This time I’ve met our companion for this Futureoftheocean interview outside LinkedIn. Not the first time, not the last time.
Sometimes people are born for a professional and better said for a life passion… These people simply know this, no questions asked, and they just walk on their way.
Mr. Stanley (Stan) Bruce is a well-known personality of North East Scotland. He is a reputable and highly respected professional, but also a writer and a bard of the local history… and not any history, especially the maritime history.
Mr. Bruce contributed at many cultural developments in this area from sculptures to cultural events, every time finding time and sometimes an inspired poetry, but his opera magna are the 16 volumes (to date) of maritime history, dedicated to the shipbuilding of Aberdeen, Scotland.
14 of the 16 volumes and more (his great industrial poetry) can be found here:
Let’s now finish the introduction and start discovering the man.
As every time in Futureoftheocean interviews let’s start with the beginning.
What could you tell us about the beginnings?
As a young lad, I was naturally good at maths and technical subjects, so it didn’t really matter that the primary school I attended wasn’t the best in town. I did quite well anyway. I started my first job at 10-years old, a paperboy, morning and evening, 6-days per week. At 13-years I worked Saturdays in a local fish yard, and aged 15 in the local supermarket. Many evenings and weekends, tide dependant, were spent collecting whelks on the shore.
Despite my part-time jobs I sailed through the technical subjects: Arithmetic, Mathematics, Physics, Technical Drawing and Engineering Science, all A’s.
I had an honourable B for History and an acceptable C for Geography but, a poor D for English, probably would have got an A for Doric, but that wasn’t on the curriculum (Stan smiles candidly)…
Since we’ve mentioned the Doric, in the picture assigned to this paragraph is me with the ‘king of doric’ himself Robbie Shepherd. I was born in Aberdeenshire, the land o’ the Doric so I will keep Doric with me and support it to my best.
When did you start working in the maritime industry?
I joined Hall, Russell Ltd., Shipbuilders, in Aberdeen aged 16-years…I applied for an apprenticeship as a joiner, but while waiting to do the trade test, the instructor saw my school qualifications and I ended up in the Chief Ship draughtsman’s office (the late James Fraser) for an interview, where there and then I, got the job as an apprentice ship draughtsman. This was the first step in my maritime career; at the time it felt as if it was meant to be, like fate brought me to this point.
The first ship I saw launched in Hall Russell’s (HR), when I was 16-years old was ‘HMS Leeds Castle’ (P258), 29th October 1980. Sitting out of the water, all vessels look a lot bigger, and she undoubtedly looked big to me, certainly when comparing her to the fishing boats I was used to seeing berthed in Fraserburgh Harbour.
I spent four weeks in the HR training centre, learning the basics of welding, plating, and burning. Occasionally we would venture through the yard pulling a cart to collect scrap and welding rods for use in our training.
I remember the first time I saw steel plates being cut on a 1/10th scale burning machine
If you like to live the thrill of the boy seeing first time the sparks of the steel cut, please listed Stan reading his poem “The first cut”.
I also remember a young journeyman shouting over to us “It’s Donkey Day”, I asked him what he meant, and he said, “You’re like a donkey pulling that cart, and a donkey knows as much about shipbuilding as you do”. I said, “Did you go to the training centre as well?” “Yes” he replied, and I said, “And now you’ve learned enough to be an Ass”. One thing about the shipyards was the banter, you had to laugh it off and give as good back. Some of the youth of today take things far too seriously, don’t take things to heart and jokingly give as good back without being hostile.
My first week as an apprentice Ship Draughtsman in the drawing office was spent, writing capital letters and numbers on film using a BIC biro (pen), this was to improve my hand-writing. Letters were allowed to lean forward a little but not backwards, at the end of the week it felt like my hand was going to drop off, but my hand-writing had improved somewhat. There was no CAD in HR in 1980.
As an apprentice Ship Draughtsman, I attended day-release classes, but unlike the other apprentices in the shipyard who went to Aberdeen College, I had a 200-mile round trip on the train once a week to Kirkcaldy College of Technology. This was the nearest college that taught Naval Architecture / Shipbuilding. Of the 48 students from Rosyth Dockyard, Hall Russell, Henry Robb, and Robb Caledon shipyards who attended on the first day, only seven, including myself got their HNC after the four years. It was tough getting up early to catch the 6am train, and not getting back to Aberdeen till around 10pm if the train was on time, sometimes it was midnight, a long day, but I knew it would be worth it in the long run, just had to grin and bear it. My first wage was £24, my digs were £16, lunch £1 per day and my return bus ticket home for the weekend was £5, leaving me minus £2 after working all week, those were the days.
