The Burghead transmitting station is a broadcasting facility near the coastal village of Burghead in Moray, Scotland which started service on 12 October 1936, bringing wireless to many parts of the North of Scotland for the first time. The site is now owned by Arqiva and houses a long-wave radio transmitter on 198 kHz broadcasting BBC Radio 4, and two medium-wave radio transmitters, broadcasting BBC Radio 5 Live on 693 kHz and BBC Radio Scotland on 810 kHz. The long-wave transmitter is part of a network transmitting on the same frequency, the other transmitters being at the Droitwich and Westerglen.
The local pronunciation of Burghead is 'Broch-heid'.
The Burghead transmitter was originally built to extend reception of the BBC's Scottish Regional Programme to nearly 500,000 people living to the North and East of the Moray Firth. It could never hope to provide satisfactory signals to the whole of the Highlands and Islands, concentrating instead on the more highly-populated areas along the Moray coast, such as Inverness, Nairn, Elgin and Forres. Because of a lack of available wavelengths it was not possible to radiate the National Programme as well, as was the case with the Westerglen transmitter in central Scotland. For the meantime, listeners in the Highlands had to rely on the long-wave transmitter at Droitwich in England.
As the Broadcasting Company rolled out its network of radio stations — at Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee — it rapidly became clear that Scotland's mountainous terrain was too formiddable a barrier to permit acceptable reception in the Highlands and Islands. With Britain's international quota of wavelengths consumed after less than two years, there was a growing awareness by 1925 that the General Post Office and the BBC had no plans to build additional transmitters.  Then, during the latter half of the 1920s, what little reception there had been deteriorated significantly with the rapid growth in European broadcasting and the consequent acceptance that British stations would have to adopt shorter wavelengths in order to minimise interference.
In a broadcast talk on 6 April 1931 the BBC's chief engineer said explicitly that the BBC had no intention of attempting to provide any service for the Highlands and Islands. This triggered a campaign on the part of local newspapers and politicians. In June, Inverness, Forres and Nairn Town Councils all passed resolutions urging the BBC and the Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir Archibald Sinclair — himself an MP for the North, representing Caithness and Sutherland — to take action.
Other MPs were enlisted to the cause, but their influence was limited as there was no minister directly responsible for the BBC in Parliament. The Postmaster General may have been the offficial mouthpiece of the BBC in the Commons, but he had no power to accept responsibility and merely transmitted criticism back to the Corporation. This ban on political interference was intended to prevent the misuse of wireless by the government of the day, but it had not been visualised by the House that it might prevent proper parliamentary supervision of an institution which was coming under increasing criticism from MPs. Ian Macpherson, the Liberal MP for Ross and Cromarty, used the North of Scotland complaint to get fellow members to back his motion calling for the BBC's Charter to be reviewed and to provide a Minister directly responsible "for the efficiency and administration of the Corporation". The motion, however, was never resolved.
Meanwhile, Sir Murdoch MacDonald, MP for Inverness, received an explanation from the BBC director-general John Reith, who wrote: "Owing to the mountainous nature of this part of the country a good service during both daylight and night conditions can only be given on the longer wavelengths. Unfortunately, there is only one sufficiently long wavelength for the purpose among the channels which are available for use by the BBC. This wavelength is used by the National Transmitter at Daventry, and its principal function is to provide a service to the coastal districts of England and the mountainous districts of Wales, thereby supplying a vastly greater number of persons than is done in the areas in question." Reith added that several schemes were under consideration with a view to relaying the forthcoming Scottish Regional Programme, but it was felt that until the range of service from the new transmitter in Falkirk had been confirmed by actual experience, "it would be unwise to adopt finally any of the proposals now under consideration".
Dingwall Provost's campaign
Provost Andrew Murray of Dingwall took-up the cause after a BBC broadcast from the Dingwall Mod in September 1931 proved impossible to receive in the town itself. Despite claiming to have two of the most powerful receiving sets in the North, he was frustrated at not being able to get any reception, and so began a lengthy correspondence with BBC officials at Savoy Hill, London, stretching over a period of many months.
The Provost's chief complaint was that the BBC's high-power station at Daventry (5XX) was placed too far south in England to be of any benefit to the Highlands, and that the transmitter's proposed move nearer Birmingham was unlikely to make any difference. The BBC's response was that, being the only long wavelength allocated to the UK, 5XX had to be used for the benefit of the maximum number of listeners.
