Thursday 31 August 2017

Alan Stackman - Saxa Vord 1962 to 64 - Ground Radar Fitter

Alan Stackman was a Ground Radar Fitter who served at Saxa from 1962 to 1964, He arrived soon after the Type 80 reflector had been dislodged in high winds and was there whilst Saxa's first radome was constructed. The last national service call-up was at the end of December 1961 so, from the end of 1963, all personnel on Unst were regular servicemen. Up until 1967 the Station  had no Married Quarters for anyone, other than the CO. Alan was married and had a young son - he was left with the problem of finding somewhere to live in private rented accommodation. Below are some of Alan's' recollections of Unst:

The programme An Island Parish is fascinating. Unst has changed significantly in the few years since I visited in 2004 and is unrecognisable from the time that I lived there in the early 1960's.

 It has brought back memories of those earlier years before North Sea Oil influenced the changes I see today. I was in the RAF posted to Saxa Vord. I was married with a young son and after three months of living on camp was lucky enough to rent a croft, 3 Ordale, in Baltasound. My landlord was Andy Hughson who lived at Ordale House. We travelled to Baltasound aboard the Earl Of Zetland, a small passenger and cargo ship which at that time also served the islands.

After docking in Baltasound we arrived at 3 Ordale and were met by Andy who looked blankly at my wife when she asked for the keys. There weren't any. After coming home from my first night duty a few hours sleep called. As I dropped my head on the pillow I felt something hard and was astonished to find a fireman’s axe and carving knife under it.
We needed transport and I managed to purchase a 1938 ex WD 350 Royal Enfield motor cycle for £5. I  built a dual seat from the remains of a radar aerial which had been blown off of its mountings. That provided transport for me, the wife and our young son sitting between us. The aerial weighed 19 tons, a testament to the force of the wind that one could encounter in Shetland. My wife found that out when she hung a double sheet on the line by the hems. She ended up with two single sheets. After the radar aerial was replaced it was decided to provide a radome. This was built by a Norwegian company and consisted of triangular steel sections bolted together. These sections were covered with half inch fibreglass sheet secured by rivets shot from a Hilti Gun. I was assured by the engineer that each rivet could withstand a pull of 300 lb. On completion of the construction it was not long before a few of the sheets were ripped from the framework and flew out to sea. As a result of this we had to erect scaffolding inside the dome, gain access to the outside and drill and fit U bolts along each joint while hanging from ropes. Securing the bolts from the inside was via a Cherry Picker. Much easier. When the dome was later replaced I was told by Willie Mouat that taking the old one down was a mammoth job.

We found that Unst had elected to be a dry island. We did wonder about this and were told that as such, the island did not have to have a resident policeman.  Occasionally there was a snap visit from the policeman on Yell. Amazing how word of the visits spread so quickly. Most of the cars were up on bricks with the wheels off. Tax and insurance for most was nonexistent.

 We soon got used to the peace and quiet and my wife soon got to know people on her way to Sandisons shop with son and push chair, particularly the Mouat family who lived on the bend approaching Baltasound centre. She would often be invited in for a chat and a cup of tea.

Bread was baked at Sandisons and we were amazed at how long it stayed fresh. The baker told me that it was no good baking bread that wouldn't stay fresh for fishermen who were out to sea for days on end. I never did get the recipe but I suspect that it contained milk and oil.

