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From Fish Processing to Postie then On the Buses

old black and white photo of double decker bus

Callum Fraser concludes his memories of his early work experience –

I had the summer to fill before I went to University in 1965. Luckily I managed to join up with a team of three other lads for a full time job in a fish processing plant in Torry, by the River Dee in Aberdeen.

On the first day we had to get a very early bus for an 8 am start and entered the very unfamiliar and incredibly smelly environment where the daily routine was to process whatever quantity and type of fish had been bought at the auction at the fish market that morning. In those days the whole area from Aberdeen railway station to the river Dee and into Torry was a complete warren of medium to large-scale fish houses and the bustle of traffic from and to the market was continuous.

Fishing at that time was a major industry in the North East with Stonehaven and Gourdon having a very active fleet of inshore boats, with trips lasting up to a day, providing regular catches of haddock, cod and whiting. Morning auctions of large landings of freshly caught fish took place on the pier at Stonehaven Outer Harbour up until the late 60s. The Aberdeen market was dominated by landings from trawlers that regularly had trips of two to three weeks as far as the Icelandic fishing grounds, with disputes culminating in the Cod wars of the early 60s.

At that time there seemed to be very little demand for oily fish such as Mackerel, with the preference being for predominantly white fish. I remember some of the Stonehaven line fishermen actually giving mackerel away to anyone who wanted them on the quayside as they landed their catches. That would be extremely unlikely now.

We were an interesting phenomenon to the regular workers in the fish house who, I’m sure, expected us to be totally ”scunnered” by the initially revolting smell and the tasks they gave us, thinking we would give up after a few days. However we managed to adapt and coped reasonably well with what we had to do although having to collect and weigh the fish offal into four-stone tins took some getting used to. We wore large rubber aprons, but somehow it didn’t stop us getting covered in various liquids with extremely fishy odours. We must have become immune to it, but it was noticeable how other passengers on the bus home seemed to give us all a very wide berth. My mother even got me to change my clothes in the coal shed before I entered the house.

Pillion passenger to postie

I went round that area of Torry a couple of years ago and was amazed at how it had changed, and noticed that the fish market had virtually disappeared. Evidence of the decline in the fishing industry was only too apparent with an atmosphere of almost total quietness and only a few small scale fish houses in operation.

One of the others in the team was Philip Carr, who still lives in the Old Town. From time to time when our paths have crossed on some of my visits, we invariably reminisce about that summer, and the manic world of a typical Aberdeen fish house of those days. I have a vivid recollection of us going in on a Sunday for overtime and there were no early buses that day so Philip, having passed his test, offered to give me a lift on the pillion seat of his motorbike to Aberdeen. It was a first for me and I didn’t realise that I had to lean in the same direction as him on the corners. Going round the first bend in the Den of Logie was quite an unnerving experience. The other lads were a year younger than me and had to go back to Mackie but I had some extra weeks on my own waiting for university to start, with all extra cash being welcome to supplement the grant. I enjoyed that summer, as it was a type of “rites of passage” experience, and many of the tasks in that fish house now seem almost surreal, but we survived and felt the better for it.

My next period of employment was after the first term at university when I began the first of three spells as a relief postie over the peak Christmas period. In those days it seemed to be a traditional occupation for students as it fitted in well with the university holiday period.

Again, early starts were the order of things, and it was normal to be given a sack of mail to deliver well before it got light. Changed days from the present when our mail arrives around mid-day. In addition there were at least two rounds and if a late batch came in from the main office in Aberdeen there would be three, getting it all cleared by mid afternoon before the next lot arrived for the next days deliveries. The first year I delivered on two rounds, as the town was divided into several districts, finishing up with the Old Town and the Cameron Street, Dunnottar Avenue area.

When you were familiar with the round from a walking perspective, you could then assist with the delivery sorting as the experience meant that you knew that number 34 did not necessarily follow 32, and a detour to the other side of the road was more efficient and shorter to walk. In my last year, I had responsibility for the sorting with Ernie Jamieson, whose father was the Janitor at Dunnottar School for many years, as my understudy on deliveries. Incidentally, Ernie and his Dad were on the same Castleton tattie squad as myself in previous years. On one occasion Ernie returned from a round, not too pleased, as somehow I had managed to mix up the Cameron Street bundles and he had to double back a few times. I didn’t make that mistake again. I remember it as being quite a cheerful job as everyone seemed pleased to get their Christmas cards, and we probably didn’t have to deliver too many unpleasant items like bills and bank statements.

Bus conducting – just the ticket

However, summers from university also had to be filled and in mid-June, 1966 – I had just finished the last of my first year University Exams, I was up with the dawn, setting off on the first of my training duties as a summer relief bus conductor, on the early morning shift to Dundee, via Forfar, from Alexander’s Northern Stonehaven depot. I had hoped to start the previous year, but didn’t turn 18 until mid-July, so had to wait a year until I could apply for my conductor’s PSV badge. Luckily I had connections, as my stepfather was an inspector operating out of Stonehaven so it meant I had the advantage of a “reserved” slot for that summer. In fact, buses were in the blood as my mother had been a “clippie” for Alexander’s at Aberdeen depot in the 1940s.

The first few days were spent learning the fare stages, and there were many on the road to Dundee, 76 in fact, on the inland route 10 between Aberdeen and Dundee via Brechin and Forfar. This knowledge was mainly handed down verbally during training and I still possess the notebook I used to painstakingly record each route by hand. Subsequently, I then learned to apply this knowledge by amending the controls on the Setright ticket machine as we passed each fare stage, something that eventually became almost a subconscious reaction. This operation was initially performed under the beady eye of the conductor or “clippie” I was assigned to for that shift, most of whom watched me like a hawk as it was their responsibility for the fares I was taking. Incidentally, at that time, all the clippies were female, ranging from some not much older than myself to the “battleaxe” types who had been in the job for decades. So myself and another male student were comparative rarities and raised a few eyebrows as we embarked on our duties for that summer.

