In the first part of this blog I said I would talk about Barney Findlay, who built a trimaran and, later, a 50ft schooner at the boatshed.
I’d never heard anything of him for several decades but, just a few weeks ago I was contacted by Ross Findlay, Barney’s son, and was delighted to learn that Barney is alive and well and living in Australia.
I can’t remember when Barney first came to the boatshed – I think it was about the mid to late 1960s – but it certainly made an impact.
The story I have in my memory is that Barney had started building a trimaran (that’s a three-hulled yacht for anyone unsure) in the back garden of his parents’ home at Aboyne Gardens in Garthdee but had to find somewhere else when he realised it was too big. Nonsense, of course: you don’t lay out the frame of a boat without knowing the size of it, but having got as far as he had with the three hulls, he still required a crane to reach over the roof of the two-storey house and lift the hull frames onto a lorry to transport them to the shed. It was a big enough deal to be featured on the local Grampian TV evening news, which was a great thrill.
The big yard had been cleared in preparation – or at least enough of it to take the assembled hulls – and the next couple of years were an education to me as I hovered around a seemingly endlessly patient Barney, watching as bare frames gradually became less a climbing frame and more a finished boat. During that time I (and my brother – I’m not taking all the blame) crawled through, under and over the trimaran like it was there for our own pleasure, part of our own personal playground. Sure, Mum and Dad had us well and regularly threatened not to damage or shift anything or to bother Barney, but though I don’t think we actually damaged anything, Barney must have been a model of forbearance because despite our absolute fascination, we were too wee to ever have been of any help.
The boat was assembled on trusses, with the wooden frame covered in marine-ply and then fibre-glassed, the central hull containing the accommodation and boasting a mast, while the smaller stabilising hulls either side were used for storage.
The launching was a great day. Just as the trimaran – Spindrift it was called – had been too big to escape Aboyne Gardens without lots of fuss, it was way too big for the doors of the boatyard,and the whole front wall of the yard was removed for the occasion, which attracted quite a crowd.
A ramp was built to allow the Spindrift to be launched down the steep bank into the river, but I was disappointed that it was eased slowly into the water rather than set loose at a rush, good sense and caution ruling the day rather than a youngster’s appetite for thrills and drama!
Once Spindrift was completed (I seem to recall it sitting in the middle of the river for a period after launch) Barney disappeared from the scene for a time, but a few years later he would be back – with a bigger project in mind…
Down at the boatshed you could tell the type of boat by the colour: rowing boats green, skiffs blue, canoes wine. But there was one boat that stood apart, painted a drab grey. That was the Eel Boat.
Wider across the beam than any of the other boats, it was very stable, which was a great advantage given the way the eels were caught. It also meant it was a great general workboat, but it was for the eels it was named.
Possibly as long as he’d had the boatshed, my father fished for eels, which he sent by train to London where, we were told, they were a great delicacy.
When I was little Dad ‘going for the eels’ was one of those things like ‘going to work’, that meant very little to me. He would disappear off down the Dee with my Uncle John (Mum’s brother, John Milton) and be gone for some indeterminate time before coming back with a boat full of eels, which had to be put into ‘traps’ to go back in the river, or packed in ice in a big crate to be taken away to London on the ‘Eel Trolley’. The only thing I understood about the process then was how to pick up an eel without it slipping from your hands (grip it just behind the head, between index and middle finger) and that sometimes, when Dad was busy, my older brother Stuart and I might get sent up to one of the fish houses on South Esplanade West to get a basketful of ice. I didn’t enjoy this, as the basket – the sort of fish basket you only see now as a log basket beside a fire – was too big and heavy for my wee arms and we always had to stop several times on the way back.
As I grew older, though, the process of catching eels gradually became clearer until, in my teens, it would be me who would accompany Dad down the river. After Uncle John had given it up my brother Stuart had been Dad’s helper for a time, and after me my younger brother Gavin took his turn. By the time he might have gotten fed up (though I think he would have kept on forever) Dad had given up the eeling and the boatshed both.
By the time I was helping we’d almost given up hiring out boats (even back then there was too much vandalism and too many people taking boats away and abandoning them somewhere so that someone had to row up or down the river looking for them) so most likely we’d arrive at the Shed and get everything ready and into the Eel Boat and haul it down into the water. There would be the ‘rip’, a long steel rod, maybe about eight feet in length, with the last two feet fitted with rings of large, barbed hooks. Then there would be ‘the net’, for all the world like a giant bandy net, about three feet in diameter. Finally there would be the gaff hooks, sturdy unbarbed metal hooks about the size of Captain Hook’s surrogate ‘hand’, mounted on a wooden shaft about 18 inches to two feet long.
