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PICTURES: Looking back at 60 years of underwater adventures with Caithness Diving Club – once known as Thurso Sub Aqua Club


By John Davidson

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The Railway Wreck, SS Aase, at Brims Ness, west of Thurso.
The Railway Wreck, SS Aase, at Brims Ness, west of Thurso.

This year has been Caithness Diving Club's Diamond Jubilee year. The then Thurso Sub Aqua Club was formed in the town in 1961 but the founding members had to travel back and forth to Inverness to do the basic pool training as there was no swimming pool in Caithness.

Training within the club was initially done on a 'trickle down' basis, with more experienced members taking the role of instructors for new members.

After Thurso Swimming Pool opened in May 1967, initial training could be done locally. 'Trickle down' instruction continued to train succeeding generations of Caithness divers until the 1990s when health and safety and insurance changes meant that properly trained and 'ticketed' club instructors had to be in charge of novice training.

The club managed OK with this until a few years ago, when it ran out of active club instructors. It is therefore not currently in a position to offer novice training to new divers, but is looking into ways of changing this situation.

The equipment that amateur divers had access to in the early days was primitive by modern standards and a lot of home-made or cobbled equipment was pressed into service.

Skate at Holborn Head, with a diver for scale.
Skate at Holborn Head, with a diver for scale.

The late George Gibson, one of the club's founding members, told club chairman David Steele once that ex-RAF aircraft oxygen cylinders were popular in the early days as diving cylinders (filled with compressed air, of course) – they were referred to as 'torpedoes' because of their slender shape.

The club diving cylinders in the mid 1970s were ex-fire brigade breathing apparatus cylinders. The club's compressor in those days also had a fire brigade origin, having been bought from Dounreay when an old compressor was being replaced.

Wetsuits were typically home made as well, and not exactly 'made to measure' so were not very warm. This was not too much of a problem as the air cylinders available were small and only allowed fairly short or shallow dives.

The regulators available then made breathing hard work, especially as you went deeper. These days, most local divers stay dry and warm in a drysuit, although a few members still use wetsuits, which are much warmer than they used to be and are better referred to as semi-dry suits.

Group photo of club divers at Rhu Corrie, Portskerra.
Group photo of club divers at Rhu Corrie, Portskerra.

In the 1960s, the club bought a wooden hut on Riverside from Thurso Cage Bird Society and this was the club's headquarters until a more substantial hut was built on an adjacent site by a couple of members in the early 1980s. This hut was used until 2009, when the club – whose name was changed in 2001 to Caithness Diving Club to give it a more inclusive feel – moved to its current premises in a unit on Neil Gunn Drive. This houses the club's compressor, equipment and also the club's boat, Hagar, and has such luxuries as a kitchen and toilet, as well as an upstairs meeting room.

In the early days, up until the 1980s, club divers were regularly asked to assist the police or Coastguard in search and recovery operations. A notable example occurred in October 1969 when a Belgian trawler, De Haai, with a wire round its propellor, was being towed to Scrabster by another Belgian trawler, Massabielle, where club divers George Gibson and Billy Stewart were on standby to clear the obstruction.

The tow line was dropped in Thurso Bay and strong winds drove both vessels ashore at Thurso East. Gibson and Stewart, seeing the boats heading for the rocks, were first on the scene and tensioned the De Haai's cables so the crew of six could crawl down the cable hand-over-hand. When the coastguard arrived, the divers stabilised the shore end of the cable and assisted the De Haai's crew through the surf.

Compass Jellyfish, Loch Inchard.
Compass Jellyfish, Loch Inchard.

The divers clung to the surging cable in the deeper surf and all got ashore uninjured. George Gibson and Billy Stewart were awarded the Alan Broadhurst Gold Medal for their bravery.

Not all these jobs had such a good outcome, though. Billy Stewart was the diver who, in March the same year, had entered the upturned hulk of the Longhope Lifeboat to recover the bodies of the crew after it was towed into Scrabster Harbour from mid-firth.

Billy was the last remaining founding member of the club, but sadly he passed away just a few weeks ago, having continued diving into his 80s and becoming Scotland's oldest diver.

The active club membership has gone up and down over the years, but has been low in the recent past, partly due to not being able to train divers within the club. Previously trained divers are always welcome, but the club is in need of an influx of a new generation of young divers to take the club forward into the next few decades. The current club chairman, David Steele, is the longest serving current club member, having joined in 1975.

The number of surfers to be seen at Thurso East shows that there is no shortage of interest in sea-based watersports locally. Caithness Diving Club can add another dimension and open up the undersea world in an area with some of the best diving in the UK.

Diver beside the boiler of the Isleford, an RFA ammunition ship wrecked in Wick Bay during the war. The Red Ensign and plaque were placed by local divers in memory of the crew who were all lost.
Diver beside the boiler of the Isleford, an RFA ammunition ship wrecked in Wick Bay during the war. The Red Ensign and plaque were placed by local divers in memory of the crew who were all lost.

The club always welcomes divers past and current. Subject to numbers interested, it is possible to bring in an instructor to get a batch of novice divers through basic training. This is being looked into at the moment but is not helped by the ongoing uncertainties associated with the pandemic, but Mr Steele hopes to be able to kick-start things in the new year and get some new divers on the way to what he hopes will be a long association with the mainland's northermost diving club.

The club was originally affiliated to the British Sub Aqua Club, as Branch No.119, but members from other diving agencies were always welcome. Latterly, the balance of membership was such that, in 2017, it became an independent diving club. Any training within the club, in the future, will be under either the British (BSAC) or Scottish Sub Aqua Club (SSAC) schemes, both of which are recognised worldwide as Sport Diver qualifications.

For more details on Caithness Diving Club activities and to contact the club, see www.facebook.com/CaithnessDivingClub

The club is also keen to see if any former members have photographs of club activities that they would be willing to share for its archives. Emails can be sent to caithnessdivingclub@gmail.com

Club members on Hagar in Stroma Harbour.
Club members on Hagar in Stroma Harbour.
Diver entering the wreck of the Tabarka, a Scapa Flow blockship.
Diver entering the wreck of the Tabarka, a Scapa Flow blockship.
Divers in Geo of Sclaites, Duncansby Head.
Divers in Geo of Sclaites, Duncansby Head.
Squat Lobster, Loch Inchard.
Squat Lobster, Loch Inchard.
Diver beside the boiler of the Dromara, wrecked near Brig o'Trams.
Diver beside the boiler of the Dromara, wrecked near Brig o'Trams.
Preparing to dive in the Gloup, Stroma.
Preparing to dive in the Gloup, Stroma.
Mike Russell at the bow of the trawler Briarbank, which sank in Loch Erribol in the 1960s.
Mike Russell at the bow of the trawler Briarbank, which sank in Loch Erribol in the 1960s.

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