Anyone that has travelled to the Scottish North Lands will have seen this man in the line up. Many years ago you might have heard him or maybe been on the end of a lesson in surfing etiquette, you might also know he is multiple time national champ and gets really barreled. I initially saw Chris on my first ever trip to Thurso as a kid; 15 minutes after I passed my driving test I was in the 1.1l polo with everything I owned on the roof undertaking the pilgrimage that many before me had done. It was windy for 14 days, horrible and wet, I was camping but I loved every single moment of it. On my last day north of the border the wind swung and up until that point they were the best waves I had ever seen. It was probably 4ft but at the time I was calling 10-12ft. I didn’t know what real waves looked like. It was better than I had seen in the videos and it was that day in October, 10 years after I had first stood up, that i truly fell in love with riding waves.
Chris was there that day and has probably been there most days before and after, I remember him clearly. He is short for a Scottish hero, his words are kind and well thought, his accent harsh but you can feel the love in it. Chris never knew me then but I knew him. I was so impressed with everything about his set up, all I could do was hope one day I might be physically able to sit on the peak and paddle into one of those beautiful walls of Cold water.
In the winter, ice blocks float from the River Thurso and into the line up. It’s harsh, grey but also on occasion when the waves are on you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. When I have seen Chris in the years since that day in 2004 he seems to have calmed down, not in a less progressive way but in a way that only the ocean can calm you. When I asked him questions they were what you would imagine a old Hawaiian to answer with love and respect for all things. It seems he is happy where he is now, with children, a wife and working offshore, sure he would like to be on every session but life is more than that. At 40 Chris is still the national open champ and says that his fitness is owed the help of Personal trainer Ash the weekend warrior. Life on the oil rigs is not the place for a national champion to be training, Scotland has none of the financial floods to help surfers like its neighbour. Thurso has two sorts of surf shops, a cafe and a camping shops that sell wax.
This September the Scottish people above 16 will vote on the future of their Country and whether they want to remain part of the United Kingdom. It seems sad to put another boundary on a map but totally understand that in these times of cultural evaporation the proud people of the North are trying to do everything they can to hold on to what they hold most highly.
Chris, anyone that has been to Scotland will know you by name and face, it’s a small community there and when there are waves you are in the line up, how does it feel to be the name and face of Scottish surfing?
It's funny really, most of the time I'm just looking to get a few waves without any fuss. I guess there's a bit of responsibility that comes along with being recognised. I never really realised this until the past few years. All I was doing was going surfing, it's the waves that are recognised, I just happened to be there! When I first moved up I guess I was much more social but also more vocal, as times moved on I try to make a little space in the line up, be a bit more positive and explain where things are falling over to people who don't seem to understand.
When the big comps did events in Scotland and everyone was taking over, were they always considerate towards the locals? How have you felt the travellers that come up now are?
How I act can and does have a direct impact on how the guy sitting next to me is going to act. At the end this turns into a big circle, if I don't care how I act towards someone else then why should they care about how they act with others or myself in the water? It can be really frustrating dealing with the same bad etiquette from different people every swell but you have to let it go or else you just end up paddling about in a bad mood and what's the point if you feel like that?
Looking back the highland open was a pretty special thing, sure there were a lot of negative connotations about bringing 144 of the worlds best surfers to a quiet town on the north coast of Scotland but it's not like it was any major secret either. The line up is always going to get more and more busy as wetsuit technology improves. To have the chance to watch some of the best surfers in the world come and surf your home waves is pretty inspirational, I guess the dynamics of the line up changed when they were in town. The first contest really raised the towns interest in surfing and I think it made a lot of people realise just how good their waves are, before that the most of people took surfing and surfers as a bit of a comedy act.
There is a big rivalry between England and Scotland and now with the referendum on independence coming up, has the tension in the water grown? Will you vote?
Haha, having tension in the water is one thing and voting in the referendum is quite another! Yes there is tension in the line up, again not everyone understands or possibly cares about the finer points of visiting another surf break or understanding that the guys who do surf there all of the time have given up a lot to be there when there is a swell running.
However being asked if you feel that the country you have called home since you were born should be a country in its own right or should remain as part of a larger country is quite another.
I don't mind saying I'm in the yes camp, I don't believe for one minute that anything will remain the same either way after the referendum so we either vote yes, choose our own government if we don't like what they're doing we can vote and actually make a difference. Vote No and let Westminster make all of our decisions for us.
Scotland will always be Scottish right, that’s not what the referendum is about; it’s about money and power. Independence is a big deal and not to be made a joke of but what about world equality? Why do you think we are so hell bent on imaginary boundaries that we call borders? House / Town / District / County / Country… surely we are all people?
Maybe that's what a lot of people are missing; Scotland will always be Scotland yes. Will it be Scotland as Scotland a country in its own right or Scotland as part of Great Britain? All my life I've classed myself as Scottish, any time I filled out something that's asked my nationality I filled it out as Scottish. Try doing that online, there is no such thing as a Scottish nationality.
Politics is about money and power, that is not the question that's being asked. The question is do the majority of Scots want to see themselves as Scottish or British?
That's a well-travelled view, we are all people on top all the same. Although underneath there are a lot of different beliefs, views, opinions even religions. While surfing allows us to cross the majority of these boundaries with ease as we all share a similar goal. If you don't like your neighbour or they don't like your dog or whatever you'll soon find a wall or fence between you. It just keeps getting bigger on every scale.
