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Remembering Tom Allan 1940-1966

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On a steep hillside above Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders, on a gloriously warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, a unique memorial to Tom Allan was unveiled by his relatives.  The Memorial, sculptured by his niece Marion Hughes, was a copy in stone of the woodcarving Tom Allan had created to hang above the bar at Stonington, Ye Compleat Fidde.  Below the copy she had added the words, Tom Allan 1940-1966.  This was a family event at St Ronan’s Wells, a tourist venue in Innerleithen, at which Tom had grown up, as his parents were the custodians of the Well and Museum, and took care of the extensive public gardens.  A number of FIDs from Tom’s generation also gathered to join the fifty family and local friends in  remembering Tom. 

Outside St Ronan's Wells

 Friends and FIDs gathering at St Ronan's Wells before the ceremony

Although a FID, I was a relative outsider.  The Allan family had been very supportive of the objectives of the British Antarctic Monument Trust, and Tom’s eldest sister and daughters had come to St Paul’s Cathedral to be present at the dedication of the Antarctic Memorial in Spring 2011.  I wanted to return their support and join the family in their more personal tribute to Tom.   Besides my meeting Antarctic colleagues whom I had not seen for a few years, it was also a pleasure to find John Anderson’s sister, husband and children had come from nearby Peebles.  John Anderson had died in the Antarctic in 1981, and I had met his sister and husband at the St Paul’s dedication and the unveiling of the Monument at the Scott Polar Research Institute.   The Allan and Anderson families had become acquainted at the evening meal following the dedication at St Pauls.

Tom Allan’s sister, Dorothy, was the Master of Ceremonies.  We were ushered up the path behind the buildings of St Ronan’s Wells to a newly erected dry stone pillar over which a Saltire Flag was draped.  Marion’s children (Dorothy’s grandchildren) were given the responsibility of whisking off the flag to reveal the sculpture.  Dorothy read a homily she had written on the life and times of her brother.  She included Tom’s association with St Ronan’s Wells and the history of the original wood carving of Ye Compleat Fidde.   This was followed by a speech from Terry Tallis, Base Commander at Stonington in the year Tom lost his life.  Terry concluded by reading the following:

The British Antarctic Survey Club, with over a thousand members spread over the world, would like to pay tribute to Tom Allan for his work, friendship and contribution to the work of the Survey.  His great sacrifice of 1966, in Antarctica in the worst of conditions, is both regretted and mourned, but his memory among fellow Fids survives, in true Polar tradition.

Speeches over, all could crowd around and inspect Marion’s carving.  It was so professional yet we learned that the only past experience Marion had had was her carving of an owl.  Incredible!


Tom Allan's woodcarving

 Tom's Woodcarving Ye Compleat Fidde


Marion's stone carving

 Marion's stone sculpture copy in memory of Tom

Refreshments followed that were laid out in the front of St Ronan’s Wells.  Ali Skinner, Ted Tallis, Dave Matthews, Keith Holmes and Ken Doyle renewed contact of their times south, and both family and visitors enjoyed interacting on such a fine afternoon.  Then a look inside the St Ronan’s Wells Visitor Centre where panels and artefacts were on display to tell Tom’s story, and to explain why there was a new sculpture in the St Ronan’s Wells garden.  


Display in Visitor Centre

 Part of the display on the life of Tom Allan at the Visitor Centre of St Ronan's Wells

Returning home, chatting all the way to Inverness with Dave Matthews, I realized that the family of Tom Allan had now finally and fully celebrated Tom’s life  – just as one would at a funeral - yet in this instance 46 years later.

Marion Hughes’ father, Ted McKie, sent an article to the local papers.  The article includes a fuller account of the day and much of Dorothy’s speech.  A revised version is reproduced below.


Julian Paren

Tom Allan Memorial

The weather and the setting could not have been bettered for the simple ceremony conducted in the garden of St. Ronan’s Wells in Innerleithen on Sunday 27th June.   Standing in the warm sunshine, a gathering of fifty friends and family watched as young Erica Hughes, sister Kirsty and brother Craig, carefully drew away the Saltire Flag covering a dry stone cairn surmounted by a pale sandstone block on which was a unique and highly unusual carving dedicated to the late Tom Allan.

The unveiling was the culmination of a project many months in the planning and included at least 55 hours of very careful and meticulous chiselling by the children’s mother, Marion Hughes.   Marion had wanted to find out more about the uncle (Tom) she had never known.  He was her mother Dorothy’s older brother, who had died tragically only 26 years of age in Antarctica in 1966 some years before Marion herself was born.

In her researches she found a photograph of a strange carving that Tom had fashioned on a piece of wood while he was stationed at Stonington base off the coast of Grahamland on the Antarctic Peninsula.  Unfortunately, the original carving went missing, possibly when Adelaide Island base was cleared before transferring it to Chile in 1984.  Marion was so taken with the picture depicted in the photograph (description below) that she decided to make an exact copy in stone.

The task would have presented a reasonable challenge for anyone experienced in stone carving but, nothing daunted, novice Marion, who lives in Broughton, enrolled in classes run by Susheila Jamieson. The tutor was impressed by Marion’s enthusiasm and went on to give her new pupil tremendous support and guidance with the ambitious project.


