By Callum Fraser –
I originally wrote this for the Stonehaven Heritage Society magazine in 2008 and have regularly updated it with randomly triggered recollections as they occur to me. I hope it may bring back some long forgotten memories for those who grew up in Stonehaven around the same time.
My first experiences of Stonehaven were occasional short visits in the mid 50s as we initially lived in Aberdeen, before moving to Stonehaven when I was 9. An “inabootcomer” !! The first house I lived in there was at 44 Barclay Street. Although it was a good sized house, above a plumber’s shop and store, the most notable thing about it was the lack of electricity! The lighting was gas, with impossibly fragile white filaments which glowed in the flame, and crumbled if touched. There was a distinctive hiss when they were turned full on for maximum brightness.
For entertainment we had a radio, powered by small lead acid batteries which had to be taken to Mitchell’s Garage (now a block of houses) along the road to be re-charged. You didn’t have long to wait as they normally had rows of freshly charged batteries ready to be swapped with your old one. I think it cost 6d and the system worked quite well, although you could get one that didn’t seem to last very long, depending on how often it was used, of course. I remember some regular favourite programs. These were mainly the Scottish News and, if you could tune it in, Radio Luxembourg, with “Take your Pick”, with Michael Miles and “Double your Money”, with Hughie Green, being popular highlights. Reception was very prone to fading in and out. For some reason it seemed to work a lot better when it was dark, which meant that summer was a bit of a blank. In contrast to the rather dull BBC, 208metres on the medium wave carried advertising, and as a result, Horace Bachelor, of Keynsham, (spelt K E Y N S H A M), Bristol, was something that Radio Luxembourg imprinted on my brain, and no doubt, many thousands of others at that time. I often wonder if his “Infra-draw” football pools method did produce winning results. In those dim and distant days before the National Lottery, everyone seemed to do the weekly football pools back then. One of the better aspects of Radio Luxembourg was that it played all the current pop music, which the BBC ignored at that time.
From the suburbs of Aberdeen to living in the centre of Stonehaven was quite a contrast with everything being virtually on the doorstep, as shops, the harbour and the beach were all just a short walk away. I took advantage of all those benefits very quickly, with the beach being a wonderful attraction. Looking back on those days I realise how fortunate I was to have spent my formative years in such a great environment, with the relative freedoms that existed then. Stonehaven was quite a bit smaller back then, with the railway acting as a boundary, with no large expanses of houses that we see today. I think the population back then was a bit below 5000, so it has more than doubled in size since then. There were no dual carriageway roads at that time and the coastal road up the braes was the major route north and south.
I joined Fetteresso School, with Miss Hart as teacher, who always seemed to wear a large chalk covered overall and had extremely strong spectacles. The next year’s class was with Miss Moir, who could be fearsome, but I’m sure was quite a gentle person. In the last year when we did the tests for Mackie, we had Mr. Harvey, the headmaster, who kept firm, but not overpowering, discipline. The tests were probably the equivalent of 11plus grammar school entrance exams, but since everyone went to Mackie anyway, the results just dictated what class you went into there.
The route to Fetteresso along Robert Street took me past what was the elegant and up-market Bay Hotel. It was common to see chauffeur driven cars delivering and picking up their clients at the front door. Occasionally there was an extended tour luxury coach, usually a green Southdown coach from Kent in the far south of England, making a stopover on a trip to Royal Deeside and the Highlands. It was rumoured that some famous celebrities were guests at the Bay from time to time, but I never saw any of them.
After about 6 months at Barclay Street, we moved to one of the new blocks of houses in High Street in the Auld Toon, just opposite “Scrappie” Stewarts yard. It was decided that it wasn’t really worthwhile changing schools yet again so I stayed on at Fetteresso. This made me a bit of an enigma, as of course all my peers in the area went to Dunnottar. The new abode was on the top floor and had great views of the Bervie Braes, over the Bay to the golf course, and down the High Street. Fantastic for viewing the Hogmanay fireballs.
