45 years ago

Calum Davidson
Jun 23 · 11 min read

About this time last year I was on day trip to Orkney to catch up with the Northern Isles MSP Liam MacArthur, and update him on all sorts of things Energy related, with my local colleague Graeme. The weather forecast was dreadful, extreme gales, wind and rain, but despite the heavy skies, as you can see from the photo above taken at Inverness Airport, and the developing gales our local Airline Loganair managed to get me to Kirkwall airport 10 minutes early, despite all the ferries in the North and West being cancelled, and severe disruption on the roads.

On the Saab 340 aircraft I ran into my pal Neil Kermode, Chief Exec of the European Marine Energy Centre, who had been in Inverness for a Dinner with the FM, Nicola Sturgeon, the previous evening, along with a number of my colleagues in HIE. The Loganair seating lottery meant we ended up next to each other, and started chewing the fat.

Both Neil and I are a wee bit obsessed about recording the early days of the industry that we intimately involved in, the marine renewables sector, and Neil was fascinated when I told him about the series of articles on 50 years of Energy in the Highlands and Islands that I’ve been working on during 2015 for HIE’s half century (living in Orkney, he does not enjoy the Energy North Supplement of the North of Scotland Newspapers). Part one, looked at the “Highland Problem” part then two reflecting on the boom years of oil and gas. Part three looked at the Highlands and Islands role as an Energy laboratory, and part four looked forward to the next fifty years.

In being so focussed on developing the wave and tidal sectors, Scotland has taken some pretty brave choices for quite a wee northern European country. Both Neil and I have dubbed our Nations focus on the Marine Energy Sector “Scotland’s Apollo programme — our Moon shot.” It was a description we had both used and discussed at different time with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s FM from 2007 to 2014, and a great supporter of Scotland’s Marine sector.

Of course Apollo was over 40 years ago, so its easily forgotten, but for those of us of a certain age, born in 1959, and of certain inclinations, space, the Apollo programme, the moon landings were all consuming for us in those in the two years either side of 1970. Then the last Apollo, Apollo 16, came and went and we then discovered girls and Pink Floyd.

But we never forgot the wonder of Apollo.

So a couple of years ago when I was in Washington DC, on business, I took the chance to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, to complete — in a very small way — that personal, almost childhood pilgrimage. I went to see, and touch if I could, something called Columbia.

It is right in front of you as you come through the door of the Museum. Under the Spirit of St Louis, and the Wright Flyer there are three space craft in a line. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

No ordinary Apollo — in fact it is Columbia — the Apollo 11 Command Module.

I stood wanting to be enthralled, but then was almost immediately, embarrassingly disappointed. The capsule was tiny, it was tatty, and it was encased in Perspex. I tried to get close to get a clever arty style photo, but it seemed that a fine spring Washington morning had attracted most the population of the Eastern USA to the Smithsonian. I wanted to be alone with it, to study it in every detail, the heat shield, the thrusters, the scarred triangular windows. Instead it was surrounded by brash ten year old boys, their bored wee sisters and their Dads who were not even born when Columbia orbited the moon, and Eagle — the LEM — landed on the Sea of Tranquillity on July the 20th 1969. I wandered away a little bit deflated, wondering if it was me or the jet lag.

You see forty years ago I was consumed by space, in the obsessive, almost autistic way that a ten year old boy can be. I lived, breathed and slept the Apollo programme. I had the books, the Airfix models, the newspaper articles and cuttings, with bright almost garish colour photos of Cape Kennedy, of Saturn 5’s, of the surface of the moon. (These were given to me by elderly neighbours, for ours was a house that did not take a regular paper, unless you counted the rolled up copies of the John O’Groats Journal and Caithness Courier sent on by Auntie Lena, that arrived a few weeks old, and only after they had been read cover to cover by Lena, Uncle Roddie, and my Grandfather — Gaga — who all lived at Beach Road, Thurso).

