Fifty years ago Scotland’s own offshore pirate radio station closed down, bringing to an end a radio revolution which captured the hearts of millions.
“Radio Scotland” was the brainchild of Tommy Shields, a former PR man with STV who ran his own advertising agency.
In the summer of 1965, inspired by pirate pioneers such as Radio Caroline and Radio London, Shields purchased a former Irish lightship, the Comet, for 7,000 – and spent about three times as much adapting the vessel for use as a floating radio station.
Today, in an era of internet streaming and downloads, it seems an absurd way of serving the nation near-continuous pop music.
But the record companies back then had instituted “needle-time” restrictions, which severely limited the number of discs that radio stations were allowed to broadcast in an average week.
And with successive governments unwilling to licence radio stations other than the BBC’s, the pirates struck upon the idea of broadcasting from international waters where they were immune from British law.
Life at sea
Radio Scotland launched shortly before midnight on Hogmanay 1965, anchored in the Firth of Forth a few miles off the coast of Dunbar.
Within days the first boatload of mail reached the ship and there were soon sacks of letters and postcards addressed to the DJs.
Pirate radio may have made stars of the disc-jockeys but life on the waves was rarely glamorous.
At the age of 21, actor Paul Young from Edinburgh – better-known now as “Shug” in BBC Scotland’s hit comedy Still Game – was the first voice on the station. He was assured the Comet would be the last word in luxury.
“From a distance it looked alright,” he recalled. “But we got out there to find that we were on a floating tip, it was an absolute mess.”
Letters written by the late Jimmy Mack, who went on to work for the BBC and Radio Clyde, paint a vivid picture of life on the ship.
“The past couple of days have been really rough,” he told his wife. “Last night on the Lucky Dip show, I literally had to hang on to the [control] panel to avoid falling off the chair.”
But on rare summer evenings, sunbathing on the deck in calm waters, the experience was altogether more romantic.
“Later in the evening,” he wrote, “the ship was surrounded by a school of whales about half a dozen of them. And they put on quite a show, diving and turning and generally splashing about. There’s never a dull moment on the Comet.”
The average working schedule was two weeks on-board and one week off.
When they were back on land the disc-jockeys made personality appearances at the Radio Scotland “Clan Balls” around the country – in venues like Glasgow’s Locarno, McGoos in Edinburgh and the ice rinks at Inverness and Ayr.
These became the Scottish showcase for major British groups of the sixties such as The Kinks, The Troggs, The Searchers, The Animals and Manfred Mann.
Scottish groups got their share of the limelight too – Studio Six, The Poets and The Beatstalkers, for example.
“One has to remember it was the swinging sixties in London and that hadn’t quite reached Scotland yet,” explains Tony Meehan, then a 22-year old DJ.
“Radio Scotland gave this new free energy to listeners and broadcasters alike.”
Nevertheless, the station lacked the polished sound of Radio London and Britain Radio, which were largely backed by American money and American ideas.
Radio Scotland may have focused on chart music, but with Scottish country dance, easy listening, and religious programming part of the mix, it often sounded uniquely “couthy”.
Couthy or not, the death-knell had sounded for Radio Scotland barely seven months after it had begun.
On 27 July 1966, the government’s Marine Broadcasting Offences Bill had been presented to parliament, proposing to make it unlawful to operate, broadcast from or advertise on the pirate ships.
The Scottish National Party spoke for many when it described the bill as negative and ill-conceived. But it was the Scottish Young Conservatives who, a year later, rallied the masses with a huge demonstration at the Mound in Edinburgh.
The protests were to no avail. The Marine Offences Act came into effect at midnight on 14 August 1967, spelling the end for the pirates and for Tommy Shields’ vision of a radio station for Scotland.
On that last night 2,000 fans joined the staff of Radio Scotland for an emotional closedown party in Glasgow’s Locarno ballroom.
Meanwhile, out on the Comet, two DJs, Tony Allan and Mark West, remained on-board to broadcast farewell messages and play out pre-recorded programmes.
The last hour featured a eulogy from Tommy Shields, who promised listeners that Radio Scotland would be back in “one form or another”:
“We in Scotland have never accepted defeat lightly in the past. Although oppressed we have always come back to win. We are Scotland the brave. This is not good-bye, merely au revoir.”
Six years later Radio Clyde was launched as Scotland’s first licensed independent radio station – the same night the BBC, rather cheekily, rebranded their Scottish Radio 4 opt-out service “Radio Scotland”.
Shields, however, never lived to see his legacy. About six months after Radio Scotland’s closure, he died, aged 49.
Some suggested the stress of running a radio station against the odds had taken its toll – and that being robbed of his life’s ambition had left him a broken man.
But for 20 months his modest little boat made huge waves and pulled Scotland into the “swinging sixties”.
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