The Fireballs back in those days were a fairly casual affair, with individuals just turning up at midnight with varying sizes of fireballs. It must have been a well kept secret then as there were no vast crowds, spectators being mostly locals. Throughout the 60s the fireballs had something of a revival with more and more participants each year, and eventually required stricter controls for safety. Being on the High Street meant that our house was the first call for friends going round first footing. It wasn’t unusual to have a houseful of people with the festivities lasting well into the night. New Year seemed to be celebrated far more than Christmas back then.
Tattie picking was no holiday
I had an early introduction to the world of work at that time, with the “tattie holidays” in October when I joined a squad of pickers transported to the fields very early each morning for the laborious job of picking potatoes. It may have been hard on the back but was very lucrative for a young lad on minimal pocket money levels. My Mum was a good cook and baker and my love of seafood started back then, as fish was often on the menu at home. Perhaps it was more plentiful and lower cost then, but we often had fish at least twice a week, if not more. It was mainly haddock in breadcrumbs, smoked haddock, herring and kippers when available, caught locally so always very fresh. Mince and tatties and stovies were also regular dishes with broth to complement.
During the 50s there had been a lot of redevelopment in High Street and all the new buildings were constructed in solid traditional sandstone. These were a great credit to the Town Councillors of that time who I believe received awards for the sympathetic design which preserved the distinctive look of the Auld Toon area.
After the move to High Street the Harbour became the focal point for my leisure time as there always seemed to be something happening, with boats coming and going. I was usually to be found there until I got my first bike, going further afield with progressively longer trips into the surrounding areas. One of my favourite circuits was the Slug Road, past Rickarton, round by Swanley and back on the Auchenblae road. A bike in those days was the passport to freedom, allowing quick access to many locations in and around the town. There were no real worries about traffic compared to now, so our parents probably never gave it much of a thought. A very different world today.
As far as High Street was concerned it was still quite a bustling community with its own array of shops, the biggest being Knowles the grocers, where each evening the distinctive brown vans were busily stocked for the next day’s country deliveries. Next to that was a thriving fish house with the smell of the smoke house kilns wafting around quite regularly. There was a wee sweetie shop just up from Stewarts, run by an old lady, who was referred to as “Poppy Mary Ann”. There were two bakers, our nearest was Aitkens, who baked delicious butteries, and one down by the cross. Next to Knowles there was a small and extremely popular sweet shop that always stocked a wide range of penny sweets. It was simply known as “Katie’s” in those days.
Further down, on the opposite side was Mr. Marshall’s bike repair workshop, usually with a stack of bikes on the outside, for repair or sale. Mr. Marshall, who had a very distinctive appearance, was a fairly laid-back character, whose estimates for fixing a puncture were usually “ready in a few days”. Nevertheless, I regularly used his services, which I’m sure were probably very reasonably priced for his many school age customers.
After I went to Mackie I had my first regular job with Jimmy Robertson, who had his grocers shop virtually next door. I had the job of “message boy” delivering grocery orders to customers on a ramshackle old bike with a front basket during my years at Mackie. I made regular deliveries to a few customers in Brickfield who I presume had moved from the Auld Toon some time previously. Going uphill with a heavy basket was quite a struggle at times, but downhill via the Woodcot Brae was fast to say the least.
Before the appearance of supermarkets there were many independent owner-run grocers and Stonehaven certainly had its share, with Knowles, Robertson, Buchan, Grant, Mitchell, Dunbar, Sidney Smith, and others, serving their regular clients. All had their quota of message boys with varying styles of bikes making trips around the town with deliveries. I expect most were like Jimmy Robertson, weighing tea, sugar, flour, and other basic essentials, to order, from boxes and large sacks into tightly packed strong paper bags deftly tied round with string. Cheese was carefully divided into smaller pieces from a large block with a wire cutter. The bacon slicers were a focal point of the serving counter with the rhythmical swish-swish being heard as you waited in the queue. There were few standard packs of anything and the essentials were all weighed on large sets of scales to work out the price. I wonder what Jimmy would make of large supermarkets with their vast range of pre-packaged choices, such as Tesco or Asda today – a totally different world. One of my occasional delivery jobs was to take the Communion wine up to the Manse at Dunnottar. Jimmy was an Elder at the kirk so presumably he was on a rota with other grocers for the order. Although the bottles rattled a bit in the basket going over the bumps in the road, there were no breakages, thankfully.
