You thought you would pick up this book and read the life story of Chris Murray, eh? Well, sorry to disappoint you. That’s not my name. No, no. You haven’t picked up the wrong book. Let me explain.
My real name, the one I was christened with, is William Iain Murray. Chris was actually my father’s name. Confused? You will be. In the Highlands, and I’m sure elsewhere, people refer to their sons as little versions of the father. So, my father was Big Chris and his eldest son, my older brother Donald, was often known as Wee Chris. Everyone then knew who they were talking about. My birth messed up that cosy arrangement. My brother Donald was no longer Wee Chris but Big Chris and I, although I am now nearly 6ft 2in, became Wee Chris. Still, I was the youngest and that’s how it works.
Over the years Donald lost his nickname completely but mine stuck. Except, as I kept growing I was obviously no longer Wee Chris, but Big Chris. It’s making your head hurt? Just think how I felt. Why couldn’t everyone call me by my correct name? William. So you see, Chris was actually a nickname of sorts, but one which was really only used by people outside our family. It wouldn’t feel right if anyone who was related to me called me by that name. They would, of course, always call me William, as would most other people who have known me since I was young.
The other nickname I had back then was The Whale, because my Dad had been a whaler. Not surprisingly perhaps, that was one name I really didn’t like. And, of course, because I let them know I hated it, the more the other lads would shout, “Thar she blows!” So, although this book is actually about William Iain Murray and not Chris Murray, I hope you are still interested in learning a bit about my life. That’s fine; I have a fair few tales to tell if you bear with me.
How did I come to write this book? Over the years quite a few people had suggested it after hearing yarns about my past adventures. It is perfectly possible these tales were told in the pub and then passed on to others. I dismissed all those suggestions although I knew in the back of my mind that there had been some colourful incidents I could tell people about. As the years crept up on me, I began to realise that people like the late Dr John Macleod of Lochmaddy, who I mention later on in this chapter, may have been right and I should commit my memories to paper.
My hope for this book is that it will be read and understood by the general public and not just by people in the worlds of search and rescue and the military. Therefore, I am going to try and avoid jargon and where it is impossible to do that, I shall try and explain what I mean in plain language. It is my intention to make people smile as well as inform them. Yes, there have been heart-stopping moments in my career as a diver, as well as my 20-odd years dangling on the wire. However, there have also been unusual, thought-provoking and hilarious times too.
I almost came a cropper many times. You will hear how I had to be rescued myself, when I was washed off a boat in the Atlantic; how I was caught as helplessly as an insect on a fly swatter when a pipeline I was diving on, in 140 feet of water, suddenly shot up towards the surface, and how I froze when I realised that my young daughter and I could be wiped out as my dog ran up to us with an unexploded grenade in its mouth.
However, I will also tell you how I set my father’s much-loved shed on fire when my daft attempt at making gunpowder went drastically wrong, how I was set on fire myself for other people’s fun, how I completely failed to recognise one of the most famous footballers on the planet, and all about the time I came to be caught in a deluge of fresh cow manure from the heavens. Remind me also to tell you how I was shot by some mad, jealous Frenchman who left me for dead in the street.
So, who am I? I reckon it’s important to explain where I came from. Firstly, a bit about my family history. My grandfather was the Reverend William Murray. Born in the parish of Little Rogart in the county of Sutherland, his parents also came from there. He was married on June 20, 1905, having known my grandmother, Margaret Sutherland (from Hillview at Rearquhar, in the parish of Dornoch) for some years. Soon after, they went off to Africa where they were both missionaries. In those days the wife had to help the husband and they both set to work in the country we now know as Malawi. In those days, it was known as Nyasaland. They were very busy out there – so busy that they managed to have five sons and one daughter. These were James, David, Willie, John and Christopher, my dad, as well as a daughter, my aunt Marion. She went on to be a nurse and matron who was highly decorated for her work in hospitals and hospital ships around the world.
Being a missionary was a tough existence and there was a constant battle with disease. My grandfather picked up many bugs out there and was often unwell. When Dad was 13, they all came back to Dornoch for an extended holiday due to my grandfather’s poor health. My grandfather had just bought a house called Reefton in St Gilbert Street. During his break at home, Grandpa began to show signs of blackwater fever – a disease caused by complications arising after bouts of malaria. His condition deteriorated and he died and was buried in Dornoch. Having lost his father while still just 13, my father then became a pupil at Dornoch Academy. After his school years, not a happy time for him, as I shall explain, he went off to London where he worked for many years in the Smiths clock factory. He then joined the Metropolitan Police and served at various London stations. At one stage, my dad was one of the regular police guards for 10 Downing Street.
