After 40 years, Edinburgh’s longest-serving lifeguard has no plans to hang up his whistle

Robbie MacGregor in his lifeguard's chair
Robbie MacGregor in his lifeguard's chair
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It was a busy Saturday at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool and lifeguard Robbie MacGregor was, as usual, keeping a watchful eye.

Among the scores of people using the facility, he noticed a boy who seemed especially keen on the diving boards being watched by a smaller child standing at the poolside railings.

As he later discovered, they were brothers, whose parents had given them some money and told them to spend a couple of hours at the Commie.

And as was also soon to transpire, the younger boy, who eventually grew tired of watching his sibling, could not swim.

“The next thing, I saw a small body lying on the bottom of the deep end. In less than a minute I had jumped in and pulled him out, then I 
resuscitated him.

“The adrenaline rush is unbelievable when you realise someone’s life is in danger. You have only a few seconds to work out what is going on and then another few seconds to do something about it. The whole experience can be quite traumatic, but it doesn’t really hit you until afterwards. But that’s all part and parcel of our job. We always have to be 100 per cent aware of everything that’s going on. A situation like that could easily have been a fatality.”

Though Robbie remembers this particular rescue like it was yesterday, thanks to him that young boy probably has grown-up children of his own now, as the day his life was saved took place roughly 30 years ago. For with almost 40 years of service, Robbie MacGregor is the longest serving lifeguard in Edinburgh, and one of the longest in the UK.

Robbie, who turns 64 next month, said: “I just came for a swim once and liked it! I asked someone working there what I needed to do to become a lifeguard and I’ve stuck with it...since 1972!”

And Robbie says he has no plans to stop any time soon: “Technically I can retire a year this October, but as long as I’m fit and I still have the current qualification, I don’t see why – lifeguarding keeps me out of trouble.

“On my 60th birthday, the staff all got together and got me a big card filled with lots of little messages for me. It takes pride of place in my flat, it warms my heart.”

And with more people taking an interest in sport following the Olympics and in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, Robbie hopes to become even more indispensable.

“I’m so pleased we have such good facilities, and especially how far we’ve come in terms of access for disabled people. They should have as much opportunity to get down the gym as the next person.

“And I’m very proud of our Olympians and our Commonwealth Games prospects. One of the divers who I’m very keen to see do well is a guy called James Heatly. His grandfather Peter was an Olympian diver and was the first to do an exhibition dive off the ten metre board after the Commonwealth Pool first opened to the public. His grandson James used to train with the Edinburgh diving club. On the last day of public opening before the decommission and closure of the pool before the refurbishment I made sure he was the last diver to go off the ten-metre board. So it was like turning full circle.”

Robbie, who now works at the Warrender Swim Centre, which is closer to his home in Morningside, says he has lost count of the number of lives he has saved during his career.

“I never had children of my own, but I’ve looked after thousands over the years.”

And it’s not just human visitors he’s had to steer away from danger.

Robbie, who is also a wildlife enthusiast and has worked with the RSPB, recalls: “One of my favourite experiences was when a batch of penguins was brought in from Edinburgh Zoo so they could be filmed for a BBC documentary. The centre was closed to the public and the diving pool had been filled with fresh water. The main pool, which was empty, had been boarded off. So there were lots of penguins merrily diving about when suddenly this big king penguin jumped out, nosed through the boarding and made a beeline for the empty main pool. Luckily we managed to head him off – but it was a pretty close encounter.

“We had some job trying to round the penguins up once the film crew had finished. They’d been fed just before they got in so they’d have lots of fuel to make them as frisky as possible for the cameras.

“When it came time to get out and go back to the zoo, they were more interested in keeping on diving than any of the fish the keeper was trying to entice them with.”

An Edinburgh Leisure spokesman paid tribute to Robbie’s incredible service.

“Robbie has been an outstanding member of staff and an extremely dedicated lifeguard for almost 40 years. During this time, his commitment to the safety and wellbeing of our customers has been second to none. We would just like to say thank you to Robbie for carrying out his role with such pride over the years.”

10th anniversary cake

WHILE he has saved more people than he can remember, there are a couple of major rescues which will live with Robbie forever.

“One of the most critical happened way back in the late 80s and involved a lady called Mrs Wilkinson,” he says.

“She was liable to epileptic fits, but unfortunately didn’t tell any of the staff on duty that day. She had one while swimming and I had to drag her off the bottom of the pool. Her heart and breathing had stopped and we basically brought her back from the dead using CPR. She was kept in hospital for three days after that because of the amount of water that had gotten into her lungs.

“Imagine my surprise when ten years to the day after it happened she presented me with a cake to say thank you. It said, “Tenth Anniversary of You Saving My Life, Robbie”. I was absolutely over the moon.”

And it’s not the only time his work been praised. “There was an incident in the diving pool where a person injured their back and we had to go in with a spine-board.

“I suggested the team use aqua-fit belts to allow them to float while they were tending to the person, and my input meant I was recognised as part of the team that won an award.”

Taking the plunge to lifeguard training

Edinburgh Leisure employs 128 lifeguards, who are all assessed every two years to make sure their skills are still up to the standards set by The Royal Lifesaving Society UK.

Before even beginning training for The RLSS UK National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ), candidates must be able to meet the following basic fitness criteria: jump/dive into deep water; swim 50 metres in less than 60 seconds; swim 100 metres on front and back in deep water; tread water for 30 seconds; surface dive to the floor of the pool; and climb out unaided without ladder/steps where the pool design permits.

If a candidate can do all this, they then take a 38-hour course and are assessed in all aspects of lifesaving. They must demonstrate their knowledge of performing CPR on adults, children and infants. They are also questioned on laws, regulations and codes

of practice regarding lifesaving.