Stonehaven for fun and sun
One of the things I most remember about Stonehaven back then was how busy it was in Summer with continual waves of visitors, arriving in large fleets of buses and special trains every weekend, from the towns in the central belt of Scotland, each one with their own dedicated fortnights, with the Glasgow “fair” in the middle of them. The overall population must have at least doubled at that time. My Mum, like many others, took in overflow visitors from some of the bigger B&B places, and you could see all the bedding on the washing lines at the weekend changeovers. Those were the days before package holidays to the likes of Benidorm and many of the visitors had been coming to Stonehaven for generations, many since before the war. It must have been a very important source of revenue to the town’s accommodation providers and businesses, keeping them going over the longer winter period. No doubt North Sea Oil, amongst other things, has greatly reduced that dependence on summer visitor income.
Most of the holidaymakers gravitated to the beach and the harbour, taking their daily strolls along the promenade and the streets around the square. The promenade next to the beach was more or less curtailed at the mouth of the Cowie, with just small sections of old and rudimentary boardwalk which had suffered damage over the years.
The courses of the Cowie and Carron into the sea were somewhat erratic and could randomly change after each winter storm. There were also signs of one or two bridges which had been in use when the Cowie’s course had been much closer to the building line. It was some years until a walk could be taken all along the promenade from the Cowie to the Carron. The much needed and long awaited extension all the way to the harbour with the boardwalk and a bridge over the Carron was not completed until the early 90s. Crossing the Carron was always a bit of a challenge, depending on the tides and how high the river was. It usually went out to sea in the area around the Water Yett close. At times in summer it was possible to take a running leap over the river on the beach if it was narrow enough. Although it could be done, more often than not it resulted in wet feet when the bank collapsed. The alternative was just to wade across so it was worth taking the risk.
The Pool and the Recreation grounds were great assets, and were continually thronged during the summer. There were also what seemed to be vast camps of Boys Brigades and Scouts up in Mineralwell Park. It was a common sight to see them marching to and from the station at the weekends on arrival and departure.
The start of summer was always signalled just before the school holidays began by the arrival of the fairground “shows”, establishing themselves for a couple of weeks at the side of Cowie Park between the main road and the old Mill where the Commodore used to be. They never seemed to change from year to year and the penny slot machines were very dubious, particularly the ones where you flicked a ball with your thumb on a lever watching it spin round to the top and land in a row of tubes. It seemed impossible to win on those. One of the most peculiar was the electric machine, where you turned a handle for varying degrees of shock. I only ever tried it once, that was enough. The owner of the seasonal semi-permanent wooden amusement hut on the beach front must have been glad when the shows moved on to their next venue and his takings would go up again. The shows had very distinctive sounds and smells. There was a constant hum from the engines of the old buses and transporter lorries continuously running to power the generators to keep everything brightly lit and working. The main attraction of the shows were the dodgems, supervised by a few sinister looking guys with leather jackets and slicked hair styles, showing off their skills in jumping from one car to the other as they were moving around. A great feature of the Dodgems were the very powerful loudspeakers which blasted out all the current pop chart hits. filling the area with the sounds. Whenever I hear a Del Shannon record my mind instantly goes back to the Cowie Park shows. They could be heard from quite a distance, even in the middle of town, and their absence was very noticeable when the shows finished their stint and moved on to their next venue. Comparative silence ensued until their next visit.
Another outlet for pop music were the pool loudspeakers with each of the entertainment managers having their own instrumental signature tune signalling the start of the activities. My favourites were “Soul Coaxing” and “Sucu Sucu”, and playing them on Youtube takes me back to lazy sunny afternoons there. Very little Pop music was broadcast at that time until the off-shore “pirate” stations started to operate several miles out to sea on old trawlers in the Thames estuary and the North Sea. The best reception was for Radio 270, moored off Scarborough, which I could pick up on my small transistor radio fairly well. It took a lot of the pain away from doing homework.
