James Mc Ara
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James Mc Ara - Moray Sea School, Burghead Scotland, 1953

I found your web site so I thought I'd give you my memories of The Moray Sea School.

I was chosen to go in March 1953 or 54. Why I was sent I do not know. Someone must have thought it would do me good.

At that time I attended Bellevue Secondary School in Edinburgh. I was not the brightest button in the box just an average pupil.

I learned later that the school had supported the sea school since it began and they were given a place, or maybe more; whether on a monthly or a yearly basis God knows.

My memories are clouded slightly by time. It must be all of 63 years ago!

We arrived at Forres railway station, I think. Where we were collected and put onto a bus that took us to a camp site above Burghhead.

I think the camp had been used by the military, it was only 8 years since the war ended.

The camp consisted of about 8 barrack huts and slept 12. The beds were the old cast iron type with springs and a mattress. We had 2 sheets and 2 blankets which weren’t really enough to keep you warm in March.

We were issued with 2 jerseys and 2 pairs of heavy duty serge trousers.

Those who complained about them being too big were told they would grow into them, too small? They would lose weight!

We were taught how to make our bed. At the foot of the bed a locker was provided for our luggage.

On a daily basis we rose at around 7 am and assembled outside where we marched down in groups of 12 (I was in Hawkins Watch, I think)

to the church hall where we had breakfast (porridge and a fry up) we then spent the day down at the harbour where we learned sailing.

This took place in an open boat called a lugger; because when you wanted to change direction you had to haul down the heavy sail and slide the boom to the other side of the mast.

Then we went to a storage place at the harbour and were taught all manner of rope work, knots, (you had to be able to do these with your eyes shut as you might have to tie rope together at sea in the dark) splicing etc.

We were taught to read contour maps and box a compass then we were taken out to the woods and learned woodcraft.

That’s how the days went, busy and lots of knowledge to take in.

Burghhead was a fishing village, it had one main street (tarmaced) and all the side roads on the left, when you were walking up the hill, seemed to lead to the harbour. These roads were well used tracks.

The night life was one wee cafe, no seated area there.

The relations with the locals boys was a bit tense sometimes as they saw us as trying to take the few young girls from them and once there was a spat.


When we arrived we found out that we had a tutor (a lieutenant in the navy) who had just come back from hospital as, when he was on the Prince Louis, the main boom had fallen on him and delivered a glancing blow to his head! He had vivid blue and yellow bruises on his face.

There were about 8 instructors then there were the kitchen and laundry staff.

The first incident was about a week after we arrived; one of our watch went AWOL.

He hated the place and the regime and just wanted to get back to Glasgow; he was found at Forres railway station and brought back.

It is interesting that in the last week of the course he asked if, when he left school, he could get a job there.

I imagine that this was not the first time someone had absconded and the school would notify the police and the railway station to keep a look out.

We had a small mutiny; the milk for the porridge was sour for 3 days the instructors seemed happy with theirs but we all stood up and stated our grievances. The milk on our tables was tasted and they agreed it was sour. I don’t know what happened to the kitchen staff but after that we always go fresh milk. The food was good and filling so we never felt hungry.

We went to Gordonstoun for the day and were shown over the school by the boys. We had lunch there (tablecloths and napkins!) then we went over their assault course; very tough and scary.

They had been out for about 5 hours the previous night searching for an old man from the village nearby who had gone walk about. They found him eventually wandering around the forest in his pyjamas. They even have their own fire brigade.

Every Sunday we would have an exercise; we were split into groups of 4 and had to negotiate our way over a predetermined cross country course. Each week the course was increased in length, and took hours, and each week a new captain of the team had to lead the other 3 back in time for supper.

The first part was a stiff walk for about 5 /6 miles and then if we had read the map and compass correctly we would find bicycles and cycle for about 10 miles.

Where we would leave the bikes and take to the hills and walk for ages using map and compass to get to a check point where we would find map co-ordinates to get to the next location.

We all had back packs and rations, sandwiches and fruit, to keep us going but it was very hard as the weather was frequently atrocious; rain, sleet and snow made the going cross country very slow wet and exhausting.

In all of these and other exercises, we were “monitored” to see how we reacted to adversity.

A group of us found out the hard way; as, during a five mile run, we calculated that we had time to walk a while (it was a rare sunny day) and still get back under the test time. Three of us were sauntering along on a lovely sunny afternoon when a voice boomed out “Get running you lot!” one of the instructors was perched up a big fir tree with a telescope!

Every day we went down to the harbour and sailed and learned how to pull together as a team.


This was the highlight and the culmination of our month at The Moray Sea School.

We spent time getting to know the ship and how to sail her. We were shown how to raise and lower the sails (once you learned how to raise and lower the sails on one mast you could do the other two as the layout was the same for each) and how to Flemish coil the sheets and keep the bright work sparkling.

We had to climb to the top of the mast on the port side and come down on the starboard.

We had to be able to go up to the topsails and reef them in (without falling to the deck!)

All exciting and very scary stuff.

The story we heard was that the ship had been a collier for the German Navy during the first world war.

At some point it was gifted to Prince Philip who passed it on to the school.

It had been refurbished below deck so there were bunks, about 12, it was all rather cramped but always warm, if a bit smelly due to the engines.

The plan was we would leave in the morning after breakfast and sail out to sea taking passage for Lossiemouth, where we would spend the night on board.

Then off to Banff making a night passage; we were split into 4 watches.

On the night passage to Banff a storm blew up and we had to rig safety lines across the ship. As the ship broached sometimes the gunnels were awash with water. We were kitted out with oilskins and sea boots, so apart from being pummelled and wet and sea sick we were not too bad.

She rolled about all over the place and the poor lad who had the helm had a hard time steering any sort of course.

There were 3 sets of two man lookouts, one port, one starboard and one in the bow.

I was on the port side clinging to a ventilation funnel along with my co-lookout when I saw one of the crew floating by in the water, I couldn’t have cared less, such was my sea sickness.

Fortunately what the sea had taken so it returned; he was thrown back onto the ship in the stern by a wave.

A night to remember.

Food during the storm was fleeting as the cook was having to contend with the galley being tossed about while he was vomiting and clearing broken crockery. We had bread and jam and tin mugs of cocoa. Came the morning some of the crew were curled up in the bow sleeping and not in a good place as far as working went.

That’s when the first lieutenant brought out the monkey paw (this was a very ornate piece of rope with a spliced knot on the end) and lay about them.

It was more for the dramatic effect as we were all well wrapped up with all the clothes we could wear and then oil skins on top of that.

Eventually the sea calmed and order was restored below.

We rested and when we went on deck; it was a perfect sailing day, the sun shone and it was warm (by Morayshire standards) we sat around on deck and recalled the adventures of the previous night.

The Captain, we learned later, had a drink problem and had taken to his cabin with a bottle and was drunk, hence the first mate was running the ship.

The ship it’s self had performed well; it lumbered and hit every wave head on but we were all safe and happy.

The month was almost up and no one wanted to go back home. But we did and took back memories which have lasted a life time.

I imagine that in this day of Health and Safety half of the things we did would have been ruled out as being too dangerous.

But it’s doing them and surviving which gives life its spice and shows you that you are more than you think you are.