Queensferry RNLI stalwart celebrates 50 years of dedicated voluntary service
Thomas Robertson MBE was presented with his 50 years’ service medal by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Chair Janet Legrand during a station visit of the Operations Committee in October.
Tom has served in a number of roles at Queensferry RNLI, dedicating the majority of his life to the RNLI and saving lives at sea. Born in Perth, Tom moved to Queensferry in 1967, the same year that Queensferry RNLI Lifeboat Station was established, but it was a few years later, in September 1973, that Tom joined the volunteer crew.
Tom attended HMS Conway Cadet Training School in North Wales from 13 years of age going on to serve in the Merchant Navy as a deck officer for five years sailing all over the world but mainly between America, Australia and New Zealand. He returned from sea for family reasons. He then joined Edinburgh City Police serving as a Police Constable for five years.
It was whilst looking to have his own small motorboat berthed in the harbour in South Queensferry that led Tom to the lifeboat. He knocked on the door of the harbour master Jack Kersley, who unbeknown to Tom was also Queensferry Lifeboat Station Honorary Secretary, with his request for a berth when he was asked about his sea going experience. Tom stated what experience he had to which he was then asked if he was interested in joining the lifeboat crew. Having not really considered it before he was invited along to a training evening, signed up to join the volunteer crew and secured a berth for his boat in one go.
When Tom joined Queensferry RNLI, the Lifeboat Station was a wooden shed at the top of Hawes Pier which had previously been a ticket office for the ferry service prior to the opening of the Forth Road Bridge. An Atlantic Lifeboat, Angus, was on service at Queensferry RNLI following the withdrawal of a D class lifeboat the previous year.
Tom progressed as a crew member and became a helm in 1976, therefore able to take command of the lifeboat on exercise and services. By this point Queensferry RNLI had a new Atlantic lifeboat on service, Mary Livingston. It was on this lifeboat that Tom was the helm for one of the most dangerous call outs in the station's history.
In the early hours of 21 January 1980, the fishery protection vessel ‘Switha’ ran aground on rocks in the Firth of Forth. The weather conditions were treacherous, a force 8 gale wind was blowing, there was a large swell and it was snowing heavily, greatly reducing visibility. With three crew members on board, the lifeboat launched to the emergency call.
Constantly battered by heavy waves, by the time they neared Inchcolm Island one of the lifeboats’ engines was flooded with water and cut out. They managed around half a mile further before the second engine also cut out. Attempts to restart the engines were unsuccessful and the crew found themselves in grave danger, in the middle of the shipping channel, at risk of serious harm themselves. A helicopter had also been on route to the stricken ‘Switha’ but was delayed.
Quick thinking, experience and ingenuity saw the three crew take the foil blankets, used for keeping casualties warm, and wrap them around the A frame of the lifeboat to create a sail. They then managed to sail the lifeboat back towards the lifeboat station making it as far as Hound Point Oil Terminal where they were then towed by another vessel to Port Edgar as it was not safe to land at Hawes Pier with the weather conditions. The crew of ‘Switha’ were eventually rescued by helicopter.
Tom and the two other crew members received letters of thanks from the RNLI for their bravery shown during the rescue operation.
After stepping down from the crew duties with 15 years’ service, Tom took on the role of Deputy Launch Authority (DLA) in 1987. This role gave Tom permission to authorise the launch of the lifeboat and to provide leadership in the absence of the Honorary Secretary.
Following the death of Jack Kersley, Tom took on the role of Station Honorary Secretary, now known as Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM), in 1993 becoming only the second person to fulfil the role at Queensferry Lifeboat Station. By this time, Queensferry RNLI had moved into a new purpose built lifeboat station on the same site as the previous station and had an Atlantic 21 lifeboat on service, Constance McNay.
In 2010, Tom was honoured in Her Majesty The Queen’s Birthday Honours, receiving a Member, Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to the RNLI and Queensferry Lifeboat Station. He was presented with his MBE in December that year at Buckingham Palace by Prince Charles, now His Majesty The King. Tom recalls having a brief chat with him about minesweepers in Rosyth and the location of Queensferry Lifeboat Station.
One of Tom’s greatest achievements was overseeing the move from the old lifeboat station to the current one on Hawes Pier in 2012. The previous station, which is now South Queensferry HM Coastguard Station, had already been extended to accommodate an Atlantic 75 lifeboat, Donald and Ethel Macrae, which was placed on service in 1997. However with Queensferry RNLI due to get a new Atlantic 85 lifeboat a much bigger station was required.
The naming ceremony for the Atlantic 85 Lifeboat, Jimmy Cairncross, took place in November 2011 at Dundas Castle, whilst the new boathouse was under construction. The late Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip was in attendance as well as relations and representatives of the Cairncross Trust. Tom gave a speech on behalf of Queensferry RNLI.
Tom carried out his role as LOM with great leadership and pride for 20 years until March 2013 when he handed over the reins to station mechanic, and current LOM, David Smart who commented at the time that he had big boots to fill. Tom has stayed on since then in the role of DLA as well as Chair of the Lifeboat Management Group providing leadership to ensure all matters relating to the RNLI locally, such as station running, crew training and fundraising activities, are coordinated. Tom doesn’t plan on stepping back any time soon and looks forward to celebrating the RNLI’s 200th Anniversary in 2024.
On presenting Tom with his medal, Janet Legrand said: ‘It gives me great pleasure to recognise the contribution that Tom has made to the charity, the lifeboat station and to saving lives at sea with this 50 year service medal. Well done Tom.’
Reflecting on his 50 years' voluntary service, Tom stated: ‘I don’t know where the time has gone, it certainly doesn’t feel like 50 years, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my service with the RNLI in all the roles I have been privileged to undertake.
‘I am proud to have served for a quarter of the Institution's existence, I have seen a lot of change and progress and feel the organisation is in a good place going into its 200th year. The training, the facilities and the equipment are second to none and the fact that it remains a voluntary service funded entirely by donations after all this time is incredible.’
Everyone at Queensferry RNLI Lifeboat Station congratulates Tom on his 50 years’ service.
Notes to editors
· The RNLI is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
· The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea.
· Queensferry RNLI is based at Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, EH30 9TB. The lifeboat station was founded in 1967 and houses an inshore Atlantic 85 B class lifeboat Jimmie Cairncross.
· In 2022 Queensferry lifeboat launched 64 times and saved two lives.
· To learn more about the lifeboat station visit; https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/lifeboat-stations/queensferry-lifeboat-station
All pictures should be credited to RNLI/RNLI Queensferry.
Janet Legrand presenting Tom Robertson with his 50 years’ service medal.
Tom in front of the original lifeboat station, mid 1970s.
Tom, centre on board the Atlantic 75 lifeboat, with crew members in front of the second lifeboat station.
Tom after receiving his MBE at Buckingham Palace.
Tom, to the right of Alex Cairncross, at the naming ceremony of the Atlantic 85 lifeboat named after her uncle, Jimmy Cairncross
Tom overseeing the construction of the current lifeboat station on Hawes Pier.
RNLI media contacts
Adele Allan, Lifeboat Press Officer, Queensferry Lifeboat Station, [email protected]
Julie Dominguez, Lifeboat Press Officer, Queensferry Lifeboat Station, [email protected]
Natasha Bennett, RNLI Regional Media Officer for Scotland, 07826 900639, [email protected]
Martin Macnamara, RNLI Regional Media Manager for Scotland, 07920 365929, [email protected]
RNLI Press Office, 01202 336789
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.
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