The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

The Shetlands was the place we went to frequently, sometimes it would be Sumburgh Airport, if it was something urgent like the navigation light at the top of our guyed mast then a commercial aircraft would normally fly up from Edinburgh, land at Kinloss RAF base, where we would be picked up on the runway and fly on to Sumburgh. Our taxi would wait there for us to climb the mast change the light bulb and then fly us home. I’m sure the RAF could have found someone at Sumburgh capable of changing a light bulb, even at the top of a 150-foot mast, but where’s the fun in that, anyway the taxpayer has deep pockets.

Mostly we would take the overnight ferry, from Aberdeen, Saint Clair, to Lerwick, arriving there around 6.30 in the morning. The Earl of Zetland would then leave around 8.30 from Lerwick, our destination Baltasound Unst, and all stops in between.

You never really knew where you would end up on such a journey, for the Earl of Zetland carried everything from livestock, to mail, gas bottles, cement, even the odd car. Along with this odd assortment of cargo would be the Light House Keepers. Few of the little islands we visited had proper harbours or piers, so the ship lay off and small fishing boats would come out from the land and be loaded by derrick from the ship. Sometime these little boats would be piled so high with goods and mail bags, you had to marvel that they were still able to float.

Baltasound by around 5.30 in the evening, once off the ferry, there would not be another until the following Tuesday. From time to time a bobby would arrive on the island of Unst with us, by which time his coming would have been well telegraphed, so all uninsured and untaxed cars (which was most privately owned cars on the island) would vanish from his seeing. If truth be told, most of these cars I saw were so unroadworthy it would have been sacrilege to even think of insuring and taxing them. I remember getting a lift up to the camp one day in a Ford Popular. The floor was so badly rotted it was akin to something that Fred Flintstones would have owned. As for the floor in the boot, well, it was non-existent. With no place to have a petrol tank, a jerry can have been tied to the inside of the boot with a piece of rubber hose attached to the original fuel line. Not that it mattered, it was only used to transport fish in boxes from boat to home, he told me.

Saxa Vord was the RAF camp on the island, with clear water, all-round and set on top of the highest point it was perfectly situated as an early warning station, the radar could scan from horizon to horizon unrestricted. The problem for us was the weather, with some of the highest winds recorded anywhere in Scotland not uncommon. Servicing and maintenance became almost a full-time occupation. Two of us, (we always worked in pairs for safety) had been sent up to do a repair on an aerial and asked to do an inspection of their condition. I reported that some of the arms on the towers were in need of re-painting, unaware at the time that it would be us that would have to paint them and not put out to contract, and possibly why they were so neglected, not a job to be relished.

Two of us were sent up a month later to paint the arms. When we arrived we found they had sent two 45 gallon, not two gallon, drums of a Red Oxide type of paint, it was special paint resistant to sea spray, but 90 gallons of the stuff, what were we to do with all this paint a couple of gallons would have sufficed. We need not have worried unduly, word soon spread that we had lots of Red Oxide left over from the job and it was just the stuff for painting fishing boat hulls.  

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