Willie MacCallum – Shipyard Memories

Willie MacCallum
Willie MacCallum during his apprenticeship at Campbeltown Shipyard. This photo was taken after a launch. Photo courtesy of William MacCallum.

Willie MacCallum during his apprenticeship at Campbeltown Shipyard. This photo was taken after a launch. Photo courtesy of William MacCallum.


On applying to Campbeltown Shipyard for work, I was interviewed by Tom McArthur who was the Engineering Foreman at that time. I was successful in starting a 4 year apprenticeship in the engineering section as a Mechanical Fitter in June 1974. My twin brother, John, and I started the first day together. John started an apprenticeship as a Plater/Welder.

I remember working on my first fishing boat, which was called the Alert, she was a Seiner/Trawler and part of the very successful “Campbeltown 80” design. These boats were well known throughout the fishing industry as very good sea going boats; I will touch on this later.

My first pay was £11/week, I don’t have a copy of my pay slip but I remember it vividly. I recall going home to my mother with my first pay packet and handing it to over to her, all excited.  

When I started in the engineering section we had Tom McArthur (Foreman), Archie Johnstone (Chargehand), Tony Wilson (my future father-in-law), Kenny McMillan, John Marrison, Brian McShannon, Bruce Keyte, David Howell, Kenny Anderson, Alex Pollok, Gus Brodie, Ian Campbell, Tommy McPherson, Eric Chadderton, who worked on the lathe as a turner, Ian Wardrope, Duncan Watson, Tommy Brown and Alasdair Blair. These are the names I can remember who worked there when I started in 1974 – there are probably a few more names I have missed out from that period.

Starting an apprenticeship in the engineering section then was completely different to what you experience in a modern apprenticeship today. You could be involved in Stern Tube/Propulsion Shaft & Propeller Installation, Main & Auxiliary Engine Installation & Commissioning , Gearbox/Engine Installation & Alignment. Hydraulic Power pack and Steering Gear installation and all the ancillary valves, pipework going to all the Deck machinery like winches, rope drums, anchor winches, power blocks, etc. This work exposed you to pipe bending and welding (Oxy/Acetylene, Brazing, Soldering, CO2, etc).

Looking back I was fortunate to be taught by very experienced tradesmen, who were also willing to share their knowledge in engineering craftsmanship but for me one man stood out and that was Archie Johnstone. Tom McArthur retired approximately 6 months into my apprenticeship, not long after that Kenny McMillan and John Marrison, who were also a great support, left to join John Carmichael.

Archie was promoted to Foreman. I recall many issues during testing of the hydraulic systems on a boat and I would be getting frustrated with a particular problem. Archie would never give you the answer to a problem, he would make you think. He wouldn’t approach you and say “change this valve” or “check this pipe”, he waited until you came up with the solution and then commented. I liked his style of teaching. Archie had a huge influence on me, although I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time.

I left the shipyard in October 1979 to further my career.

Over the years I saw Archie when I visited the town and was sad when he passed.


As mentioned earlier the Campbeltown 80’s design was very popular with the majority of the Scottish skippers because of how they handled themselves in rough seas. The majority of the vessels were of similar design but a few did stand out, the first ‘Boy Andrew’, bought by Andrew Bremner from Wick, was completed in early 1979, she broke many landing records in her day.

Another vessel that punched above her weight was the ‘Argonaut IV’ which was launched in 1976 and bought by the Smith brothers from Anstruther. In 1978 she became the 2nd highest gross earning fishing boat in the UK fleet totalling £482,700 that year, a tremendous feat for a small fishing vessel, which resulted in her skipper David Smith being awarded an MBE.

I remember the technical challenges in getting the fishing vessel ‘Von’ ready for completion in 1977, she was destined for the Faroe Islands and was the first of three vessels ordered from these Islands. Unfortunately she was weeks behind schedule mainly in part due to not having the correct pipe bending and crimping machine available at the beginning of the build.

The hydraulic system was from Norway and I recall the pipe wall thickness for the main hydraulic lines were 6 to 8mm thick, try bending that with a manual pipe bender along with trying to tighten the connector olives onto the pipe. I remember us trying to tighten the couplings with big lengths of pipes over the spanners, not good practise at all. I also remember the Hydraulic commissioning engineer from Norway almost having a meltdown when he witnessed the cleanliness of the hydraulic pipe internals. It was thought that dipping a rag in a solvent, tying it to a wire and pulling it through the pipe would clean it! That’s when I learned all about hydraulic flushing and the cleanliness specifications that were expected of these systems, certainly a big learning curve for me at that time.

There were many successful launches of boats at the yard mainly held on a Saturday. There was one launching for me personally that stands out quite clearly. It was the launch of the ‘Emma Thomson’ built in 1975. Before the launch I was in the engine room showing the crew around when I felt the boat shudder slightly. I remember there was a large jolt resulting in the vessel falling over on its side. Thankfully there were no serious injuries.

I remember a flock of swans used to come up the yard slipway looking for scraps of food mainly the men’s pieces, and it was the time of the Wombles of Wimbledon era, they were all named after the Wombles! Don’t feed Uncle Bulgaria today he’s in a bad mood, hissing here and there would be the cry.

We played football at lunchtime with steel toe-cap boots until someone broke their leg, unimaginable today!

Launch days were fun as each skipper would donate cans of beer and whisky to the workforce and we would have a wee sing song, happy memories indeed.

My memories of ‘the yerd’ are good, there were many characters … too many to mention! I received excellent training that provided a great platform for me to further my engineering career. I’m now involved in Project Management for Subsea Engineering projects and have been for the past 20 years, mainly in the Oil & Gas industry. The Engineering experience I gained at the shipyard has certainly helped my development over the years.


Willie MacCallum's Certificate of Craftsmanship received on completion of his apprenticeship in 1978. Photo: William MacCallum ©

Willie MacCallum’s Certificate of Craftsmanship received on completion of his apprenticeship in 1978. Photo: William MacCallum ©


Willie MacCallum’s Certificate of Craftsmanship received on completion of his apprenticeship in 1978. Photo: William MacCallum ©.


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