For clothes there were two constants: welly boots (thigh waders by preference) and, for my father, his ever-present beret. The archetypal french beret, it was the only sort of hat I ever saw him wear, and it was there when we went for eels, when he went to work as an engineer, and when, in later years, we went walking up in the Cairngorms. There were many berets over the years, all ending up in an increasingly unsavoury state as they were inclined to double as rags, both in the workshop and in the Eel Boat, where he might remove the beret, wipe eel slime from the seat, then replace the thing on his head. Oh, and in deference to his Aberdeen upbringing, it was always his berrett: the French ‘berry’ pronunciation never passed his lips, though he was well aware of it.
Anyway, boat loaded, we’d push off and Dad would row first out to the middle of the river where the ‘trap’ sat on the bottom, in the deepest part. He’d locate the buoy and pull up the trap to check and see how many eels were in it. This wasn’t a trap as such: more a holding vessel, where eels caught on the previous trip but surplus to the box sent away, could be kept alive to add to the next box. It would be a wire cage or perhaps a half oil drum, well perforated and fitted with a lid.
Trap checked, we’d head downriver, making our first stop under the Victoria Bridge. Here the rip would come out and I would take over the oars, rowing gently to hold us in position.
Dad would stand up in the boat, peering down into the water, seeing the eels swimming in the shadow of the bridge. The rip would be slowly eased down beside them and then, at the right moment, pulled up and over the boat in one fast but smooth action. There might be just one or maybe two large eels caught at a time, taken off the hooks and tossed into the bottom of the boat before easing the rip back into the water to repeat the process until he reckoned too many had swum off to be worth continuing. Then we’d move down to the mouth of one of the sewers, where Dad swore some of the biggest and best fed eels were, and who knows but that he was right? We certainly pulled some big ones out there, two feet long and as thick as my admittedly puny biceps.
It sounds a slow process, but must have been worthwhile, for these were regular spots before heading on down into the harbour and the main event.
In those days (I suspect it may have changed now) the Mearns Quay was supported by great wooden beams and at the right state of a low tide you could get a rowing boat in underneath. Too low and the boat couldn’t get over one of the horizontal beams, too high and there was no headroom; we sometimes had to sit in the boat and wait for the tide to rise or drop enough to gain entry.
This was where the gaff hooks came into their own. There was no room to use oars under the wharf and the inch of greasy black slime, probably equal parts oil and sewage, was too much even for Dad to contemplate putting a hand to (quite apart from being slippery), so movement under the wharf was accomplished by pulling ourselves along and fending off with the short gaff hooks. In these days the health and safety implications would be horrendous: taking a young teenager out in a small rowing boat without a lifejacket, going underneath a harbour wharf where tide and moored ships could trap the rowing boat, handing him a sharp metal hook, taking him into an environment full of untreated sewage… drowning, impalement and fatal infection were clearly immanent at all times, yet these are some of my fondest memories of these years; what a great life it was to not just get my Dad to myself, but to be his partner, working together for the family. He was always good company, treating me as an adult in conversation but at the same time giving me a general, political and moral education and filling me with the same sense of curiosity that drove him to keep learning all his own life and drives me even yet. Ah, such precious days.
Back under the wharves, though, having pulled ourselves through the gloom and ‘gone through the motions’ so to speak, we’d reach the first of the bunch nets. There were several of these hanging in the water, suspended by rope from somewhere up above: literally, just bunches of net about two feet in diameter. To eels, apparently, these were the ultimate in des res, and they would wriggle into the illusory security of the ball of the nets. Then along came Dad with the giant bandy net. He would scoop up the whole bunch of net and heave it on board the boat, then shake out the net, spilling eels all over the floor boards. We would already have caught a good few with the rip, but this was where the real harvest was and by the time we had emptied the nets (I can’t remember how many there were – probably just three or four) our small rowing boat was half filled with water thick with eels.
Dad would row back up the river. Sometimes, latterly, he would let me take a turn, but the return journey, against the current and with a heavily laden boat, was hard work for a young lad.
Back at the Shed the boat would be pulled up on the shingle and we’d start decanting the eels into buckets and then up to a wooden crate filled with about four or five trays. In each layer we’d put a mixture of eels and ice. The ice lowered their temperature and put them into a state of almost hibernation so that by the time the crate was nailed shut, labelled and sent down to London by train, the eels arrived still alive and fresh, a gourmet treat for all those poor Londoners who could have had no idea where they were caught or what they had grown so big on!
And no. You’re right. I loved going with Dad to catch them, but I’ve never tried an eel in my life.
This isn’t so much a blog as a memoir, with a few stories about those childhood days I spent on the banks of the Dee between the Chain Bridge (the Wellington Suspension Bridge) and the Victoria Bridge, at my mother and father’s boatshed, C&D Ogilvie’s.
