It’s All About The Oil – 1950s Style

I first came across the name of Tex Geddes when enjoying the life and works of Gavin Maxwell.  They had been colleagues during the war, part of Special Forces training, and that was their introduction to the magic of Scotland’s North-West seaboard, where both remained for the rest of their days.  Post war they were soon working together again, shark hunting.  Maxwell had bought the island of Soay as a base, but in the late 40s was forced out of the business.  Geddes went back in and eventually acquired some of Maxwell’s equipment, and finally the island itself.  Latterly the island had been owned by the Duke of Hamilton’s estates – the aristocratical Maxwell numbered the Duke amongst his backers.  In due course the Scottish Office planned to re-settle the Soay crofters on Mull, and Tex was left with the solitude he craved with his wife Jeanne and young son Duncan.

Hebridean Sharker tells of Geddes’ days hunting basking sharks the length of The Minch, from Barra to Stornoway, and around Erraid and Coll.  It was in Gruinard Bay that I first saw the monster, feeding, three black points, tail, fin and snout, giving evidence of the cavernous mouth inhaling plankton below the surface, just yards off the beach.  That was the day after Zidane’s world cup final if I remember correctly.  But it was 60 years earlier, in the immediate post war years when oil was at a premium, and the liver of the humble basking shark contained plenty of it, that our heroes went after the scores that then roamed The Minch.  Eventually, when the whalers began to get organised once again, in the early 50s, the price of shark oil plummeted.  By then the Norwegians had come to these shores creating a stushie over fishing within the three mile limit.  Tex had many a good night with a Norwegain skipper.  He had picked up a smattering of the tongue in joint operations with the Ling during the war.  One episode tells us of an early morning raid, in The Minch that is, not the war, nipping two sharks from the beneath the keels of half the Norwegian fleet after a night ending at dawn when the whisky and the schnapps were both gone.  The Norwegain skipper was asleep.

But there’s much more to Tex’s tales than boats and sharks, for we are taken to the hills, stalking deer, even the occasional bit of salmon poaching, trophies hidden in boxes of mackerel and stashed ashore before entering the harbour and the waiting police.

The shark season was through the summer months, and winters saw Tex taking a place on a herring boat, or going after lobsters.  The herring men were always keen to let Tex know where sharks were feeding, for they fed on the same plankton as the silver darlin’s, and destroyed many an expensive net.

The business was not without danger as the harpooned fish dragged the boat around for hours before the tow could eventually be put in reverse.  On one occasion Tex found himself in the water, thirty yards from the boat which had a shark on the end of the rope.  He was able to grab the rope and haul himself along it before getting back aboard.  But it was not that simple.

Hebridean Sharker is a cracking tale, available once again after being published this year by Birlinn; fast building a mighty catalogue of previously out-of-print works of Scottish interest.  It would make a fine addition to the Maxwell Collection, indeed that is probably incomplete without it, but my first sighting of the original 1960 hardback came with a price tag of a mere £375.  There are few around.  I see that Oxfam have one but wish me to add £200 to their coffers for the privilege of taking off their hands what they got for nothing.  One day…..

So if you find that granny has an old copy of Hebridean Sharker propping up the piano let me know.  Shifting the piano might be easier than getting approval at this end.  Meanwhile The Urchins had to go back to that fantastic bookshop in Biggar.  We had a call to say they had won a prize in the Where’s Wally competition.  I suspect they must have known that if they got me back down again the tills may just be ringing, so it was mama and granny that had a fine day out this time, much to the thrill of every other shop in town.  And there were still Lashings of Ginger Beer in the back seat.


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