Ian Finlayson from Bridge of Dee shares his story in Galloway People

He’s organised holidays and tours in Scotland for visitors from across the world.

But for all his international dealings Ian Finlayson is proud to call Bridge of Dee home.

The former oil industry worker turns 74 in two weeks’ time – but still runs his company Scottish Travel and Tourism Services from his riverside cottage which he shares with South African partner Esther and two Schnauzer dogs, mother Kali – Swahili for fierce – and daughter Ella.

A Highlander by birth, Ian has been an active member of Balmaghie Community Council for 17 years, many of those as convener.

And although he’s lived in Galloway for more than two decades he still retains the lilting accent of the north country.

It turns out that Ian’s maternal grandfather George Imrie, a Fifer, ended up in the Highlands after the Board of Trade sent him up to manage Balnagown estate near Tain.

The property, the hereditary seat of Clan Ross, had been owned by Ross rifle inventor Colonel Charles Ross who, in a swashbuckling bid to evade tax on profits from arms sales, attempted to have Balnagown declared as United States territory.

It didn’t work.

“The government took the estate back off him,” Ian explains.

“My grandfather was sent up to be factor and manage Balnagown before the war.

“That’s when Judy Imrie, George’s daughter, met my dad Gordon.

“Mohammed El-Fayed owns the Balnagown now.”

Ian’s grandfather John Finlayson was of true Highland stock and worked as head gardener for the wealthy MacDonald family.

“They had businesses in and around Inverness but lost all their money in the stock market crash of 1929,” says Ian.

“My grandfather lost his job and ended up working for the Duke of Portland at Inverinate estate in Lochalsh.

“The duke put my dad into the army as a boy soldier aged 16 in 1936.

“He was a regular by the time war broke out and came off the beaches at Dunkirk.

“It wasn’t something he spoke about much.

“But I remember him telling me he was up to his chest in water waiting to get uplifted by a boat.

“There must have been men from the west Highlands on the small armada sent to take the soldiers off because my dad recognised the accent of one of them.

“He spoke to him in Gaelic and the man shouted out ‘we can take one more one more’.

“Then he just caught my dad by the scruff of the neck and hauled him aboard.

“But for that I might never have been here.

“He was in the Royal Artillery and afterwards got the Burma Star for service in India and Burma.”

Ian was born at Inverinate and was still an infant when the Finlaysons moved to a house outside Tain in 1949.

The Finlaysons were a Cromarty family so it was a homecoming of sorts for them.

“Ethel Mackay, my dad’s mum, was a seafarer who went to sea with her father Alexander who skippered the clipper Cambridgeshire Lass.

“She married John and they had three girls and three boys, including my father Gordon.”

The Finlaysons moved into Tain when Ian was six and he attended the local primary school then Tain Royal Academy.

“All my mates left school at 15,” Ian recalls.

But because my birthday was in November my father encouraged me to stay on and get my O-grades.

“I was always good at the engineering side and I started working for British Rail’s engineering department which sponsored my further education.

“They sent me to courses in Glasgow and I spent a lot of time at Colville’s steelworks at Motherwell and Costains at Coltness who made concrete railway sleepers.

“By the time I was 21 or 22 I was sent up to work on the west coast railway line from Dingwall to Kyle.

“At Stromeferry near Plockton they decided to blast away from the cliff and use the rock to put the line further out into the loch so the new road could be laid beside it.

“There was a lot of trouble with landslips and there’s an avalanche shelter on that road where it’s protected by a tunnel.

“I was four years up at Stromeferry doing line renewal work and bridge and culvert repairs everywhere north and west of Inverness.”

By 1972, along with thousands of other Highlanders, Ian was grafting in an oil rig fabrication yard at Nigg as Scotland’s North Sea oil industry took off.

“I worked on the first two BP Forties platforms, Alpha and Charlie,” he explains.

“I became a supervisor in charge of cutting and rolling at the pipe rolling mill.

“You were shoved out to other departments too and I got sent to mechanical and electrical.

“I also did supply at a training school instructing students and apprentices.

“I think that was because I didn’t skelp them round the ear as hard as the other guys!

“There were thousands of men employed at Nigg but I was made redundant by HiFab in 1985.

“We were working on a new type of oil drilling platform for Conoco.

“It was a tension-leg platform – a TLP – and worked in the same way as a cork tied to a piece of string with a stone at the end.

“The cork floats but the string is held under tension by the weight of the stone at the bottom.

“Halfway through the work, there was a dispute with Conoco over inspections.

“The company put a fence round the whole job and the contract was running years late.

“An agreement was then made that Nigg would not take on any more work until we finished Conoco.

“The company was looking for redundancies and I was still young so I just took my package and was gone.”

Ian’s work colleague Murray MacLeod also took redundancy – and a new career door opened.

“Murray had always wanted to start a travel company,” he says.

“I did nothing for six months then one day met Murray on the street in Tain and asked how it was going.

“He said fine and from time to time I would help him out with his new company TransScot Holidays.

“I put some of my money in and we started doing coach trips to places like Austria.

“But I was only really interested in organising holidays for people coming into Scotland.”