My father, Stuart Reid, bought the boatyard from the Ogilvy family when I was a year old, in 1958. It’s always been a regret to me that I never asked my mother (Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Reid) or father how they managed to get the money. Dad worked as an engineer (possibly with the Co-op Dairy at Berryden at that time) and Mum may or may not have been doing dressmaking from home, but they were never what you would call well off. At that time they would have had myself and my brother Stuart, three years my elder, with us all living in a flat in Cadenhead Place. By the time I was ready to start school we had moved to a house in Garthdee and my younger brother, Gavin, had been born.
Obviously my earliest memories of the boatyard (or The Shed as we always called it) are hazy. I understand my father took it on as a going concern, hiring out rowing boats at weekends through the summer. My mother ran a shop, just inside the door of the main building, where she sold small bottles of ‘ale’ (lemonade), Golden Wonder crisps in waxed paper bags with a twist of salt in the bag, and a range of confectionary. I don’t think the shop made much money, for my mother, who was never mean, seldom indulged us with treats from the stock – or maybe it just seemed that way, for I seem to have vivid enough memories of those crisps!
The Shed was in various sections, all constructed from corrugated iron over a wooden frame – a method of construction that was all the rage at the tale-end of the 1800s when it was built and which, had it still survived, would almost certainly have earned it a place as a listed building, for I’ve heard of lesser examples being listed.
The main building, with its big double doors and the balcony above, held all the hire boats – rowing boats, one-man skiffs, open canoes and kayaks (heavy, wooden ones) – with a large workshop upstairs at the back and a sort of living room at the front, furnished with cast-offs. There was a wee kitchen to one side with a gas cooker working off bottled gas and a water supply that was a big water butt above the stairs, which had to be filled by buckets from water brought in, for there was no mains supply. There was a door from the living room onto the balcony, where I loved as a kid to sit and watch all the activity going on below. The workshop at the back occupied the greater part of the first floor, yet had few windows and was an area of clutter, darkness and shadows I remember being afraid to explore much beyond the light from the window at the workbench. Even in later years there was no regular electric lighting at the Shed, although a generator occasionally appeared for a time. Tilley lamps – when a working one could be found – were the only lighting.
On the downriver side of the main building was a small yard with no roof. At the back of the yard there was a lock-up garage, with entry gained from a dirt drive at the back. It was supported on wooden props, making a dark corner at the back of the small yard, but if you braved the dark and the clutter (there was always clutter in The Shed) you could get through to a narrow unroofed passage which went round the back of the main building to another similarly sized yard on the upriver side. (About the first I can remember, this yard was occupied by a houseboat belonging to a young English couple, Bernard and Hazel Dodd, who were at Aberdeen University and planning to sail the boat back down to England. Their adventures through life would fill a lovely book, and they became and remained great friends of the family.)
On the other side of this yard was another large, roofed building of about the same size as the main building but without an upper floor. This only lasted until the very early ‘60s because one of my earliest memories there is of great industry and movement as this roof was taken off and the small yard and building were combined to make one large yard, again with large double doors to the front. I vaguely recall the reason given for the removal of the roof was to reduce the rates bill, though I had little understanding of that at the time.
The river frontage, as far back as I can remember, was tiered down to the shingle banks with wood I think, and another early memory is of great quantities of cement being mixed so that a solid bank could be created over this, with a runway to allow the boats to be hauled up and down into the shed. Right up until the shed was sold and demolished, there was a tiny footprint in the cement which belonged to me.
It was a great place for a wee kid to grow up. I’ve always claimed I could row a boat before I could read a book: I’m not sure whether that was literally true or not, but it would have been a close call for I remember at a very young age using a paddle in one of the skiffs (the lightest of the boats we had) and having it firmly dinned into me that I hadn’t to go downstream or even too far upstream, and that the current was stronger the further from the bank I went. Neither me nor my brother Stuart (Gavin would still have been the baby at this time) could swim and, initially at least, we had no life-jackets, for I remember the excitement when we did get them. As we grew older our boundaries grew to anywhere between the Shed and the Chain Bridge (the Wellington Suspension Bridge – the new road bridge was not there then of course) where we would be in sight.
Sometimes one of the grown-ups – though in retrospect they were just teenagers at the time – would take us away up the river for a treat. I remember going as far as the Duthie Park once, where, just through the railway bridge, there used to stand a wee shop, where our ‘boatman’ bought a penny caramel and broke it in half, giving a piece each to my brother and me.
