ABOVE Aberdeen harbour, the sky is pink, chill and shrill with the cries of gulls. It is early evening and the lights are blazing on vast ships, named for Norse gods, which have voyaged here from Bergen, Lerwick and Copenhagen.
Hard by the harbour, on Regent Quay, is the Crown & Anchor, its frontage red and gold, a pub which has been washing salt from the throats of seafarers since the 19th century. Behind the pumps is Val Morrison, a barmaid there for 20 years. What the Statue of Liberty is to New York, Val is to Aberdeen – an awesome matriarch, the first and best woman the men see when they arrive back on dry land; in place of a tablet and torch she has a rolled-up copy of the Press and Journal which she uses to belt any drouthy sailor who gives her too much lip. “She’s like a mother to us,” says Daniel McKenzie, 26. “Val kens every boat in the sea.”
Aged 61, standing five foot not much, with short bleached blonde hair and sparkling greeny-blue eyes, Val’s name is known from Rockall to German Bight, Skudeneshavn to Singapore. There is many a mariner, tough as teak, who has stood green-faced on a pitching deck in the Forties and been comforted by the thought of Val doing Cilla Black at the karaoke.
To watch her work is extraordinary. The atmosphere in the pub when she arrives to start her shift fairly starts to crackle and spark. It is like a famous actor walking on to the stage for their nightly performance. She greets the men with profane warmth and a magpie cackle, accepting hugs and wisecracks as due tribute. She has a tongue of sharpened steel and a heart of molten gold. “Hello, my dearie,” she says. “Where have you been a’ day, ye wee shite?” She is becoming well known, now, as the star of BBC Scotland’s hit documentary series The Harbour, and was delighted the other day to be asked for an autograph in Asda. But as she says, “Darlin’, I was famous lang afore that.”
She takes drinks orders, of course – “Whit are yous wantin’?” – but this question is a mere matter of form. She knows without being told what everyone needs. She has a tremendous memory for names, faces, boats and bevvy, though even she was taken aback one time when an entire Norwegian crew came through the door and ordered 19 Fluffy Ducks – a cocktail of Guinness, Tia Maria, blackcurrant and Coke.
The oil industry has an international workforce, which means the Crown & Anchor is arguably Scotland’s most cosmopolitan pub. You are more likely to hear “Skål!” than “Slàinte!” when a glass is raised. Norwegians, you’re told, can be daft laddies on the drink; Poles and Latvians always want the strongest lager; vodka and Coke, as served here, often arrives in separate glasses of spirit and mixer, according to Scandic custom. James, a Catalan sailor, meets with Val’s approval when he downs the dregs of his pal’s pint before letting the barmaid take it away. “You,” she beams at his thrift, “are getting more like an Aberdonian every day.”
This is, largely, a man’s pub. The captain of the darts team, Angela, is a woman. But other than Angela, the female of the species is represented this evening by Joan, who sits at the bar reading erotica on her phone while her husband, Ian, leaving soon for Korea, knocks back shorts and reminisces with Val about the grand times they’ve had. “Fa was it,” she asks, lost in a fond memory, “I chased along the street with the brush one night?”
Over at one of the tables, a retired engineer, Bjørn Eikejet, is drinking whisky and ice with his friend, Svenn Varaberg. The pair meet here once a week before strolling along to the Norwegian Seamen’s Service to read newspapers and watch telly in their native language. “I have to tell you a story about Val...” says Bjørn. Apparently, he had spent time working out of Aberdeen during the 1980s and became sweet on a local girl, Janette. But then work took him away. He was gone for 13 years. On his first night back ashore he, naturally, popped into the Crown & Anchor. There he told Val about the girl he had loved and lost. Val, of course, wasted no time in fetching down the phone book and calling her up. Her match-making skills must be formidable, as Bjørn and Janette have been together for years now and he has settled down in Aberdeen.
Ari, a Finnish engine fitter working on a Danish ship, sips lager and explains that he is recently returned from a job in Newfoundland towing icebergs away from oil rigs. Tomorrow he is off to Shetland. This is his first time in the Crown & Anchor in three months. Val gives him a welcoming embrace. Another of her boys home safe.
“Ari,” she asks. “Another drink?”
“Of course,” he shrugs. “I am from Finland.”
He goes over to the jukebox. “Ari,” says Val. “If you don’t put on Willie Nelson, you’re dead.”
“No, please,” he begs. “I want Whitesnake.”
The Crown & Anchor is a snug pub with dark wood panelling and nautical touches. A model of HMS Victory, which Val found in a charity shop, sits at full sail above a fridge. The brass bell for last orders is rung by a rope in the shape of an anchor. At one time, Aberdeen’s quayside was full of “crew bars” busy with seafarers, but now there’s just here and the Fittie along the road. A widespread zero tolerance policy on alcohol within commercial shipping and the oil industry has holed pubs like this below the waterline.
Val is in love with ships and the men who work in them. Watching the light and shadow drift across the frosted glass windows, she knows when a boat is entering or leaving the harbour, and takes great delight in being able to name which one. She can tell different vessels by the noise of their engines, she says, or the vibrations on the floor of the pub. “It’ll either be the Normand Neptune, the Highland Valour, the Mariner Sea or the Vos,” she predicts, sending Ian out the door to check. “The Highland Valour?” she says when he returns. “Yes!”
Away from the pub, at home in Torrie, she goes online to track the progress of ships she knows, sending emails to regulars to wish them safety in storms, and letting Jill the landlady know when such-a-such a boat is on its way back into harbour so she can stock up on the favourite drink of the returning crew.
Somewhat ironically, Val herself is both a teetotaler and committed land-lubber. She once took a trip to the Faroes, where she had been invited as a dignitary by islanders grateful for her hospitality, but the long rough voyage put her off for good. She sometimes boards ship to share a cuppa with the skipper but never now leaves the harbour. Neither does she go on holiday. The world, she figures, comes to her, so why bother? Anyway, she would miss the Crown & Anchor.
“This pub,” she says, “is my life. It’s like a safe haven. There’s always laughs and jokes. It boosts your spirit. I was very ill last year with an operation that went wrong. But coming in here and speaking with the guys was my road to recovery.”
The men who drink here call her “Ma”. She has had a difficult relationship with her own son and thinks that her care for the punters is, perhaps, a way of making up for that. One young lad tells me that, following an injury he sustained while recovering a dying man who had fallen from an oil rig into the sea, it was to Val, not his wife, that he unburdened his feelings. She is a dab hand at sensitive relationship advice. “You’ve no chance, darlin,’ ” she tells one man who has his eye on the captain of the darts team. “She’s seen mair sex appeal in a chip. And she disnae like chips.”
Val has been known to loan money to men for drink. Also, she has taken huge sums away from flush riggers, to keep them from spending all their pay at the lapdancing, and given it back to them the following day when they returned, hungover and contrite, to the pub.
She has, too, a tremendous knack of throwing men out without them realising they’re being thrown out. “Come on, dearie,” she says to one hulking drinker who had been growing rowdy, “you and me are goin’ awa.” Popping an egg piece in his gob to deter argument, she takes his hand and gentles him out the door. He goes meekly and at once, grateful for the sandwich, like a bairn led to bed.
It is approaching closing time. Last orders. Bobby Darin, on the jukebox, sings Beyond The Sea. Darts thwock, pool balls click. The drinkers, by this time, are a mere rump – a few Scots, three Danes, a lone Spaniard. Val will get away home soon for a few hours’ sleep and then be back the following morning to open up and start the weekend. You Are My World. That’s her song at the Saturday night karaoke. This pub is Val’s world. We just drink in it. «