THE short but remarkable life of a young Innerleithen man who died heroically in Antarctica 46 years ago was celebrated at a unique ceremony in the town on Sunday.
Tom Allan was a 26-year-old diesel mechanic with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who, along with colleague John Noel, embarked, with sleds and dogs, on a 10-day field trip to the Northeast Glacier at the eastern end of the frozen continent.
But two days out of their base camp on rocky Stonington Island, radio contact was lost and a search party later discovered the two men trapped in drifted snow and frozen to death. They had fallen foul of a fearsome Antarctic storm and, after trying to dig a snow hole, it appeared Tom had left its protection to attend to the dogs before becoming disoriented.
Both men were commended for their courage by famous polar explorer Sir Vivien Fuchs in his book, Of Ice and Men.
Tom Allan had packed much into his short life. He was Dux Boy at St Ronan’s primary school and had therefore enacted the role of St Ronan at the town’s annual Borders Games Week festival.
He was to artistically evoke this legendary character – who “cleiked the De’il” by his hind leg, driving out evil – in a carving he had made shortly after becoming a member of the BAS in 1965.
The time-served joiner who went on to become a technical teacher, graduating from Napier and Moray House in Edinburgh, had carved what he intended as an amusing and decorative plaque to mount behind the bar at Stonington.
The area was, at the time, part of the Falkland Islands Dependency and the men working there were referred to as FIDs. Tom’s carving showed a fully kitted out FID lying on a Nansen sledge with one leg resting on top of a sleeping husky. The figure has his hood up, but a face with a large hooked nose is seen in profile – a joke about Innerleithen’s infamous De’il. On top of the carving is a ribbon banner on which is inscribed “Ye Compleat Fidde”, thought to be a parody of Izaak Walton’s “Ye Compleat Angler”.
The story of Tom Allan and his carving was recounted in the garden of St Ronan’s Wells visitor centre on Sunday when a gathering of 50 family and friends, including his former BAS colleagues, looked on as young Erica Hughes, her sister Kirsty and brother Craig carefully drew away the Saltire flag to reveal a drystone cairn.
It was surrounded by a pale sandstone block on which a replica of Tom’s quirky carving had been etched by the children’s mum – and Tom’s neice – Marion Hughes and dedicated as a permanent memorial in his native town.
The unveiling was the culmination of many months of planning and more than 50 hours of meticulous chiselling by Marion who had wanted to find out more about the uncle she had never known.
In her research, she discovered a photograph of the carving which went missing when the Antarctic base was abandoned by the British during the 1970s and she resolved to make an exact copy in stone.
Undaunted by having no previous experience of this craft, Marion, who lives in Broughton, enrolled in evening classes and began her magnum opus last year. Permission was given by Scottish Borders Council’s museum service to erect the memorial at the rear of St Ronan’s Wells and, helped by her husband Steven and the St Ronan’s Wells Support Group, the stone and building materials were transported up the steep slope by wheelbarrow. Family friend Ronnie Rusnak helped build the cairn and carefully cemented and aligned the precious sandstone carving.
At the ceremony, Tom Allan’s sister (and Marion’s mother) Dorothy McKie delivered a heartfelt eulogy, evoking their childhood days at St Ronan’s Wells and her brother’s love of the great outdoors.
She recalled how Tom had made her skis as a Christmas present and how he had built canvas and fibreglass canoes in the garage (now the visitor centre). She spoke of his trips to the Cairngorms and Norway, and his journey to the Antarctic.
After the unveiling, Dorothy asked Terry Tallis, who had been base leader at the time of the tragedy and compiled the report on the incident, to say a few words.
He said the team’s work at the time consisted mainly of sledging rations south on the Antarctic peninsula and it was May before the field teams returned to base. This had been the first opportunity for Tom and John, who had been manning the base, to get away for the “holiday break” which had ended in disaster.
“To be present here today is a great privilege and one I will never forget,” said Mr Tallis before conveying the following message from Terry Allan, chairman of the British Antarctic Survey Club, which has more than 1,000 members worldwide:
“We wish to pay tribute to Tom Allan for the work, friendship and contributions to the work of the survey. His great sacrifice in 1966 in the Antarctic in the worst of conditions is both regretted and mourned, but his memory among fellow FIDs survives to this day.”
Indeed, no fewer than five FIDs – David Matthews, Keith Holmes, Ken Doyle, Julian Paren and Ally Skinner – who knew and worked with Tom on the survey, travelled many miles to attend Sunday’s ceremony. Although some had not seen each other for over 40 years, their shared experiences were manifest in the instant sense of camaradie which made the unveiling as heartwarming as it was poignant.
Afterwards, the guests adjourned to the pavilion at the front of the famous well where they toasted Tom’s memory and enjoyed canapes which were a credit to Marion’s oldest daughter Yvonne.
Tom Allan is buried on Stoningthon Island near his last base, his grave marked with a simple cross, dedicated and paid for by fellow Masons from Lodge St Ronan’s No. 856.
His name is also included among the 29 men and women listed on a plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in memory of BAS team members who lost their lives in the Antarctic. Tom Allan also has the distinction of having a peak in the Traverse Mountains south of Stonington named is his honour – Mount Allan.
z The stone carving can be viewed in the garden, a little way down the hill from the well. A small display, outling Tom Allan’s life and the making of the memorial, can be seen at the visitor centre which is open weekdays from 10am-1pm and 2-5pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 2-5pm.