ON A COLD winter’s evening in November 1975, a collection of individuals were bound together by a burning desire to help others.
The setting was a police station in Newton Stewart. Their goal was to form a functioning search and rescue group, made up entirely of willing volunteers.
The reasons were simple; the authorities were struggling to deal with the number of incidents occurring in the Galloway Hills and local people felt it was their responsibility to lend a helping hand.
Fast forward to the present day and some of those selfless souls, along with a new generation of hillside heroes, are preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Galloway Mountain Rescue Team.
A lot has changed over the last four decades and the advancement of technology has transformed the game beyond recognition. But amidst all the developments there has been one constant – that burning desire to help others.
Ken McCubbin is one of the founding fathers that remains active today. He was present in December 1975, five days before Christmas, as the fledgling group took part in its very first training exercise at the Caldons Camp recreational hut in Glentrool.
In the years that followed he took on the role of deputy leader, before taking over the reins as team leader for almost a decade. These days he is the group’s radio officer, but his wealth of experience and knowledge make him far more valuable than any form of title.
Recalling the formation of the group, Ken said: “A number of people had gone missing in the hills around Newton Stewart during the 1960s and the early 1970s. In response to those incidents, the local police relied heavily on a local GP, Dr Hugh Lang, who would organise a search group and lead them.
“But it became unfeasible to rely on this one man time and time again and there was a severe lack of equipment or properly trained individuals that could ably assist with any search and rescue operations.
“In fact, on one occasion a number of poorly equipped local policemen nearly lost their lives during a search. It was round that time that Hugh wrote to the Chief Constable calling on a search and rescue group to be formed.”
Ken recalls the great enthusiasm from local people when the organisation – known originally as The Galloway Search and Rescue Team – was first initiated.
“There were more than 30 people at the very first training exercise,” Ken said. “And that number kept on rising in the early years. At one point we had more than 50 members but after an initial spike, the numbers came back down and we have been working with a group of 30 to 45 individuals for a number of years now.
“There were various reasons why I decided to join but for most people it was just the desire to help others that found themselves in danger. There was a great camaraderie at that point and, in truth, that has also stood the test of time.”
Fourteen-year-old Colin Mutter was the first beneficiary of the search and rescue group. The youngster from Lincoln was successfully located after going missing in the forest on April 23, 1976.
Since then the group has responded to more than 420 incidents, an average of almost one operation per month.
The response to call-outs has changed dramatically since that spring day nearly 40 years ago, with old-school maps and compasses replaced by state-of-the-art computer systems.
“The changes in technology could not have been foreseen even 20 years ago, never mind when we first started in the 70s,” Ken said. “Computers play such an important role now that it must be hard for people to imagine how it was beforehand.”
Technology is also now more readily available to the mountain rescue team thanks to the existence of national funding bodies. The creation of the National Lottery during the 1990s was an important moment for the group, as it opened up a new avenue from which to source funding.
Amazingly, prior to 1995, the group relied on the use of a team member’s 4×4 during search and rescue operations.
Nowadays they have a fleet of vehicles that are all fitted with the best of gear.
Current team leader Ken MacKenzie has been with the group for more than a decade but even during that period he has witnessed the group evolve.
“I joined the team in 2002,” Ken said. “There are two very significant changes which stand out. Firstly, we moved into our first base in 2012 and this coincided with the introduction of our own Incident Control Vehicle and the arrival of a brand new Land Rover. These new resources have fundamentally changed the way we operate.
“Secondly, the use of technology has revolutionised the way we are able to co-ordinate and locate missing persons and communicate with our partner organisations. The facilities we have available to us often mean our search operations are significantly quicker than they were in the past.
“All in all, we are better placed than we’ve ever been in the last 40 years and we’re proud of our achievements to date.”
Before moving into their new base, the group operated out of the local police station. Their new home was formerly used by the town’s fire brigade and thereafter as the depot for the local ambulance service.
The search and rescue team bought the building from Dumfries and Galloway Council for just £1, before upgrading it to meet their requirements using funding from the Order of St John Scotland.
It has proved to be a worthwhile move and is providing potential volunteers with another reason to sign up.
“Mountain rescue volunteers join the team for different personal reasons,” Ken said. “Many simply want to be there for other likeminded mountaineering enthusiasts to assist in times of need. For others, they see it as a natural extension to their love for the outdoors.
“Whatever their reasons for joining, the team spirit and comradeship we enjoy, means that Galloway Mountain Rescue has a very high retention of members for many years of service.”
There are currently 45 members of the team, with 36 of those on the call-out list ready to respond to emergencies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Each member has a different role that requires specific skills and knowledge. For example, as team leader, Ken must be able to manage situations carefully.
“I’m responsible for liaising with Police Scotland and ultimately deciding whether the team is deployed to an incident,” he said. “When the team members are on a call-out I plan and manage their search activities and direct how they operate on the hill. We have very specific search strategies to locate different categories of casualties or missing persons.”
The Galloway Mountain Rescue Team can also call on the services of fully-qualified search dog Troy, and his equally equipped handler Jenny Smith.
Jenny has owned and trained the German Shepherd for a number of years now and both are on hand – and paw – to help out whenever needed.
Troy allows the group to search a wider area in a shorter space of time, which comes in useful considering the group cover a distance of nearly 80 miles from Stranraer to Dumfries, and 40 miles from the Solway Coast to the South Ayrshire Hills.
David Adamson is the man with the unenviable task of organising training exercises for a group of nearly 50 individuals that all need to brush up on different skills.
But the outdoor instructor loves volunteering with the group and he has found there to be many benefits of giving up his time to help out.
He said: “There is a lot of hard work involved for everyone. We need to be well prepared for every situation and that means we need to train for every possible outcome. I’ve not been part of the team for too long but in the short time I have been involved I have loved it.
“Moving here from outside the area, it has also given me the chance to meet an incredible group of people.”
The Galloway Mountain Rescue Team plan to commemorate their 40th anniversary at the end of this year with a special celebratory event. No dates have been decided yet but there are also plans in place for an open day at their Newton Stewart base during the summer months.
They hope that both events will attract attention from a younger generation that will make sure the search and rescue team are celebrating another momentous milestone in 40 years time.
Pictures: Stephen Jolly