In Aug 1980 I joined the training centre at Snipefield in Campbeltown and a year later I started my 2nd year apprenticeship at Campbeltown Shipyard. On arrival there it was a relief to be away from the rigmarole of general schooling and exams. The yard was so noisy with metal grinding and constant banging of steel wedges, which lined up the plates prior to being tacked and fully welded.
I was neighboured up with Dick Potts in the sectional erection squad. Throughout my time there I worked with another 2 regular neighbours, being Davie Wilson and Willie Paterson. Working with Davie was hilarious hearing his stories about his deployments in the army.
I later worked in the fitting out squad which was taking the completed hull and adding all the required metalwork.
Being with, and mixing with other workers, certainly matured a young boy greatly. My personal circumstance was that I worked to give me scope to enjoy a full social life.
Due to lack of orders there were at least 2 redundancy letters issued to the workforce in my time there and as a result of this after 8 years at the yard I reluctantly changed career and joined Strathclyde Police. I was a whisker’s length from reversing my decision when I found myself patrolling the schemes of Glasgow during my first Christmas time away from Campbeltown.
I fully intended to complete 30 years on the force and then to go back to the yard but when I completed my time, sadly there was no yard in existence.
Yes, there was a sense of pride when one saw a modern trawler sailing away to a future that was guaranteed to be successful.
After being away from the tools for 30 years the funny stories have stayed with me and I often reflect on them. Some are first hand and others are handed down stories which I will try to get as accurate as possible. I will not name individuals in certain stories but just ask any former employees and I am sure they will put identities to them!
Norman Stewart every day would buy a Daily Star from Bobby Bone’s shop before attending his work. The newspaper was folded once and would be stored in a large wooden box in the fabrication shed underneath a blue tool tray. I am sure Norman’s wife at the time, Flo, did not know that, by the time she viewed the paper in the evening, around 20 individuals had collected the paper and took it to the toilet trap situated below Jock Kerr’s office and reviewed all pages. There was one individual when spotted collecting would put the reviewing of the latest news out of reach for at least 1 hour due to the aroma to air. This newspaper was also used when a worker would get grinding debris in their eye. The norm was to see Mucka Phee (Donald MacPhee) who would use a corner of the torn newsprint and delicately remove the offending item from the eye. If all failed it was the shipyard van to the clinic for treatment.
Yes, on day one you were issued with a hard hat. By day 3 the hat had usually been melted when left on scaffolding and burned by propane cutting and welding. When walking the length of a boat you were responsible for your own safety. The best place was walking bent over underneath the boat (next to the bilge keel) as anything falling from the deck would be outwith from where you were. Willie “Tyre” McIntyre was the only man I recall keeping his hard hat all the time.
If you wanted 10 minutes peace and a chat with a chum the place you would not get caught by Jock Kerr was to sit at a 45 degree angle in one of the “wing” fuel tanks. Lighting was courtesy of an inspection lamp
Most years on a certain month the bell would go and we would troop off to the canteen – this was minus the management – office staff and foremen. The local shop stewards would start with something like
“Brothers, we have built 4 boats this year, can we agree what pay rise do you want to ask for?”
After a bit of negotiations a 17% or similar would be the figure agreed. The shop stewards would go “up the brae to the office”. A few hours later the bell would go again and with anticipation we would learn the management had offered us a 0.25% pay rise. This would go on for a few days and we usually got a 2 to 3 % pay rise. We were basically bamboozled with figures and bonuses and at one meeting one the shop stewards asked a senior plater, Davie Wilson, what he thought of what was on offer. The conversation went like, “Well Davie, what do you think about the offer” – Davie replied, “Well half o’ naethin’ is better that three quarters off F*** all”. There was a pause when everyone in their head tried to work out what he meant then the whole canteen erupted in laughter. 36 years later I still don’t understand it. Impromptu brilliance!
I was told by a senior member of staff they nearly “lost the Vón” [The Vón was a boat that was destined for the Faroe Islands.] when a nearly completed hull was lowered from the top of the yard to the bottom for the fitting out process. Apparently the lowering winch partially failed and the hull was close to going through the bottom slip doors but was stopped by a Kort Nozzle that had been left at the bottom of the slip in anticipation of being fitted the following day. The nozzle jammed between the trolleys and concrete.
The Valhalla – Spanish Wine
The Valhalla was in the water at the quay nearing completion. It was 1982. She was destined for Eyemouth.
On a winter’s day we arrived at work and there was a gale force wind from the West (from the town direction).
The boat’s mooring lines for some unknown reason had slipped. The only rope holding it was the forward whaleback rope. The whaleback was around 10 feet from the quay whilst the stern was pointing towards the shore at Trench Point.