As I said, the first vessel I saw launched in the yard was ‘HMS Leeds Castle’, she was the first of two patrol craft of this design, the other being ‘HMS Dumbarton Castle’.
If you like to live the thrill of the boy seeing first time the launch of a vessel, please listed Stan reading his poem “The Launch”.
Preceding this HR had bult seven Island Class patrol vessels, one of which ‘HMS Guernsey’ later spent many weeks in HR drydock after running aground near Aberdeen, what a mess her bottom was, but we repaired her and she had many more years in service, sold to Bangladesh in 2004.
In the shipyard drawing office in the early 1980’s there were more apprentices than journeymen, at one point there was four apprentices to every journeyman, the oil and gas industry was paying big money, and many served their time and left. One thing I learned was do the simple jobs well, and it’s not long before you’re trusted to do something more challenging. We all would like to get stuck into the serious work, but you just had to work your way up from doing the menial jobs.
After completion of the Castle Class vessels, we built the offshore supply vessel ‘Seaforth Viscount’, five Peacock Class patrol vessels for use in Hong Kong, ‘HMS Peacock, Plover, Starling, Swallow and Swift’, then three Sal Class mooring and salvage vessels‘RMAS Salmaid, Salmaster, and Salmoor’.
Aged 21-years I was appointed as Trainee Assistant Manager, and two-years later I became Assistant Ship Construction Manager. At this age I was so keen, and eager to grasp any opportunity that arose; anything that needed done, I was up for the challenge, sea trials, steelwork fabrication, outfitting, ship-repair, electrics, machinery, you name it, I wanted to learn about every aspect of shipbuilding. I spent time in all departments, even 6-weeks in the planning department. During a spell when not much construction was going on, I spent about a month back in the drawing office scrutinising drawings, learning the draughtsmen what I had learned in the yard, which led to a lot of improvements in efficiency. James Milne the Managing Director (MD) at the time started as an apprentice Ship Draughtsman, so did John Wright MD before him. Maybe I could rise to be the same. I signed up for evening classes in Computer Aided Draughting (CAD), then I did and evening class in Welding Inspection and Quality Control, and then a BSc in Mechanical Engineering that I passed with distinction. I was learning at work, at evening classes, and most of all making a good impression on the management team. Every day was a school day. To the youth of today, I say listen to your elders, learn from them, and learn what you can yourself, it’s much easier these days with the internet, use it to your advantage, don’t waste your time on social media when you can use the web to gain knowledge.
I was fortunate that I did a lot of drawings for the Sal Class vessels, and when I left the drawing office and oversaw their construction, I already knew the vessels well, foremen who had been in the yard 20 or 30 years before me would ask me many questions on their build and were amazed when I gave them the solutions they were looking for, I heard one call me a ‘Whizz Kid’ a popular expression used at the time. On these vessels I also saw the steel construction, the outfitting and sailed on them on sea trials, I was fortunate to have experienced the complete shipbuilding process from the first line drawn on film to the hand-over to her owners.
I started the BSc in Mechanical Engineering course in evening classes, when I was still at Hall, Russell, basically to gain knowledge in engineering and electrical to compliment my shipbuilding / naval architecture knowledge. It was supposed to be three years for the HND, followed by another 2-years for the BSc, two evenings per week 6-9pm. It was tough going, working full-time, attending evening classes, studying and doing course work. By the time I had completed the HND, I was now working on the Elgin platform new-building project at Nigg in the Highlands and found it impossible to be in Aberdeen two evenings per week, however the University allowed me to do one evening per week instead, but over 4-years. It took a bit longer, but it made it possible. The exams taken were the same as the ones taken by the full-time students. I’m glad I did this course, I met a lot of guys that were prominent or became prominent in the oil and gas industry, and through these associations I landed DNV a large contract for three offshore assets that DNV retained for 20-years.
