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TRAIL-BLAZER  - Looking Back To The first Apprentice At Dounreay
This year marks an important milestone in the history of UKAEA craft apprenticeship scheme at Dounreay; it appoints its 1000th apprentice. The identity of this person will be revealed at the annual apprenticeship and trainee certificate presentation awards, to be held insert as appropriate. This person will carry that honour as a badge of pride, and a symbol of a scheme, started in 1955, that gave young people from Caithness and Sutherland, and eventually from further afield, a first-class training in their chosen engineering career. Ten of the first eleven entrants were from Caithness, with Jim Macdonald from Sutherland, completing the number.

So, as we look forward to the 1000th apprentice, who in fact had the honour of being appointed Dounreay’s first apprentice?  Step forward, Jim Macdonald! Recently, we spoke to Jim, to hear from him his memories of those early days, what he has done in the intervening years, and how he was awarded that coveted title.

Jim, a crofter’s son from Armadale, on Sutherland’s north coast, set his heart on joining the RAF to learn a trade. Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, the RAF accepted him. Unfortunately, within a few months of joining up, his father died suddenly, and being the elder son, he was required at home. For the moment, career ambitions were put on hold.

A few months later, he was attracted to an advert from UKAEA offering craft apprenticeships at Dounreay. By now, the name Dounreay was entering the everyday vocabulary of the area!

Again, he was successful, and at the end of August 1955, along with ten other hopefuls he reported for work. Construction had only commenced some five months earlier, the ground was scarred where earth was scraped back and building foundations were being dug and laid. The only buildings on site were temporary ones, or buildings that remained as a legacy of its aerodrome role. One of the latter was designated as the apprentice training school. It still stands today, albeit very forlorn and in poor condition, on the topside of the A836, east of the Upper Dounreay road-end.

Their first instructor was William Sutherland. “You sensed the great pride he took in his job,” said Jim. “ ‘It’ll do,’ was not in his vocabulary. It had to be done right, and that was drummed into us from day one. We all benefited from his training and wise counsel.”

To compliment their practical training, the apprentices spent two nights a week, over their five years training, at night school. Day release classes were in the future! With all the facilities under construction, the apprentices were farmed out to other sites for their second year. Jim spent his year at Windscale. When they returned, a number of the buildings were being fitted out and each apprentice was assigned to a tradesman to develop their practical knowledge.

In 1960, Jim completed his training. In those days, you were awarded your indentures on your twenty-first birthday, and because Jim was slightly older that his colleagues, he was first to receive the coveted passport to his trade. That then is the simple answer to how he became Dounreay’s first apprentice.

In 1963, complete with an ONC in electrical and mechanical engineering, Jim decided to ‘see the world’, and joined the Ben Line as a second electrical officer. His chief electrical officer was Phil Gallie, who later was to become member of parliament for Ayr between 1992 and 1997, and is currently a MSP for South Scotland. Because neither they nor the radio officer had to perform watch duties, evenings were spent playing solo whist. “We had bidding down to a fine art, as we played for cases of beer!” said Jim.

This was followed by a spell with Hoover at Cambuslang, and in the late sixties he joined Rank-Xerox, covering an area from Oban to Caithness, maintaining their office equipment. At that time UKAEA, Dounreay was their main customer.

Jim remained with Rank-Xerox until the early-nineties when he retired, having contracted Parkinson’s disease. He lives with his wife Margaret in Balintore, Easter Ross, and both are involved with a local support group providing support and advice to victims of this degenerating disease. Despite his disability, Jim still manages the occasional game of golf over the local Portmahomack course.

Jim and Margaret have two of a family, both married, and four grand-children.