The crew were contacted at a local hotel and they and Adam McClellan climbed onto the boat via a ladder. The main engine was started and the boat was manoeuvred away from the precarious position. The skipper decided to put the boat to the town side of the quay where waves were breaking over. On arrival there was a horrendous crunch of steel as the hull hit the concrete quay. The boat retreated and it went to Campbeltown quay and berthed. The Valhalla had sustained plate damage to the Starboard side and some plates around the fish room required to be replaced. Due to her size re-slipping it was out of the question. The Valhalla was berthed beside a Spanish Fishing boat which had lost its rudder and was going under its own repairs by local contractor, John Carmichael. In the fishing community at the time there was talk of the rights of Spanish fishing boats being in Scottish waters and potential over-fishing.
To access the Valhalla, workers had to climb over the Spanish vessel. Suffice to say that one day when some of the workers returned they had had their first taste of the finer points of our Mediterranean cousins’ wine. Remembering the FIFA World Cup was hosted in Spain in 1982, a short time after that, written with black marker on the inner roof of the quay shed, was “Scotland 4 – Spain 0, because we got all the wine!!”
Low-lying piece of machinery (usually in engine room):
1) “Heid banger”
2) “Mind your Heid or you will be Deid”
3) “Wait for it” (Pete Stimson) – waiting to clock out.
US Navy Seals
Most Friday mornings if we were working outside we would see the US Navy Seals swimming the loch to Trench Point prior to running back to RAF Machrihanish. One day after that, I was working on a floating barge at the rear of a transom trawler welding guide plates over the rollers and I became aware of the American Seals in their large power boat “Sea Fox”. As far as I was concerned they were going up and down the loch just making waves, making life difficult for our small barge. We later heard that “They have ripped the arse out or the Sea Fox at Southend” – I believe Campbeltown lifeboat assisted them in this incident. This meant we could get on with our work unhindered. The next day to our horror, an American sky lifter transport plane arrived in the overhead flight path. An hour or so later – yes, you guessed it – another Sea Fox arrived in the loch and the waves started again. Just great!
Every launch day the working day would be cut short by around 1 hour and we were issued with a couple of cans of beer and a glass of whisky. The younger ones would give their whisky away to older colleagues. We would know things were going well when Andy Parker would burst into the song “Bye Bye Blackbird” or Dougie Elliot singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.
One senior member of staff headed home on his bike and ended up falling over Low Askomil sea wall with his bike. As it was a pay-day he lost his pay packet and weekly wages. There was a whip around and his full pay sum was raised. The missing pay packet was later handed in and the raised money was put to charity.
Welder in the water
A young welder managed to persuade a colleague to loan him his motorcycle for a shot during lunch hour. Suffice to say with no motorcycle training, a novice rider thought the left clutch was a brake. When doing a turn at the bottom of the quay he shot straight into the water still attached to the bike. The welder was struggling to swim and was saved by the Vón’s life ring. The bike was retrieved by hook and MacFadyen’s crane. The bike was repaired by its owner.
Le Mans start
Every Friday as we had already been paid there was a line of cars sitting outside the main door waiting for 28 minutes past 12 when you could clock out and get to the Hall Hotel and order the weekly bar lunch and refreshments. By this method you were assured of getting your order in first.
Ye Old Cope Bar
When a hull was completed, the platers tried to avoid Jock Kerr to save being told that you were on the cope bar on one side of the boat. This job would usually take around 3 weeks. The cope bar is the heavy metal rubbing bar and is a labour intensive, physical, noisy job which was not much fun.
One of the early boats was completed, when one of the workers decided to check the radio VHF and test the effectiveness of the SOS channel. Radio worked fine as all services turned up. Oh dear!
One plater was found at the fore-peak in his underpants and wearing a set of burning glasses. He was under a string of light bulbs. When asked what he was doing, he said he was trying to get a tan before his holidays.
Some workers would bring in a tin of soup. The canteen had only 2 cookers ie 8 electric rings. I was amazed to see that 40 tins of soup could be cooked at the same time by opening each lid and putting 5 cans on each ring. It was a perfect solution and no washing up – could not be better.
Got to admit I got a funny look at police training school on using this cooking method!
The slip shed had 3 overhead cranes. Lifting capacity was 1 x 10 tonnes and 2 x 5 tonnes.
When building the bigger boats it was clear the cranes were at their total limit. No one ever went below sections for obvious reasons. Very occasionally they would have a semi-controlled failure and could not always lift the sections until there was an intervention by the yard electricians. The engine room sections had to be helped to move sideways by using 2 ropes encouraging a swinging momentum and motion. When the new 87’s were first launched the trolleys would be damaged due to limited sea water depth of the slipway.
Malcolm “Tiger” Hamilton – Yard Rigger
Malcolm was a legend of a man, there from day 1 – no job too difficult. Stories of him up to his neck in sea water slipping boats. On one occasion, he was on the outriggers when the chain snapped. He was apparently catapulted into the water and began to swim, albeit in the wrong direction, still wearing his woollen hat.