The harbour had a constant buzz in summer, with regular boat trips out to the bird sanctuary beyond Dunnottar Castle. There were competing rowing boat hirers, who occasionally let us local lads have a concession when demand was slack. I remember a few of us rowing round Downie point and up the mouth of the Cowie on a few occasions if the tide was favourable. How mad was that? No life jackets or any of these modern contraptions in those days either.
The fishing fleet had quite a complement of boats at the time and fish auctions took place quite regularly on the outer harbour pier. On a smaller scale there were the in-shore boats that had regular trips to lay and empty their creels of crabs and perhaps the occasional lobster.
A significant event one summer in the late 50s was heavy flooding at the caravan site and a major mud landslide from the Bervie Braes down to the harbour after several days of heavy rain. The road was repaired and steel piles driven in, but this event signalled that the road was likely to be untenable in the future, which has unfortunately proved to be the case.
One of the biggest occasions at the harbour every summer was the annual RNLI gala day, when the Gourdon lifeboat would visit and take passengers for a trip round the bay or Downie point. Some of the local fishing boats, usually the Star of Bethlehem, Trustful and the Scots Lass, would also participate and a major highlight for me one year was when the Star of Bethlehem took us well past Dunnottar Castle on its last trip of the day. A great bargain for sixpence in the tin.
Another event at the harbour which took place weekly on a Monday evening during the summer, was the “poddlie” fishing competition, which often had a large entry from both visitors and locals such as myself. Whoever was the entertainment manager that season, usually a university student, had to officiate and judge the winning catches. On one occasion I won a prize once for the longest fish – I caught an eel. The entertainment manager had the demanding role of overseeing the programme of events intended to keep the visitors amused and occupied.The competitive spirit could also be found each week at the recreation grounds on the putting green. Some of us who played golf fancied our chances, but we rarely figured in the prizes, with the winners mostly in the mature categories who seemed to be more aware of the pace of the greens than we were.
Back to school
Stonehaven seemed such a vibrant place in those long summer days but the start of Autumn heralded a downturn in the pace of things as well as a return to school. My time at Mackie started in 1959 and due to my performance in the tests, I found myself in the “A” stream where Latin was taught. Latin was something of a challenge to me, but at least we had a bit of a character as a teacher for a start, Mr Silver, or “Bilko”, for obvious reasons. I eventually confounded Mr. Lambie, the senior classics teacher, in the 4th year when I passed the O-level exam, something which he hadn’t anticipated.
Of course Mackie was a much bigger world, with pupils being transported in from all over Kincardineshire, from Cove Bay to St. Cyrus, and inland from Auchenblae and Laurencekirk. Looking back I realise that I was very lucky to have attended a school such as Mackie, where the pupils from different areas quickly made lasting friendships and the ethos of the school gave us valuable lessons for the future.
One of my new-found friends introduced me to the world of trainspotting, which was a great interest for the next 5 years, witnessing the sad demise of steam locomotives. At that time there were daily fish trains taking that day’s landings from Aberdeen to arrive in London for the next morning’s markets. The mail train had a late afternoon ritual of picking up a mail bag at high speed in a rope basket as it rushed past. I can still remember the excitement when an unusual engine was “spotted” for the first time by our small group which sometimes spent hours waiting for a sighting at the station. I still take an interest in railways, and particularly enjoy visiting preserved heritage lines all over the UK.
Many of the teaching staff had long careers at Mackie and I remember being taught by “Archie” Watt and the young Miss Copeland for English, Mr. Leithhead, (who introduced me to the wonderful world of algebra) Mr. Mackie and Mr. Willox for Maths, Miss Jack and Miss Shepherd for French, Mr Gray for Geography, Mr Taylor for Music, Mr. Morrison for Art (who became quite a famous Scottish based painter from the Catterline community), and a bearded Mr. Spence for PE, who on occasions would attempt to instruct a giggling class of 14 year old boys in the finer points of Scottish Country Dancing – quite a surreal experience.
In my first year the school won the prestigious Top of the Form BBC radio schools competition. Each round took place on a live radio link with another school and we trooped down to the Town Hall to watch the team of four overcome other school’s teams from around the UK. It was quite an achievement for the team and the school. A negative aspect of life at Mackie back then was the tendency for some of the teachers to apply corporal punishment through the use of the “tawse” or leather belt. I had it a couple of times for what were relatively minor misdemeanors. I am sure that some teachers applied it simply “pour encourager les autres”. It would be interesting to see how they would cope in schools nowadays where sanctions are very mild in comparison.
