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With 87 stations across Scotland, supported by nearly 800 volunteers, today’s HM Coastguard plays a vital role in keeping people safe on the coastlines and at sea.
And with 2022 seeing events to mark the 200th centenary of the service, it was an appropriate time for long service medals to be presented in a ceremony at Mallaig Coastguard Rescue Team’s base this week.
The Mallaig station is part of HM Coastguard’s Area 18 (Western Isles, Skye and Lochaber) which covers a huge area stretching from Loch Linnhe to the Outer Hebrides and also taking in Skye and the Small Isles.
Area 18 is composed of six full-time duty officers who provide incident command, operational support and training and the 26 coastguard rescue teams staffed by some 200 volunteer coastguard rescue officers distributed across the area.
Members deliver a professional and specialised search and rescue service with their four main disciplines being lost and missing person searches, rope rescues, water rescues and casualty care.
As well as a statutory duty to respond to people in distress on the cliffs and shoreline of the UK, members are frequently called to deploy inland in support of other services for both emergencies (such as missing person searches) and resilience tasks (such as support during severe weather).
Monday night’s celebratory event was opened with a poem and reading by Rev Tom Ebbens, recently appointed as HM Coastguard’s first ever full-time national chaplain.
It was then over to Bill Speirs, HM Coastguard divisional commander for the Hebrides, to say a few words and then make the presentations.
Mr Speirs told the assembled group, which included family members as well as full-time coastguard staff members plus volunteer coastguard rescue officers (CRO), that he was delighted to be with them for the special occasion.
‘It makes me very proud to be a part of this organisation and I think you should all be very proud of yourselves as well,’ he said.
‘To some extent those in the coastguard are a little bit the unsung heroes, but there are very strong traditions and your commitment to service has been second to none.
‘I am very proud to be in charge of this particular group of people.’
He then presented 20 years’ long service medals and certificates to Kilchoan HM Coastguard Station members Hugh MacLachlan, Nan MacLachlan and Rosie Curtis.
There were also 20-year medals and certificates for Fort William Coastguard Rescue Officers Calum and Ewen Smith.
And 20-year long service medals and certificates also went to Salen station’s Jim Jackson.
There were also two recipients of the 30 years’ long service medal and certificate, with these being Salen’s Andrew Jackson, and Senior Control Operations Officer Martin Collins, of the Corpach station.
All long service medal recipients and a number of other CROs were also presented with Platinum Jubilee Medals.
Station officer Andrew Jackson has now been part of the Salen team for 37 years and has been joined by sons Jim and Tom and daughter Sue Sinclair, who all volunteer as coastguard rescue officers. Between them, the family has given nearly 80 years to the coastguard service.
He told the Lochaber Times his motivation for continuing to serve after nearly four decades with the coastguard.
‘It’s working as part of a team and working to put something back into the community, helping others by doing what you can do,’ he said.
‘I was originally in the fish farming industry so I had a skill set that was useful to this role. And with the three other family members now involved, it’s fantastic.’
Martin Collins is a full-time coastguard staff member, based at Corpach, where he is senior control operations officer.
Four years as an auxilliary coastguard at Lee-on-Solent were followed by Martin becoming a full-time member of the coastguard, with his first posting to the Clyde in 1992.
In 1999 he switched to Stornoway, where he remained until 2016, and then the move to Fort William.
Martin says it is the special combination of efforts between the full-time staff and the volunteers that makes the service so effective.
‘All the support that we get from local communities in this area – it is probably slightly more involved than elsewhere. There is a massive level of commitment from people here,’ he said.
‘Why do I still do it? I never really wanted what you might call a regular job. In this role I never know what I am doing from one day to the next.
‘I could come to the office in the morning thinking it might be paperwork to tackle and then five minutes later it could be a life-or-death situation that needs attention.
‘And on those days when you know you have made a real difference to someone’s life, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.’
Mr Speirs finds it difficult to put a finger on anything in particular that makes serving in the coastguard so special.
‘The people you work with are very down to earth. They don’t seek praise or recognition. They don’t really like medals or anything like that – for them it is about serving their communities.
‘And in some remote rural places, we are often the only emergency service there is if it is too remote for police and fire service stations.
‘We rely on the volunteers and their in-depth knowledge of their local areas and coastlines – they are the eyes and ears for our operation rooms.’