HARRY TAIT, 1938-2008
FAMILY, friends, fellow Rotarians and former colleagues from the Met Office were among the crowd who gathered in Scalloway Church of Scotland last Thursday to say farewell to a man who’d earned their admiration, respect and love.
Harry Tait was born in Lerwick 70 years ago. A lively little boy, one of his memories of primary school was having his copy of the “Magnet” comic confiscated by his teacher Bernice Blance in her efforts to demonstrate that the classroom was for work not play. When his widowed mother married again, they moved to Burra and he attended school in Hamnavoe. He went to the Central School in Lerwick when he reached secondary school age, then to the Anderson Educational Institute.
In the 1950s there weren’t many jobs available and Harry was glad of the opportunity of employment with the Met Office at the Lerwick Observatory. It suited him well – he joined in 1958 and retired as superintendent in 1996. While he enjoyed his job, it was only part of a rich, fulfilling life.
Harry and his wife Christian started courting when they were in the same class at secondary school, even doing their homework together. They married on a snowy day in 1961 and went on to have two daughters, Denise and Rhona.
In 1975, they were able to move into the house that Harry had designed and built on his father’s croft in Trondra. It was, as Christian recalls, a “dream” home because when she was 16 and Harry 17 they had rowed across to the island and he had shown her the site, telling her that was where he wanted them to live one day.
Making things was what Harry did. From turning fish boxes into fishing boats when he was peerie, to building his own house or inventing some labour-saving device as an adult, Harry used his problem-solving skills and imagination not just to make things but to make things work.
It’s no wonder he found himself as squad leader when it came to Up Helly A’. Organised, unflappable and so good with his hands, he was an asset to his squad. The guisers appreciated Harry’s talents and he, in turn, had great affection for “da Squad boys”. He also enjoyed taking part in the Jarl’s squad in Lerwick where his craftsmanship was valued. He’d just lately been discussing designs for his nephew’s year in 2010.
His organisational skills, his attention to detail and patience were all necessary in his working life at the Observatory. He started work in the days when measurements were recorded first in pencil, then in pen before being calculated on an adding machine. Whole days could be spent adding columns of figures. From thunderstorm recording to ozone layer measurement and launching weather balloons, tasks were carried out at precise times every day. They were a close-knit group, the Met Office staff in Lerwick, with camaraderie, fun and friendship the order of the day, and when Harry was promoted he was well regarded. “My best boss”, one man remarked.
It was through the ozone layer that I met Harry when I persuaded him to talk to me about it in an interview for Radio Scotland. I was impressed by his ability to explain it in simple terms. He was a natural communicator and that’s what made him so very much a “people” person.
He was really pleased to get the opportunity to go round schools in Shetland with the local Rotary Club to demonstrate the Shelter Boxes for which they were raising funds. He thoroughly enjoyed showing the bairns how they worked. Harry was president of the Shetland Rotary Club this year, the second time he’d held the post. It was a role which he enjoyed.
When Harry retired from the Met Office 12 years ago, a new career blossomed as his hobby of working with stained glass developed into a business. In his workshop, he created beautiful windows, inspired by the world around him. He once said: “I don’t have a natural artistic flair – I have to work hard on design.” The hard work certainly paid off as we can see in public buildings such as Lerwick Town Hall, Holmsgarth ferry terminal, Weisdale Kirk, St John’s Kirk in Baltasound and the St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick as well as in private homes. Harry had also been teaching classes, keen to pass on the skills he’d learned, and his pupils found him a gifted teacher.
Harry was a man you instinctively felt you could trust. He was an active, busy person, always occupied with some ploy or other, but there was also a stillness and tranquillity about him. He didn’t jump to conclusions, he considered things. He was a listener. He liked to relax in company and swap yarns.
Harry and Christian were a team. He always said that her imagination and his common sense were a good combination. Their life together was enriched by their family which now includes four grown up grandchildren who will all miss him. His presence will be all around them, in the house and in the garden which he and Christian created together, he providing the hard labour, turning her ideas into reality.
At the funeral, after hearing Christian pay a heartfelt tribute to Harry, the congregation burst into applause, a rare thing at such a time and place. It felt as though we were all at that moment giving our blessing to her request that we “focus on the joy he took from the world and the joy he gave us all … to celebrate a life well lived, to treasure our memories and to take comfort from them.” Another Met man, Cavy Johnson, wrote of another person at another time that “… He took dee i da hairst o life / Bit du sood a hed dy Yule”. That sentiment applies to Harry Tait too.