The Tartan wave

SCOTLAND isn't renowned for its rich surfing history. When some of the best wave riders on Earth travelled to Thurso earlier this year to compete in the inaugural O'Neill Highland Open, the rest of the surfing world seemed to think it was hilarious. In its coverage of the contest, the Australian newspaper the Gold Coast Bulletin joked about the "icy waters" of the Pentland Firth and described Scotland as "a country best known for kilts, bagpipes and stuffed sheep's guts".

But perhaps the Aussies shouldn't have been so quick to have a laugh at our expense. As a new exhibition at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum shows, Scottish men and women were surfing years before their Antipodean cousins even knew what a surfboard looked like.

Peter Robinson is curator of the British Surfing Museum, a not-for-profit organisation based in Brighton, East Sussex, and the man behind a new touring exhibition entitled The History of British Surfing. He firmly believes that Scots may have been surfing in the Hawaiian islands at the beginning of the 19th century, if not before.

"Quite a few Scottish people settled in Hawaii not long after Captain Cook had first made contact with the islands in 1778," he says. "There is a story of a chap - a Scotsman - arriving there on a boat in the early 1800s and expecting to be the first white man to settle, but he saw this white face in one of the outrigger canoes, paddling out with the natives to greet him, and when he spoke this fellow had a broad Scottish accent, so he'd been beaten by quite a few years.

"If this guy was in one of the outriggers with the locals, he would certainly have ridden waves in on the canoe, so you have to speculate that a Scotsman could have been one of the first non-Hawaiian people to surf."

We will probably never know whether or not this anonymous Scottish settler had been introduced to the sport of surfing as well as the art of paddling an outrigger canoe. However, we can be absolutely certain that a Scot was surfing at Waikiki in the 1890s - more than two decades before the great Hawaiian surfer and swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, first introduced surfing to Australia in 1915.

Princess Victoria Ka'iulani Cleghorn - the first known Scottish surfer - was born in Honolulu in 1875 to Princess Miriam Likelike, sister to the reigning monarch of Hawaii, King David Kalakaua, and a Scotsman called Archibald Scott Cleghorn, a prosperous businessman, horticulturist and eventual governor of Oahu.

Because she was second in line to the throne after her elderly and childless aunt, Princess Lili'uokalani, it was predicted that the young girl would eventually become queen of her country, and so in 1889, at the age of 13, Victoria was sent to England to receive a private education which would, it was hoped, prepare her for her future role as the head of a modern Hawaiian state.

Ka'iulani attended Great Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, and during her school years she also visited Brighton and Dreghorn Castle just outside Edinburgh, then the home of a Scots-Hawaiian plantation owner called Robert MacFie.

However, in 1891 the Hawaiian monarchy was seriously weakened by the sudden death of Kalakaua. Lili'uokalani took the throne and named the young Ka'iulani as her heir, but she was forced to abdicate by a group of American investors, backed up by marines.

In desperation, Ka'iulani toured Europe and the United States, campaigning to have the Hawaiian Royal Family reinstated, but her efforts were in vain, and by the time she returned to Hawaii in 1897 the monarchy had been abolished and the islands had become a republic. The following year, while out horse-riding, she was caught in a storm and came down with a fever. Her health never recovered, and she died on 6 March, 1899 at the age of 23.

These days, Ka'iulani is mainly of interest to historians because of her role as a figurehead for the Hawaiian independence movement, but she was also a talented surfer.

The centrepiece of the exhibition at Aberdeen Maritime Museum is a replica of one of Ka'iulani's surfboards, lovingly handcrafted out of solid koa wood by a Hawaiian shaper called Tom Pohaku Stone. Nicknamed Alihilani, or "the heavenly horizon", it is a beautiful thing - a little over seven feet long and extremely thin, even by the standards of today's slender competition boards.

"The princess actually had two surfboards," says Robinson. "One was a big olo board - they could be anything up to 20 feet long. She would have ridden that in the big rolling combers. The other was a shorter board. Those were for more expert surfers, and were ridden in more critical waves, the kind of waves that a modern-day surfer would ride a short board on. So she was a really expert surfer - one of the old school of surfers at Waikiki and one of a dying breed at the time."

Is it possible that Ka'iulani could have surfed in Britain? "We don't know yet, is the honest answer," says Robinson. "There's a quote about her from when she was living in Brighton about how she loved being 'on the water again', and at the time Brighton was the sea-bathing capital of Britain, so there is a chance, but we haven't found anything yet that proves it one way or the other. I like to think she did."