When you go to school or university, I believe it’s all about learning how to learn, that’s why the teacher/lecturer gives you homework, this is you learning how to learn. I believe the better you are at this, the better an engineer you can become. Pick up codes and standards that are relevant to your work, read them, get familiar with them, highlight areas, make notes, this is how to gain knowledge.
Times have changed and you moved from the shipyard to DNV and in February 2021 you marked 30 years with this company.
What could you tell us about this experience?
A lot has changed in 30-years, young engineers starting at DNV today will find things a lot different. When I started, I had no mobile phone, no computer. Most reports were hand-written and passed to the secretaries for typing-up. There was only 18 members of staff in the Aberdeen office when I started.
I fitted in very quickly at DNV, I guess my 10.5 years in the shipyard stood me in good stead, and I had dealt with Lloyds, DNV, BV, BoT / DTI surveyors, so I knew how they operated. I thought these surveyors had good jobs, but I didn’t really think about a job at DNV as up to that point in time I saw my future climbing the management tree in the yard, but the future of the yard became uncertain during 1990, and the Principal Surveyor who regularly visited the yard at the time thought differently, he knew me and what I was capable of, and asked why I hadn’t applied for a job at DNV and told me to apply to the advertisement in the Press that week. I was called for an interview, but it was more like a chat over coffee to discuss terms and conditions, I’m pretty sure they had already decided on giving me the job before I entered the room.
The oil and gas industry was a lot different to shipbuilding, I had to quickly learn new codes and standards, and about the different types of offshore equipment. To deal with jobs; essentially, I broke the job down into smaller elements, and I still do. Find a systematic way to do a job and you can apply it to anything. Think in your head, how is this built? What are the logical steps? Design review, materials, welding, NDE, PWHT, testing, painting, followed by the paperwork including calibration and personnel qualifications etc. One area that was considerably different was Hazardous Area Equipment, never had to deal with this in the shipyard, but after attending a COMPEX course this was no problem. It goes to show you can become multi-disciplined if you apply yourself, I was now structural/mechanical/electrical exactly what DNV needed.
Since I started my career in 1980, Aberdeen has changed a lot, often I would walk home along the harbour and check out the vessels in the harbour, something you can’t do now, since they erected steel fences all around it. The vessels in the harbour over the years gradually got bigger and more complicated, some of the large offshore vessels I would love to have seen built on the ways at Hall Russell, but sadly it wasn’t to be. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government sold Hall Russell as a small warship building yard, which meant we didn’t have access to any European funding to build merchant vessels, which I believe at the time was 28%, so we couldn’t compete, and there were no small warship contracts agoing. We continued in business with some conversion jobs including lengthening the ‘Buffalo’for P&O which was interesting seeing two halves of a ship floating in the harbour before we added the new mid-body section. The life-saver for the yard was supposed to be the contract for the ’St Helena’ ferry, however this to my mind was actually the final nail in the coffin.
The oil and gas industry from a surveyor’s perspective hasn’t changed that much, we apply the same principles to our work, we treat safety and quality as importantly as we have always done. However, there are obviously huge improvements in welding and materials and in technology, however a blow-out preventer from 1991 when I started at DNV is still recognisable today and many of them are still in use.
Oil and gas will be here for some time yet, however offshore windfarms are going up thick and fast, I heard recently that Scotland is heading to be in the fantastic position where it creates five times more electricity than it uses, I sincerely hope they find somewhere for it all to go. I have been involved with some windfarm jacket sea-fastenings, but these jackets were built in China and transported to Scotland, it’s a pity they weren’t built here.
For a little over 2-years I was seconded to STATOIL, Norway as their site representative at GE Oil and Gas, Aberdeen on the Snohvit subsea project in the Barents Sea. I oversaw the manufacture of the subsea trees and associated equipment. The reason I mention this is because, I now had worked for a manufacturer (HR), a third party (DNV), and an owner (STATOIL), I had now experienced working for all parties, and had enjoyed them all, however if I had to choose from the three, I would choose working for the owner, as this was to me the best experience. It was a lot like working for DNV, but with additional responsibilities (there was no third party on the Snohvit project).