But in the main we were only allowed in the boats when custom for the hires was slow, for a hire brought in too much money to be turned down for the whim of a child! I suspect we weren’t out on the river nearly as much as we were in my memory for rowing (or paddling, for it took a while before I could coordinate two oars) was an energy-sapping business. Most of the time we will have played in and around the Shed. Inside we learned to use saws and hammer and nails (I never had the patience for screws) and to drill holes in wood, though I remember making nothing more elaborate than a wooden sword, which had a really good edge on it until, in an unusually responsible mood, one of the ‘grown-ups’ took the edge right off it.
So who were these ‘grown-ups’? With the retrospect of age, they were no grown-ups at all: they were the start of ‘The Shed Crowd’.
The Shed Crowd was a motley groups of kids and teenagers who gravitated to the Shed, whether for fun or for mischief, and stayed to help out and become part of a small community. They would help Dad with hauling the boats up and down the bank, help with repairs, help customers in and out of boats, sometimes store their own boats if they had them, meet up to tinker with cars or motorcycles… and keep a friendly eye on us kids too.
As time went on they matured (though high jinks were always to the fore) and girlfriends came along. They became part of the extended family, coming to Mum or Dad as appropriate for advice, sharing good times and bad. Sunday nights became an institution at our home in Garthdee: the Shed Crowd would be round almost without fail, not for drink and debauch – alcohol never played that much of a part in our home, though it was there at New Year and special occasions. Tea would be the more likely beverage and the girlfriends, who were in time to become wives, would be in the kitchen baking with Mum. (Including a memorable occasion when doughrings were made, deep fried and laid on a plate to cool before being dipped in sugar. It was only after most had been eaten that someone realised the plastic doily – remember those – was missing from the plate. It had melted into the doughrings and been eaten!)
Some helpers came and left, others remained close friends for life. There was Eric and Audrey Allardice (Eric dying far too young from MS), Eric’s brother Ralph, Andy Hay, Ally and Doris Foot, Alvin and Christine Mennie, George Lawrie, who married my cousin Aileen Wilson, and others who’ll probably feel slighted because my memory isn’t up to the task here, though the whole family of folk made for an incredibly secure upbringing for me and my brothers.
Secure, but not always without its hiccups. There was a guy called Innes, red-haired and in my memory always wearing a Fair Isle sweater. One day he got two cardboard boxes and, using a chisel, cut eye slits in them, then sat my brother and I on a four-wheeled trolley designed to carry crates of eels, up-ended the boxes over our heads and told us we were in a tank. To our excited cries, he pulled us along the riverbank path as fast as he could. It hadn’t been that fast, but fast enough that when we hit an eroded, cut away section of the path the trolley tipped and Stuart and I went tumbling down the bank in our boxes. Stuart stayed in his and emerged unscathed on the shingle below. I had tried to get out of mine and split my head open, bleeding copiously and getting a small stone embedded in my ear which is still there today. However I remember my Mum saying she had been almost as worried about Innes, who had picked me up and run, arriving at the Shed looking white enough to faint – a symphony of red and white.
Those were the golden years of the boatshed – at some point during my early childhood Dad even gave up his job as an engineer and tried to make a go of it full time. It was an experiment that only lasted a year, as there wasn’t quite enough custom to support a couple with two, and then three young children, but weekends at the Boatshed – in good weather at least (and that’s the only weather I remember there) – were bustling affairs.
The different boats would be lined up along the shingle bank in front of the Shed, moved up or down along with the tide, and a constant stream of people would pay to hire them, sent out on the river in those ‘60s days with no obligation to wear a lifejacket; the lifejackets we had were, in any case, the most rudimentary affairs of considerable weight and – looking back – possibly dubious effectiveness. These are full colour pictures I have though, unlike the sepia tones of less vivid memories. There was the green of the rowing boats – the same green as on the Council buses – and the blue skiffs. The canoes were wine, as were the covered kayaks, with a white deck. The people seemed colourful too in those perpetual summer days of memory. Too young to have any erotic thoughts, I still remember the bright yellow of the bikini a teenage girl wore as she walked along the riverbank path in front of the Shed. Her father needed cigarettes and he gave her money and she dived into the water to swim to the other side to buy them. Somehow that struck me as a wonderful thing to do.
Others impressed me for different reasons. I’d have been five, maybe six at most, and sitting out of sight in the balcony, as two teenagers argued heatedly about hiring a boat to get to the other side of the river rather than walk round by one of the bridges. The suggestion by one that he be dropped off at the other side while the other rowed the boat back met with a reply which was robust and earthy – to say the least. I remember sitting there enthralled: not just hearing some new swear words to add to my collection, but learning how to use them too! Every day a school day.
These are just a few memories of my childhood on the Dee. There are others: of the eel fishing, of ‘Barney’ Findlay and his trimaran and later his schooner, both built in the boatyard, but they’ll wait on another day.