Diving in the deep end with the Davidson brothers

Hands up! Who remembers going swimming in the open air pools that were very popular in the 60’s?  

We’re talking North Berwick, Burntisland, Tarlair, Prestwick, Arbroath, Cumnock, Dunbar, Stonehaven, Portobello…destinations popular with Scots holidaymakers before the rise of the overseas package holidays. Ah! The memories of jumping into that freezing water – even in the height of summer, chittering afterwards with a stripey bath towel wrapped around you. 

When you were at one of these pools, do you remember seeing a diving display from some talented divers who just took the breath away with their daring and audacity? Outdoor pools were popular for diving competitions which in Scotland were a fairly ad hoc affair with only regional self-formed clubs, no coaches or trainers and participants had to travel under their own steam. The same went for practising. 

However, all that started to change with the success of Sir Peter Heatly CBE when he stormed the world stage with golds at The British Empire Games and Olympics during the fifties. Amongst those inspired were two lads from Inverness who frequented the Glebe Street Baths. Brian and Alan Davidson were keen divers and started travelling to Aberdeen to train, thanks to a shortage of diving boards in Inverness! That’s not a short journey and demonstrates just how keen the lads were.  

Both were deemed so good that Peter Heatley himself encouraged them both to perform at competition level. They became so proficient that Brian actually competed with Peter Heatley in Diving in the Commonwealth Games in 1958 and then in another two Commonwealth Games after that. Alan was a Scottish Diving Champion and a top swimming coach in Thurso and Glasgow. 

Recently both Alan and Brian were invited along to our Juniper Green club near Edinburgh. The invite came from one of our members, Peter Heatley. No, not the diver but his son. They spoke at length about their careers and what it was like growing up in Inverness where diving was more akin to a raucous performance of ‘bombing’ accompanied by the whistle of the pool attendants. 

Some of our members in fact remembered Peter Heatley senior diving and training at Portobello outdoor pool from the 10m board. The then youngsters regarded him as a bit of a local sporting hero. But anyone diving into a Scottish outdoor pool was really a bit of hero. Did you do it? 

Some fun facts about Portobello 

Portobello Bathing Pool, famous for its distinctive Art Deco design, lofty diving boards, artificial waves and chilly waters, was Portobello’s main attraction for over 40 years. The pool, which opened in 1936, was the largest outdoor facility of its kind in Europe.  

The Pool was enormous; 330 feet long by 150 feet wide – the equivalent of two Olympic sized pools - and varied in depth from one foot to six feet two inches at the deep end. Six thousand spectators could be accommodated, with 2,000 seats available under a cantilevered stand, and there were lockers provided for 1284 swimmers. The one and a half million gallons of water required to fill the pool was filtered from the sea and heated to a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit by steam from the adjacent power station - though most accounts of the water temperature ranged from icy cold to sub-Siberian. 
The pool's great innovation was the first ever wave-making machine in Scotland. This consisted of four 24-feet long pistons mounted in a chamber at the deep end of the pool, which were arranged to send 3-feet high waves in three possible directions. These artificial waves were so dramatic that the machine was only operated after a warning on a klaxon had been sounded.

The Pool was closed for six years during the Second World War and had to be camouflaged to stop it being used as a landmark by enemy planes. It re-opened in June, 1946 and, unperturbed by the icy water conditions, the 1950s saw visitor numbers soar during the summer months with the queue to gain entrance often stretching the full length of Westbank Street. In the early part of the decade Sean Connery could be found at the Pool acting as a lifeguard. 

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