A surfing life well lived: remembering Fraserburgh legend Iain Masson

Scottish surfing lost one of its brightest stars earlier this month, when Iain Masson passed away at his home in St Combs in Aberdeenshire. A seven-time Scottish surfing champion, founder of the Point Northeast surf shop in Fraserburgh and a long-standing member of the town's Broch Surf Club, he died at home with his wife Michelle on 3 February, following a lengthy battle with leukaemia. He was 56 years old.

Iain Masson surfing at Thurso East in 1994 PIC: Andy Bennetts
Iain Masson surfing at Thurso East in 1994 PIC: Andy Bennetts

Masson's legacy is huge. Not only did he dominate Scottish surfing in the 1990s, winning four national titles in a row from 1990-1993, then three more from 1996-1998, he continued to surf to a high standard until well into middle age. He first represented Scotland at the European Championships at Les Sables d’Olonne in France in 1987, and went on to become a fixture in the national team during the next three decades. Remarkably, in 2014 he was selected to represent Scotland at the World Surfing Games in Peru, making him the oldest competitor at the event at the age of 48.

Masson also played a major role in developing the infrastructure supporting surfing in Scotland. His friend and fellow Scottish surfing champion Malcolm Findlay credits him as the "main driver" in bringing the British Surfing Championships to the east coast of Scotland for the first time, when they were held at Fraserburgh in 1995, and he was instrumental in resurrecting the Scottish Surfing Federation in the early 2000s, following a five-year hiatus. In addition, the Point Northeast surf shop which he ran with his friend Alan Wilson became a focal point for the Fraserburgh surf scene, and he also mentored several national champions.

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One of his protégés was Mark Cameron, who won his own seventh Scottish title in 2016, making him the only surfer to equal Masson's record.

"Iain was a really quiet, easy-going guy," says Cameron. "I remember one day in particular going out for a surf with him as the wind dropped off and it was getting dark. I'm just the complete opposite to Iain, just a frantic maniac getting my suit on, boots on, but he's just nice and calm, having a wee stretch. I'm like 'What are you doing man?!' But that was Iain – always very calm and collected."

In 1991, Cameron and Masson travelled to the Isle of Lewis together to take part in an experimental surf contest set up by the free-thinking Australian surfer Derek Hynd. Disillusioned by the way the pro contests of the era seemed to kill creativity, Hynd had developed an innovative handicap system, allowing locals to compete alongside some of the best surfers in the world, notably three-time world champion Tom Curren. "We drove from Fraserburgh to Stornoway and there was Derek Hynd and surfers like Hans Hagen and Frankie Oberholzer – it was just bizarre," remembers Cameron. "And then of course there was Tom Curren. He didnae really have any gear with him, didnae have any transport. We had quite a big camper van so he said 'I'll just come and hang out wi’ you guys' and so he'd come with us every day. I think he liked the fact that we weren't taking photos, didnae make a fuss. He was just like one of the boys. It was one of the coolest surf trips I've ever been on."

Malcolm Findlay also has good memories of surf trips with Masson. "At Aveiro in Portugal in 1989, five of us went down to the beach in a hire car that Iain was driving," he remembers. "As we sat checking whether the waves were worth the effort, a huge tipper lorry, loaded with boulders, began to reverse towards the car, slowly lifting its rear into tipping mode. Unfamiliar with the car and wrestling with the gearstick, Iain suddenly said 'Ah canna find reverse!' He managed to reverse just in time to get clear, but the expression on his face was priceless when he turned around to share his relief and found himself alone in the car."

Masson's influence is everywhere you look in Scottish surfing. Another Scottish champion, Mark Boyd, describes him as "a true legend and inspiration to me as a young surfer."

"When I was a grom [during the Scottish Surfing Federation’s hiatus] Iain was running some of the only surfing competitions in Scotland," he says. "He had a very smooth style and was incredibly consistent. His wave selection skills were second to none and he always had a knack of choosing waves which would allow for multiple manoeuvres. It was these competitions, and in particular watching Iain, that really made me want to improve and progress."

Perhaps the last word should go to Andy Bennetts, one of the first people ever to surf in Scotland, a Scottish champion himself back in 1975, and probably the nearest thing Scottish surfing has to an official historian. "My memories of Iain are simply that he was a really nice guy who didn’t boast about his abilities," he says. "He was a great team player and although he surfed in South Africa and Australia, he always returned to the Broch, and was in the water there a great deal encouraging the youngsters. His death is a great loss to Scottish surfing."

NOTE: The film Scotland Surf Dreaming 1, playing above, shows Iain Masson surfing Thurso East, site of many of his Scottish National Surfing Championship victories.

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