The rescuers celebrate 50 years

Tony Robinson (centre) and Heavy Whalley with current office-bearers. Border Search and Rescue Unit.
Tony Robinson (centre) and Heavy Whalley with current office-bearers. Border Search and Rescue Unit.

It was the year the Beatles released their first album, a new Ford Cortina would set you back £675 and the average house price was £3160. JFK was assassinated on a sunny November morning in Dallas and Britain shivered in the grip of the coldest winter in nearly 20 years. It was the last of these that had a profound and lasting legacy in the south of Scotland.

Two local shepherds, returning by foot over the Cheviots from Rothbury market on a frigid night in November 1962 were reported missing and found dead the following day, huddled and frozen together behind a wall. This tragic event was keenly felt in the small rural communities nestling in the foothills, and was the catalyst that inspired the local bobby in Yetholm to form the first police recognised Search and Rescue organisation in the region, and only the fifth in Scotland. Cairngorm Mountain Rescue was formed the same year. Constable Tony Robinson (no - not the actor who plays Baldrick in Blackadder) and Jack Robb acted as joint team-leaders, and drew their first recruits from the Yetholm Rover Scouts, who were soon joined by a contingent from the Cheviot

Walkers Club.

Equipment and funding were hard-won. Jack Robb’s Morris pick-up served as the main method of transport and it was not until the early 90s that the unit purchased a team vehicle.

Members salvaged wood from old school desks, along with some fishing net from Eyemouth and set about making a stretcher. The local blacksmith steamed the wooden runners into shape. It had its first outing being lowered over Staerough Crags. Its first official use was to transport a

pregnant woman from Morebattle. Coal was sledged on it half way to Morebattle where the Morebattle constable met the team with the “casualty” and loads were exchanged!

Tony Robinson’s sister was a climber and she supplied the unit with a rope.The R.A.F. stores, Leeming, Yorkshire, supplied some other equipment, as the team became a sub unit of the R.A.F. Mountain Rescue Team based there. A brewery presented the team in August 1964 with a shiny new

MacInnes MKII stretcher, and a month later the team were gifted a pair of twoway radios by a local hotelier. These were supplemented by two more from unit funds, and after the Edinburgh commonwealth Games in 1970, by Pye mobile radios and a base-set donated by Edinburgh Transport.

Earlier this year a wonderful archive document was uncovered – a diary kept by Jack Robb during the very early days of the unit, which details the team’s first combined exercise with RAF Leeming, with Jack concluding: “The weekend was voted a great success, and our friends from Leeming were quite impressed by our conduct on the hill.”

Post-war “make-do and mend” attitudes clearly still prevailed, at least where transport was concerned, for one practice detailed sees the team taken to and from the callout in a closed horsebox.

Early training included regular Wednesday night excursions onto the hill to practice route-finding, rock-work and stretcher lowering. Courses in navigation, first-aid and mountain survival brought in outside instructors, one of whom commented: “It was most encouraging to see such a fit, responsible group of adults voluntarily offering their services as a Mountain Rescue Team in a

potentially dangerous area.”

The first notable call-out for the team, in May 1964, involved an all-night search over a large area for a girl who had gone missing, losing her bearings by a factor of 180 degrees and finding shelter in a disused bothy. The following year, the team performed its first genuine rescue when a walker fell on scree, breaking his leg in the remote Heatherhope Valley. He was evacuated by stretcher and carried to the valley floor and a waiting ambulance.

Last Saturday the team celebrated 50 years of service with a dinner at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm when 50 or so diners attended. We were immensely privileged and delighted to have not only the 84-year-old Tony Robinson, walking with a stick these days but still effervescent and twinkly-eyed, but also the renowned mountain rescue expert and raconteur Dave “Heavy” Whalley. A beautiful commemorative sculpture designed and crafted by team-member Brian Mahler was unveiled and a brief history of the team was recounted by current team leader Seymour Haugh.

Half a dozen of the founder members made it to the dinner and shared stories and reminiscences with their modern-day counterparts. Without doubt, the toast of the evening, sitting smiling quietly was the remarkable Tony Robinson, a man who, with precious-few resources at his disposal and little but a dream to guide him, fifty years ago had an extremely cunning plan