Sunday 9 October 2011

Recollections of Saxa Vord – Harry Cairns

The main part of this section is reproduced from an article which appeared in The Shetland Times issue of 14 Apr 2006. The pictures have been changed and there are a few small additions at the end.

When I was posted to Unst in November 1962 I did know a little of what lay in store for me.

I had been serving at RAF Trimingham, another radar station, in Norfolk and anybody posted from there to Saxa Vord was invariably asked “What have you done wrong?” If only the sceptics had known how welcoming the Unst folk were and how relaxed the way of life was!
I took over as Accountant Officer at Saxa Vord from Flying Officer John Courtis, who was a keen photographer. During a visit to my training unit he gave me some idea of the scenery and wild life to be found in Shetland.
In fact, the visit and slide show were for the benefit of another young officer who was due to replace John but I was sent instead as the Air Ministry seemed to think that I was more temperamentally suited to service in the Islands than he was!!! (Friends and acquaintances in Shetland may or may not agree.) He went instead to the Isle of Man and the flesh pots of Douglas!
Like many others, such as Ken Shaw, Len Bowyer, Mike MacDonald, Tony Fry, Eddie Barclay and Dennis Bright, I made use of Jimmy Leask’s Special “Overlands” at weekends to accompany the football team to Lerwick. (Duty trips to the RAF Units at Mossy Hill and Collafirth Hill helped to nurture love’s young dream!!)
The main aim for me was not to watch the football but to do my courting, as I had met my first, and present, wife early on in my tour. Lesley’s grandmother and mother owned the Grand Hotel, which was very convenient, and after numerous trips to Lerwick we had a memorable wedding in September 1963. Johnny Leask commented about the “overland” taking our RAF guests across Yell the following day that he “had driven noisier hearses”!
After our wedding we set up home with Viv and June Owers in Hamarsgarth until Lorna Saxby’s Wulvershoull became available. We eventually moved from there to Keldabrunn, a “butt and ben” near what was then called the Springfield Hotel, We were very happy, if somewhat cramped there, holding jigsaw puzzle and scrabble parties in the absence of TV. It is sad to see that the enlarged house is no longer in use and has looked rather weary for the past few years.

The house was also convenient for food parcels from Lesley’s mother to be placed on the gate post by Graham Hunter as his bus passed the road end. RAF pay wasn’t all that great pre 1970!
One of my fondest memories is of playing badminton, and drinking tea, for hours in the 3 village halls and the Camp gym. Clare Hunter from Haroldswick was my mixed partner and I remember playing against Cathy and Agnes Priest, Brian Hunter, Harold and Roderick Jamieson and Patty and John Sutherland. My apologies to others still with us but whose names escape me. It is good to see Brian’s son Peter and his son are involved in the sport and that Brian himself still has a keen interest.
Other memories are of buying both meat and fish from Bertie Jamieson at bargain prices. All cuts of meat cost 4/6 during this first tour. Needless to say, scrag end of neck wasn’t on my menu.
I also got my lobster very cheaply from John Henry Robertson, who charged the Officers’ Mess twice what I paid. When challenged about this by the Catering Officer John Henry explained that “Mr Cairns is a local” – an accolade indeed.
Local dances were always interesting, especially if you had a drop of Louis “the brew’s” home bru inside you.
As Accountant Officer, I used to get my supplies of bank notes by registered post from the Commercial Bank in Lerwick. On Mondays I’d phone Cammie Gordon or Neil Graham who would put my “order” in the post on Tuesday to come up by Earl of Zetland on Wednesday. My cheque and the cash would cross in the post. On occasions when the Earl was delayed I would borrow cash for the airmen’s pay from Bertie Jamieson free of interest. Bless him – he would even deliver it to me and his wife Charlotte would give me a fairly large dram when I repaid it – regardless of the time of day!
I would get any coin I needed from Sandison’s Haroldswick shop, also now closed, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to wait 20 minutes whilst Albert Gray and Arthur Spence served the one customer who was ahead of me. I didn’t mind as I was included in the chat!
One interesting feature about my job was that the Losses Register I maintained included details of the cost of replacing the Type 80 radar that was blown of its plinth in, I think, 1958. I can’t remember the final figure but it was considerably less than £500K.
Another story that might be of interest relates to the time that a Russian trawler went aground at Skaw. The indications were that it was an Elint(Electronic intelligence gathering) vessel as the crew hid what they were doing from an RAF Shackleton that flew overhead as part of the Search and Rescue mission.
Whether there was any spying equipment on board is debatable. In any event, the Unst folk did well in “liberating” fishing nets and sundry bits and pieces including the steering wheel, which was subsequently returned to the Russians. (Editors note: The ships wheel found its way to the Methodist Kirk near to the DomesticSite – it can still be seen there – obviously a “miracle”. The photo below was taken in September 2011).