Towards the end of World War II, he decided to do his bit in another uniform and joined the Royal Navy, serving on HMS Howe from 1944 to 1945. After the war ended he soon wanted to come back to Scotland and took up forestry work around Dornoch for a time. After a few years he got itchy feet again. Jobs were scarce so it was back to sea, and he joined the whaling ships. He spent several seasons in the Antarctic as a whaler. It was a hard, cold job and when the time came to move on he eventually headed north again and managed to land the job as janitor of Dornoch Academy and then with Grants of Dornoch, the food company. He was at Grants until he retired but sadly died soon afterwards, as a result of injuries he suffered in a car accident.
However, it was when he was in London that my father met mum who was housekeeper to the Tate family, of sugar producers Tate and Lyle. She was Angusina Maclennan who hailed from Marvig in the South Lochs area of the Isle of Lewis. They got together, and before long my older brother Donald, and then myself, put in an appearance. Home was No 16 Maresfield Gardens in mega-posh Hampstead, in the north of the city. I was born in St Mary’s Hospital there. Hampstead is still one of the areas with the most millionaires’ houses anywhere in the country. I am not sure how or why we ended up living in such a posh area. Maybe it was a police house we had; I never asked.
Our near neighbours, I was told later, were a family called Freud. The family included the famed Clement Freud; the writer and broadcaster, always described as lugubrious, grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and brother of the artist, Lucian Freud. First known as a household name for advertising dog food in a deadpan sort of way on television in the 60s and 70s, Clement then became an MP, a deadpan sort of Liberal MP. Later, of course, he was Sir Clement. We moved back to Scotland when I was just three months old and before long, my younger brother Alasdair was born in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
Mum and Dad were good-living people. However, I remember my father being more of a friend than a parent. A brilliant man, he just seemed to touch everyone he came across. Everyone liked him. He didn’t smoke but he would certainly take a wee dram on the odd occasion – yes, I do take after Dad in some ways. The old man was full of fun, always cracking jokes and he was a fantastic artist, particularly of cartoons. He was a notable sculptor too, and the type of person who could turn his hand to most things.
Dad also wrote poetry. I remember some of his poems on display at the doctor’s surgery. After he died, our next-door neighbour, the late Tom Mackay, gave me a cutting from the Northern Times newspaper of a poem my father had written about the street we lived in.
It is simply called St Gilbert Street:
Because of Holy Gilbert’s fame
A street was honoured by his name.
The chief street of this ancient town
Where Dornoch worthies sauntered down.
Proud of all that they had done
To make this town a modern one
With Gilbert’s street their special pride
Admired throughout the countryside.
But now we hasten to survey
This famous little street today
To see what progress there may be
In this progressive century.
But first of all, you must enquire
Where is this street that you desire?
There is no name-plate there to tell
And maybe it is just as well.
For what you see appears most quaint
If tribute to our patron saint.
If Gilbert Murray now could see
This back street to his memory
A cart-track with uneven crust
Of pot-holes, pools and flying dust;
The likes of which you wouldn’t see
In jungle-ringed Trincomalee.
Then would he understand the worry
And chagrin of another Murray.
Life had its challenges, though, for Dad from an early age. He had problems at school in Dornoch which were down to one particular teacher with a drink problem. Some mathematics exam papers he had completed were torn up and thrown in the bin by that teacher so he failed the exam for having ‘lost’ them.
Yet he was determined that setbacks like that wouldn’t hold him back in his life. He did not complain about how he was disadvantaged although he did eventually explain to me why things had not gone so well for him at school.
Of my parents, Dad was the one who was the regular churchgoer. He was also very fond of nature and wildlife and, as any parent would, he also took a great interest in my life and everything I was doing. Yeah, I have very happy memories of my dad. Mum was, well, Mum. She was certainly far stricter than Dad. A smoker all her life, she would never smoke in front of her mother back home in Marvig. It was pretty much taboo back then for island women to puff. She was quite strict towards my older brother although I seem to remember she wouldn’t go to church herself as often as my father.
