Marine Scotland

Celebrating the Year of the Engineer – Meet Tam Cairns of the Northern Lighthouse Board

May 8, 2018 by No Comments

Tam CairnsAs we mentioned in our blog in January, 2018 is the Year of the Engineer as well as the Year of the Young Person. Over the course of the year, we’ll be introducing you to some of our incredibly talented engineers, as well as showing your some of their work. But for this month, we’re delighted to welcome Tam Cairns to our blog. Tam is the Delivery and Planning Manager for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), based at the organisation’s headquarters in Edinburgh. The NLB is the General Lighthouse Authority responsible for the superintendence and management of all lights, buoys and beacons within the area around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Tam is married with four children and has eight – soon to be nine – grandchildren!

What’s your career path been – how did you get here?

I left school at 16 with pretty mediocre Standard Grades and started an indentured apprenticeship with the National Coal Board (NCB) as a Colliery Fitter. Over the next 15 years I worked at Lady Victoria, Bilston Glen and Bilsthorpe Collieries completing my apprenticeship and achieving a variety of supervisory roles. For the following three years I worked as a maintenance fitter with Scottish Power at Cockenzie and Methil Power Stations.

In 1991 I joined NLB as Mechanical Artificer, a job title normally associated with naval fraternity. After five years I was given a significant promotion and appointed Mechanical Incorporated Engineer, a role I’ve fulfilled in various guises over the past 18 years. In every position I’ve held with NLB, I’ve always been involved in further education, at either City & Guild, Scotvec, OU or University level. I was promoted to my present position in June 2017.

As Operations, Delivery and Planning Manager, I’m responsible for making sure our maintenance and projects’ work focusses on providing efficient and available Aids to Navigation (AtoN’s). I need to make sure we’re maintaining or exceeding the very high levels of availability demanded of us. For category 1, 2 and 3 AtoN’s, these are 99.8%, 99.9% and 99.7% respectively, worked out over a three year average.

I also manage our involvement in new technologies and training, ensuring we’re well provisioned in terms of the capability of our staff to meet Notice to Mariners (NTM’s) which are formally issued in relation to our project works.

I have responsibility for up to 50 full and part-time employees who cover a range of electrical, mechanical and radio skills at various levels. They include technicians, technician engineers and specialised engineers covering work such as DGPS, AIS and Monitoring Systems. Our part-time staff are all remotely based, providing localised inspections and first line maintenance in the case of faults. We also contribute to NLB’s Renewals and Projects work on automation, refurbishments and upgrades at installations.

What’s your proudest achievement so far?

My proudest achievement in terms of my career was being appointed to my present position. My proudest achievement academically was obtaining my 2nd Degree, a BEng in Electrical & Electronic Engineering at Napier University over five years of day release. I was especially pleased to be awarded the class medal for my course. But the biggest part of my graduation day was sharing it with my youngest daughter Kirsty, who was also graduating at Napier with a Degree in Nursing.

What would you say to any aspiring young engineers?

For anyone thinking about a career in engineering, I’d say if you believe you’re not clever enough or can’t afford to go to university in pursuit of the graduate engineer route, don’t give up. Try and get an apprenticeship and take every advantage of further education opportunities. I’m proof that you can get the rewards you seek in engineering. And I might be biased but in my opinion the best all round engineers and managers are those who have followed the vocational path, while working.

And one fun fact about you?

It was quite difficult trying to think of a fun fact about myself! I asked my wife who replied: ”Yes, you can be… funny”. But I still couldn’t come up with specifics. Instead, I thought I would recall a couple of what I thought were funny situations but which probably taught me a few lessons!

As a serving member of the Territorial Army (TA), REME 1 Bn, Corporal Class 1 VM, my unit were on exercise in Germany. I was patrolling our area perimeter when I was approached by a large group of Germans. I raised my weapon and asked for the password. No reply but a lot of chatter. Then I heard a voice behind shouting, “Sir. Cairns has stopped a pile of Germans”.

Suddenly a Warrant Officer, WO1 Whyte, came running across apologising profusely to the German officers. Unbeknown to me they’d been allowed to use our cookhouse and had been let in by another route! I then gained the nickname Tom & Jerry.

On this occasion I was working at Skerryvore lighthouse, the tallest off shore lighthouse in the UK. As the subordinate fitter, I couldn’t believe it when the senior in charge didn’t have a 2lb hand hammer. Considering the nature of some of the work, which involved chiselling granite to fit brackets, I suggested we ask the engineering staff on our ship the Pharos if they could help. I was too embarrassed to say we hadn’t got a “proper hammer”, so told the helicopter pilot we’d broken the hammer shaft and could he ask the engineering staff if they had a spare they could give us. Before the pilot departed Skerryvore I went over to him. He stuck his hand out of the window and presented me, not with a hammer but with a new hammer shaft! Then he left. As you can imagine, the subordinate me had to spend the next two weeks chiselling granite with a joiner’s claw hammer.

The lessons I’d take from those two “funnies” is to use your initiative and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And never be embarrassed in making a mistake.

“After all, the man who never made a mistake, did nothing.”


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