Out of the Camp

Out of the Camp Ch. 12 – Peterhead

Tommy Chalmers was the local scrap metal dealer in Peterhead and I met him through a staff member at the TV store, W.D. Allen, who told me that Tommy owned a number of old buildings in the town and he might be able to rent me something to run the business from. It took me a few days to track him down and in the meantime I was running the business from a combination of the back of my van, and with the indulgence of the store who let me use a small space in the back for storing equipment and materials I’d brought from London. I eventually met Tommy at an address he’d given me over the phone, and he was waiting for me in a rough area fairly near the docks outside a very old pink granite two-storey building. He was a fairly short chubby man with high-colored cheeks and a ready smile. I liked him immediately, told him my story and he showed me a couple of connecting rooms on the ground floor that were available and that he’d let me have for a song. I don’t remember all these years later quite what the “song” was but, in any event, I didn’t hesitate, I accepted his offer.

Within a couple of days, I’d transferred all the stuff from my van and the materials I’d stored at the dealership, and started work organizing the place.  To maximize storage space in the front room, I used several six-foot aerial masts and clamps to fashion a rack to stack all the masts, poles and aerials on. Other accessories, including cable drums, boxes of clamps and other hardware, were stacked in boxes to one side of the room. The electronics i.e., amplifiers, signal splitters, PSUs, etc. were stored in the other slightly more secure room which would double as my office and bedroom. Seriously! And my bed was a sleeping bag plus a WWII military issue canvas sheet of my Dad’s which had four sprung rods that fitted into sewn pockets in the canvas which, when set up, would form a miniature sort of trampoline configuration which I’d have to pack up every morning in case I had visitors. On the opposite side of the shared entrance hallway was a mini-cab business which was peopled by some really ‘interesting’ characters of both sexes all of whom, judging by the smoke constantly billowing from their premises were heavy smokers, and on Friday and Saturday nights it was clear that they weren’t averse to the odd dram or six, judging by the loud tuneless singing (sic) and the evidence next morning comprising a deluge of empty bottles in the general vicinity of the rubbish bin. 

The outside toilet, which was in the backyard and which I shared with our neighbors, and which I won’t risk distressing you by describing, was surrounded by car wrecks and broken-down engine parts in no particular order. When in rained, and it rains a lot there, you needed wellies to respond to the call of nature because the back yard was a mud-bath. Speaking of water, the only running water was from a waist high standpipe in the middle of the concrete floor in an unfinished room at the rear of the building, so that when you turned on the tap, the water which was freezing would hit the concrete and splash in all directions when it hit the floor. So, when performing my ablutions, i.e., washing face, cleaning teeth, etc., I’d have to lean a piece of sufficiently large plywood against my knees to prevent my shoes and trousers from getting soaked. I suspect that that room was the washhouse (i.e., laundry) for all families residing in the building in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bathing for me had to wait until I had a swim at the local public pool where I could also take a shower. And, incidentally that tap (faucet), as the only water source in the building, was what our neighbors would fill their kettle from when making tea!

So, backing up for a second, I had obviously made it safely to Peterhead, met my benefactor/new client and, having been introduced to everyone in the store, who I remember were all intrigued to meet this guy who’d driven all the way up from London to install their TV aerials and, to a man, and woman, had made me feel very welcome and immediately like ‘one of the family’. I was shown around the store, familiarized with their procedures and, with precious little ceremony, handed my first batch of installation assignments. Obviously, there was no Google maps back then, but I’d come prepared with a set of folding maps of the area and got to work figuring out the route for my first day of work in Buchan, the area in North East Aberdeenshire where Peterhead is located and which is the easternmost point in mainland Scotland.

One of the things that hits you, quite literary, as a newcomer to Peterhead is the ferocity of the winds. The entire region is exposed to and at the mercy of the North Sea, and the wind when it blows, is merciless, and powerful, and freezing. There aren’t many trees in Peterhead. So, when you’re climbing around on roofs you really do have to hang for dear life. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, maintaining your balance in such conditions while working on a snow-covered, pitched roof is an additional challenge without also having to deal with aluminum antenna parts which, in such temperatures, freeze and stick to your fingers and you can’t easily un-stick them because you can end up ripping your skin off and it hurts. I should have worn gloves I hear you say. A reasonable suggestion except that it’s extremely difficult and often the work is too intricate to be done wearing gloves, and besides it would just slow you down and prolong the agony of being up there.

One of the consolations I would look forward to was a nice hot cuppa when you came off the roof. I would say that in eight to nine out of ten jobs I’d be offered tea usually with a buttery or a plate of biscuits. A ‘buttery’, also known as a rowie is a savoury bread roll noted for its flaky texture, slightly salty and buttery taste, and similarity to a croissant. Apparently, they were originally made for Aberdeen fishermen at sea and so contain a high lard content which lengthens shelf life but also is an immediate energy source. There’s nothing quite like coming in from the cold to a nice hot cup of tea with a hot buttery dripping with melting butter. I’ve worked myself up into quite a lather now; I’ll have to see if they’re available here.