I recall my first meeting with three members of the Snohvit team, I sat down and from the top of my head hand wrote 4 x A4 pages of what I needed to see on the project. A week later I moved into my client office at GE. About 3-months later, one of them said to me “That was some interview you had”, I said “What interview?”, he said “Remember when you wrote everything needed for the job on 4 sheets of paper”. “That was an interview” I said. “Yes” he replied, “We interviewed four others, but you stood out from them all”. I didn’t realise it was an interview, I thought we already had the job, and I conducted myself accordingly, perhaps that’s a good way to have an interview, go in believing you have already got the job, be confident and tell them exactly what you intend to do.
When during all this extraordinary professional trip and evolution you decided to write the maritime history of the North East of Scotland… and why?
During my time as an Assistant Manager at Hall Russell’s, I had a good friendship with the late Adam Leiper, the Electrical Manager, he had been in the shipyard I believe since 1947 and knew a lot of the yard history, of which we talked about many lunchtimes, or during any other free time we had. Adam collected a lot of information about the yard and was a member of the Aberdeen Town and County History Society. They published his book titled: ‘A History of Hall Russell Shipbuilders, A Lifetime Collection of Memorabilia, Research & Writings’ in 2007. This coincidently was around the same time I published my slim volume ‘Hall Russell Remembered’. My book evolved from a display in the ‘Visitors Corner’ of the Banffshire Maritime & Heritage Association (BMHA) premises in Duff Street, Macduff, I was chairman of the association at the time. It raised a few pounds for the association, and when the BMHA closed, the last 200 copies were donated to the RNLI in Aberdeen. I also donated to the RNLI ‘Hall’s lifeboat model’ (three feet long).
This model I acquired from the former Hall Russell Training Centre before it was demolished. When I acquired the model for the ‘Visitors Corner’ no one knew its history, however after some research I found that it was made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 as an entry to a competition organised by the Duke of Northumberland, for a new RNLI lifeboat design, the prize was 100 guineas (approx. £15,000 in 2020). The RNLI were delighted with the model, as they didn’t have any of the other 280 entries in their collection.
For a couple of years, I served on the committee of the Aberdeen Towns Partnership for Banff and Macduff as vice-chair, during that time hundreds of thousands of funding went into the community, including funding of the ‘Coast Festival of Arts’. Coast received tens of thousands to fund their annual event, and from this money every year nothing was left in the community, all the sculptures erected during the event were taken away, this annoyed me, as I would have liked to see one remain every year and we would have had a sculpture trail. So, I decided I’ll build one myself, and that’s exactly what I did.
So back to why – firstly I enjoy it, and secondly Adam before he died mentioned that I should continue what he had done, and a wife of a former work colleague from Hall Russell’s now in her 90’s said the same. So it’s “For love and duty”.
These amazing projects are your incontestable heritage.
How do you see the future of this project?
I will carry on building this up, I would also like to upload a spreadsheet of worker names, trades, dates employed etc. I have started this, but it may take a while before it’s presentable. I believe this will be an interesting resource for family history researchers. I’ll prepare it as much as I can, then look for public input.
The shipbuilder was like a father to sailor sons,
Who conquered the World.
Do you try attracting in this project young professionals?
What do you think that could be their story?
I believe the majority of young professionals don’t have much interest in the past, they may dip in and have a quick look, but I guess most won’t do not much else. There of course will be a minority who may be interested and those who like to hear a good story, but there’s so much else to look at these days, especially on the internet, so I understand why most have other things they wish to do.
My job is to get as much down on paper as possible, simply because the number of former shipbuilders of Aberdeen are dwindling and in the future there won’t be anyone from the yard left to do it. Besides, when I start something, I like to finish it.
It’s amazing what can crawl out when you look under rocks, in my book on the ship ‘Rifleman’ I uncovered information which may have solved the currently unsolved ‘Great Coram Street Murder’ which occurred in London on Christmas Day 1872.
I have also something what many maritime professionals and naval architects especially may find very interesting: the history of building concrete ships in Scotland. The idea of concrete ships is a recurrent one and this is my (minor) contribution to it – a page of history.
What are your closing words for this interview?
