, and the renowned Highland hospitality.

“We rarely get the opportunity to visit our beautiful affiliated county of Sutherland and I am so glad that we were able welcome so many members of the local community onboard, from established friends and affiliates to Sea Cadets and potential recruits for whom this was their first visit to the Fighting Clan. I’m hugely grateful to all those who made us feel so welcome,” said Commanding Officer, Commander Tom Weaver.

No welcome was warmer than that offered in Alness, just down the road from Invergordon, by the Morton family.

They greeted the frigate’s marine engineer officer Lieutenant Commander David Morton – allowed the rare chance to visit his folks with his ship in town.

“My parents were delighted to see me back home and I certainly enjoyed some of my mother’s home comforts, especially a real Scottish cooked breakfast with square sausage.

“And to be here in my hometown onboard the Fighting Clan while celebrating my 31st anniversary in the Royal Navy is a proud moment.”

The ship’s football and rugby teams had mixed results against very competitive sides from Ross-Sutherland FC and RFC – the first sporting encounter between the two in nearly 12 months.

The footballers trudged off the pitch after a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the locals, but the Fighting Clan not making the most of their goal scoring opportunities and tiring a little after a prolonged period at sea. The rugby team fared better, despite never playing together as a team before.

Inspired by fly-half Leading Chef Calywn Jones, the sailors powered to a 35-22 victory, holding off a second-half comeback from the locals.

The more gentle surroundings of Dunrobin Castle were a draw for some of the ship’s company. The 159-bedroom 19th-Century castle is the ancestral home of Lord and Lady Strathnaver (aka the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland); the sailors were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the castle and the surrounding grounds.

In Dornoch, a contingent led by Commanding Officer Commander Tom Weaver and the ship’s chaplain Michael Beasley, attended a Sunday service in the cathedral, followed by a tour of the local gin distillery which had have produced a dedicated HMS Sutherland gin to celebrate the frigate’s visit.

And before resuming patrols there was still time for a party of volunteers to help Legion Scotland spruce up the memorial gardens in Golspie ready for the upcoming period of remembrance. Veterans treated the sailors to tea and stickies as a reward.

“Sutherland is certainly the most desolate if not the most beautiful of all Scottish counties and each and everyone of us onboard the Fighting Clan is proud of our affiliation with the county,” said Lieutenant Commander George Blakeman, weapon engineer officer – and also charged with fostering the bond between the ship and her county.

“The people of both Ross-shire and Sutherland made each and every one of us feel very welcome during this visit – we sailed content in the knowledge we have re-affirmed our bond with local communities.”

Sutherland is now helping to train international war officers before she takes part in the final Joint Warrior war game.