One day I was sitting in an elderly customer’s kitchen enjoying chatting with her and sipping tea. She was, like most people I met in Peterhead, very generous, full of life and with a great sense of humor. I was getting ready to leave when, realizing I had a Scottish accent she said, “You’re nay frae Peterheid though?” For those unfamiliar, the Buchan dialect, also known as the Doric, is quite different from any other region of Scotland and even for another Scot can be quite challenging. I told her I was from Edinburgh, and she asked if I planned on staying (“biding”) in Peterhead. I said it was early days yet and I’d see how things developed. Even after all these years I remember her response almost verbatim, delivered with a warm smile and a glint in her eye, “Aye weel, supposin’ ye’ stye here ‘til y’ur ninety, ye’ll aywiz be an incomer.” I couldn’t think of a suitable response to that, so I just smiled, thanked her for the tea and left.

Some days I‘d cover many miles out in the countryside working in farms and in small villages, or occasionally a manor or main. Out there the accent seemed to be much thicker and sometimes I had real difficulty understanding them which in almost every case they took genuine delight in. Noticing my difficulty, I swear they would ham it up even more making them completely incomprehensible, and leaving me dumfounded and they, in their turn, helpless with laughter knowing precisely what game they were playing. It was impossible to take offense as to them it was just a bit of mischievous fun. An interesting observation is that it was usually men who would indulge in this nonsense. Just sayin’! I ran into Tommy Chalmers, my landlord, one afternoon and he asked how things were going and when I said I was busy, he told me that one thing he’d learned in business was, if you wanted to get ahead you had to drop yourself in the shite and then you had no alternative but to get out of it. Then, when you did because you had to, hey presto! Progress!

A couple of times I was sent to Peterhead Prison to resolve some reception difficulties. Peterhead was a high security prison built in 1888 for serious offenders and eventually closed in 2013. I was there in the mid-70s and naturally was a bit nervous and somewhat out of my comfort zone. What was interesting however was the banter that took place between the wardens and the inmates, many of whom were not in their cells but appeared to be permitted to wander around in the corridors at will. So, I was grateful to be closely accompanied by a warden wherever I went apart from the roof, when he just waited by the ladder until I came back down. I worked between the electrical room where the amplifiers and distribution boxes were, the common room which was home for the TV and the roof, investigating and ultimately fixing the problem. There were a couple of wags asked if I had a spare pair of cutters I might be persuaded to part with. I was glad of the warden’s company then as he just laughed along with them and I got the impression it might not have been quite so light-hearted an event without his presence.

By this time, I’d had a few jobs on both fishing boats and oil industry supply vessels which I came to learn often suffered from the same problem. Sea water would get into the connections at the aerial and then percolate down the co-axial cable to the plug that connected to the TV or distribution point. Replacing the cable was always necessary and often, the antenna itself and/or the connection at the TV which would have corroded. One morning I was heading to the offshore terminal to check out difficulties on a Dutch supply vessel engaged in carrying pipes out to an offshore construction site. I stopped by the harbor office to ask where the ship was and was told it was moored out in the bay and that I’d have to take the harbor launch to get out there. The clerk came outside and pointed out the vessel, and fortunately the launch was on its way back in and so I wouldn’t have long to wait before getting out there. When I did get onboard the vessel it was clearly pretty new, but I couldn’t see any TV aerial. There were various whips and communications batons, even a satellite navigation dome but no TV antenna. I asked a crew member about it and he didn’t know but pointed to the bridge and said I should ask the captain. I went up to the bridge and when I found him, I told him who I was and what I was looking for. He pointed to something on top of the bridge that looked like a giant mushroom and said that’s it. It must have been clear that I didn’t know what I was looking at and he asked if I’d seen one before. I must have looked bewildered and just shook my head. He told me to wait in the bridge – it was windy out there! – that he had some paperwork on it and went off to find it. He returned a couple of minutes later with what turned out to be a warranty card for the system. It wasn’t much help as it was in German but the manufacturer’s address and phone number in Muhlacker was included and the captain, thinking along similar lines as me, suggested that I contact them and that maybe I could become an agent, import them, and start selling them. He told me not to worry about their TV as they hardly used it, and then put in a call for the pilot launch to come back for me. As we were waiting, we were just chatting about this and that, and I complimented him on his excellent English. He just laughed and said everybody in Holland speaks English. They have to! After all, who in the world is going to learn Dutch?


(1) The German manufactured FTE Maximal Ship Antenna, AV 16N, that I encountered on a Dutch supply vessel anchored in the middle of Peterhead Bay. The harbor pilot boat had taken me out to the vessel to trouble-shoot the issue. ‘Problem was, I’d never seen one before and thought it was some kind of navigation satellite beacon. Luckily, the captain was a nice guy, took pity on me and sought out the warranty card so I could contact the manufacturers. Before I knew it I was selling the things!