Ian took over that side of the business, moved down to Cambuslang in 1987 and in 1990 sold his growing enterprise to Voyager Travel boss Sandy MacPherson.

“I agreed to stay for three years if he gave me a deal,” smiles Ian.

“I ended up staying for seven, bringing in people to big events like the Rotary International Convention in Glasgow.

“The minute people walked off the plane it was our job to look after everything – and we were pretty good at it.

“We would take in 13 or 14 tours over a weekend for parties arriving at Edinburgh Airport.

“Those were the pre-internet years – nowadays people can do it all themselves online.”

In any logistical exercise involving often less than attentive holidaymakers occasional glitches were inevitable – and Voyager was no different.

“We used to hire a lot of coaches from Douglas Park of Hamilton who sometimes contracted a coach from Trafalgar Travel,” Ian recalls.

“It would have the Trafalgar livery on it and I remember once we picked up a party of Canadians for a tour of the Highlands.

“Trafalgar were picking up a group of Australians at the same time and one of their guys got on our coach by mistake – so unknown to us we had one extra.

“He was quite happy and never thought anything about it until somebody asked him if he was on the right coach.

“He said I don’t think so, so we phoned Douglas Park and found out that there was another Trafalgar coach in the area.

“The trouble was we had picked the Aussie up at Arrochar and were away up by Crianlarich while the other coach had headed south.

“But we managed to get him repatriated with the other Australians.

“A Frenchwoman on a tour with Voyages Vacances from Edinburgh also comes to mind,” Ian chuckles.

“The guide with them was an American girl called Anita, who could speak French.

“She had gone down the coach, starting from the front, counting the passengers to make sure everybody was on board.

“While she was walking backwards towards her seat the driver had his head down doing his checks and neither noticed this French lady getting off the coach again.

“They had got as far as Loch Lomond when the hotel in Edinburgh phoned to say somebody had been left behind.

“It was a Saturday bank holiday and my partner Christine and I were in bed so I said just keep her there.

Two minutes later I got a panicky phone call from Anita who said ‘Ian, we’ve lost one!’

“I called the hotel manager back and asked them to put the woman on the next train to Glasgow Queen Street and I would pick her up. ‘Tell her not to get off the train’, I said. So we shoot into the station with a description of a woman wearing a tweed coat and a fancy hat with feathers in it.

“We couldn’t see anybody then suddenly in the middle of the concourse here’s this old lady standing all alone.

“We got her in the car, drove up to Tyndrum and caught the coach there.”

By 1997, Ian tells me, the internet was taking off and new challenges beckoned.

After being helped “by two IT guys” he helped set up the Scotland Online website, a portal for Scottish goods and services.

As part of the group, Ian formed holiday enterprise Online Scotland which was runner-up in the World of Web awards in 1999.

Soon business was booming with 85 per cent of travellers coming from the USA – until the Twin Towers terrorist attack hit in 2001.

“That basically wiped us out,” Ian recalls.

“Christine, who worked in East Kilbride for Rolls Royce Air Engines as a technical artist, took a package and we moved down to Bridge of Dee.

“Her brother had a holiday home at Senwick.

“We had been down to several times and really liked the place.

“Galloway is very much like Easter Ross, a nice rural area with nice people.”

With inside knowledge of the trans-Atlantic tourist trade, Ian took the plunge and struck out on his own, setting up Scottish Travel and Tourism Services in 2002.

And soon he was mining a rich seam bringing big budget Methodist choirs over from the US Bible Belt for tours of the UK and Ireland.

“I have done well out of it,” says Ian with a smile.

“It pays for my trips to South Africa, I own a beautiful motor car and I can go into a shop for a lovely bottle of malt without worrying about the price.

“I have been trying to retire for years but I enjoy what I do.

“It’s not as if I’m digging ditches – it’s something I can do in my dressing gown although it’s not so easy now.

“Hotels have got rid of a lot of people because of Covid and contacts have been lost.

“Two years ago I would have a whole tour organised in two days.

“Now it’s like starting from scratch.”

Ian is a firm believer in keeping as much work as possible local – and practises what he preaches when he brings over tour parties.

“Robert Armstrong from Castle Douglas does all my coach work,” he says

“We have become a real team. He can do everything – I’ve even had him out with the Prime Minister of Western Australia.”

Ian and partner Esther, I learn, have been together since 2012, two years after Christine sadly died from breast cancer.

“Christine got wonderful service from the NHS before she passed away,” says Ian openly.

“Just after she died our local GP Dr Neil Oliver said to me: ‘Will you do me a favour Ian? Will you stay here for at least a year?

“Christine thought you would sell up the house and go back to the Highlands.

“It was my daughter Andrea in Inverness who told me I needed to meet somebody else.

“Esther’s husband was killed in an accident and she still has an interest in a safari lodge close to Kruger National Park.

“We have been out there seven
times in the years we have been
together.

“Her daughter and family moved up here from Manchester and we all live within five minutes of each other.

“I would not want to be anywhere else – I have Esther, the dog and the kids round the corner.”

“I’m still here – it’s as if the house came around me and gave me comfort.

“The whole idea of leaving has just gone.

“And that says a lot for Galloway too.”

Daily Record – Motherwell