Ka'iulani might have surfed in Brighton or she might not, but Robinson is adamant that she never surfed on her visits north of the Border. According to an information panel in the exhibition, the first person ever to ride a wave in Scotland was Tris Cokes, in the summer of 1968.

Now 56, Cokes runs a company called Homeblown in Redruth, Cornwall, which makes the foam blanks that surfboard shapers sculpt into surfboards. In the true spirit of a Sixties survivor he claims not to remember much about the summer of 1968, but when pushed he admits that it was the promise of romance - not surfing - that caused him to travel to Aberdeen.

"I'd met a girl down here in Cornwall during the summer," he says, "and she enticed us up there - myself and an Australian buddy called Graham Sorensen, who was living with me at the time. We'd come via Yorkshire, where we knew for sure there were waves, and then carried on up to her place and found a few around there as well."

There is a photograph of Cokes surfing at Aberdeen in the British Surfing Museum's archives, but it's difficult to deduce much from it. What were the conditions like that day?

"Hey - I'm 56 years old," he says, "I'm supposed to remember what the day was like 40 years ago? It was bloody cold in the water, I remember that."

Thanks to the wonders of modern wetsuit technology, it's now possible to surf Aberdeen's waves all year round in relative comfort. By contrast, Cokes and Sorensen wore old-style "beavertail" wetsuits, which only covered the upper body, leaving their arms and legs exposed to the chilly North Sea.

The board they used was a 7'6" single-fin shaped by a New Zealander called Mooney, since deceased. Cokes isn't exactly sure which bit of beach they surfed in Aberdeen, but he remembers "a jetty to the side of us". According to Gordon Forbes, who runs Granite Reef surf shop in Aberdeen, this means it was probably a spot now known to local surfers as Footdee (pronounced "Fittie"), which lies just to the south of the Harbour Wall.

However, it now looks as though someone might have surfed in Aberdeen before Cokes and Sorensen. A note in the visitors' book at the Maritime Museum reads: "Brings back memories. Surfed pre-68 in Aberdeen." It is signed "Sandy Mathers".

A quick phone around all the Alexander Mathers in the Aberdeen area reveals an Alexander I Mathers of Bridge of Don, now 58, who says he surfed in Aberdeen in the summer of 1966, along with his friends Graham Carnegie, Brian Morgan and Dave Killoh.

"Graham and Brian had boards made in Aberdeen," he says, "wooden boards made to a plan that they had got somewhere. The first time we went out we only had one board - eight-foot-plus it would have been - and we took turns. I can't remember who got the first shot, but I presume it would have been either Brian or Graham. The waves weren't that big, but sufficient to give it a go. Maybe a couple of feet."

Sadly, surfboard technology in the 1960s wasn't as advanced as it is today, and the historic board they rode in the summer of '66 fell to pieces years ago.

Where did they surf? "Just outside where the cafs are - we were always posers," he laughs. Did they often get an audience? "Oh yes, if you ever spoke to anyone up in Aberdeen, they all knew about the guys surfing and skateboarding on the prom. 'Is it cold?' That was always the first question."

The surfing craze soon spread to the rest of Scotland. In 1968, the same year that Cokes and Sorensen made their pilgrimage to Aberdeen, a student at Edinburgh University called Andy Bennetts saw people surfing while on holiday in Newquay and decided to give it a go at Pease Bay on his return. Not long after that, another pioneer, Willie Tait, took to the waves off Fraserburgh after bringing a surfboard home from a visit to California.

A Kiwi called Bob Treeby discovered the wealth of world-class waves breaking on Scotland's fabled north shore in 1973, but it wasn't until 1976 that Angus Lamond Macnie unlocked the almost unlimited surf potential of the Hebrides, using a single-handed sailing vessel called the Sgian Ban, especially adapted for surf exploration.

"One of the great virtues of Sgian Ban," he remembers, "was that she could be sailed round a headland to find a great wave breaking, be anchored outside the break, the surfboard unhitched and off I'd go to enjoy the waves before returning to the craft and sailing or paddling onwards."

Today, surfing in Scotland is fast becoming a mainstream sport. Exact figures are hard to come by, but according to one recent estimate there are more than 2,000 regular surfers in the Central Belt alone.

Prince William boosted the sport's profile when he learned to surf in St Andrews while at university there, and, following its initial success, it now looks as if the O'Neill Highland Open is going to become a regular fixture. Princess Victoria Ka'iulani Cleghorn - patron saint of Scottish surfers - would have approved.

• The History of British Surfing is at Aberdeen Maritime Museum until 17 September.

Back to the top of the page