In early spring 1970 I dropped out of university, and along with my pal Kodak got a job as a labourer at Elgin City Sawmills. The mill is no longer there, it’s been replaced by a retail park.
The pay was about £9 per week. Work started at 8 am and finished at 5 pm, with an hour off for lunch, and two ten minute tea breaks, one at 10am and one at 3pm. Even in 1970, £9 wasn’t a lot, but we still managed to pay our digs of £2 and save some money for a holiday in France later that year. In those days, a pint of beer cost 2 Shillings (2/-) and ciggies were also 2 Bob for twenty, though you could get wee Sovereigns for 1 Shilling and 10 Pence (1/10p) if you were a bit skint.
The work was as deadly boring as you could ever imagine, and the secret was to try not to look at your watch for a whole two minutes. I was part of a gang of about 8 or 10 labourers. Wullie, who was sixty, was the gaffer. Bob was in his fifties. Berty Grubb was in his early twenties. I forget the names of the others, but they came and went at various times.
The work involved moving lengths of cut pine wood from one pile to another. It would arrive in lorry loads off the boats from Finland, sometimes still half frozen, and these loads of planks were of various lengths. We’d undo the supports, and one of the gang would get on top of the pile with a wooden measure and shout out the lengths “21…19…18…20…21” whilst the rest of us, working in pairs, would grab a plank and carry it to the pile for it’s specific length, spacing them so that the air could get at the wood and it would season. That was it – day in, day out. If it rained, we’d go into the sheds and make piles of wood there. Gloves, which were essential, wore out after four weeks.
Every now and then, as the piles were completed, Wullie would announce “Aye lads…We’ll awa and mak a foon.”
Bob would mutter “Feck yer feckin foons, Wullie” – but Wullie was a bit deaf, and just replied “Aye Boab”
‘Makin a foon’ involved making a new foundation of three railway sleepers and supports for a new pile.
On a Monday morning, most of the talk was about sex. Who’d had sex at the weekend. Bob seemed to be popular with 18 year olds, and Wullie once announced he’d had a 16 year old on the kitchen table the previous Saturday afternoon after the football. These discussions would take place in the hut, where we went for our tea.
Berty Grubb was built like a brick. There was no difference in width between his neck and his head, which was topped with a crewcut like a pencil rubber. His arms and legs were like logs. I once challenged him to arm wrestling, but it was over in two seconds. He couldn’t believe I was actually trying.
To the others, although we weren’t, Kodak and myself were “the students”. One of our tasks was to come up with quiz questions for the others, to help pass the time. Berty Grubb loved quizzes, but the problem was coming up with questions that he might be able to answer.
“What’s the capital of France?”
“Aye – I ken this wan…it’s Europe, is it?”
Berty’s girlfriend was pregnant. One day, he didn’t appear for work. We heard later that he’d been given six months for battering this other chap to a pulp in a fight after a dance. It was his 16th conviction.
The worst day was once when we had to collect some new sleepers from the railway sidings. It was bitterly cold and snowing, and the sleepers were frozen solid and extremely heavy. The best time was when, for three days, Kodak and myself were given the job of painting some window frames with undercoat. We did it so slowly, however, that we got barred from future painting.
Wullie had worked in the sawmills for thirty years, and had never been late for work. One day, at 7.50 am, the railway crossing gates just outside the mills were closed as two trains came past. Wullie couldn’t get across, was two minutes late for clocking in, and was docked 4 (old) pence from his wage packet.
After a few months at the sawmills, Kodak and myself got jobs as waiters at the Muckrach Lodge Hotel in Dulnain Bridge. It paid less, and the hours were longer, but there were fringe benefits – tips, nice food, waitresses, kitchen maids, and it was within striking distance of the Centre at Aviemore, where we saw bands such as The Move. If you were on earlies, you’d start at 7 am setting up for breakfast, and sometimes you didn’t finish until midnight, but you got the afternoons off. We’d cycle around the countryside, or over to Carrbridge.