We had milk delivered by Willie Tammy who I am sure held the bottle under the cow. We were never sure what flavour the milk would be as the bottles could be unwashed squash or whiskey bottles left at the end of the track. His transport was a tractor which had to have a new clutch quite often as his speed was regulated by slipping the clutch instead using the accelerator. He was also the local barber. Hair cutting was done in his croft facing an Aga festooned with mackerel pegged out to dry.
Occasionally I would go fishing with Andy. One memorable trip was to check halibut lines that he had set the day before. We were a mile or so off shore and on the fourth line we had a catch. 'Aye we've a fine fish 'Andy said. His method of getting the fish into the boat scared me silly.
Dinna move and hold tight he said as he proceeded to lean the boat until it started shipping water and floated the fish in. Back at the house we weighed the fish. It was 64lb. Andy had the head and gave me two steaks. The rest was sold to the RAF . I used to fish most days. There was food fishing where a line with a dozen or so baited traces was thrown out at low tide and recovered later with a few dabs and occasional dog fish. There were two brothers who lived in a hut by the old pier at the bottom of our track. They fished for lobsters and an occasional gift of an ounce of Ogdens Walnut Plug ensured as much crab as I wanted and an occasional lobster. Then there was fun fishing with Steve Saxby, an islander who worked as a motor mechanic for Saxa Vord RAF. Fishing with Steve was spinning for sea trout but he would not allow me to use anything more than a two pound line. Baked fresh sea trout was a gourmet meal. I remember his unique engine diagnostic skills. My motor bike would not start one day so I  took it to the MT yard where Steve looked it over. 'We'll just check for a spark' he said putting the spark plug lead over his finger and grabbing the bike frame with his other hand. 'OK kick it over' which I did. 'That's OK sparks fine he said. After tinkering with the carburettor I was on my way.
Social life was wonderful. Quite a number of RAF families lived out around the Island where we would gather with a few local neighbours for an impromptu party. One night, coming home from one such occasion my wife remarked on the weird light in the sky. By the time we got home there was a multicoloured display of northern lights. It was enhanced by the reflections in the calm water of Baltasound harbour. We spent two hours on the doorstep wrapped in blankets absolutely entranced..
I was lucky enough to visit all of the islands that had a football team as I played for the RAF.
One memorable occasion was a match in Lerwick which just happened to coincide with Up Helly Aa.. What a wild night that was.
Another memorable occasion was an invitation to the wedding of Andy’s' daughter Wilma. My goodness some stamina was needed. I was told that Andy slaughtered three bullocks for the meat. After the second day we had to abstain.
Peat cutting was another activity I was involved in. Everyone relied on it for winter fuel and some for cooking as  an Aga stove was in most kitchens.
Leaving Unst for the last time was a bit of an adventure, but tinged with sadness. As we walked down to Baltasound all the people who lived on the road were waiting to wish us well. We had to travel overland and ferry to Lerwick as the Earl of Zetland was not due for a few days. The ferry from Unst to Yell was nothing more than an open boat driven by a small marine diesel engine which occasionally stopped. It was rather scary being sideways on in the swell with no steerage. A 1930 vintage Bedford coach took us across yell, similar to the one on Unst. After the ferry from yell to mainland the bus was a slightly younger vintage. We often thought that the transport in the islands travelled up through the British Isles via various owners and finally dropped over the cliffs on Unst.
We visited Unst in the summer 2004. After forty two years the changes were significant. Sports centres, roll on roll off ferries between the islands, a brewery on Unst started up by Sonny Priest which we visited (Simmer Dim was my favourite) and television. In the early 1960's we could sometimes receive a signal from Aberdeen in our workshop at the radar site.
I revisited the radar installation where I was given a conducted tour. Amazed to find the 200 or so steps from the operations building now have a weatherproof cover. Wimps. We had to brave all weathers. One day waiting for a ferry my wife visited the Ladies and emerged chatting to another lady who told me her husband was stationed at Saxa Vord at the same time as me. When we met I was amazed to find it was Bob Abbot our football captain. Another coincidence was when we visited Baltasound hall on the Tuesday for tea and cakes. A lady tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I remembered her. She looked familiar and it transpired that she was our tea lady at the radar work site, Edna Nesbit. Chatting to her husband Hunter I mentioned that I was surprised that there was no fresh fish in the shop. Next evening there was a knock at the door. Edna and Hunter appeared, Hunter with a large black bag containing a fine salmon. What could we do but invite them in and chat over tea and a bottle of whisky. Lovely evening.
Ah fond memories."
My thanks to Alan for sharing his Unst memories.







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