To many in Edinburgh and beyond, Ronnie Leask was known as the knowledgeable captain of the MV Gardyloo, the famous tanker that took people on pleasure trips around the Forth while discreetly relieving itself of the waste it was transporting from the capital’s sewers. But this experienced and capable captain already had adventures at sea that would render a lesser man a committed landlubber.
After losing his mother at a young age and with his father working offshore, Ronnie was brought up by his aunt and uncle, Chrissie and Arthur Double, often helping out on Arthur’s trips to sea as a trawlerman.
Setting his sights on joining the Merchant Navy, Ronnie studied at Leith Nautical College before getting a job as an apprentice with shipping company Runcimans on the MV Fernmoor.
However, on just his second voyage, a routine trip between Japan and Australia after leaving Tilbury in Essex, the ship hit a reef and sank in unchartered waters in the South China Sea.
The 36-strong crew spent a day adrift in the blazing sun in two poorly maintained lifeboats which they had to bail out continuously before being rescued by The Liberal, a timber ship. There was nowhere on board for them to lie other than on the logs – hardly the level of comfort you’d hope for after such an ordeal. The next day they boarded the Tomajeeras oil tanker and were back on dry land in Singapore a few days later. In the late 1970s he became first mate on the MV Gardyloo, the sludge vessel acquired by the then Lothian Regional Council. The ship would dump sewage into the Forth at specific times so that the tides would wash the effluvia out to sea. Ronnie was quickly promoted to captain, and became well known for acting as a tour guide and wildlife expert for passengers on each trip.
Shortly before the Gardyloo was taken out of service in 1998, Captain Leask expressed regret that she had never received a royal warrant, saying: “We’ve been taking Holyrood Palace’s sewage all these years. I think she’s earned the warrant after 20 years providing a service to her Majesty,” although he would receive recognition himself, becoming an MBE for services to public sanitation in 1999.
Ronnie Leask was a proud Scot with a broad, international outlook, and was a passionate supporter of Scottish independence. He passed away at home in Edinburgh on 2 February, after suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and daughters Fiona and Catriona. There will be no funeral as, in his final act of generosity, he donated his body to medical science. Instead, people are invited to make donations to the PSP association which is working to make life easier for those with the condition in his honour.