Some pupils didn’t care for the school canteen, and instead preferred the Co-op tearooms (now reopened recently as an upmarket Indian restaurant), or Mitchell & Muils on Allardice street for lunch. Woe betide anyone on Evan Street or the Three Braes, as the mad dash downtown took place to reach their favourite establishment as quickly as possible.
After a comparatively uneventful six years at Mackie, I passed the requisite five Highers to go to Aberdeen University, which was the expected academic route to follow and as the Scottish system at that time took a fairly broad based approach, specialisation could come at a later stage. This perhaps worked well enough for those who had already focused on their chosen career path, but many, like myself, did not have a clear idea of what they wanted to do. Looking back I probably didn’t get as much out of University as I might have done if I had a wider range of objectives other than just passing exams.
Things slowed down with the passing of summer and the move into autumn. Stonehaven was quite a sociable place and the regular winter activities started to take place again. My Mother, who seemed to know everyone in the town back then, attended and organised a lot of the evening whist drives, which were very popular weekly events for many years, in various locations around the town. Sometimes it was a basket whist, when the players took it in turns to take a basket of sandwiches and snacks for the others at each table.
Lost but not forgotten
Many changes have affected the face of Stonehaven since my time there. The once famous Johnny Milne lemonade factory at Bridgefield is no more, Findlay and Main, the ironmonger at Bridgefield has also disappeared. The cinema and the cattle market have gone, all replaced by houses.
The cinema was usually a weekly event for most of us, with comparatively few “blockbuster” type films back then. When a film got a bit boring there was always a risk of some members of the audience getting up to some mischief. It was always a source of great hilarity when one of the uniformed attendants, or perhaps “Thud”, the manager, started hunting round for the culprits, shining their torches along the rows of the cheaper seats. Quite often there was a chase, usually ending up with the offenders being banned for a period of time.
The bonded warehouse is now a supermarket. The Mill Inn Hotel has been converted, as has the White Heather pub. The Tannery on Salmon Lane, which used to give off very strange smells when it was derelict, has been replaced by housing. Ramsays is now a convenience store. Peter Christies is now a fish and chip shop. The Distillery has gone.
Mathiesons sweetie shop was on the corner at the top of Bogwell Lane, but eventually relocated to small factory premises on New Street near the sawmill. Bogwell Lane was also the place for a motley bunch of kids, including the likes of myself, Dave Mackie, Alan Taylor, Ali Brown, and the Crabbs, Ronald and Scott, amongst others, to have an improvised game of football. The sides were never quite in proportion but the games were fiercely fought, provided the ball didn’t go over the wall into the school playground.
The bus garages which once held the immaculate blue Alexanders buses are now no more. How the drivers ever managed to fit 9 buses reversing into the depot on Barclay Street, opposite the erstwhile Stance Cafe, always seems a miracle to me as the distance between each bus was literally in inches.
The Commodore Hotel has been and gone. Most of the hotels have been converted into houses or apartments. The net factory is a thing of the past, the sawmill on New Street has gone, and houses seem to have been built everywhere.
Thankfully the harbour has escaped relatively unscathed, and let us hope it will remain that way. Another change in the town has been the relocation of the Fire Station, which, from its former central location on Allardice Street next to “Pot Stewart’s” furniture shop, allowed us to witness the race to the station by the part time firemen when the alarm siren went off. They nearly all got there on bikes and the speed that some of them managed was extremely impressive. Jock Shepherd, the local undertaker and joiner, had a great technique of jumping off his bike just before the doors and letting it crash against the wall, with his faithful Westie dog bravely chasing up at the rear. I don’t recall any major fires though, with most of the calls being to chimney fires. In summer there were outbreaks of grass fires on the Bervie Braes, which created large amounts of smoke and seemed to be something of an annual event.