As the switching-on date for the new Scottish Regional station at Westerglen approached, the BBC admitted that it "cannot be expected to provide a completely satisfactory service to certain distant parts of Scotland since fading and night distortion will be inevitable after dark".
After declining an expenses-paid trip to London to discuss the matter directly with Reith, the Scottish Regional Director David Cleghorn Thomson went to Dingwall to meet with the Provost personally. Still not satisfied with the explanations offered, in April 1932 Murray forwarded a copy of his correspondence with the BBC to Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and Ian Macpherson, MP for Ross and Cromarty.
A few weeks later, on 1 June 1932, Macpherson arranged a meeting between Sir John Reith and the Scottish members of the House of Commons. Sir John admitted that the service was defective and supplied the MPs with an eleven-page pamphlet pointing out the practical difficulties in the way of improvement, chief of which was the limitation on the number of exclusive wavelengths allocated to Britain. Members said they would have preferred to have had a copy in advance so that they might have been able to cross-examine him on its contents. Reith concluded by suggesting that the matter would be discussed by the international conference in Madrid, but he did not seem hopeful as to the result.
Murray believed the promised appeal for an extra wavelength was "mere humbug", overlooking the reality that the BBC was using its wavelengths in England in an "extravagant" and "wasteful" manner. The Regional Scheme, once completed, would consist of five twin-wave transmitters scattered throughout Britain: one wave broadcasting a Regional Programme, the other the National Programme from London. That would mean five transmitters in the UK all radiating the same National Programme at any given time — something the German delegates at the Geneva conference had already complained about. Murray found this extravagance especially objectionable given that one of the National Programme transmitters, Daventry 5XX in the Midlands, happened to be an extra-powerful long-wave facility capable of reaching out all over Britain and Ireland, thus rendering the other four National transmitters superfluous. Surely, Murray asked, one of those wavelengths could be given-up for use in the Highlands?
The BBC largely agreed with Murray's analysis, except for the fact that Daventry 5XX, working with a power of only 30kW, did not give good enough reception in the very densely-populated areas where there existed a considerable amount of interference from industrial machinery. However, its planned replacement by a new long-wave transmitter near Droitwich, using five times the power (150kW), would solve those problems and allow the national transmitters at the London, West and North Regional stations to be closed down without any disadvantage to listeners in those areas. This would free-up two wavelengths which could be used in the Scottish Highlands and the North-East of England. (Note that the number of wavelengths freed from such a scheme was not three, as would appear at first sight, because the London and West National transmitters were working on the same common wavelength of 261.6 metres.)
he BBC argued that it was necessary to relay the same National Programme from the medium-wave transmitters in the London, West and North Regions, because Daventry 5XX, working with a power of only 30kW, did not give good enough reception in the very densely-populated areas where there existed a considerable amount of interference from industrial machinery. However, the BBC was planning to replace Daventry with a new long-wave transmitter near Droitwich, using five times the power (150kW). This would give strong-enough reception to allow the national transmitters at the London, West and North Regional stations to be closed down without any disadvantage to listeners in those areas. The number of wavelengths freed was not three, as would appear at first sight, because the London and West National transmitters were working on the same common wavelength of 261.6 metres. Those two wavelengths could then be transferred to the Highlands and the North-East of England.
In June 1933, the British delegation at the Geneva Wavelength Conference in Lucerne put forward a demand for two extra wavelengths, described as 'North Scottish' and "North-Eastern', the former for the Highlands and the latter for Northumberland and Durham in England. The request was granted, but with just one wavelength each the new areas would be served with just one programme service as opposed to the twin services offered by the existing regional sites. The newspapers reported that the new transmitter for the Highlands would be built somewhere near Inverness and that tests were being carried out to find the most suitable site.
In October 1933 it was announced that the long wave, high-power transmitter at Daventry (5XX) would be replaced by one five times as powerful at Droitwich, thus giving reliable reception of the National Programme to most of England and Wales. This finally allowed the BBC to close-down the National Programme transmitters at the London, West and North Regional stations, thus reducing them to single-wave transmitters radiating only a Regional Programme. As ?? and ?? already shared a common wavelength, there were now two wavelengths freed-up for use by the North of Scotland and the North-east of England.
Choosing the optimum site for the North of Scotland transmitter was one of the most difficult decisions BBC engineers had faced to date. A satisfactory site for a broadcasting station had to comply with a number of requirements, of which the most important were:
- The site must be situated so that the station provides a satisfactory signal strength to the main centres of population which it is being built to serve.