Marion Hughes

  Marion Hughes, niece of Tom and sculptor of Tom's Memorial

Tom Allan is buried on Stonington Island. The grave is marked by a simple cross, dedicated and paid for by fellow Masons from Lodge St. Ronan’s No. 856.   He is also commemorated on a Memorial in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, placed there in 2011 by the British Antarctic Monument Trust in memory of team members who lost their lives in the Antarctic.   There is also a memorial garden at the British Antarctic Survey headquarters in Cambridge, and a Monument in the grounds of the Scott Polar Research Institute.   A peak in the Traverse Mountains south of Stonington is named in his honour – Mount Allan.

His niece, however, felt he should be remembered a bit closer to home.

Last year Marion started carving her magnum opus, setting a target of May 2012 for completion and placement.   Permission was given by Rosemary Hannay of Scottish Borders Museum Services to erect the memorial in the garden at the rear of St. Ronan’s Wells.   Helped by Marion’s husband Steven and members of St. Ronan’s Wells Support Group the stone and building materials were transported up the steep slope by wheelbarrow.   Friend Ronnie Rusnak helped build the cairn and cement the carefully aligned and precious sandstone in place by Friday 25th May.

Marion herself sought no plaudits (though very well deserved), wishing just to hold a simple ceremony at St. Ronan’s Wells where Tom Allan had spent both his formative and his last years.

At 2.30pm the folk gathered round the memorial as Tom’s younger sister Dorothy McKie delivered a heart-felt eulogy in which she described their days at St. Ronan’s Wells and Tom’s love of the great outdoors.   Mrs McKie told the people gathered round about the skis Tom made for her one Christmas and of her first lesson on the Wells Brae, about his attainments as a joiner and teacher of technical subjects, about the canvas and fibre glass canoes he built in the “garage” (now the Visitor Centre), about his trips to the Cairngorms and Norway, and about his journey to the Antarctic as a diesel mechanic with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Mrs McKie went on to say that in May 1966 Tom and another member of the team, John Noel, fully equipped with sleds and dogs, went on a trip to the Northeast Glacier.  Two days away from Stonington Base Camp radio contact was lost and a search party later found the two men trapped in drifted snow and frozen to death.

A proper camp had been made and it was thought that Tom had left the safety of the tent to attend to the dogs and was subsequently disoriented in the fearsome Antarctic storm.   John Noel was standing at the entrance to their shelter and it was thought he was trying to guide Tom back to safety, which brave action cost him his life.   The sad loss of these men was a devastating example of how extreme the conditions can be in Antarctica.

It is believed Tom’s original carving was meant as a decorative and amusing plaque to mount behind a bar.  (It should be explained that the area where he was based was once part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies and the men working there were referred to as FIDs.)   The carving shows a fully kitted out “FID” lying on a Nansen sledge with one leg below and the other foot resting on top of a sleeping husky.   A camera is hanging from the push bar at the back of the sled.   The figure has his hood up but a face with a large hooked nose is seen in profile.   This could be Tom’s wee joke as such a figure is well known in Innerleithen – the Deil.  On the top of the carving is a ribbon banner in which is inscribed “Ye Compleat Fidde”, possibly a parody on Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler”.


Carving on pedestal


The sculpture on its pedestal in the grounds of St Ronan's Wells

After the unveiling of the memorial Mrs McKie asked Terry Tallis, who had been base leader at the time of the tragedy and had had the unenviable task of compiling the report of the incident, if he “would like to say a few words”.  Mr Tallis recounted the circumstances which led to the accident.

He said it was 46 years almost to the day since the accident which cost Tom Allan his life.   Mr Tallis had already spent three winters in the Antarctica prior to 1966 and there were four men present at today’s ceremony who had known Tom there.   The work at the time had consisted mainly of transporting by sledge, rations south on the Antarctic Peninsula and it was May before the field teams returned to base.  This was the first opportunity for Tom and John Noel who had been manning the base, to get away for the “holiday break” that ended in disaster.

Mr Tallis said it was a great privilege to be present and that it was a day he would never forget.   Before concluding he delivered a message from Terry Allen, the chairman of the British Antarctic Survey Club, which has over 1000 members worldwide:

“We wish to pay tribute to Tom Allan for the work, friendship, and contributions to the work of the survey.   His great sacrifice in 1966 in the Antarctic in the worst of conditions is both regretted and mourned, but his memory among fellow FIDs survives to this day.”

As well as Terry Tallis the FIDs who travelled many miles to be present at the unveiling were David Matthews, Keith Holmes, Ken Doyle, Julian Paren and Ally Skinner.   Although some had not seen the others for over forty years their shared experiences was manifest in the instant recognition and camaraderie.   When the emails replying to the invitations had poured in Marion had been pleased but slightly apprehensive, but on the day she was truly delighted to have the opportunity and privilege of conversing with Tom Allan’s comrades.

Afterwards the guests adjourned to the pavilion at the front of St. Ronan’s Wells where they enjoyed wine and delicious canapés that were a credit to the catering skills of Marion’s oldest daughter Yvonne.  Marion and mum Dorothy were delighted at how well the unveiling had gone and the folk who came, without exception, declared it a day to remember.

The carving can be viewed in the garden of St. Ronan’s Wells a little down the hill from the well.   A small display giving the background to the life of Tom Allan and the making of the memorial can been seen in the Visitor Centre (open weekdays 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm; Saturday and Sunday 2pm-5pm).

Ted McKie. Innerleithen, June 2012


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