The Wey Hid Wis


The following article appeared in The Orcadian on 25 October 2012:-

From Hardy Souls to Heated Pools.

The Kirkwall Swimming Pool opened on 2 October 1972, but swimming has been an organised activity, now and again, for much longer than that.

The Orcadian described a swimming gala in Kirkwall harbour in 1888 as being run by the resurrected Kirkwall Swimming Club. In 1926 it was resurrected again, "after having been in abeyance for 22 years" and the Orkney Herald reported galas at Kirkwall Pier in 1926 and 1927.

For both galas a floating platform was moored in front of the Kirkwall Hotel, all the boats were moved to the other side of the pier and buoys were anchored 25, 50, 100 and 150 yards out. Both days drew very large crowds but not many swimmers: 17 was the largest entry, for the 1926 300-yard challenge cup. There were three or four other races, shorter ones for ladies and boys under 14 and 16 and then there were diving competitions: neat, long and object.

For the object diving, plates had to be brought up from 9 or 10 feet of water. Unsurprisingly, mud made things difficult after the first dive. The long dive was judged on how far they travelled under water, with strangely accurate results. J Laughton won in 1927 with 84ft 8ins.

In 1927 after the competitive events there was a demonstration of swimming strokes: "American crawl, trudgeon, side (overarm), side (underarm), back (overarm), back (underarm), back (American crawl), walking on surface of water, surface diving, propelling, swimming feet first, seal swimming, frog swimming, sinking, steam tug." These strokes were all demonstrated by one swimmer, Minnie Shearer, who, as Marian Johnstone, had been Scottish champion for the 100 and 200 yards from 1915 to 1921 before coming to Orkney and marrying Jackie Shearer

As if this wasn't enough for one afternoon, "The sports concluded with a laughable farce, entitled Betty Longdiver's Wedding, which, performed in the open, without the trappings of a stage, and without even a rehearsal, was well carried out, and afforded much amusement. The grand finale for the day was a duck chase, which also caused considerable merriment." There can be few reports in the Orcadian that leave you with more questions than that gala.

Hard though it is to imagine now, lots of Orcadians have swum in Kirkwall Bay, though few surely can compete with Jack Tait, co-founder of J & W Tait. In 1967 the Orcadian published an article about the firm's centenary which included a description of Jack's aquatic activities.

"He was also a very fine swimmer. One of his jaunts was to go in at Grain Shore and swim round Thieves Holm and back - a distance not far short of five miles. A regular swim, however, was to Craigiefield and back across the bay. But if he did not feel like going quite as far as this he sometimes swam round Kirkwall Pier - wearing his top hat and smoking his pipe."

The Kirkwall Swimming Club was brought back to life again in 1948, the same year that swimming was brought into the Junior Inter-County competition. Gary Gibson represented Orkney for five years and his father Edgar kept up an interest in the sport, teaching other Kirkwall children. Then, in the hot summer of 1955, Dave Keldie really got things going, when 250 children enrolled for lessons at Scapa beach. Every summer, for the next fourteen years, he and a team of helpers gave lessons around the shores of Orkney. After a few years, they were paid to do this by the Council.

One of Dave Keldie's helpers, Shirley Reid, who was later assistant manager at the Kirkwall pool, remembers that Monday night was Swanbister, Tuesday was the Burray end of the fourth barrier, Friday was Aikerness and Wednesday and Thursday were both at Scapa. There were lessons at other sandy beaches as well in Deerness, South Ronaldsay, Shapinsay and Sanday.

Once the Kirkwall bairns had learned to swim at Scapa, they were taken to the Kirkwall Basin, to demonstrate under supervision that they could swim 25 yards there. After that, they were swimmers, free to enjoy the delights of swimming in the basin, which are best left to the imagination, especially after a west wind. After a few years, wooden changing huts, described as being a bit like the old hen houses, were set up on the pier in the summer.