- It should be situated, near a main post office trunk telephone route. This ensured a satisfactory land line link between the transmitter and its studio centres or a point on the simultaneous broadcasting system.
- The site must be reasonably flat, of sufficient acreage and of suitable sub-soil for the carrying of heavy masts and buildings.
- The site must be reasonably near a road so that materials and equipment can conveniently be transported to it.
- An adequate water supply must be available on or near the site, both for building operations and for the use of the station when completed.
- The site must be purchasable at a reasonable figure.
It was quite possible to find a site which looked ideal in every respect, but which contained some unsuspected peculiarities, such as poor earth conductivity, which made for an inefficient radiator.
The BBC tested the transmitting properties of the various sites using a mobile transmitter installed in a lorry. The low-powered 1 kilowatt tests were on the same wavelength contemplated for the proposed broadcasting station. Signal strength measuring vans took a large number of measurements so that a field strength contour map could be plotted. From this, an accurate forecast of signal strength could be made for any given location.
The motor van equipped with the measuring apparatus travelled over 7,000 miles during late 1933 and early 1934. One early rumour suggested that Tomintoul, the highest village in Scotland, was receiving favourable attention, but this was soon discounted by a BBC official on account of the lack of trunk telephone lines in the vicinity. Later reports suggested the possibilities had been whittled down to a choice of three locations: on the Black Isle east of Cromarty; at Ardivot Farm, midway between Elgin and Lossiemouth; and the farm of Pittendreich, a mile west of Elgin. The problem was that many of these sites gave very poor results, due to the combination of the hilly nature of the country and the existence of sub-soil, which was unfavourable to the propagation of wireless waves. In fact, for some time it seemed that the results obtainable would not have justified the building of a transmitter in the area at all, given the wavelengths which would be available to the BBC.
In the end, the BBC settled on a site on the outskirts of the Morayshire fishing port of Burghead — a decision which came as a complete surprise to the local community. The exact location was in a field on the farm of Masonhaugh, about a mile east of the village on rising ground overlooking the Moray Firth. Burghead's low-lying position coastal position led some to wonder whether wireless signals might be wasted on the sea; however, precisely because the sea was so good at carrying radio signals, strong reception would be assured for the most populated towns and villages north and east of the Moray Firth.
On 5 October 1934, a new trunk telephone cable was opened between Elgin and Aberdeen, containing three lines reserved for the use of the BBC in broadcasting Regional programmes from Burghead.
They contract for the building of the new broadcasting station at Burghead was awarded by the BBC to Messrs. Stewart and Partners of London and Belfast. Headed by Mr J. W. Stewart, the Unionist MP for South Belfast, the company had already built the Northern Irish Parliament and were in the process of building a similar broadcasting station at Lisburn, Northern Ireland.
Construction began in January 1935, promising work over an eighteen-month period for 150 men, the bulk of whom would be drawn from the local unemployed. However, when around 200 turned-up in drenching rain near the transmitter site, it was learned from a representative of the contractors that, even when work was in full swing, only a small proportion of the men could be absorbed. In fact, after preliminary work was completed over the first fortnight, the contractors estimated they would be employing up to about 50 men only.
The cost was over £100,000 and the free circulation of money greatly benefited the hard-hit fishing communities along the Moray coast. The permanent staff of the station was projected to number fourteen. The station was designed by the BBC's civil engineering expert, Mr M. T. Tudsbery.  The original mast was 500ft high and broadcast on a power of 60 kilowatts.
The Post Office provided high-quality music lines between Aberdeen and Burghead to link it up with the BBC network.
The other problem was choosing a suitable wavelength. By international agreement at Lucerne, the BBC was allocated eleven wavelengths, all of which were being used before Burghead was built. Indeed, five stations were already sharing two of the eleven. The choice lay between a reshuffle of channels and synchronisation. Experience of the synchronisation of the London, West and North Nationals, and of Plymouth with Bournemouth, showed that the expedient was practicable, provided identical programmes were broadcast and transmitters were kept dead on their wavelengths. After protracted experiment it was decided to bring the Burghead transmitter into service to synchronise with the Scottish Regional Programme on the wavelength of 391.1 metres (767 kilocycles). Even with perfect synchronisation, however, the distance at which the transmitter could be received was shorter than it would have been had Burghead worked on its own separate wavelength, particularly during darkness when the strength of reception of the more distant transmitters increased. Nonetheless, this was only likely to affect thinly-populated districts and, for most people, this medium-band wavelength would give a satisfactory service.
