Captain Ronald Leask MBE. Born: March 1937, in Edinburgh. Died: 2 February, 2017, in Edinburgh, aged 79
To many in Edinburgh and beyond, Ronnie Leask was best known as the knowledgeable captain of the MV Gardyloo, the famous tanker that took people on pleasure trips around the Forth while discreetly relieving itself of the sanitary waste it was transporting from the capital’s sewers. But this experienced and capable captain had already had more adventures at sea than a character from a Patrick O’Brian novel, at one point having a brush with death so terrifying a lesser man would’ve thrown in the towel and become a committed landlubber. But he was made of sterner stuff.
His early life was accompanied by tragedy. His mother, Andrina, died just over a month after he was born, and because his father, James (known as Bert), worked at sea, young Ronnie was brought up by his aunt and uncle, Chrissie and Arthur Double. Ronnie came from a long line of seafarers; his maternal grandfather worked for the Northern Lighthouse Board on a lightship and his uncle was a trawlerman, so as a lad he got a taste for working at sea while helping him on some of his trips.
He set his sights on joining the Merchant Navy, left school at 15 and went to study at Leith Nautical College, picking up valuable skills on the TS “Training Ship” Dolphin.
His first job was with the large shipping company, Runcimans, and he became an apprentice on the MV Fernmoor. On his second voyage, the ship sailed from Tilbury in Essex to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, then through the Panama Canal to Japan, then to Australia, from where it was due to take a load back to Japan before returning to the UK. But in 1954 it hit a reef and sank in unchartered waters in the South China Sea.
The 36-strong crew spent a day adrift in the blazing sun in two poorly maintained, leaky lifeboats which they had to bail out continuously before being rescued by The Liberal, a timber ship.
There was nowhere on board for them to lie other than on the logs – hardly the level of comfort you’d hope for after such an ordeal. The next day they boarded the Tomajeeras oil tanker and were back on dry land in Singapore a few days later.
While getting their strength back in a sailors’ hostel on the island, they asked the Royal Navy Club if they could use their swimming pool, but were turned away; only the Army club showed them true camaraderie, inviting the exhausted sailors to use their facilities.
Leask spent the following years on a number of ships, including the then brand new MV Hazelmoor, interspersed with spells back at the Leith Nautical College, where he obtained his first mate and mariner tickets.
After one of the shipping companies he worked for, the Curry Line, went out of business, he had to choose between two jobs abroad (one in the Middle East, the other in Shetland, the Leask ancestral homeland), but his aunt Chrissie, by now widowed, was growing frail and he wanted to be nearby to support her, so he took a post in Edinburgh with Scottish Widows. There he met Margaret, and they were soon married with two daughters.
In the late 1970s he got a chance to balance his family life with his love of the sea, and became first mate on the new MV Gardyloo, the sludge vessel acquired by the then Lothian Regional Council.
Named after the French term, “Gardez l’eau”, the warning shouted before people would throw toilet waste out of their windows, the ship would dump sewage near Bell Rock in the summer and off St Abbs in the winter. The drop-offs would take place during specific times so that the tides would wash the effluvia out to sea.
Leask was quickly promoted to captain, and became well known for being a master at this demanding and tiring job, as well as acting as a tour guide – and wildlife expert – for passengers the councillors allowed on each trip. Although it sounds like an unusual vessel on which to carry nature lovers, back then pleasure trips were not commonplace on the Forth.
Shortly before the Gardyloo was taken out of service in 1998, following the introduction of new European directives on sewage disposal, Captain Leask expressed regret that she had never received a royal warrant. He was quoted as saying: “We’ve been taking Holyrood Palace’s sewage all these years. I think she’s earned the warrant after 20 years providing a service to Her Majesty.”
The following year he was made an MBE for services to public sanitation.
After he retired he was able to devote time to his other great love, hillwalking. He would spend a lot of time exploring glens and rocky ridges on his bike and on foot as a boy, and by the early 1980s had already bagged all the Munros – before it was fashionable. He had already completed all the Corbetts, and was only two short of having climbed all the Grahams.
His love for the outdoors led to him having superb nagivational and hill-craft skills, and he was a respected campaigner for outdoor access rights and conservation. He knew every inch of the country, had a deep understanding of Scottish history and campaigned to safeguard and commemorate historically important places. Ronnie Leask was a proud Scot with a broad, international outlook, and was a passionate supporter of Scottish independence.
Ronald Leask died at home in Edinburgh on 2 February, after suffering from PSP, or progressive supranuclear palsy, which completely disabled this once active and energetic man. Despite being effectively trapped in a body that no longer functioned, he never once complained.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and daughters Fiona and Catriona. There will be no funeral as, in his final act of generosity, he donated his body to medical science. People are invited to make donations to the PSP Assocation (justgiving.com/psp/donate), which is working to make life easier for those with the condition that brought him so much suffering in his final months.