An era has closed at RNLI Stornoway, with the retirement yesterday (Saturday 31 December), after 40 years’ dedicated service to the institution, of former coxswain Murdo ‘Murty’ Campbell.
Murty joined the lifeboat’s volunteer crew in 1982 and, in his 40 years of service, has seen Stornoway RNLI lifeboat launch 783 times, saving 96 lives, and coming to the aid of 734 people in trouble at sea.
He was born in Shader in Point, and his family moved to Stornoway when he was a child. He studied navigation for three years at Lews College, spending much of his free time around the harbour, and joining the sea cadets to maximise his time at sea.
He once admitted he had fallen into the harbour twice before he could swim, finding that the water had an irresistible attraction. He said: “My grandfather was in the Merchant Navy. Some people say it’s in you, I don’t know, but I was always pulled towards the sea.”
After college Murty himself joined the Merchant Navy and spent seven years travelling around the world, then signed up as crew on a local fishing boat after his return to Lewis. He took a land-based job as a warper at the Clansman Harris Tweed mill in Stornoway and remained in that role for more than 10 years, expecting it to be a job for life.
In 1982 one of the RNLI crew suggested that he speak to the lifeboat coxswain, Malcolm Macdonald, who immediately signed him up as a volunteer crewman aboard the Solent class Stornoway lifeboat, RNLB Hugh William Viscount Gough.
He had a tough introduction to the life, when his first official shout on the lifeboat was to a private jet which had ditched in the Minch, a short distance from Stornoway Airport.
Ten lives were lost in that tragedy, including those of a young child and a baby, and Stornoway’s RNLI lifeboat volunteer crew spent two days recovering the casualties from the wreck.
Murty recalled: “The pagers were new and had just taken over from phone-calls and the maroons being fired. It was about 6pm when the pager sounded and it was a wild night.
“We were out for a total of two days on recovery. It was something for a first shout, but in those days, you just got on with it. You did things as a crew, you helped each other.”
In 1986 Murty’s brother Kenny ‘Kendy’ Campbell joined as volunteer crew with Stornoway RNLI and in 1989 the Campbell family made it a hat-trick when sister Maggie Macleod signed up as a volunteer fundraiser of Stornoway RNLI Ladies Guild.
Meanwhile Murty’s responsibilities grew – he took on role of assistant mechanic for a spell, then 2nd coxswain duties in July 1993.
The lifeboat now known to Stornoway – the Severn class Tom Sanderson – arrived on station in 1999 and in July 2002 Murty became coxswain, a post he held for 14 years.
He said: “It was different taking the cox position. Before I was just a volunteer, but all of a sudden, I was part of the institution.
“It was scary stepping up – before I’d been told what to do, now I was doing the telling. I had to make the decisions.
“But we always had a good crew, people understood why they were there, and it was good to see new people come in, develop and work their way up to the mechanic or navigator roles.”
In 2015 the restrictions of a hip replacement persuaded Murty to hand over the coxswain’s chair to D I Murray, who he describes as ‘a capable pair of hands.’ But his own association with the RNLI was far from over.
In 2016 he became RNLI divisional assessor trainer, working with crews and lifeboats so that individuals could reach their full potential as lifesavers. He’s trained 10 coxswains in Scotland and nine in the wider RNLI regions, completing 11,151 crew assessments.
Among the stations which have been on the receiving end of Murty’s expertise is the newly operational Leverburgh RNLI, whose spokesperson posted yesterday: “Murty has been a great help to us here in Leverburgh over the years, and especially in 2021/2022 which saw us work harder than ever to get the station back on its feet.
“The RNLI is a great educational institution, but when someone with a lifetime of experience, such as Murty has, walks through the door, you have really hit the jackpot and want to do as much as you can to extract his kind of knowledge and experience.”
Murty himself said: “It was important for me to stay with the institution after all those years with Stornoway RNLI, and it has been really good to be out and about the place, to meet other crews and visit stations.
“I did miss the bit at the sharp end, the call outs. But it’s the people, the institution and what the RNLI does – going out to help those in trouble at sea – that’s what has kept me going.”
“There’s been a lot of changes in the RNLI over the years. The technology of equipment and the speed of the boats is so different to when I started – it’s gone from a nine-knot boat to a 25-knot boat.
“The types of shouts have changed as well. In the old days it was very rare to be called to a yacht, for example, but now calls are to yachts, swimmers, paddleboards, surfers and so on. There’s a lot more people on the water now.
“What hasn’t changed though is the commitment of the volunteers and the support for the RNLI from the community.”
“The lifeboat needs continued support; if that’s not there, then there would be a lot more people drowned at sea. The fundraisers do a great job and the local community have always been really supportive of Stornoway RNLI crew and lifeboat.”
Retirement is not going to see him far from the water. A keen kayaker, he recently acquired a Canadian canoe and is set to explore the waterways of Scotland and beyond.
Stornoway RNLI Branch Chair John J Maclennan said: “Murty Campbell’s dedication and service to the RNLI for the past 40 years has been immense, both at local and national levels.
“I had the privilege of serving along with him as a crew member for 14 years and can testify to his utter dependability and commitment to the institution and fellow crew members.
“Whilst all who knew him will miss his vast experience, they wish him many years of happy retirement.”
RNLI chief executive Mark Dowie has also written to record ‘the very grateful thanks of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.’
He said: “As a coxswain, you displayed tremendous courage on many occasions, leading the crew at one of the RNLI’s most remote lifeboat stations into extreme weather and sea conditions.
“You are held in incredibly high esteem by all the teams you have worked with and are well respected throughout the lifesaving community of Scotland and beyond.
“I would like to thank you for giving your skills, time and commitment during your longstanding career with the RNLI. I wish you a very happy retirement.”
Murty is pictured at the helm and inside the lifeboat station and with brother Kenny and sister Maggie at Stornoway RNLI. The pictures come from Stornoway RNLI, as does much of the information in this article.