It’s true that she wasn’t as outgoing as other mums in Dornoch at that time and she kept herself very much to herself. Her great obsession was spending all holidays back in her former home village of Marvig. That was her place, the place of her birth, and her love for it never changed.
I was still in school when I decided I wanted to be either a carpenter or a joiner. When I was 15 I began to wonder whether I should leave school and then I learned of a vacancy at the county council. They were looking for an apprentice joiner.
A job with the council? That’s a job for life, everyone said. Well, I applied, got the job and started soon after at the yard in Dornoch. It felt a bit strange going there in my overalls with my piece box but actually knowing very little about joinery. I did have some tools because I had managed to get a grant. The tools cost the princely sum of £15 for the lot, and you know what? I still have them all to this day. After the leisurely atmosphere of the woodwork class in school, where I was really quite good at making small things with wood, going into that workshop with those huge, noisy power tools was very different.
Thankfully, my journeyman, James Matheson, was a fantastic guy who taught me everything he could about the trade. As well as joinery, I was tiling, painting and doing plumbing work as well. I used to make doors, windows and gates from scratch. Apprentices, however, had no electrical tools available to them so I had to do this all by hand. That was an experience. I sure learned the work the hard way. Of course, I made mistakes along the way but that’s how you learn properly.
The work largely involved running repairs of all kinds to the various council properties all over the county of Sutherland. If somebody’s roof blew off in a gale, we’d go and replace the slates. If pipes had frozen or a boiler had burst, we would be sent. In the morning we could be fitting draught excluders and in the afternoon doing roof repairs. There was no trade union then to say who would do what. You were expected to do everything. Of course, when we did get power tools, things became a lot easier.
As part of my apprenticeship, I had to attend day release, and sometimes block release too, at the Sutherland Technical College in Golspie. It was a fantastic place and even had its own outdoor swimming pool. My brother Donald had gone there before me and told me all about it beforehand. The courses were fairly hard, I suppose. I seem to remember finding them tough going. Some of the teachers could be hard on the students too, but most were far from that. There were some you could even ask for a cigarette and who did treat us very much like adults, although we were still quite young. We were never into any serious drugs – unless you count sex, alcohol, nicotine and rock and roll. They were quite addictive.
The college itself was on the edge of a forest and during the lunch break you could get away from it all by heading into the woodland. I suppose that was when I met and got to know some of the local ladies for the first time. Some even became girlfriends of mine for a time. Ah yes, I remember those lunchtimes very well.
My friends and I lived for the weekend. Every Friday we headed off to a dance somewhere. It wasn’t that we had to go far. There was usually a dance in Golspie or sometimes in the Burghfield Hotel in Dornoch. Now and again, we might even go further afield and head for the bright lights of Helmsdale. Or Tain, when there was a free bus. Occasionally, we might even go to the Strathpeffer Pavilion. There was usually a show on most weekends.
If the Maurice Lynch Showband, an Irish band which seemed to be constantly touring in Scotland, was appearing in Wick or Thurso, we might even take the bus up there. Those four or five years of my apprenticeship were a very enjoyable time for me and I learned a lot. I even managed to learn a bit about being a joiner too.
I had a friend, Graham Grant, known as Goondy, who was a slaughterman in Dornoch. His father, Angus, was the head gamekeeper on the Torrish Estate, out near Helmsdale. We would go over there some weekends, often with Jimmy Bain, the under-keeper, when there were big shoots for grouse or woodcock, or even to do some salmon fishing on the river. We would be supplied with guns and would go out on the estate with Angus and Jimmy. Although I didn’t mind shooting birds, I didn’t really take to killing four-legged beasts. Most of the estate people were really very good to us and we would often be given some of the day’s kill to take home. A rare treat. After the shoot, of course, we would all pile back to the gamekeeper’s house and, in accordance with Highland tradition, the alcohol would flow. Those parties would go on to the wee small hours and some of them were really quite wild. It was quite an eye-opener, living it up with some very well-off people and, even now, it would not really be appropriate to go into too much detail about what actually happened at some of those estate dos. The guests would come from all around Europe and were paying a lot of money for their week’s shooting and fishing. When I did manage to get an invitation to their late-night parties which often went on to 6am, I rarely said no. Funny that.