During the 60s, Stonehaven hardly seemed to alter at all, the lull before the storm of the oil boom perhaps. A few houses would be built here and there, but there was a comfortable sense of relative tranquillity and stability. I was a junior member of the golf club at that time and remember cycling up and down to the club with traffic on the main Aberdeen road not being of any real concern. For a bit of excitement we would even cycle back along the cliff top path, at some speed too. No one ever fell off as far as I know – just as well as it was a long way down.
There was a small section of junior members, and of course we had to know our place and give way to the older members. We tended to play a lot during the holidays and in quiet periods. Some lads I remember from back then are Steven and Grant Nicol, Robert Masson, Billy Whyte, Dave Mackie and Gordon Wood. It was exceptionally good value as a junior as all we paid was 12 shillings and sixpence (62½p), which included a locker, for a year!!!! Later on I had a few years as a full member, when it increased to the huge sum of 7 guineas (£7.35). Over the years I’ve played a few times on visits back and it was quite nostalgic to see the old clubhouse was relatively unchanged.
Job on the buses just the ticket
One memorable change that brought some colour to the town, was the re-painting in 1961 of the famous Alexanders Bluebird buses fleet into the Northern area livery of bright yellow and white, and living near the bus garage it became a topic of interest to note the buses being gradually repainted over time into their new colours.
Having had family connections with buses I was fortunate in getting a summer job as a conductor when I was at University in the late 60s. Not only did it pay quite well, but I had the privilege of working with lots of great people, with some drivers having worked there for many years, the likes of Bob Mackie, Jim Bowick, Bert Pratt, Peter Stephen, Bob Dickie, Stan Hutton, Sandy MacDonald, Bill Findlay, Sid Hendry, who taught me to drive, Tommy Sturrock, Jim Durward, Sandy Ferries, Pat O’Brian and others. Not to forget the many long serving and formidable clippies, such as Kate Christie and Nan Ironside. I doubt if their strong sense of duty would be found in many places today. And the bosses, Willie Whyte, the traffic superintendent, who appeared laid back, but had a firm grip of what was happening and knew exactly what had to be done. Mac, the garage manager, who ran a very efficient operation, maintained one of the best fleets of buses in the company, renowned for their reliability and immaculate appearance. Our house was not far from the main garage on Arbuthnot Place and every night there was a long string of buses parked there, waiting to be cleaned and washed ready for the next day.
When I graduated the oil boom was still some years away, and local opportunities were limited. Like many others I had to look further afield and eventually found a job in the Midlands as a computer programmer, and I left Stonehaven in early 1969. Some years ago I toyed with the idea of returning to live but with so much having changed since then, I doubt whether I would have been that comfortable, always comparing and looking back. I would have probably been a stranger in many ways. It is better to remember it as it was.
I only lived in Stonehaven for 12 years, although it feels as if it must have been a lot longer. That time must have had a comparatively large influence on my memory banks relative to the rest of my life. Perhaps it is natural to have strong recollections of that age, or is it a factor of the place itself, who knows?
As my wife, Sandra, hails from Banchory, our visits back home were quite frequent for many years, allowing me to show our children the sights and places I enjoyed back in the day. My son and daughter loved their visits to Stonehaven and still talk fondly of its various sights and attractions. The Fireballs had a big impact on them when we allowed them to stay up and watch them, with my Mum’s house, No. 11, being at the turning point in front of the cannon. At that time there were no marshals or barriers and sparks were flying everywhere. But we all survived.
Luckily, during our early family visits, it was still possible to have the “real” Guillianotti’s ice cream, and we all agree it is the best ice cream we have ever tasted. Sadly it is not the same now, although the shop doesn’t seem to have changed much, and still serves excellent ice cream. Several years ago, our grandchildren spent a few days in Stonehaven, and really enjoyed what it had to offer with the pool, harbour, beach, recreation grounds, and the castle.
With no remaining relatives in the area, our visits to Stonehaven are far fewer these days, tending to be just an annual fleeting visit, passing through on trips to other destinations. Although there have been many changes since I left over 50 years ago, it still has everything which makes it a great place to live and enjoy life. I hope the current inhabitants just realise how lucky they are to stay in a town with such a range of great amenities. Happy Memories.
© Callum Fraser