Because synchronisation of wavelengths necessitated for its effective working the broadcasting of identical programmes throughout the country, the programme radiated from Burghead had to be exactly the same as the one transmitted by the Scottish Regional at Westerglen. Had an exclusive wavelength been available, Burghead might have been able to carry a greater element of Gaelic programme material.
From around Monday 31 August 1936, listeners to the Scottish Regional wavelength who inadvertently forgot to switch off at midnight heard the unfamiliar 'Burghead Calling' intonation after the Regional programme had closed down for the night. The test transmissions continued every night until half past midnight until technical experts were satisfied that the new station was ready to come into action.
The opening ceremony at twelve noon on Monday 12 October 1936 was broadcast on the BBC Regional Programme services throughout the UK. It was attended in person by more than 50 people, including those prominent in north affairs — such as the local MP Sir Murdoch Macdonald, Lord Provost Hamilton of Elgin and Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel — and senior officials of the BBC, including chief engineer Sir Noel Ashbridge.
Melville Dinwiddie, the Scottish Regional Director, began the proceedings by reading out a message from Ramsay MacDonald, the former Labour Prime Minister and now Lord President of the Council, in which he expressed his regret at being unable to attend owing to his return from Lossiemouth to London. MacDonald hoped the new station would bring, "in addition to the naggings of the outside world, even though they are so often mad, divine music, the old songs of the Scottish folk, and on a Sunday recall to us the hymn melodies which our people have sung for centuries through joy and sorrow".
The transmitter was then officially opened by Sir Murdoch MacDonald, MP for Inverness-shire. Recalling the lines: "From the lone shelling of the misty island, mountains divide us and the waste of seas," he said the writer had not foreseen how the loneliness of country life in the Highlands could be reduced by the aid of modern science. Today, at comparatively trifling cost to the inhabitants, that solitude could be effectively diminished, and they could be put in touch with the great world outside. No finer aim could be undertaken than making country life pleasant and profitable and preventing or lessening the exodus from the countryside. The new station was a memorable step forward in that direction.
The BBC's Gaelic assistant, Hugh Macphee, read in Gaelic a message from Highlanders expressing gratification at hearing by means of broadcasting the native language and music.
The speeches were followed on the Scottish Regional Programme by half an hour's Scottish dance music played by the strings of the BBC Scottish Orchestra, led by J. Mouland Begbie and conducted by Ian Whyte.
At a luncheon held subsequently in Elgin, Melville Dinwiddie read out a message from Sir John Reith, himself a North of Scotland man. Unable to travel North, Sir John stated that he had listened in London to the opening broadcast and that it had come though satisfactorily.
At 9pm on Saturday 17 October 1936, a special programme entitled 'Brichter Brocheid' — described as an informal entertainment by the inhabitants of Burghead — was broadcast on the Scottish Regional programme.
Cost and staffing
Improvements like Burghead cost the BBC a great deal of money and required the employment of greatly increased staffs. Before it opened, the staff at Burghead was predicted to number about 20.  The Engineer-in-Charge (E.i.C.) was Mr D. A. Curd, formerly E.i.C. at Plymouth, maintenance engineer at Washford, and senior maintenance engineer at Droitwich.
The capital cost of the transmitter ran well into five figures and special high-quality landlines, suitable for the distortionless transmission of music, were laid underground by the Post Office to link-up with the BBC network: first to the Aberdeen studios, 65 miles distant to the East, then on through Edinburgh to London, a distance of 500 miles away. In 1935, the entire network of landlines rented by the BBC from the Post Office cost a total of £54,000.
In 1949, the transmitter was described so:
This station is synchronised with Westorglen on the regional wave-length of 391.1 metres (767 Kc/s). To ensure this synchronism an oscillating quality crystal, having a very high order of frequency stability, is used at each station to control the frequency. The crystal is enclosed in an oven, the temperature of which is thermostatically controlled and varies only by 0.01° Centigrade, for ambient temperature changes of 3° Centigrade. In this way a frequency stability of better than one part in a million is obtained. The froquency of each crystal is regularly checked against a standard frequency of 1000 cycles per second which is generated in Broadcasting House, London, and sent by telephone line to the transmitting stations. The frequency stability of the Broadcasting House oscillator is constant to within two parts in a hundred million.