Home in Dornoch was, of course, Reefton in Saint Gilbert Street, then just a cobblestone and dust path. The house was named after some place in South Africa, or maybe New Zealand, where my grandfather had been. One of my earliest memories is of the time I went missing when I was little more than a toddler. Snow was falling heavily and search parties looked for me for two hours without success. Eventually I made my own way back to the house where I was quizzed about where I had been. All I remembered was the snow swishing around me and falling into a snowdrift at one point. It was all just good fun to me.
Dad decided that it was better dealing with me one-to-one. He took me upstairs, away from everyone else, and asked where the heck I had been. I looked at him earnestly and then I made up the most fantastic tale about a big wind which had come down and swept me up, up and away. There was nothing I could do about it, I told him. Poor Dad, that wasn’t quite the explanation he had been looking for. I was only three or four years old and many a time since then he reminded me of the tale I came up with which I thought would keep me out of trouble.
Growing up in Dornoch was a happy time for me. I got up to all sorts of mischief although I can’t say I actually enjoyed school that much. I didn’t really knuckle down to it and I suppose I was a bit of a big softie. I was bullied a bit but I do think I brought much of it on myself by talking back to people. School was Dornoch Primary and then Dornoch Academy. A lot of my friends at that time came down from the west coast of Sutherland and stayed during the week in the hostel in Dornoch. I was not what you would call academic. In fact, I ended up in a ‘P’ class – I think that stood for Practical. It meant we were offered a lot of practical classes instead of academic and I really took to metalwork and woodwork. That’s where I was happiest.
Quite a few of my friends also ended up in the ‘P’ class. For some of them that proved no hindrance at all and they went on to have academic careers. I am still in touch with some of my former classmates and there is even a professor or two among them. My memories of my teachers are all really very positive. I can’t think of any I had problems with. They pretty much all went out of their way to help me. I was the problem. At that stage, I just didn’t want to learn anything other than practical subjects. I just couldn’t see the value of academic subjects although, of course, my opinion has changed a lot over the years and now I often wish I had applied myself more.
When I was 13, I joined the Army Cadets. That was something different which I found exciting. There was a uniform to wear and exciting activities too, like rifle shooting. We did a lot of that at Fort George and I did well in competitions with the .303 rifle – quite a number of times Cadet Murray came home with medals for shooting, destined for the sideboard. While I was still in school I went with the cadets to Nijmegen, Holland, to do a four-day, 100-mile march − another new experience: meeting people from other nations and seeing how they lived. We all finished the march and received a medal to confirm it. I’m not quite sure where that gong is now but I do have many happy memories of going Dutch.
For some time my dad worked on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course as a greenkeeper. During the summer he was usually up about 4am or 5am to make sure that the greens were fit and ready for those who were paying a lot of money to play on the course. The bunkers had to be raked and there was always mowing to be done; always lots to do. When I was in school and Dad was working there, I used to get up early too, to go round the golf course with him.
It was a beautiful spot, just beside the Dornoch beach and I used to envy my dad – although it wasn’t always lovely weather – we had some horrible rainy days too, but the work had to be done just the same. Dad was always jovial, whistling or singing a song to himself, and round he would go. He would tell me all kinds of stories about people he met on the golf course. He was told one particular day before he went to work that someone had lost a highly expensive watch. When I say highly expensive, it was worth thousands of pounds and that’s going back a good number of years. Dad being Dad, said he would look for it. He went right to the end of the 18-hole course towards Embo and on the way back had to answer a call of nature. He went into a secluded bunker to have a wee Jimmy Riddle. Now my dad would never tell tales or anything like that. He was very straight in the way he recounted events. As he was piddling away, the stream uncovered a watch in the bunker. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He cleaned it off and took it back to the clubhouse. It was indeed the watch which this person had lost – there was a chance in a million something like that could have happened. He also came across a gent’s gold wedding ring once, as he was raking a bunker.
A particular TV and film celebrity often seen around the Dornoch area when we were young was the actor James Robertson Justice; best known for films like Doctor In the House, where he was Sir Lancelot Spratt, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. James lived in the area known as Spinningdale, where there are maybe twenty houses beside the ruined and dilapidated mill buildings, down by the shore. A regular visitor to Dornoch and the surrounding villages, James was a real sportsman in his own right.
