90% of Everything

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lmost every stitch you are wearing came into this country in a container. Your wooden furniture is unlikely to be home-grown. We import 140 million tonnes of food a year. And a lot of the fuel to cook it.

Over 90% of everything we buy travels by sea.

For 11 years it was my privilege to go up the gangways of incoming ships at Leith as Port Chaplain. Of the hundreds of seafarers that I met, barely a handful were British.

Having recently been a prison chaplain, the similarities between prisoners and seafarers were obvious. They both live in a confined space and a restricted community, with unvarying routines. Neither environment is a family or democracy. Often a simple conversation with someone who was not a member of the crew was a much-needed refreshment.

The differences are obvious too: seafaring is an honourable calling, with the men – it’s overwhelmingly men – sending a wage to their families. Some of them said their wives had a nanny or a cleaner in the house. That wasn’t them flaunting their relative wealth, that’s a village girl with a safe job.

One of the best things I could do for them was get them off the ship – maybe for a bit of shopping, maybe to take them up Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat. It could be the highlight of their contract period, a memory to take home for the children.

With me, they would go to places they could never find for themselves and they would get back to the ship on time. If it was a pub they wanted, it was always the Port of Leith. Publican and popular mine host, Mary Moriarty used to say: “There’s never any bother in here. They’re treated as working men from another country.”

A chaplain is given an extraordinary level of trust. At Hound Point (off-shore oil terminal beside the Forth Bridge) a Korean Second Officer I had never met before gave me a €50 note and asked me to bring him back Spam. I cleaned out South Queensferry’s Spam shelf that day.

A life at sea doesn’t suit everyone. “We lose everything” said an Indian messman. “When I join ship I’m the newest arrival. When I go on home leave nine months later I am the one who has been longest on board. In three months at home I am just getting into the community life of the village when it’s time to join ship. Again.”

Modern communications have transformed the nature of being away from home. Once I heard the ship’s cook (cookie) seemingly talking to no one, until I realised he was on the phone to his wife in the Philippines, whilst peeling tatties in Leith docks.

English is the lingua franca of the sea; the officers, though not all the men, are pretty fluent. I loved it when the Leith dockers made no concessions with their strong local accents.

A Russian ship had a lady cookie who had not a word of English. She presented me with a cup of coffee, a wicked chocolate cake and a smile to melt a glacier. We got on just fine.

Many of the seafarers are Catholic, and it was a privilege to have such a good relationship with the priests at Stella Maris in Leith and St Mary’s Cathedral. They would come if they could for a single visit or to say a Mass on board.

At 2.00 o’clock on a cold winter morning a Russian bosun came on deck out of his warm cabin, and the temperature shock precipitated a fatal heart attack. Stella Maris made out some lovely expressions of sympathy, which the company made sure went home with his belongings.

A man from Myanmar suffered extensive burns in an on-board accident. He was taken to St John’s hospital but, against strong medical advice, he refused to stay. He thought that if he didn’t have family to bring him food, he would starve.

I didn’t know about this till it was too late. I don’t know any Burmese speakers, but I would have found one. He needed to be reassured that he would be properly treated and repatriated, all in good order. But the decisions had been made: he was going home, all bandaged up.

I made postcards and fridge magnets of the Leith Madonna and Child with PERSEVERE. Both icon and motto are powerfully meaningful for seafarers and their families. There must be hundreds of them around the world.

Every November the Seafarer Monument on The Shore is used as a memorial for loss of life at sea during war. But it’s more than that; it’s a monument also to adventure, exploration, hard work, camaraderie, separation from family, the life of any seafarer, the good bits and the hard stuff.

With fewer and fewer cargo ships coming into Leith, it may be that its days as an international trading port are coming to an end, like Culross and Bo’ness before it.

Scotland’s main trading port now is Grangemouth. That doesn’t reduce our dependence on the seafarers of the world. Spare them a thought. ■

Tim Bell

MV MESDAR loading crude oil at Hound Point terminal, 7 May 2012, Flying Scotsman above and Tim Bell

A Korean Second Officer I had never met before gave me a €50 note and asked me to bring him back Spam

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