John Leslie remembers that there was such enthusiasm for lessons that bairns from Rousay were brought across to his lessons at Aikerness and there were even lessons at some quite uninviting places: below the Finstown school and in the Harray loch behind the Merkister Hotel. I can remember lessons in the Stenness loch in 1969. There is a nice sandy patch in its south-east corner, known as the Mill Sands, but we had to troop down from the school, across the main road and round the back of Sutherland's garage.

Lessons in Stromness had started shortly after Scapa. Dave Keldie gave a talk at a meeting held there in 1957 and the Stromness Swimming Club was formed, with Sandy Tait as its first president. By the following summer there were 133 juniors and 35 seniors being taught to swim at Warbeth by Sandy and his helpers.

There had been some organised swimming in Stromness before this. During the first Shopping Week in 1949 there was a swimming gala in the basin to entertain spectators waiting for the end of the regatta. The following year the gala included water polo and a water-skiing display. In those years the swimmers had to dive off a platform slung from a boat in the harbour but in 1958 WS Harvey was commissioned to build the platform that some readers will remember, which could be lowered down the side of the pier.

Another Stromness swimming place was between Ness and Warbeth, known to generations of Stromnessians as the Tender Tables. Doodie Robertson remembers coming to the Academy as a new young PE teacher and having to supervise swimming there on Friday afternoons, looking at the tide-race and every moment expecting to see a head going out Hoy Sound.

Fun though hardy Orcadians had in the great outdoors, they could see the many advantages of swimming pools. During the1950s there were several proposals for pools in Kirkwall, including one in the Peedie Sea warmed by the cooling plant of the Power Station. The Kirkwall swimmers were tireless in their fund-raising efforts but, perhaps due to the lack of a single definite plan, public interest faded and it was Stromness who built Orkney's first pool, which was opened on the Tuesday of Shopping Week 1969.

The pool was built on the site of the army garrison theatre at a cost of only £22,000, making it, according to Lord Birsay in his opening speech, the cheapest pool in Britain; a pool of the same size in Thurso had cost more than twice as much. £17,000 was provided by the authorities in Edinburgh and Orkney but the last £5,000 came from ten years of fund-raising.

Most of the credit for the pool's affordability belongs to Isaac Wilson, the Burgh Surveyor, and Norman Mowat. Not only working out how to build something never seen in Orkney before but also finding ways to cut costs. Boilers from the Twatt aerodrome did sterling service for many years and excess cement from the Council yard didn't go to waste.

The children of Stromness were raring to go. As soon as the ribbon was cut Linda Clouston and John Richmond, the captains of the Stromness Swimming Club, dived in, followed almost immediately by the other sixty members of the Club who ran out of the changing rooms and leapt in en masse. By the time the Orcadian reported the opening ceremony the following week, 1000 entrance tickets had been sold.

Three years later, it was Kirkwall's turn and right from the start, it was supported enthusiastically, with 2000 tickets sold in the first week, at 12 ½ p for adults and 7 ½ p for children. Fittingly, after all their years of coaching on Orkney's bracing shores, Dave Keldie was the first manager of the pool and John Leslie was his assistant.

The vast throngs must have been gratifying for the authorities and those who had campaigned for a pool for so long but weren't quite so welcome to the staff. Try to imagine getting a new enterprise going, learning things as you go along, while dealing with queues of swimmers stretching round the pool. In those early days, time in the pool had to be limited so that everyone could get a turn. John Leslie remembers the difficulty of trying to get everyone with a green armband out of the pool to make way for the next batch. It took some Orkney swimmers a little while to get used to doing what they were told - it hadn't been like this in the Basin.

Things soon settled down and it wasn't just the swimmers who made good use of the new pool: the Sub-Aqua Club, the Kirkwall Kayak Club and, later, Alistair Skene's all-conquering Octopush teams practised their skills in relative safety and warmth.

In 1974 the Kirkwall Amateur Swimming Club was resurrected one last time and Morag Blance was the coach for the first ten years.

Over the last forty years the Kirkwall and Stromness pools and their hard-working coaches and staff have produced many talented swimmers who have brought credit to Orkney in competitions all over the country and beyond but, more importantly, hundreds of Orkney children have joined those pioneers on Orkney's shores in learning to swim - for safety, fun and fitness.