He used to frequent the grouse moors outside the Dornoch area with his falcons. How he loved showing them off to anyone who had the time to listen to him When I was in Dornoch Primary, I think I must have been seven or eight years old, I remember walking back from school with friends when we met up with James Robertson Justice outside the Eagle Hotel: a big hotel covered in ivy, and this meeting still sticks in my mind.
We were merely little fellows and at that time he was the biggest man on the whole planet – as far as we were concerned anyway. Along with his beard and his immense personality, he also had this incredible booming voice which seemed to resound right through the town of Dornoch. Despite that, he was a fantastic, friendly and interesting guy to us youngsters. We knew he was famous at the time because we were told so by the grown-ups. That made it all the more exciting. Everybody talked about him – and he chose to live in our town. It was great to meet him with his big leather gloves and straps which were attached to the falcon as it perched on his arm, usually with a hood over its head.
We would be allowed to pet the falcon while he regaled us with his colourful tales. These were always stories about his prowess at hunting, how the falcons would bring down the grouse and how he would go about retrieving them afterwards. One story he told us was that some lord or laird was out on the hill shooting for grouse and one of his servants got excited when a grouse took off in the long heather. The problem was that he had a stammer. He began shouting, “A grace, your grouse,” getting himself so worked up that the words came out all wrong.
We were in stitches listening to stories like that. And I believe it was a true story although I am not sure who the lord or laird was – probably the Duke of Sutherland, so that would be going back a bit.
A biography by James Hogg, called James Robertson Justice: What’s The Bleeding Time? came out in 2008 and I learned that James was actually a bit of a rogue. The glamorous lady we always saw with him was not, in fact, his wife at all. He was living in Spinningdale with a mistress, an actress called Irina von Meyendorff. There are a few mysteries about him still. Why did he pretend to be Scottish? He told everyone, even on TV shows, that he was born in a distillery on the Isle of Skye. That was all nonsense – he was actually a Londoner.
However, he did speak many languages fluently, including Gaelic. His real wife eventually sued him for much of his money and Mr Hogg’s book says Spinningdale had to be sold on the orders of the bankruptcy court. In all, James appeared in 87 films and in some his name appears as Seamus Mòr na Feusag, which is Gaelic for Big James with the Beard. Maybe he learned it when he was filming Whisky Galore on Barra? The sad endnote is that Mr Hogg says James died penniless in 1975, just days after finally marrying Ms von Meyendorff. Broke perhaps, but he was also said to have been happy at the end. Well, he was nice to us and made us happy too. Aye, I raise my glass to James Robertson Justice.
There were amazing parallels between James Robertson and another man I met in Uist. The late Dr John Macleod, of Lochmaddy, was the first person to tell me I should write this book. John too, had been a diver, when he did his national service in Malta between 1957 and 1959. I hope Lorna and the family will forgive me for suggesting that Dr John looked a bit like James Robertson Justice. The likeness was such that people in Uist would often say that the part of the rural doctor that James, as Dr Maclaren, played so splendidly in the film Whisky Galore, was a bit like Dr John with his own country practice in North Uist.
As I got older, my main interest became fishing. Any chance I had I would be away on one of the local lochs with my friends. I recall a day I was on my own on Loch Beannach, outside Lairg in the county of Sutherland, when I remembered seeing the remains of old boatsheds there when I was younger. I thought the bottom of the loch would be a good place to find some old-fashioned bottles. I got my wetsuit on and instead of carrying weights with me, I used a big boulder to weigh myself down. The clarity of the water was good and after being down for a short while, I heard the noise of an outboard in the loch. I hadn’t realised there was anybody around but they sounded like they were round the headland from where I was. I was a bit concerned as on this particular loch guests paid quite a lot of money to go fishing for the large trout. If I upset these people then it wasn’t going to look very good for me, and I am afraid that’s precisely what happened. The outboard engine stopped but I couldn’t actually see a boat although the water was clear – just not clear enough to see to the surface.
The toffs had come round to their favourite fishing spot, shut down the engine and were using the oars to fly-fish. I waited until I thought they had gone. I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and headed to the surface. Had I known there was anybody in the loch, I would have kept well away from that area. I broke the surface amid a lot of boiling bubbles and emerged right beside their boat. My sudden appearance gave the genteel fishermen a terrible fright. By the look of them, they nearly suffered heart attacks. They thought it was some monster from the deep – a huge, black-headed creature with a slithery black tongue snaking out of its mouth up to the top of its head. Yeeeaggghhh! That was just my snorkel, of course.
