The crazy world of Edinburgh Monarchs' speedway legend Bert Harkins
HE WAS known the world over for his signature tartan leathers and Tartan Tammy, but despite his worldwide appeal, for international speedway star Bert Harkins, there was only ever one team he really wanted to ride for... the Edinburgh Monarchs.
A club legend, the rider affectionately known to the fans as ‘Haggis’ or ‘Bertola’ was just 22 when he got his big break at Old Meadowbank Stadium.
Now 77 years young, he recalls, “But it took me a long, long time. Back then, Meadowbank was the only track in Scotland and there were another 30 or 40 novices all trying to get a ride.
“You’d turn up and, if you were lucky, you might get four laps in after a meeting was finished, but sometimes, if it was running late, the old care-taker would switch the lights off; you’d be half way around and suddenly find yourself riding in darkness,” he laughs.
It’s just one of the many memories brought to mind while writing his new autobiography, My Crazy Speedway World.
Crazy is a good word; for the uninitiated, speedway is a team sport raced on 500cc bikes, that have no brakes and a fixed gear, on a shale track.
Born in Govan, in a fire station (but that’s another story), Robert Pearson Harkins was first selected to race for the Edinburgh Monarchs in September 1962.
“I got the call up to ride in an away match when one of the riders was injured, I think it was Alf Wells,” he says.
“I thought, ‘That’s good, I’m in the team at last’. But when I came back to Edinburgh Alf was back and I was dropped.”
A year later, Bert donned the blue and gold race-jacket once more, albeit briefly, not securing a permanent team place until 1964 after he beat George Hunter and Trevor Redmond, two of the top riders of the day, in an individual meeting.
Racing at Old Meadowbank was “quite fantastic”, he reveals, “The crowd stood right beside the wooden safety fence and it was always packed.
“When you were coming out of the pits at the start of a race you could shake hands with people as you went. They were that close.”
Ian Hoskins, then promoter of the sport in the Capital, would also ensure unique interval attractions added to the fun.
“There were Beauty Pageants, pie-eating contests, people jumping off towers into ‘puddles’ of water, and, regularly, Ian would burn his hat,” remembers Bert.
“Another time, it was Beat the Goalie. Ian came out dressed as a goalie with huge gloves and each member of the team had to try to score a penalty. You got £1 if you did.”
On another occasion, it was an unsuspecting pipe band that found themselves part of some unplanned entertainment.
“At one international meeting, Ian had a pipe band marching around the track.
“After the interval, I lined-up with fellow Monarch Reidar Eide for the next race.
“The referee didn’t realise the pipe band were still on the track when he started the race.
“We just saw them as we dropped our clutches... all I could see were drums and bagpipes being thrown over the fence and the band diving after them.
“Everybody saw what a Scot wore under his kilt that night.”
Back in the days when most riders still had day jobs to pay the bills (Bert’s was in the Parks’ Department), even getting to a match could be an adventure.
“I used to travel back and forward from Old Meadowbank on my motorbike and sidecar, chugging along the A8 with my speedway bike in the sidecar,” he laughs, adding, “Speedway is a lot more professional now, but some of the fun has gone.”
Old Meadowbank closed at the end of 1967, and it would be a full decade before speedway returned to the Capital.
In the meantime, Bert continued to ride at Coatbridge, Wembley and in far sunnier climes such as Australia and California, where he would frequently take to the track for the pre-match parade wearing a kilt over his leathers.
“That came about in Australia where, initially, nobody knew me. A little bit of a gimmick like that helped get you extra rides,” he laughs.
When he arrived back in the UK from one such overseas trip in 1977, there was a surprise awaiting him, Edinburgh Monarchs were back, racing from their new home at Powderhall Greyhound Stadium.
Better still, they wanted Bert to be the team captain.
“The lure of returning to where it had all started for me was too much to resist.
“The captaincy meant a lot. I’m from Glasgow, but Edinburgh is very special to me, to be Captain of the Monarchs was a really big honour.”
There was just one problem, Bert was now based some 400 miles away in Hertfordshire.
“It was lucky I enjoyed travelling,” he laughs, recalling the occasions he’d put his bike and gear in the Guard’s Van and travel up to Edinburgh by train.
“After the meeting, I’d get the Night Sleeper back down. My wife Edith would be waiting at the station in the morning with the car and we’d load up for the next meeting,” he recalls.
Of course, in speedway, you have good times and bad, and Bert suffered injuries, as every rider does. He credits his sense of humour for helping him through the rougher times.
“I broke my leg three times, my collar bone, but my back was the worst one - I had to lie flat on my back for three months in hospital...”
Reflecting for a second, he adds, “Someone sent me a photo from Powderhall, of me being carried off on a stretcher, face down with my helmet off. Very unusual.
“To this day I have no recollection of what that accident was, so it must have been a bad one.
“But you just have to be able to pick yourself up and carry on. It helps if you can look on the bright side of life.”
Unlike today, when strict health and safety regulations ensure track conditions must meet a certain standard, in Bert’s time riders often found themselves donning waterproofs and racing in mud-baths.
“You had to do that because once the fans were in, you had to support them,” he insists.
“When it was wet, sometimes riders would do a couple of races and then pull out, but the thing is, once your bike and yourself are all dirty, you might as well keep going.
“The throttle works two ways, you don’t always have to have it fully open”.
Approaching 40, Bert last rode for Edinburgh in 1978, sad to leave, he knew he coming towards the end of his career.
“Monarchs’ fans and teams have always had a special bond,” he says. “That still means a lot to me and I still try to see the team when they are riding down south.
“It’s nice that people still talk to me and reminisce about the past, as I said, I may be from Glasgow but Edinburgh will always be very special to me.”
My Crazy Speedway World, by Bert Harkins, is published by London League Publications Ltd, priced £14.95, and is available from http://www.llpshop.co.uk for £14.50 post free in the UK