However, 2 RAF lads - a steward and a cook – found signals, maps and other papers in the skipper’s cabin, some of this hidden under his mattress. They brought these back to me and our Station Intelligence Officer had a look at them. By chance he was a Russian linguist and was able to provide a summary of what was in the documents before they were forwarded to the RAF Intelligence Staff at the Ministry of Defence.
One of the documents proved extremely valuable to the Navy but what amazed them was that the translated summary had been done by an RAF Flying Officer on Unst. On being asked about this by his Naval counterpart, the RAF Air Commodore intelligence supremo was reported to have said “Didn’t you know old chap, every man we send to Saxa Vord can speak fluent Russian.” I’m not sure which cheek his tongue was in at the time.
I finished my first tour in November 1964 but, after a year at RAF Turnhouse and a year of unaccompanied service in Aden, I was lucky enough to get back to Unst in December 1966, staying until September 1968.
During my Aden tour I managed to get some leave in June 1966 to come back to Lerwick to see my wife and bairns – the younger for the first time as he had been born 3 weeks after I left Lesley in the Grand Hotel. The shipping strike was on but Jerry Pottinger, the senior barman in the Grand, arranged for me to get a lift on the Morning Star from Fraserburgh. I didn’t smell too sweet when I eventually met my family but the kippers and baps on the boat were great – for tea and supper!
By the time we got back to Unst we had 2 wee boys, both born in Lerwick, and after living for a couple of months at Viewforth in Uyeasound we moved to No 2 Gue in Baltasound.
Sheep and ponies walking on the path round the house at nights kept the boys amused and Lesley and I awake. Our landlord was Bertie Jamieson and he allowed us to get whatever we needed for the house from Hay and Co in Lerwick.
I can recall all 4 of us being driven, with pram, across the fields to Skibhoull on the hay rack of Hunter NIsbet’s tractor when snow blocked the roads.
During that same period a sudden snow storm blocked a lot of the roads between the camp and Setters Hill Estate and I joined Ken Shaw, in waterproof rubber suits, guiding the snow plough and RAF bus and keeping them out of the ditches.

The plough and bus stopped at the married quarters and Ken and I had then to make our own way, along the top of the dyke, first to his house next to Dr Bobby Robertson’s place and then, across the fields to the light burning at No 2 Gue. Without that light I suspect I would have been well and truly lost.

Sadly, the price of meat had gone up by the time we came back. Bertie seemed to have learned what the various cuts were and comments by the “green” RAF wives about how cheap meat was did not escape him! Mind you, none of the new wives wanted the offal or cheap cuts and Lesley and I got our sweetbreads and oxtail for next to nothing.
I think it was during this tour that Jimmy Willie lost his bus when driving it back, empty, from the Uyeasound Up Helly Aa. The reason the bus was empty is best left unsaid but the event was immortalised in song.
The Army built the runway in Ordale during 1967: they had intended to sleep under canvas but we managed to squeeze them in to wooden huts behind the gym and the Ice Cap. The NAAFI profits were almost as high as when the hard drinking Norwegians who built the first “dome” lived on the camp!! Sandison’s and the NAAFI shop also did well from the Norwegians who needed a high calorie intake of food as well as triple drams of all spirits.
Also during this tour I managed the Hustlers, a “Shadows” type band, who were very talented and played regularly at dances on the island and at the Planets. A photograph and an article about them appeared in the Unst Millennium Handbook - a copy of which we picked up in the Haroldswick shop in 2001 during one of our frequent day visits to Unst.
The whole pace of life on Unst in the 60s was a great attraction for me but there were also career benefits, as I trust Flight Lieutenant Antrobus will find out.

Although the station was small its remoteness required appropriate decision making by relatively inexperienced staff. There were 3 administrative officer posts available during my second tour and I did all of them in turn, ending up as OC Administrative Squadron.
The experience I gained stood me in very good stead 9 years later when I performed the same duties as OC Administrative Wing at RAF Leuchars. I had over 300 staff there – more than twice as many as the total serving at Saxa Vord when I left.
Whilst I was much saddened by the announcement last year of the closure, the decision was inevitable.
I trust that the various authorities and groups of islanders looking at the future development of Unst will be successful in their efforts. Hopefully, at least some of the buildings and married quarters will be put to good use.
Those that remain in the hands of the Defence Estates Department must not be allowed to become dilapidated as Unst does not need the sort of eyesore seen at the defunct Toft Camp on Mainland.
I will be watching developments with interest in the coming years and hope that the island and its inhabitants will flourish.
And finally:
Well worn or worn well, make your own decision?

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