The women were absolutely petrified and were screaming their heads off. I thought, ‘What’s the point trying to explain, I’m off.’ As I swam for the shore, I could hear their shrieks and the ghillie on the boat cursing after me. On the bank, I got my mask off and called over to apologise profusely and explain that I hadn’t realised they were there. The ghillie was furious, even when I explained I wouldn’t have been there had I known. I had ruined the fishing for everybody for the day in this part of the loch, he said. All I could do was say sorry but he told me not to use that bloody loch again. “Now clear off!” he yelled. I did scarper but I did go back to that loch on other occasions – although I always made doubly sure there were no stroppy ghillies around first.
Sometimes I fell foul of the law over poaching, or should I say, alleged poaching? Ach, there was nothing alleged about it. I was quite partial to a bit of fresh salmon and fresh pheasant too. Unfortunately, my own finances did not allow me to buy such luxuries from the shops. Happily, it just so happened that the River Evelix ran just outside Dornoch and I would go there with my gaff and fox snare, which is just like a rabbit snare but bigger. I would just swim up behind the salmon and loop it over the tail. It was easier if there was someone with you to haul the fish in but I could manage on my own with a tether which was excellent for catching big fish like that. One or two salmon would be taken – but only for the pot, you understand.
One day I somehow caught more of the king of fish than I had expected to. No bag big enough could be found so I put them into my camouflage jacket and carried them in that. It was pretty heavy and normally, with salmon secreted about my person, I would have skirted round the edge of town so that I was less likely to bump into anyone, but the weight of this haul was so tiring that I just walked the last mile on the main road.
Before I had gone very far, a Land Rover pulled up and in it was the local bobby, John Cameron. Oh no! Of all people to offer me a lift. I obviously looked knackered and he insisted I get in. I didn’t want to but I also didn’t want to draw attention to myself by refusing. That was awkward, me sitting there beside the constable as I tried to hide the scales on my jacket and trousers.
He soon asked what I had in the jacket. I said it was ‘bioraichean’, the Gaelic for dogfish, as well as some turnips I was taking to a friend. I could see the suspicion etched into his face. After all, there must have been something wrong with his nose if he was not catching that distinctive salmon smell. When he dropped me off at the Eagle Hotel, he had a smirk on his face and said I would need a dram after lugging that jacket about. I would indeed, I agreed.
“Well, you enjoy it, and whatever else you have in there,” he said with a smile, and an obvious emphasis on the “whatever else”.
However, I was caught in possession of salmon once. That was also on the River Evelix but at a different pool. Again, I was using a fox snare to catch salmon by the tail. I would just slip quietly into the river and under the water. When I’d see a salmon tail fluttering I would slowly swim up behind it and hook the snare round its tail before yanking it tight. If I had a friend on the bank, I would hand them the snare and they would pull it in. Being on my own, I had to drag the fish ashore by myself. It was a good day that one and I got five; I was very chuffed with myself.
Just after I had put the fish in the boot of my car, a moped came along. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘That’s all I need.’ It was a policeman by the name of Angus Mackay. They called him Angus Gashegy, after the place where he stayed.
“What are you up to today, Chris?” he asked.
“Ach, I was just in for a wee swim.” I told him I was hoping to find some freshwater mussels and get some pearls. At that time, you were allowed to do that sort of thing.
Angus was immediately suspicious, seeing me there in my black wetsuit − like something out of the SAS. He wanted to see the pearls and the shells of the mussels I had tried.
“No, I didn’t find any pearls and I just threw the shells back in,” I lied. He wasn’t having it. He made me open the boot of the Ford Corsair and there they were. Five beauties. Some negotiation took place, warnings were issued and I gave him one of the salmon for himself. However, he still wanted to know how I had caught them.
I told him about the fox snare and he then wanted to know about the wetsuit and whether I had another one. I said I did, but wasn’t sure if it would fit him, what with his beer belly and all that. However, I went home and got it for him anyway. I explained that it was a two-piece and that the jacket part had a jockstrap arrangement that went up and under, if you know what I mean. He said he understood but he had never been in a river after a salmon before so he knew nothing about wetsuits.
