I was hoovering dustballs off a bookshelf the other day when I found my Scottish Sub-Aqua Club diving log. I don’t know if you’ve come across the 2014 Underwater Photographer Of The Year winners in your Facebook wanderings yet.
Golden seahorses spitting out their young; giant steel-blue manta rays gliding overhead like Star Wars spacecraft. Well, diving in Scotland’s nothing like that. It’s cold. It’s scary. And most of the fish are 50 shades of grey.
That said, learning to dive is still the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.
I was never the best diver – that accolade goes to Saulius Mikoliunas, formerly of Hearts – but I saw enough in my 143 minutes of accumulated underwater time to know that shore diving off St Abbs in a Michelin Man outfit can be just as thrilling as an open water descent in a shortie suit in the blood-warm Indian Ocean.
“Wore a very tight suit and undersuit. Very uncomfortable at the neck. Mask not clearing efficiently. Felt nervous throughout dive.”
If I’d known what was about to happen to me on my first St Abbs dive I would’ve been more than nervous. I might’ve wet my dry-suit. Sonny Hunter, the dive leader, beckoned me to follow her through an underwater forest of giant kelp.
She twisted and turned like a seal and I struggled to keep up because my mask kept flooding. She vanished round a corner and I panicked. I kicked forward and felt one of my rubber fins loosening.
I got my foot tangled in kelp, broke free and burst into a clearing. There was Sonny, jabbing two fingers at her eyes, telling me to watch closely. She pulled a black, spiny sea-urchin off a rock and held it in the palm of her hand. My head turned in the direction of her arm. In front of us both was a dark cavern with a scattering of light sand in front of it covered in fragments of sea-urchin shell. A big head, all mouth and eyes, appeared from the cave. The mouth opened, revealing a nightmare of snaggly white teeth.
The creature shot forward, inhaled the whole sea-urchin and rippled back into its grotto. This was the notorious Wolf-Fish of St Abbs. I pointed excitedly at the cave entrance and turned to Sonny. She held up four fingers. “Wow, there are four more in there,” I thought.
Misunderstanding your dive leader’s sign language can be dangerous. What she was trying to tell me was “Mind your fingers, stupid!” I turned back just in time to see our friendly wolf-fish, jaws agape, about to scrunch my bare right hand. I whipped my arm away and it fled. Next day, I bought a pair of dive gloves.
St Abbs divers have had close encounters with another ugly beast, the angler fish which can weigh up to 25kg. Sometimes they swim all the way up to the surface and pull a seagull under. Who’s the alien down there, you or them?
But on a summer’s day with sunlight shafting through glass-green water, dappling the kelp fronds, wee ballan wrasse following you about like pet dogs and seal pups nibbling at your flippers, there’s nothing to beat it.
Diving’s something we can all try and some of the best dive sites in Britain are just 45 minutes down the A1. You can start at any age or stage. One of my mates took it up after a triple heart bypass, aged 40. Two of my fellow trainees were in their sixties.
The training in Scotland is so highly-rated that once you qualify, you can dive anywhere in the world. I took my own daughter on a dive in Menorca when she was just 11 years old.
You’ll do most of your learning in a local Edinburgh swimming pool until you’re ready for the real thing. To find the club nearest you, google http://www.scotsac.com/.
Gentleman Jim a Lion in jungle full of false idols
Set your politics to one side for a moment and think about Winston Churchill. No other wartime leader ever did more for his country. He pulled Britain alive from the rubble of Nazi defeat. He was a painter, a writer, a bricklayer and a faithful lover of his darling Clementine. Now think of Nigel Farage, the idle, racist lounge bar bore, pictured in America the other day chomping a fat cigar, trying to look Churchillian but coming across like a cheap Chicago gangster.
The Ukip leader is as much a product of our celebrity culture as vile ex-Apprentice star Katie Hopkins, another bottom feeder in the shallow sea of fame. These people become famous for saying nasty things about other people.
Real heroes are hard to come by in the mass media. Pauline Cafferkey, the Scottish nurse (or “sweaty jock” as Katie Hopkins called her) was just one of dozens of British nurses and aid workers who risked their own lives to save people with Ebola in Sierra Leone. Were there any heroes like that at the Brit Awards? Well, maybe Madonna earns an honourable mention for getting to her feet after a bad fall and continuing to prance around on stage in a silly cloak surrounded by half-naked men wearing horns on their heads.
On the football field, our idols can flip from game-saving hero to pantomime villain in seconds. It’s as if your personal fame and fortune makes it OK to sink your teeth into an opponent’s shoulder.
It made my day, then, on the afternoon of Celtic’s return match with Inter Milan, to meet a real hero having a quiet meal with his wife in an Edinburgh pub.
Jim Craig, below, was the elegant right back in Celtic’s “Lisbon Lions”, the first British football team to win the European Cup. I didn’t want to pester him while he was having his lunch. But I knew how much pleasure it would give my bedridden dad if I could tell him I’d shaken his footballing hero’s hand. I was soon chatting away to a lovely, modest man.
Like his team-mates back in 1967, Jim Craig was earning £30 a week (Gareth Bale earns £300,000 a week at Madrid). The Lions were each on a £1500 win bonus.
Craig himself was both villain and hero in the game. He gave away a penalty for Inter’s goal but redeemed himself by laying the ball off to Tommy Gemmell for Celtic’s equaliser. Every single one of those players came from in or around Glasgow. They were ordinary working men who did something extraordinary.
I asked Jim if the story about the players’ teeth was a myth. “No, it’s true”, he said, “Ronnie Simpson stood at the tunnel entrance as we trooped out and half a dozen of us took out our false teeth and put them into his goalie cap which he laid in the back of the goal. When the final whistle went and the pitch got invaded all we could think of was getting our falsers back so we didn’t have toothless grins in the paper the next day.”
Before we shook hands and parted he had a kind word for Hibs fans too. “Hibs tried to play attacking football against us, they never parked the bus. My Dad was a Hibby. He always said to me before Hibs-Celtic games, ‘Go easy on the Hibs, son’.”