The aerial was also considered to be of special technical interest:
It is 500 feet high and of the mast-aerial type which gives pronounced horizontal radiation and the minimum upward radiation. The aerial-mast is triangular in section and, at the base, it is insulated from the ground by 14 porcelain insulators, 2 feet high, which are rated to withstand a peak voltage of 26 Kilovolts. As can be seen from a simple calculation, the electrical length of the mast is slightly under half a wave-length. The mast is supported by 18 stays, made of steel wire rope, which are attached at six different heights, three at each level. The stays are broken up electrically by insulators at 150 feet intervals. The mast is connected to matching circuits at the base. A concentric feeder links the transmitter and the aerial tuning house.
Wavelengths and frequencies
|Date||Scottish Regional / Home Service||Light Programme||Third Programme||Comments|
|Frequency (kc/s)||Wavelength (m)||Frequency (kc/s)||Wavelength (m)||Frequency (kc/s)||Wavelength (m)|
|1936||767||391.1||Transmitter was synchronised with Westerglen on the same wavelength, therefore no opt-out programming was possible.|
|29 July, 1945||767||391.1||1149||261.1||Introduction of the Scottish Home Service and Light Programme.|
|15 March, 1950||809||370.8||1214||247.1||Changes as a result of the Copenhagen Plan.|
- 'BBC and the Highlands', Press & Journal, 17 July 1925, 6.
- 'BBC deals another blow to North of Scotland listeners', Press and Journal, 9 May 1931, 7; 'The progress of broadcasting: 1. Broadcast over Britain', BBC National Programme, 6 April 1931 (BBC Genome).
- 'Inverness complaint to BBC', Press and Journal, 2 June 1931; 'Forres critics of the BBC', Press and Journal, 9 June 1931; Scottish Daily Express, 10 June 1931.
- 'Minister of Broadcasting?', Scottish Daily Express, 11 June 1931.
- 'Wireless in the Highlands: letter from BBC to Sir Murdoch Macdonald, Inverness Courier, 3 July 1931. The letter from the director-general was dated 29 June 1931.
- 'Highlands and the BBC: Scottish programmes not heard', Glasgow Herald, 28 April 1932, 6.
- 'BBC service in Scotland', Scotsman, 2 June 1923, 8.
- 'Returns to attack on BBC: Dingwall Provost points to extravagance', Press and Journal, 10 June 1932, 8.
- 'The new transmitting stations', Radio Times, 20 October 1933, 171.
- 'The new transmitting stations', Radio Times, 20 October 1933, 171.
- '2 new radio stations to be build, Daily Express, 21 June 1933.
- 'Looking for BBC site', Press & Journal, 3 August 1933, 8.
- 'The new transmitting stations', Radio Times, 20 October 1933, 171.
- 'Site for the North of Scotland regional station: special requirements', Highland News, 10 February 1934.
- 'New radio station', Scotsman, 16 November 1933.
- 'Highlands new radio station: most likely site', Daily Mail, 10 February 1934.
- 'BBC hint to Cromarty: New regional station there?', Press & Journal, 16 November 1933, 7.
- 'New North of Scotland radio station', Glasgow Herald, 19 December 1933, 9.
- 'Highland wireless station site', Courier, 8 January 1934, 3.
- 'New Scots radio station', Courier, 9 May 1934, 7.
- 'BBC surprises Burghead', Courier, 10 May 1934, 10.
- ''A modern "winged camp": new wireless high-power transmitter at Burghead', Glasgow Herald, 13 October 1936, 10.
- 'North telephone cable opened', Courier, 6 October 1934, 3.
- 'Scottish radio station order', Daily Express, 24 December 1934.
- 'Men's vain wait for work', Press & Journal, 15 January 1935, 8.
- 'New BBC station', Scotsman, 5 January 1935, 11.
- Wireless World, 27 December 1935, 662.
- 'A modern 'winged camp': new wireless transmitter at Burghead', Glasgow Herald, 13 October 1936, 10.
- 'Burghead calling', Glasgow Herald, 3 September 1936, 8.
- Radio Times listing, BBC Genome
- Radio Times listing, BBC Genome
- 'Transmitter at Burghead: new BBC station opened', Glasgow Herald, 13 October 1936, 6.
- 'New BBC station at Burghead: local programme to be broadcast', Glasgow Herald, 10 October 1936, 9.
- Radio Times listing, Regional Programme Scotland, 17 October 1936, BBC Genome
- Wireless World, 27 December 1935.
- Ariel, June 1936, 7.
- 'Radio's mountain stronghold', Passing Show, 4 July 1936.
- Speech by Sir Edward Appleton, 'Radio-Communication', 3 May 1949, BBC WAC R44/118.