That of course is the short version!
You have multiple national titles, including the current open, but make a living from surfing? Considering Scotland is featured in almost every mag in the world why do you think there is no money in Scottish surfing?
I'll be 40 next year, I still don't feel like slowing down. I guess I ache a bit more the next day than when I was 20 but with age comes experience and confidence.
No you're right, there's no money in Scottish surfing, maybe it's because we are so far away from the UK's surfing financial heart? When you look at where the UK's surf industry is based the apple doesn't seem like it's fallen far from the tree (Newquay). Although that may change as the Scottish Surfing Federation grows there has been a renewed focus on introducing kids to surfing and developing their skills, this is something that has been missing over the past 10 - 15 years.
Who knows maybe we'll see more support for kids in the future allowing them to push themselves on an international stage.
The Apple and the tree thing, do you think it works both ways, I mean surely its funny when you are getting 10 second barrels on your own and the apple tree is 2ft onshore?!
The original question was about why didn't I think there was any money in Scottish surfing. That poses the financial hub as the tree and the recognition and money as the fruit. You can apply that thinking in different ways, I wasn't looking for either so my fruit was simply to go surfing in some good waves. It was a pretty simple formula, find some good waves, settle down and build a life around that. I didn't see the need to spend loads of time and money chasing a dream that I could live daily.
You are involved with the Scottish Surf Federation (SSF), is there anything that the surfing world could help you out with? Equipment? Advice? Do you really want surfing to grow in your area?
I used to be involved with the SSF but I stood down due to workload against home family time. This being said I still try to help out where I can. Do I really want surfing to grow in my area? What I've found is that I don't have a choice whether surfing grows or not, it will. No matter how hard you try to run away from it it's getting bigger all the time. That was one of the reasons the SSF went into hibernation, fear of more people starting to surf. There are already enough people surfing, well that didn't slow anything down it just took away the structure!
The SSF is there to support the local clubs and to represent surfers on a formal level, whether it's something that needs to be pushed back on a national level or to represent local clubs with environmental energy companies.
There are stories of the early days of surfing in Scotland about woolen jumpers and cling film. What’s the secret to sub zero surfing?
Personally I don't see that there is a 'secret' to cold water surfing, it's just surfing. I guess if you grew up surfing somewhere with warm water where you could spend all day playing in the ocean. When we were kids we used to go swimming at the beach, it was pretty cold until you went numb then you were 'ok' for a while... Not too long though! I got a wetsuit for my 13th birthday so I could go swimming in the harbour for longer. The first thing I did was to run a freezing cold bath to test it out, that didn't go quite to plan, I never realised water actually came inside the suit!
So that's it, I don't know if you would say that we were born with it or just grew up dealing with the cold. Either way that is just part of the deal if you surf here, it's either windy, rainy, frost, snow or hail sometimes all of these in one session. The guys at Lunasurf and Finisterre make some of the best kit available so to have them support me makes things a little easier.
It seems that you are happy, and over the years are turning into a very wise father and grandfather of Scottish surfing, has this come from having children, or has the ocean taught you heavy lessons? How ws it when you first moved north? How were you received by the local community? Now you have a family and seem like a very happy human do you push your kids to surf?
I think it's the changes that have happened and how they have impacted on me that have led me to where I am just now. When I was younger all I wanted to do was go surfing we would sit down the beach all summer long hoping for there to be waves, waiting for every tide, maybe when the tide comes in, maybe when the tide drops. Day after day, week after week, twelve weeks was the longest I waited.
Now I have so much more to do with my time that although I'm waiting and watching every day it doesn't seem to consume me the same, probably makes for a more balanced lifestyle.
There have been so many changes since I have moved north, the first year I stayed in a backpacker hostel in town. I used to get changed into my suit and run through town to surf and back again; I had quite a few funny looks! But it was nice, before I moved away all of my friends were surfers so that's pretty much all we spoke about. When I first moved away you could go to the pub and have a normal conversation with people not all revolving around surfing or waves, it was pretty refreshing.
Again the first year I moved here one month I surfed for more than half of the days, every day was offshore, it was never smaller than head high and every day I was alone. Now there is a core of guys who surf here on every swell. With forecasting getting better and better there are a lot more travellers arriving, some come for a swell or some stay for a bit longer to get a real taste of it. It was hard for me to start off with having so many people around all of the time but once you get your head around it I think you end up in a better place. I don't think I have been alone, but really can't talk for other guys.
I wouldn't say grandfather; there is still a few guys like Iain Masson (seven time Scottish Champion, and still last year made the finals) a generation or two older than me who visit regularly. I still look up to these guys, seeing how life has changed for them but when they visit they are simply stoked to be here surfing, it's a big inspiration seeing these guys maybe not going as hard but still pushing boundaries.
I guess that's one of the biggest changes for me having a family and working away from home, surfing’s almost booked. There are times where I have maybe missed a swell or two and I get an hour or two when it's chest high and onshore or the tides wrong, I'm so stoked to get out in the water where as before when I had more time I was a lot more fussy. I love spending time with my kids playing at what they want to do and yes, if either of them wanted to go surfing I'd be so stoked to watch them. It's not something I push with them though; I want them to go surfing because they want to not because they want to make me happy.