I heard later about Angus’s first expedition with his newly-acquired swimwear. He caught nothing, apparently, and I would guess that was because he made so much noise getting into the water. That wasn’t all, though. When he had got out of the water, Angus had got stuck in the suit. He couldn’t undo the studs because, well, he didn’t have a clue and he was going about it completely the wrong way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to help him and before long he needed the toilet. Time was of the essence. He had to cut himself out of the dashed thing. That must have been so funny to watch. I really wish I had been there. The next time I saw Angus, he was not a happy chap. He said he would never be trying that particular method of getting one for the pot. Oh, well, more for the rest of us . . .
On the odd occasion, I was known to acquire some ducks and pheasants – for the pot too, you understand. This day, I was going past the Middle Ferry, outside Embo on the Cambusmore Estate, when someone saw my car and reported that I had been shooting ducks. I had my legal gun in the car but it wasn’t me who had been shooting, I swear. Before I knew what was happening, the gamekeeper’s 4×4 was up behind me, flashing his lights to try and get me to stop. ‘No way,’ I thought. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’
He continued behind me all the way up to Dornoch and to the police station where my girlfriend Shona worked. In fact, it was her car I was driving that day. The gamey made a right old scene when we got up there. He rushed out of his wagon like something out of an American cop show and was trying to scramble up the grassy bank to get to the car I was in when he fell flat on his face. He looked ridiculous but demanded the inspector come out to search my car for pheasants and ducks. He was convinced there was game in the car. I was saying nothing, of course – I knew I was innocent. I just found it very funny that this guy was making such a plonker of himself.
Shona turned up in uniform and asked what was going on. I told her I was accused of poaching.
“Would I do such a thing, Shona?”
She thought it best not to answer that one. After about 10 minutes, I let them search the car and there wasn’t even a feather in it. You should have seen the disappointment on the gamekeeperʼs face. He was not pleased. After that, he went out of his way to try to catch me but I never let that happen. I suppose I was just a bit smarter than he was. When Shona calmed down, she saw the funny side too. I learned my lesson after that experience, however. Whenever I did go poaching, I was just a little bit more careful.
In my early teens I discovered air rifles and that meant non-stop target practice around the village. As the years rolled on, I will not pretend I got any wiser. Some of us graduated to making our own gunpowder. I would go to the ironmonger and buy weedkiller, and my friend would go to the chemist and buy flowers of sulphur. I would make charcoal, a vital ingredient, in little tins, and perfected the technique of making both fast powder and slow powder. Anything we wanted. It was easy to make.
Then the fun would start. We set up small explosions, just for a laugh, and then moved onto bows and arrows. However, these arrows had explosive heads on them. You might think that was a tad dangerous. And you’d be right. Encouraged by the fact that we seemed to have a knack for it, us lads then moved up to the manufacture of sky rockets, no less. We would put our homemade gunpowder into old grease guns and make fuses. That would send the grease guns hundreds of feet in the air. We knew it was very wrong and that there was a possibility of something very bad happening, but it was also very thrilling. Ach, we had a lot of fun – until the day it all went wrong.
The manufacturing process, such as it was, was carried out in the shed at the back of Reefton. This particular day I was testing how long one of the fuses took to burn. Suddenly, it spat sparks into an open jar of gunpowder. The gunpowder didn’t actually explode because it wasn’t compressed but it caught fire and burned fiercely, shattering the jar and sending fiery debris everywhere. This quickly set light to the floor and the walls. In minutes, the entire shed was ablaze with all my dad’s precious equipment and tools in it. There was nothing I could safely do. I really didn’t know which was going to be most dangerous – fighting the fire or facing the wrath of my father. I managed to douse some of the flames but, oh heck, there was an awful lot of damage. There was no way to hide it either. I’d burnt my fingers trying to get to get the fizzing gunpowder out of the shed and, in any case, the pall of smoke could be seen for miles away. People from around Dornoch started rushing over to see what had happened. What could I do? I lied through my teeth, of course. I was just burning rubbish. All under control, I said. Nothing to worry about. However, when my parents got home they weren’t so easily fooled and they soon realised what I had been up to. There was an almighty row.