After my initial time learning the routes, I was given my solo orders, and of course a uniform, which I must say made me feel quite impressive. I was something of a rebel though, and didn’t wear the traditional hat, but I managed to get away with it, as I muttered that it wasn’t the right size or other similar excuses. I suspect that students in the past had also taken the same decision so no one pressed the case and the hat remained in pristine condition in a wardrobe at home for many years. My first day by myself was a fairly light duty, a “split shift”, with a school run first thing, then a local trip to Aberdeen and back, then signing off, followed by a reverse pattern in the afternoon. No one was overly keen on these split shift patterns, but they were a necessary evil given the profile of bus usage at that time. One good thing was that the various shift rotas were evenly spread and there were a variety of duties from day to day, which kept the job fresh and interesting. Also, depending on what type of duty it was, there were two types of ticket machine, one of which seemed very ancient and battered, and a newer heavier type, which could print single tickets from an internal reel. The less busy routes seemed to have the older types, although it could be a bit haphazard if some machines were away for repair. I also had my leather money pouch, which I managed to fit with an extended strap so that it could hang at just the right arms length away. It was important to create the right image of cool, even in those days. There was also a black metal tin case for all my stock of blank tickets, but I usually left that in my locker, although it was advisable to take it on the long distance journeys.

Within a few weeks I was operating like a veteran, although the drivers weren’t slow to pick me up on something that they thought I wasn’t doing quite right. I welcomed and applied their advice and relished the feeling of teamwork that resulted and formed long lasting friendships with all of them. It was important to generate a sense of trust and confidence with the drivers, as you could make the duty less stressful for them if all went smoothly. I still remember my blasts on the whistle when reversing off a stance at the bus station in Aberdeen to begin a journey. The driver had to be sure you knew what you were doing and you were in command. It was important to let him see you in the mirrors and you blew the whistle as loud as possible. Over that initial summer, all of these experiences did my self-esteem and confidence a power of good. Many aspects from the valuable experience of “learning to deal with the public” have stood me in good stead throughout my working life, helping me to cope intuitively with some complex situations.

As the summer progressed, I got accustomed to the kids telling their mothers about the “mannie clippie” who was taking their fares, and started to take pride in my rarity value. As far as I knew there were only a couple of other male conductors in our sector south of Aberdeen, at Arbroath and Dundee. For whatever reason, it always seemed to have been the case that Alexanders had female conductors. Looking back on it, however, I wonder just how that situation arose as this was in complete contrast to Aberdeen Corporation’s totally male conductor domain. Perhaps a sociologist would have an answer to this state of affairs in post war NE Scotland.

I remember the strong sense of camaraderie, which was always evident between the crews as we passed or met on the road. I was informed very early in the job about the signals that had to be given as we passed another crew – a wave to indicate all clear, or a touch of the necktie to indicate that the inspector who we had just dropped off was waiting to board their bus.

During my summers as a conductor I worked with some amazing people, many of whom had been on the buses all their working lives.  The  sense of duty and standard of uniform was always high and the clippies used to wear white shirts and ties. In my second summer, I was given one of the new linen style uniform jackets, which I thought didn’t look as smart as the heavier navy ones, but they were definitely cooler on a hot summer day.

Stonehaven depot was well renowned for the high standard of its bus fleet, and even the more vintage vehicles were always in pristine condition with very comfortable seats. It was a change to have one of those on the local rural routes as they were half cabs, where the driver was on his own, and the doors were manually operated.  Many of the rural routes were either one journey a day each way, or once a week, and indeed some were just for a few weeks in the summer only. It was always a perk to get the occasional Stonehaven to Banchory summer only run, with the stopover allowing time to stroll along the High Street enjoying an ice cream from D’Agostinos, which, although excellent, never quite tasted as special as Guillianottis. And of course “mannie clippies” were even more of an extreme rarity there for the local population to wonder at.

One of the more challenging duties was an early Monday morning commuter run to Aberdeen with a high capacity double decker, as there was a continual battle for change with everyone buying their weekly tickets with one pound notes. It certainly sharpened up the mental processes in those pre-decimal days. I managed to pass my degree in Maths and I graduated in July 1968. I arranged my day off for the graduation ceremony as I carried on with my usual summer job, having no idea at that time what career I wanted to follow. At that time there were rumblings that one man operation was being mooted and some clippies decided to look for other jobs, with the result that I stayed on past the summer and became a permanent employee, perhaps the only graduate conductor in Alexander’s Northern area. As that summer passed into autumn, I was glad that I still had my heavier navy jacket to wear, as some of the mornings were quite nippy, especially on an open platform double decker with the wind whistling in.

With some regret, I decided that I had to move on and find employment more suited to having obtained a university degree, so I handed in my notice at the end of the year to concentrate on finding a job in the field of computing as a programmer, which seemed to be thing of the future at that time. I moved south to the Midlands in March 1969, but on every trip back home, I always checked out the developments at Stonehaven depot. However, I had the experience of three wonderful summers as a relief conductor and I look back on those times with very fond memories, with the long sunny days brightened by the immaculate yellow buses.

I am sure that these first periods of exposure to different types of work gave me, and others of the same generation, many benefits in terms of accepting responsibility, creating a sense of independence and being appropriately rewarded as a result. Is it a loss that such opportunities seem to be far fewer these days? – yes, I believe it is.