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.
My thanks to Alan for sharing his Unst memories.