He could always be found in the “Bengal Arms”, a steel hut outside at the slipway, complaining about shrapnel wounds he had received in WW2 against Japanese soldiers. He would be splicing and greasing lifting gear smoking his roll ups and having his tins of “soup”.
There was no health and safety in the 1980’s – you were responsible for your own scaffolding erection. The standard went from good to bad. Some resembled Jimmy Shand’s accordion. If it was a little bit too low, an upside down fish box was a recognised extension.
When working up at height you would rope the area below but when you accidently dropped something like a wedge or hammer it was with great hesitancy you looked over the edge and great relief to see no person had been hit.
Engine room oil tanks
There was one worker who was tasked to fill an engine room oil tank by way of a whale pump from 40 gallon drums on the quay. After pumping around 600 litres of oil into a 300 litre tank it was realised the bung was not in.
One worker getting told off for making this mistake replied, “Don’t shout at me Jock, you know I’m no’ the full shilling”.
Engine room closing plate
A side section of hull plate would be removed to allow easy access to the engine room during construction. When this was replaced, 2 platers would replace it. One was situated on the inside and one on the outside. When jacking the plates one of the platers shouted “Whoah” but the plate was continued to be jacked. At this point all holding points gave way and the section sprung totally out of line. Conversation went like: “I told you to whoah” – “Whoah? I thought you said go”…
Days after Chernobyl disaster
I distinctly remember being tasked to erect scaffolding on the deck on a nearly finished 87 foot trawler. The boom eye on the mast was not lining up with the one on the heavy duty boom. I, Billy Twin and Willie “P” Paterson were soaked to the skin up scaffolding in the pouring rain and gale force winds. Due to the rain everything was soaked and we were getting welding electric shocks (common in rain) and thinking that I was getting covered in the well advertised fall-out rain from the disaster.
Oxygen – propane burning torch
On a cold, wet, winter morning you would see circles of men gathered around an old paint bucket which glowed red hot. This was due to propane and a bit of oxygen swirling around in a circle from an inch diameter hole in the bottom. The heat was terrific and steam would be seen coming off of damp, wet boiler suits.
When a hull plate was trimmed the excess length of steel about 1 inch in size would fall off. This would frequently fall on the propane hoses puncturing then. This would cause a naked flame from the hose. On one occasion this occurred beside the regulator which caused a high pressure flame from the bottle. We all went the other way afraid of an explosion. An ever calm Eddie Moran’s merely walked over and turned the gas off asking what the fuss was all about.
Most weeks a passing Campbeltown fishing boat would drop off a few boxes of fish. Duncan MacGougan, who was previously a fisherman would be employed to gut and clean the fish prior to handing them out to the lads.
When working outside in the summer on a Wednesday afternoon you would see the Waverley passing. The fit-out squad had an old ship horn, which when connected to compressed air would blast at the Waverley which in turn would reply.
I and one of my neighbours were refitting the engine room roof after all machinery was in place. My neighbour was using a hammer to drive a steel wedge in. Suffice to say, whilst using his right hand holding a hammer to drive the wedge in he missed, hitting his left hand. This made him let go of the wedge he was holding. It fell out and landed on his left foot. All I could do was burst into laughter which resulted in my neighbour chasing me around in circles on the engine room cat walks! He was uninjured.
April Fools’ Day
Mid 1980’s, on the morning of 1st April we were down the quay. One of the engineers in the calm day spotted what he thought was the outline of a sunken car sitting on the bottom of the loch on the town side of the yard. For nearly an hour workers refused to walk over and check it out as it was April Fools’ Day. Sure enough, it was confirmed as a car. Police arrived and 3 sunken cars were recovered from the sea bed.
Steel toe cap boots
An apprentice decided to weld his initials on his steel toe cap boots but didn’t think it was necessary to take the boots off. Half way through he stopped and got the boot off in record time as the heat became too hot.
Christmas and summer holidays
On holiday time it was a half day. The morning was scheduled as a clean up the yard day. All workers would however do the cleaning up the day before, so the morning was spent as a general chat. Most workers wore going out clothes and when the bell went most trades would go out to the town bars in trade groups. I remember being in Splash Bar, mid-afternoon and seeing one of the yard joiners dancing and singing Shakin’ Stevens hits.
Shipyard v Local Bowling Clubs
There was an occasional bowling match at both bowling clubs which was a very enjoyable social event. We were always well beaten but left the venue very merry.
I fully enjoyed my time in the yard. It was a laugh and very enjoyable and I have always been proud of it. The grounding that I obtained greatly assisted me in my future life. Apart from a trade it taught me life skills and greatly assisted in my chosen career. The experience gained played a vital role in general, and in various major incidents I was to deal with in the coming years. Thank you!