So, having been banned from bomb-making and explosives-handling of all kinds, my friends and I sought other pursuits. That, I’m sure, is when my interest in off-road motorcycles began. There were still a lot of old Norton, BSA and Matchless wartime motorbikes that crofters often had lying in their barns. We would relieve them of these machines, sometimes for just a fiver, and do them up for us to go scrambling on the moors, hills and beaches. Learning how to strip them down was fun. That initial engineering experience helped me many times in later life. If we couldn’t get the bike to work, we just took it apart and started all over again. Most of the bikes we just trashed to destruction and they often ended up in the dump at the back of a local farmyard. And then someone had the fantastic idea of trying to blow up of one of these bike engines. After destroying my old man’s shed, I wasn’t very keen but I thought, ‘Hey, this could be fun.’ So I said OK, one more time. We got an engine – from a single-cylinder 500cc Norton, I think it was. Having got the cylinder to bottom dead centre and filled half the chamber with gunpowder, we bored a spark plug with wires through it and screwed it up tight.
Up the hill we called Leathad na Searmag, we dug a big hole in the ground, about 100 yards from a derelict building. We got a six-volt battery which had a switch on it, and attached the wires from that onto the engine. Then a fishing line about 100 yards long was attached to the switch and fed back into the building. Tossing a coin to see who was going to pull the switch, it fell to me. There was not so much a bang but a low, muffled ‘boomph’. The shock wave, however, was tremendous. All I can remember is running for our lives as earth and stones flew all around us. When the dust settled, we crept out and found a crater that was six feet deep and probably eight feet across. The only piece we ever found of that engine was one valve. The rest had been incinerated and catapulted to all the four corners. That was it. We learned our lesson after that fright. No more explosives for us. We just stuck with motorbikes till we were old enough to have cars. Thankfully, we were unhurt but it was one heck of a lesson about how careful you have to be with explosives. Yet another lesson that was to be very useful later in my life . . .
My job with the county was mainly working on council houses. We would be erecting fences, doing drainage work, roofing, tiling and repairing storm damage. It wasn’t just joinery work we were expected to do either. Jacks of all trades is what we were and we’d work all around the county of Sutherland. There was a lot of hard graft involved. However, I still had to be trained properly in carpentry and joinery at the technical college in Golspie and I did manage to pass my City and Guilds.
I remember, one day in the workshop, I was cutting up a 6 x 2 plank and the aluminium guard on top of the circular saw wasn’t as tight as it should have been. Yes, I should have checked that before I started on the work. Halfway through, I noticed the guard falling and there was nothing I could do apart from drop everything and duck. On the way down I hit the red stop button at the side of the saw. I did that just as the guard dropped, there was a hell of a bang and everything came to a stop.
I looked at the blade and the guard. The guard was peppered with holes, the teeth from the saw had come right through the guard and the door behind me was peppered with shards of metal. Some of them had penetrated right through the door. If I had been standing there at that time I would certainly have been maimed or even killed. A sharp lesson for me, to always make sure that safety comes first in any sort of job like that. When the guard on that saw was replaced, it was a spring-loaded one so that the same sort of incident couldn’t happen again.
There have been one or two other close shaves in my life. I had a severe medical emergency, a near thing or two as I was diving and I was thrown into the Atlantic from a ship, in a violent storm. Oh, yes, and someone shot me at close range in a street in France. More on these incidents later, but you know something? I still shiver when I think of what could have happened with that circular saw.
My apprenticeship lasted four years and I then became a full tradesman joiner. During the time I was serving my apprenticeship my brother Donald was sending me postcards and letters from all around the world. He had joined the Royal Navy when he was 15 years old and started off in HMS Ganges, a shore base in Ipswich where he did his initial training, moving from there to aircraft carriers to continue his engineering training. At that time he was on HMS Victorious. The more of these postcards I got, the more I wanted to leave Dornoch and join the Royal Navy myself, to see a bit of the world and get a bit of excitement. Enjoyable though my work as a joiner was, I just had the wanderlust, so I decided once I had finished my joinery stint that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t waste any time and applied to join up to serve my Queen and country at the careers office in Bridge Street, Inverness. I was accepted and in December of 1971 I signed on the dotted line. Straight away, I was sent to HMS Raleigh down in Cornwall for basic training and the start of a new and different life.