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Tributes / Obituary: Tom Jamieson 1940-2023 – the man who will always been associated with Mousa boat

Tom Jamieson enjoying a mug of tea and some excellent home baking. Photo: Private

“HE WIS a ‘grafter’. He didna wait around for things to happen or for eidders to do things if he could mak them happen himsel. He wis very dedicated to whitever he did and had a great ‘drive’ wie him.”

That’s how Sandwick’s Steven Jamieson remembers and sums up his late father Tom Jamieson – personal traits that many within the local community, and beyond, will recognise of him and very much agree with –  coupled with Tom’s love and extensive knowledge of all things Shetland, including its history, heritage, culture and wildlife.

Tom – who recently passed away having lived with Alzheimer’s for the past five years – was perhaps best known as the original owner and long-serving skipper of the Mousa boat Solan – four different and increasing in size and capacity boats that carried the name while plying the route, with Tom at the helm, for over 40 years.

Since he first formally introduced the service in the early 1970s, and prior to retiring in 2011, Tom transported literally thousands of visitors and locals alike to and from Mousa – Shetland’s famous, and now uninhabited, small inshore island, located nearby Tom’s home in Sandwick.

Now a major tourist attraction, the picturesque little island is best known for its well preserved 2,000-year-old Pictish broch, together with unique colony of storm petrels – the world’s smallest seabird.

Throughout the summer months these tiny birds dramatically return en-masse to the island each evening at dusk, from their feeding activity at sea, to roost overnight and nest within the broch’s 13 metre high stone walls. For his part, Tom ran regular evening trips so that visitors could witness the birds noisy and spectacular return – a service still offered today by current Mousa Boats owners, father and son team, Rodney and Darron Smith.

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Steven tells me that Tom, together with his wife Cynthia, would regularly invite visitors into their home at Leebitton for ‘3 o’clocks’ (afternoon tea), offering them a taste of both Cynthia’s excellent cooking and Shetland’s famed local hospitality.

He also recalls that when he and his brother Stuart were younger, their parents would also let out two of the bedrooms in their three-bedroom house for B&B purposes during the summer months.

This meant that, as regards sleeping arrangements, the brothers had to “move in” with their parents during this time. Not only that, but the ‘front room’ of the house was also given over exclusively for guest use and, as such, not available to them either. “It wis a no-go area for wis during that time,” Steven laughs.

Through all this Tom and Cynthia built up long-lasting personal friendships and relationships with many of his/their clients from across the globe. Steven continues: “We’ve received cards and messages of sympathy from all over the world, not just from nearer at home, since dad died” – a clear indication of the personal impression Tom and Cynthia made on almost all those they met up with over the years and the regard with which Tom himself was held in. “They were a good team,” Steven says.

Born in Scousburgh in Shetland’s South Mainland in December 1940 – at the height of World War II – Tom didn’t look back on his schooldays and academic experiences in the Boddam school (primary years) and the Sandwick school (secondary) with any great level of affection – “he hated it,” Steven recalls.

Leaving school as soon as he could, with no formal qualifications, at the age of 15, Tom took up a post as a baker in the Central Stores in Sandwick – a job he held for over 20 years, eventually ending up as foreman there.

In 1966 Tom married Cynthia, having been introduced to her by a mutual friend in the perhaps less than romantic surroundings of Lerwick’s Viking car park.

However, as the islands oil boom gathered pace in the mid 1970s Tom elected to leave the baking trade and, together with several of his ex-schoolmates and friends, took a job as a fireman at Sumburgh Airport – instantly doubling his wages – while still retaining his Mousa Boat commitments.

At that time the airport was experiencing a huge and rapid increase in both infrastructural size and air traffic – primarily oil related flights – with Tom ultimately remaining with the fire service there until he retired, having achieved the rank(s) of leading fireman and then sub officer – carrying out a job he clearly loved.

His son Stuart – who followed in his father’s footsteps into the fire service there – is now the longest serving firefighter at the airport.

Following his retirement in 2011 Tom set about further enhancing and developing his Mousa ferry service, introducing new elements such as porpoise watching trips and viewings of the island’s breeding seal colony. His widespread local knowledge, especially of nature, together with the history of the island itself and Shetland in general, was exceptional, with many visitors benefiting from that.

Paying tribute to him, local wildlife tour operator Hugh Harrop said: “I had the privilege to work with and alongside Tom for many years since the mid-90s. He was such a lovely guy, always willing to go that extra mile. It was always lovely seeing him around Sandwick and the legacy that is Mousa Boat will always be there.”

Tom Jamieson assisting customers disembarking on Mousa. Photo: Shetland News

Current Mousa Boat operator Rodney Smith from Cunningsburgh agrees that the service will remain Tom’s main legacy. He recalls that as tourism in general in Shetland grew, and demand for related services increased in line with that, Tom had the “foresight” to continually develop the business taking this into account, usually well in advance of actual need.

Initially starting out running a small wooden boat that could carry just eight people, Tom eventually graduated to the existing vessel Solan IV which has seating for 60 passengers. Demand is now such that they often make up to five trips a day to and from the island.

But the Mousa service will only be one part, albeit a significant one, of Tom’s overall community legacy.

He was also very much involved with sailing and the Sandwick Boating Club, chaired the Sandwick Economic and Development Company (SEDCO) and was a founding member of the Sandsayre Pier Trust, with one of his proudest achievements being the pier renovation there, together with the wider community effort that ultimately realised that. In these respects alone Tom’s memory and contribution will clearly live on.

Although latterly having to live with the debilitating impact of Alzheimer’s, Tom never lost the recognition and recollection of his family – a “small mercy,” as Steven puts it, that they are very grateful for.

Our thoughts are now very much with Tom’s family – his wife Cynthia, sons Steven and Stuart and their wives and families, plus Tom’s younger brother Alan who now lives in Renfrew.

But I suppose it will be the Mousa boat and Mousa itself that Tom’s name will forever be associated with.

With that in mind let’s leave the final word regarding this to Hugh Harrop, who says: “Whenever I think of the Mousa Boat I will think of Tom’s smiley face, with his head out of the window of the boat. He’s a sad, sad loss.”

Davie Gardner

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