Published: 26/01/2016 12:28 - Updated: 26/01/2016 12:57

Ship's officer Stuart takes a voyage to the past with his memoirs

Stuart Edmond near his home on teh Black Isle. Photo: Alison White.
Stuart Edmond near his home on teh Black Isle. Photo: Alison White.

STUART Edmond’s earliest memory is of being aboard a ship.

Aged just two, he joined his brother and sister and mother on a voyage from Leith, not far from their home town of Portobello, to his mother’s homeland of Shetland.

That journey, made just weeks before the outbreak of World War II, certainly made an impression on young Stuart, but the sea was already in the family’s blood.

Like many with an island background, a lot of Edmond’s own relations had already gone to sea. As a boy in Portobello, his choice of reading would be stories of the sea, fuelling what he calls his burning desire for a Merchant Navy career.

Now he has turned things full circle by publishing his own book about his adventures at sea, Memories of a Ben Line Man.

"The Ben Line was very much an international line, mainly Far East, but it started off with very humble origins," Edmond said.

"It was a building firm which imported marble from Italy, then they realised that it was cheaper to buy ships and import the stone themselves,"

Edmond was one of five cadets awarded posts on a Ben ship and was told: "You’ll do well if you work hard."

"There was never any question of that!" he laughed.

"All the cranes and running gear had to be overhauled on the way out. We’d work all day on deck and then be back on watch again in the evening, so it was a tough life. On Saturday, you got half a field day – but during the other half you had to scrub and polish your cabin because there was an inspection on Sunday morning. Two or three specks of something and it would be: ‘Right – do the lot again.’"

His first voyage aboard the Benrinnes in the late summer of 1953 took him through the Suez Canal to Aden, then on across the Indian Ocean to Penang in Malaysia, Singapore, Bangkok and on to Hong Kong and Borneo.

Ben Line ships would collect oils, specialised ores, rubber and cotton to feed the industries of Britain and return with the products of British and European factories from automobiles to armaments.

However, those voyages gave Edmond an early insight into how the world was changing.

"We saw how Britain was living in a false world," he said.

Stuart as 3rd mate on the Benvrackie.
Stuart as 3rd mate on the Benvrackie.

"This great cycle of manufacturing the raw materials from the empire was something people thought would go on forever, but we could see things changing. We could see the Japanese were beginning to produce manufactured goods for themselves. The great flow of manufacturing goods out to the East was replaced by them coming the other way."

That in turn led to a rapid decline in British shipping.

"I left just in time. I could see the way things were going, so I came ashore," Edmond said.

Hong Kong was a favourite port of call, with its mix of the exotic and British influences, including red double decker buses, and a good place to buy presents for the trip home.

For a young man from Scotland, sailing on the Ben Line was an eye-opener, Edmond conceded, from war-ravaged Hamburg to Hong Kong where dock workers could expect to be paid just one-and-thruppence a day.

However, with voyages taking four to five months, Edmond would also find coming home a strange experience.

"You become a stranger in your own place, but it’s not the place that has changed, it’s you," he said.

Edmond has lived in the Highlands since 1967, when he came north to join the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) and was employed in senior roles both with it and its successor organisation Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) until his retirement in 1995.

He has also served on the boards of Raigmore NHS Trust and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd and was awarded the MBE for his work with the Sea Cadet movement.

It was only recently that he has found time to write down his memories of his experiences at sea, making use of his diaries and letters home to remind him of his experiences of over 60 years ago.

"I didn’t set out with the intention of writing a book," he explained.

"The idea was just to get down my memories for the family."

Looking back, he now feels privileged to have been at sea in the twilight years of Britain’s merchant fleet.

"I describe it as the golden era of British shipping. It was huge. Britain had a massive merchant navy, the biggest in the world," he said.

"When you go to the London docks, now it’s all yuppie flats. Back then it was a forest of masts."

 Memories of a Ben Line Man by Stuart Edmond is published by Bassman Books.

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