Geoff Wright
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Geoff Wright - Moray Sea School, Burghead Scotland, 1955

I started work at 15 ½, apprenticeship at 16, a moulder in a large iron & brass foundry, part of a 3,500-strong engineering workforce making steam and gas turbines, pumps, motors and generators, diesel and steam engines. Also I didn’t realise/appreciate I had been spotted with one particular talent – able to visualise objects in 3D, from drawings to design sketches, and creating castings and the patterns they were made from.

The company had a very progressive policy for apprenticeships and training, and as a step along the way towards career development I was invited to attend the Moray Outward Bound Sea School at Burghead. I think I was sold the idea of a month’s holiday, endless fun and frolics – and a large sailing boat to play on. I was very fit, ran cross-country for the county and had been training hard with the just-introduced Japanese judo club. The small ‘Burghead’ brochure emphasised these misconceptions and soon after, the adventure started, late one evening in the early months of 1955

Well, almost started, for I was to be driven by my elder brother to Bedford to catch the ‘night’ train northwards – and almost ready to toss my small bag aboard when there was a thunderous knocking on the front door , then again as if someone was trying to break it off its’ hinges. There, in the dark, leaning on an enormous bicycle, was a policeman. It appeared the car had been parked outside the house but facing the wrong way, and had to be moved without delay – traffic obstruction and bye-laws broken. This was probably his crime of the month, for on a busy time, mid-day; there were sometimes as many as 3 cars an hour passing.

The journey north, from vague recollection, involved changing a few times, arriving in Glasgow at some unearthly hour at it was getting light, then off again before wending through the glens and in to Elgin. It may have been a bus ride to Burghead, although memory says there was a rail line directly into the harbour area (closed in the Beeching cuts?) and there was our ‘destination’, a rather stark series of buildings just like a secondary modern school – the main feature being a large flag pole.

Settling in and shaking down, meeting other equally slightly bemused lads, some of the time trying to decipher the various regional accents, allocated a room and bed space. An argument had broken out, a tough-looking Glaswegian had took a fancy to a bed nearest the window and had chucked across the floor the kit of a rather frail boy in glasses. A girlish shriek of protest and a knife suddenly appeared, this was getting out of hand! A distraction, closing in and gently taking the knife (I say ‘gently’ but his wrist was almost broken) and someone punched his so hard I thought he’d been killed.

Some of the staff came pounding up, shouts and whistles, the weapon slid under a bed and an innocent group looking up in surprise! For the rest of my time at the School there was absolutely no further problems of this nature, the Scottish boy came from a very troubled background and became great chums with the fastest sprinter – yes, the lad in glasses.

The school discipline seemed fairly strict, probably necessary to control a motley crew sometimes doing fairly dangerous things, and from memory the instructors were either ex-army subalterns or overgrown prefects. They certainly did their best, the highlight of the early days being an introduction the various athletic activities – running from sprints to long distance, hurdles and high jump, long jump and discus, with special attention to be paid to the javelin – one of the staff was very good.

A safety talk, imagining the steel point embedded into unsuspecting flesh, feeling the aluminium shaft almost come alive in your hands, and we were off. The instructor took the first throw, a graceful arc that seemed to float for ever. Then one or two of the strong-shouldered brigade tried to copy it, bumping and skidding across the grass, leaving the bulk of us to plod through the practice. One lad made ready for his turn, took up the spear, whooping with glee as he made a long run-up and cast heavenwards as we scuttled for safety. Height rather than distance, and with a somewhat spectacular flash and a bang, it was lodged in the overhead power cables. I guess we gave up on field sports after this.

After a few days, the sea-dogs called us in groups aboard the ‘Prince Louis’. There were just a few of them, but looked like ‘real’ sailors, bearded and fierce-looking, incomprehensible Highland accents – straight out of central casting for “Whisky Galore”. And rejoiced in names like MacKenzie, Douglas and Clark! And this is where I came alive, everything held a fascination, from intricate fancy knotting to basic rope-work, heaving spray-soaking decks to gliding serenely towards the Isles.

Then the gales began to build, clouds torn to shreds – and it was thought a gentle stroll in the Cairngorms would be interesting. Dirty-white over-suits handed out and all checked for suitable boots. Groups of us were dropped off along some desolate track, a handy map reference and we found ourselves alone. Ten miles across frozen heather and snowy hillside, slipping through streams and bogs – finally arriving at a tumble-down shepherd’s bothie for welcome hot food and a warming fire. Sleeping arrangements were quite unusual, each of us was issued with a padded, down-filled flying suit, complete from boots to hood, and the trick was to climb in fully dressed. There was some discussion on how long these suits had been used between laundering, but is was months rather than weeks!

The next morning – good news, no walking today! We each sorted out a rusty bicycle from a heap, climbed on and rattled away into the rising sun – a brilliantly bright day with a biting wind. By luck or good map-reading, we found a road going roughly in the direction we’d been given, but it wound up and up into the mist, this was too much for a few of the group, and we stopped on the crest of one small hill, with seemingly endless climbs to come. Down went the bikes and we flung ourselves onto the grass. Tired, hungry and a bit fed up.

An AA man on his motorbike was on a road across the glen, saw the heap of white bodies, suspected a major accident and made his way round to us. I wondered afterwards if he was a bit disappointed, but radioed in for assistance anyway. A truck appeared; we flung out bikes in the back and were taken a good bit closer to our destination. I suspect we had a goodly number of points deducted, but completed the ‘mountains’ expedition.

A few more days aboard the ‘Louis’, roping up and down the cliffs above the harbour, pep talks to reinforce the Outward Bound ethos - and our month came to an end. Chugging off from Elgin, heading South and home. Perhaps more quiet and reserved than when we arrived, browner and fitter, certainly; blisters and bruises forgotten.

And what did I gain from the experience? On looking back without nostalgia’s rose glasses – self control and independence, getting on with lads from many backgrounds and experiences, acceptance of bombastic authority and carefully encouraging tuition, an unexpected love of the sea (from a boy brought up in the East Midlands and a long way from ‘real’ water) and perhaps the most important of all – a firm belief that anything was possible if worked for.