And it was in 4 Beach Road that we all sat and watched what many TV and print observers at that time were calling the biggest thing in Human History — a landing on the moon. As a family — the Davidsons — we were in the process of moving from Glasgow to Inverness, via the Maternal Family — Mackays — home, in Caithness. We had moved up to Thurso in early June, indeed gone to School there for a month, whilst a new family house was being sought in Inverness.

So for the summer of 1969 my space obsession moved to Caithness, and for the next four months my brother Kai and I shared a bed in the corner of my grandfathers room, waking each morning to the sounds of the R4 BBC news at 7:00 from his bedside radio. In my half awake, half sleeping state I remember thinking how little news about Apollo was on the radio, compared to what seemed wall to wall coverage on the TV. My abiding memory is of listening to endless discussions about the political implications of General Franco’s choice of successor, now King Carlos of Spain.

Spending the summer living in my Grandfathers house (in name only — he was looked after by Lena and Roddie) was not a new experience for us. We had lived their for the summer of 1966, when moving from Shetland to Glasgow, and longish summer visits seemed to me quite common. So I had already a circle of friends, lads my own age whose interests alternated daily between that very Highland interest of fishing in Scrabster Harbour, and building model space rockets, powered by a dangerous little device called the Jetex rocket motor — a sort of miniature bomb, with solid fuel pellets that made the most smoke possible in 3 seconds of combustion.

The Jetex rocket motors and fuel came from Jessie Allens toyshop in the Towns main street, but were stored upstairs with the serious toys, meccano sets and bike accessories. Not cheap either, we used all our pocket money on buying parts and fuel, but the summer fun was mainly bankrolled by a slightly older American forces kid, of which Thurso had a good smattering due to the US navy base at Forss. As the US kids started school at 6, rather than 5 like us Scots, they were always a year older in their respective primary class. Plus they were minted. This lad always had lots of cash which he was willing to share on rocketry equipment.

So Thurso beach echoed to the roar of unsuccessful toy rockets and model planes, and modified toy cars all crashing and burning in huge clouds of smoke. But that was the fun. If we ever had got one to fly I think we would have been disappointed.

Fishing in Scrabster also involved fire, pollution and the sort of dangerous activities that would have a 10 year old in 2016 up in front of the children’s panel, or at least SEPA. Catching saithe and cod off the old tanker pier required bait, proper bait, and the consensus amongst us was that boiled limpet was the very best. I suspect sand worm would have been better, as all the serious older boys were out at low tide collecting worm, and they always seemed to be able to reel the fish in. However boiled limpet for us. The procedure for collecting and cooking the molluscs was both simple and terrifying. First step, “borrow” a galvanised tin bucket. Then spend a couple of hours filling it with limpets (not straightforward, as getting them of rocks is an art in itself, a very thin knife was prized for this), and top up to the brim with sea water.

Then find an old tyre on the rocks under old Scrabster castle, fill it with driftwood, put the bucket in the centre of the tyre and light. All to boil a pail of fish bait. The fire and smoke was appalling, and of course it burned for about an hour, and would not be cool enough to use until the following day. So an evening activity, with the bucket to be collected from next day from the charred circle of metal and ash.

So, living permanently in a summer uniform of strongly smelling smokey T-Shirt, Khaki shorts and leather sandals, I was rarely a home, except for meals and when there was a space programme on the 405 line TV that sat directly in front of my Grandfathers chair. He didn’t leave it very often, as he was in the final 18 months of his life, and forty years of smoking Woodbine cigarettes had finally caught up with him. So he sat in his armcahir, with an oxygen bottle at his side, a packet of the strongest mints available to mankind in his pocket, and a tin of snuff on the mantelpiece. He sent me out to buy the snuff and mints, giving me and Kai a ten bob note, and winking at us “neever tae mind the change”.

Occasionally we would head down to the Harbour, in his Wolseley 15/60, early in the morning, to check up on the landings from his boats. Then back home for a second breakfast, or sometimes to his pub, the Marine Inn, to chat to my Aunt Lena, as she organised the cleaning and opening of the bar. We would often take a large packet of fish home for lunch (my Uncle Roddie seemed to eat nothing but steamed haddock, and drank only milk reconstituted from powder. Ulcers I was told, and that he was “a slave to his stomach”).