I suppose I was very lucky to have had such a good apprenticeship, and at such a young age being exposed to the daily tasks of management in a shipyard, I always look back on it fondly. The experience I had stood me in good stead during my 30-years as a DNV Surveyor, especially when I acted as Verification Engineer during the build of the 43,000 tonne Elgin Platform at Nigg, Scotland. This platform is unlike the conventional platforms consisting of a jacket and topsides, she was a huge jack-up built to similar methods to a ship. I certainly had a lot on my plate during her build, if I hadn’t had the shipbuilding back-ground I’ve no idea how I would have got on. The thousands of tripping brackets on the girders that I found to be missing, may still be missing to this day. There are great opportunities for young surveyors and engineers today in this ever-changing world, listen to your elders, read up on what you find interesting especially things related to your work that can help you with your career, knowledge is the key
I will continue with my research into ‘The Shipbuilders of Aberdeen’ and probably a little further beyond, as I have this year already ventured, until I have unearthed everything possible to unearth. Most of this history I have shared online freely, and I would urge others to do the same, if anyone has anything that is associated with shipbuilding or the ships built in Aberdeen, I’d love to see it, no matter how small or trivial it may seem.
2021 has been a very productive year for me, with seven volumes added to my maritime collection, four of these about Aberdeen shipbuilding, one about John Webster, Shipbuilder, Fraserburgh (1838 to 1887), one related to Grangemouth about the MV ‘Eddystone’ which was christened by my wife’s grandmother in 1954, and one about the first Banff and Macduff lifeboat (1860 to 1877). I must say I got a little bit side-tracked, but it was worth it. 2022, I’ll be back with more volumes about Aberdeen shipbuilding I’m currently working on Hall, Russell & Co., Ltd, in the 1930’s, there were many changes in that decade and several interesting vessels built. There’s so much to tell for the bigger shipbuilders in Aberdeen that I’m having to split it down into separate volumes for each decade. So far, I’ve just scratched the surface.
Learn how to learn,
Learn how to earn.
All pictures have been provided by Mr. Bruce.
The description of the picture in the order of occurrence on this page:
Stan aged about 2-years, at St Combs, Fraserburgh with his mother Margaret and his favourite toy, a boat.
“Since you mentioned the doric, here’s me with the ‘king of doric’ himself Robbie Shepherd.”
“About Hall Russel” (Hall, Russell Ltd. Brochure).
P258 ‘HMS Leeds Castle’. (Hall, Russell Ltd. Brochure).
Launch of the RMAS ‘Salmaid’ 22nd May 1986. (S. Bruce)
P239 ‘HMS Peacock’. (Hall, Russell Ltd brochure)
Stan on sea trials 1987
Stan Bruce at the Re-launch of the ‘Ballantine’ 3.15pm, 2nd June 1988.
Structural, mechanical and electrical for oil and gas all over the world
The launch of Yard No. 1000, RMS ‘St. Helena’1989. (Author is standing proudly on the bow). (A&P Appledore (Aberdeen) Ltd. brochure).
Huge improvements in welding and materials and in technology
Mr. Bruce as Statoil site representative
Three foot long, 1851 lifeboat model by Alexander Hall & Co., Aberdeen. (S. Bruce).
Peter Anson sculpture, Macduff unveiling by the Provost of Aberdeenshire, Designed and built by Stan Bruce. (Andy Taylor).
Book front page: Alexander Hall & Co
The book is here:
Book front page: Rifleman, Murderer on board
The book is here:
Book front page: Aberdeen Concrete Shipbuilding & Co
More local history - Picture with replica sword of the infamous James MacPherson aka the Highland Freebooter
Details about the sword are provided by Mr, Bruce below:
"This is a replica sword I got made to try and locate the sword used by the infamous James Macpherson aka the Highland Freebooter, who was hanged in Banff in 1700.
Macpherson’s Rant is a great song about him. The Corries-MacPherson's Rant, live recording! - Bing video
If you’re ever up to Newtonmore, just south of Aviemore have a look in the Clan Macpherson museum, check out the sword, I donated it to them along with framed needlework of the Macpherson clan badge. Clan Macpherson Museum - Newtonmore (clan-macpherson.org)"
Thermopylae 150 years - Gavin Gatt and Stan Bruce (Picture by Ricky Somerville 16 August 2018)
The book about Thermopylae and her builders Walter Hood Shipbuilders is here:
Copyright © 2018 Future of the ocean - All Rights Reserved.