John Browne came to St Andrews in the autumn of 1962 to study Chemistry. He left with a passion for rowing, a set of invaluable life skills (and a degree). Here is the story of how he developed this passion and these skills as a result of founding the University of St Andrews Boat Club.
John arrived at St Andrews with a “lifelong interest in aviation”. When he failed to get into the University Air Squadron because of poor eyesight he had to look around for another suitable activity.
“I thought golf too gentlemanly and rugby too brutish…”
So he decided to start a rowing club. Easier said than done, however, since he had “no water, nobody to row with, no boat and no oars”.
Undaunted, he set about overcoming these obstacles, one by one.
His search for water included St Andrews Harbour (too restricted in length and affected by the tides), the Tay estuary (too windswept) and Cameron Reservoir (too many objections by the water authority and local fishermen). Then one day he had a eureka moment while cycling past the Eden Estuary at Guardbridge on the way to Leuchars. Seized by enthusiasm, he knocked on the door of the Guardbridge Paper Company and asked if they could let him use part of their waterside scrapyard area rent-free as a base for boats. Much to his surprise, they agreed.
John had overcome the first obstacle. The next challenge was to find a rowing squad.
In the absence of social media, volunteers bombarded all the University halls and the Athletic Union buildings on both sides of the Tay with fliers and posters. (At this point, Dundee University was still part of St Andrews.) This advertising campaign generated 12 new recruits, although half of them melted away when they realised that they were going to be rowing in a waterside scrapyard in less-than-balmy St Andrews weather. But the ones who were left were absolutely committed to the fledgling club.
Now he had a squad to row with. But where could John get a boat and, once he got it, how could he transport it to Eden Estuary?
Lack of boat and lack of cash for transport of boat were solved respectively by Joe Liddell (John’s old schoolmaster in charge of rowing) and Archie Strachan (Director of the Athletic Union). Joe agreed to donate an old disused wooden clinker four and Archie agreed to pay for its transport from Scotswood on the Tyne.
The logistics of transporting the boat could have scuppered the project (there were no boat trailers back then) but fortunately, since this was pre-Beeching, each local railway (including Scotswood and St Andrews) transported both goods and passengers.
“Accordingly we hired a long bogey wagon normally used to carry rails or steel girders and persuaded the school rowers to carry the boat the half mile or so to the goods yard at Scotswood.”
It took around a week for the boat to arrive at the St Andrews station goods yard where it was then loaded by the intrepid squad onto the only University lorry – procured by Archie, of course. From there it made its way safely to the Eden Estuary.
Five sets of wooden toothpick oars, donated by the school and delivered by John’s parents meant that John had overcome all obstacles and now had water, a boat, a team of rowers and oars.
The St Andrews University Boat Club was launched!
The team could usually be seen rowing along the Eden Estuary on a Wednesday afternoon and on a Saturday, with one eye always on the tides in case they became grounded and stuck on the glutinous sludge pumped out by the paper mill and the now-demolished sugar plant upstream at Cupar.
“Our ergo warmup took the form of a six-mile-round cycle trip to Guardbridge. When the ides and tides were in our favour we could row about 2k upstream and around 1k downstream. The active squad comprised about six people so we had to take it in turns to row the boat. The two not on the boat had to shelter in the Guardbridge bus shelter if it was raining!”
So to what extent did John benefit from this challenge?
“In terms of rowing, very little … but in terms of life skills, enormously.”
John left St Andrews to study for a DPhil at Oxford and from there went on to ICI, where he found the time management and people skills he had developed setting up the club invaluable. After a career “ranging from being a white-coated researcher to a white-haired manager” he founded Catalyst Consultants – a business that focuses on helping the public sector to build bridges with the private sector.
“It is the success of Catalyst Consultants that has enabled me to make a modest donation to fund a new quad for the Club. This boat will be named Catalyst to celebrate all the opportunities that have come my way as a result of the life skills that I acquired in the process of founding the Club.”
“I hope the name encourages those who follow in my puddles to see the benefits of contributing to the future of the St Andrews University Boat Club, either as club member or as donor.”
Captain St Andrews University Boat Club 1962-6