One memorable morning, we came home with half a dozen lobsters in a cardboard box, claws all sealed up with rubber bands. Gaga swore me to silence, and we crept quiet as mice to the side door of the the house. He opened the outside door, checked that the inner door from the lobby to the kitchen was closed, and we took the lobsters out the box, carefully removed the rubber bands, and set them free in the house!

Gaga then called out that we were home, and Lena came through to the kitchen, opened the door, and screamed more than I thought possible. Lobsters were everywhere, and then — to my immense gratification — my aunt did something I’d only ever seen in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. She grabbed a broom, and jumped on a chair, swinging widely. Gaga laughed and laughed, and eventually Lena calmed down and had a wee snigger at her own expense.

We then had the fun of collecting six lobsters, getting their claws secured, and ready for the pot. I got a real nip from one, which drew blood, but man it was worth it. It still makes me chuckle now.

The photo above shows Hamish Mackay, centre back, on a summer morning in the late 60’s, with the crew of the FV Primula, skippered by his good pal Angus Mackay, who was also the coxswain of the Thurso Lifeboat, who is just to his right in this picture. Angie Mackay was at the helm of the Thurso lifeboat when it discovered the upturned hull of the the Longhope Lifeboat T.G.B. (thought to be named after the mysterious donor who funded it) after she was lost trying to reach the Siberian cargo ship Irene, in difficulties east of Orkney on the 19th March 1969. All the crew were drowned, and I still recall them talking in hushed tones, forgetting I was sitting with them, discussing the problems of recovering the T.G.B. and towing her back to Scrabster, with the bodies of the crew still in the vessel.

But often I sat just at Gaga’s feet and watched TV with him, and only as an adult realised that he been born before the Wright Brothers took that first flight, and served in the RAF during WW1.

In the end though Apollo 11 just came down to a warm summer evening, a Sunday I think, three days after watching the Saturn Five blast off from Florida. I’d been in the house all day, watching the wall to wall coverage, drinking what seemed endless supplies if orange squash in strange glasses from Gaga’s pub, the Marine. We all sat there never imaging that anything could go wrong and listening to the terse exchanges between Aldrin, Armstrong and Houston, in blissful ignorance. The implications of those computer alarms, and the low fuel warnings I only understood in retrospect, as an adult.

But I knew — space geek that I was — that they had landed a full second before everyone else in that Thurso front room. I knew what it meant when Aldrin said “contact light on” as we watched moon dust get blown on the B&W TV screens in that triangular LEM window that we — and 10’s of millions of other people — were watching. Then “Engine off”.

Yet I still think that Armstrong’s sentence “Tranquillity base here — the Eagle has landed” more powerful and important than his more famous first words on stepping of the LEM. Armstrong is on record saying he thought so as well.

But it was Houston’s reaction “Thanks Apollo 11, there’s a bunch of guys turning blue here — we are breathing again” and the muffled cheering in the background that brought home to me the enormity of the undertaking — yes even at ten.

Then off to bed early, and up very early to watch the moon walk.

But it’s the landing that still gets me, especially as I grew older and understood the meanings of all those alarm calls, and Armstrong taking over the controls of the LEM to fly them over that boulder field, and the enormity of that low fuel warnings. That bit, to me is the wonder and success of Apollo 11.

All this was brought home to me back in the Smithsonian an hour after my disappointment at the front door. I’d discovered the huge Apollo section at the back of the museum, including an original — never used — LEM, with a full AV booth next door which played the Apollo 11 landing video on an 8 minute loop. I stood and listened to the whole thing twice, with a couple of about my own age, and at the end of the second loop our eyes met and we smiled and we reminisced about where we were and what we were doing on that July night in 1969.

Over forty years ago.

I’d not been round the whole museum, but I knew that now was the time to leave, to think and reflect.

Mission accomplished.

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