A policeman's lot is such a happy one

I SUPPOSE like most people I had only heard of the Pitcairn Islands through the film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty. But it seemed to be a whole world away and somewhere I could never see myself visiting.

My adventure began when I was casually thumbing through a copy of Police Magazine and saw an advert from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the exotic post of community police officer on the island of Pitcairn.

At the time I was working as prisoner/custody officer for Reliance at Kirkwall Police Station.

Yet, just three months later my wife Gwen and I were on a flight from London to Auckland, with Gwen having decided she would retire from her teaching job.

While in New Zealand I had to attend a firearms course at the New Zealand Police College. I now hold the record for being the shortest serving police officer in New Zealand as, in order to complete the course, I had to be sworn in by the college commandant at 9am and discharged at 4pm.

On 1 February - after a long journey by sea via Tahiti and Mangareva, in the Gambier Islands - we caught our first glimpse of Pitcairn. At about 8am we saw the longboat leaving the small landing jetty in Bounty Bay and make its way towards us. We had arrived.

Any apprehensiveness was soon put to rest when we realised that the entire island - all 47 of them - had turned out to meet us.

In comparison with Orkney I have a rather quiet life here in terms of crime.

To date I have had three minor complaints to deal with, all of which, I am happy to say, have been resolved peacefully. These have concerned ownership of property and a dog which attacked another dog.

There is little traffic to speak of. All families have one or two quad bikes and the only problem is during the very dry weather when the concrete road becomes dry and dusty, people complain of the dust being blown up by quads going too fast. This is usually cured by me making a public announcement over the VHF radio, reminding drivers to slow down during the dry and dusty conditions.

Occasionally there are some petty squabbles which are usually sorted out by speaking to both parties reaching some common ground and keeping the peace.

I spent a lot of time on the internet researching Pitcairn and was reasonably familiar with its turbulent history and the sex scandal which had hit the headlines recently.

However the prison and the inmates are a subject which is not talked about much between the islanders and off-islanders.

The prisoners are regularly seen within the community, under supervision, and are carrying out some very good work on a number of worthwhile projects for the island.

Two mornings a week I supervise two males on community service projects. These include clearing pathways down to the foreshore, cleaning and maintaining the rockcrush, erecting swings at the local school and building a large vehicle shed.

The islanders, who can mostly trace their family tree back to the mutineers, are basically very hard working and self reliant people. Their days are spent working on their wooden curios or on the other numerous arts and crafts which they sell all over the world by the internet, or alternatively sell to visitors and passengers aboard the cruise ships which call by.

A small number hold government jobs such as electrical, plumbing, engineering or roads maintenance, for which they are paid a small salary by the Pitcairn Islands Office in Auckland. Each family has several plots of land scattered around the island where vegetables and seasonal fruits are grown. Fishing by small flat-bottomed boats or canoes also takes place regularly and huge tuna and other local fish are caught, frozen and sold on to the cruise ships and passing freighters.

Unfortunately, due to the recent troubles to have beset the island, this is very much a split community and any incomers are treated with suspicion. As the weeks have passed, we have tried to mix with everybody and treat them all alike and, three months down the line, feel that we are getting along with everyone on the island.

Several big projects have been planned for the island in the near future, including the installation of three wind turbines, which will give the island 24-hour power, and a break-water to provide the small landing jetty with more shelter and, hopefully, allow cruise ship passengers to get ashore safely.

Much of the excitement on the island surrounds the cruise ship season. Cruise ship day is always a big day and all the islanders and off islanders gather to board the longboats and go out to the vessels.

Each family takes out baskets full of wooden curios and other things to sell onboard. Boxes of bananas, seasonal fruits and sacks full of frozen fish accompany the families, and all the curios and produce is passed onboard by human chains.

On cruise ship days my wife and I go out on the longboat, a 32 feet long aluminium open boat. My work can take anything up to two to three hours depending on the numbers of passports and there are often over 500.

Occasionally I go out on the longboat to passing freighters which stop, often after dark, to bring fresh provisions or to purchase local fruit and fish.

Once alongside, with the longboat bucking and tossing around, you have to grab hold of the Jacob's ladder and climb 20ft aboard. On the reverse journey you have to get off the ladder just as the longboat reaches the crest of its upward movement.

Although my job has been relatively quiet, it has been an exciting time of new experiences.

My only complaint: the weather is always very hot and humid. Being from northern climes we have suffered with the heat and humidity. It is odd for a Scotsman to say this, but I do often long for a nice cold day.

A WHOLE DIFFERENT WORLD

IT IS an outpost in the South Pacific which, for decades, was famous as the home of descendants of Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers from HMS Bounty.

But three years ago, Pitcairn Island hit the international headlines when six islanders were convicted of child sex abuse, in a case which has left the island deeply divided and wary of incomers.

That case shook the local population and helped to precipitate the appointment of the island's first full-time police officer - a 55-year-old Scot.

Until then, Malcolm Gilbert had spent 30 years patrolling mostly small communities in the Orkney Islands for Northern Constabulary.

But on his retirement, Mr Gilbert swapped his traditional police uniform for a polo shirt and shorts and accepted the police post in the tiny British overseas territory - it measures a mere 2.5 miles by 1.5 miles.

Pitcairn has no airport or seaport, with supplies arriving only every few months. It has just one road and locals get about mostly by foot or on quad bikes. Getting there involves a flight from New Zealand to Tahiti, then to Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, followed by a 30-hour trip on the boat Braveheart.

For Mr Gilbert, sticky tropical conditions, with 90 per cent humidity, have replaced Orkney's colder, wetter climate.

Gone is traditional Scottish fare; in come bananas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, passion fruit and water melon. Swimming with turtles in a lukewarm sea is a popular pastime.

Despite the isolation, Mr Gilbert has settled in well to his year-long post, and he has become a familiar figure and the symbol of law and order.

Seven men living on Pitcairn and another six living abroad were charged with the sex-related offences, including rape, dating back more than 40 years.

Six men were eventually convicted and a prison was built to hold them. Five prisoners remain on the island, looked after by seven prison officers from New Zealand.