Abernethy, Aberargie and Dron News

Last date for submissions

31st July 2017

Date of publication

1st September 2017

I was born in 1930 in Aberargie. Our family consisted of my mother, father and my two sisters  Our house was small with no electricity. My father was very proud to have bought this house, for which I think he paid £100.  Dad worked as a linesman for the LNER (London and North Eastern Railways) on the line from Glenfarg to Bridge of Earn and needless to say earned a very poor salary. As a result, from the time we were quite small, augmenting the family income was a high priority. My mother worked from time to time at seasonal occupations such as the “tatties” and the “berries”where we were also employed, Her main talent, however, was as an accomplished tailoress and seamstress. Consequently, we, as a family, were always smartly turned out.

From the time I was about 6 years old, I was assigned tasks to keep the home fires burning. Our only light was an Aladdin lamp that hung in the living room and my job every day was to ensure that it was filled with kerosene and that the wick was trimmed. My Dad had to cycle every day to Glenfarg and he needed a light on his bike and the cheapest light was an acetylene one which used carbide and when water dripped on it, gas was generated, which, when burned, provided light for him to see  It required daily maintenance which was my job.

We also had no piped water, so all our water had to be carried from the village well in pails. On washing day my mother and I would rise very early in the morning and I would light a fire under the cast iron tub in our shed. I then would carry the water from the well and fill the tub. When the water heated  with some soap and lots of stirring all of the clothes would be cleaned and then ready for the mangle which together we would turn to remove the excess water. After washing, the clothes would have to be hung on the line, weather permitting. In those days each women wanted to be the one whose clothes were the whitest of the village and it was a matter of pride for my mother to be that one. The social discussions for gatherings could result in some women being discussed as “ she does not have the whitest clothes”

My sisters and I walked to school every day despite the weather and some days I can remember arriving there, wet and cold and painfully unfreezing my chilblains. The school was fairly primitive and the heating quite unreliable. However I had wonderful teachers. I remember Miss Duff and Mrs Smith and of course Mr Ironside, who we called “Tinribs,” -  but not to his face!!

I have fond memories of the excitement of the annual bonfire, for which we all collected material for weeks in advance. Those for VE day and Guy Fawkes were especially memorable. We loved the impromptu football matches and roaming the hills until dusk in the summer!   Happy days without the necessary restrictions imposed on the young of today.

 Abernethy in those days was a thriving village with the bakers, joiners, bike shop, butchers, post office, stationery stores, grocers, a rail station and its own gas works, which broke down regularly! It also had a bank, a cheese factory (the Creamery) three pubs, and at least one garage for the few cars that needed repair.  

As kids we also climbed the Round Tower and explored the secret passage from the Tower to Innernethy Castle without any thought that the roof might cave in.

I hated school holidays because they were arranged by the farmers to make available child labour, but the pay for our efforts helped buy our school shoes and other clothes. At potato picking time we started at 6:30am  sitting on the back of a trailer pulled by a tractor with straw supposed to keep us warm and similarly in the evening for the return journey. While it was bad enough for us children, my mother had been up much earlier preparing my dad’s lunch, our lunches and flasks of tea.

When war was declared in 1939 things became even worse for food availability, so I helped out by collecting potatoes and turnips from the fields, not always with the farmer’s permission!!  I also had a water hen and seagull route in the spring to collect eggs. There was a shortage of nearly everything, so I made wire flowers, crude cigarette lighters and printed photographs from negatives. This also honed my skill as a salesman!!

We had lots of service men stationed near us at that time. First, the Polish soldiers, then the Italian prisoners and the German prisoners. The local girls loved the Italian prisoners, but not so the farmers The German prisoners were loved by the farmers, because they were hard workers and followed orders.

I did quite well academically at school and when I was eleven, I was given a bursary to Perth Academy, which in those days was a fee paying school.The bursary paid my bus fare and all the fees. Generally the students at the Academy were from the higher earners in society, so the bursary kids were identified regularly by the other students.  

I did well enough at the Academy to pass my leaving certificate with enough “highers” to be accepted in engineering by Glasgow University in 1948. The County gave me a grant, which covered my fees and residency in a hostel. Breakfast and dinner were included. I skipped lunch most days because I had no money.

I loved Glasgow University. It was a four year sandwich course, so in the summer I went to work for different companies to learn practical skills, These included Bruce Peebles in Edinburgh, making large transformers and switch gear, EMI in London, mostly in defence electronics and GEC in Coventry in the consumer field. None of these jobs paid much, so I augmented my income with other activities such as a barman during my stay in Coventry. Being a barman quickly teaches you much about human philosophy and it was a worthwhile experience for later in life.

After leaving University I was hired on a 2 year college apprentice course by Metropolitan Vickers in Trafford Park, Manchester where I learned the practical aspects of engineering, which in many cases were quite different from the theoretical. We were assigned to different departments every three months. One of my very interesting assignments was in the export sales division handling Middle East sales. It turned out really to be the entertainment division for the sheiks and other important potential customers. The entertainment was lavish with everything thrown in and I really enjoyed that. The office was in St Paul’s Courtyard in very pleasant surroundings.

In my last year at University I had joined the University Air Squadron and they flew from Scone, so that was handy for me, as someone paid my transport home. I loved flying especially in the gliders, which were pulled into the air with a winch. We also flew Tiger Moths and Chipmunks.

When I left Glasgow I managed to be accepted by the Manchester University Air Squadron, which flew from an airport called Woodvale on the coast between Southport and Liverpool. I finally managed to change to the RAFVR because my ties to Manchester University Air Squadron were becoming tenuous.

When my apprenticeship was completed I joined Metropolitan Vickers as an electrical engineer working in the Special Applications division. It was very interesting work, mostly military control systems; especially naval, so I spent lots of time on warships. Some of my projects included the first British Beam Rider missile control system on the HMS Girdle Ness, the first British guided missile destroyer. I also worked on a system to control the deceleration of the arrester cables on carriers. It was a terrible problem for the Fleet Air Arm because the cables would pull the hooks from the planes as they landed, with the result of many lost planes and lives.

At that time in Britain, conscription was still in place but because I was working on vital military projects, I was exempt. I had the best of both worlds; flying on weekends, usually long weekends, three two week training camps per year usually in airports near very beautiful English villages. We were often invited to a welcome dinner by the local dignitaries at which time my Wing Commander would have to reply to the local toasts. Of course he knew little about the village so he would send me a day or two early to prepare his speech with local content, really impressing the locals. This served me well, because when the budget forced cuts in the number of officers, I was never let go because he liked my speech writing.

I was the highest paid engineer for my age at Metro- politan Vickers and was making £3000 per year and paying lots of tax, so in 1957 I decided to look at other opportunities.

One day, coming back from Plymouth through London I had quite a wait between trains and I noticed in the newspaper that Canadian Westinghouse were looking for engineers, so I went to the hotel and they offered me a job. However, if I did not stay for two years, I would have to pay back my passage. I turned it down and when I did, the interviewer said American Westinghouse was at another hotel, so I went there. Their offer was as different as night and day. The gentleman who was in charge of the very large facility in Buffalo, NY said: “We will bring you over first class on the ship. Stay for 30 days and if you don’t like it we will send you back. Further if you are married before you come we will bring your wife also. So in July 20, 1957, I was married in Manchester to Patricia, my wife of over 53 years and on August 2, 1957 we sailed to New York, a wonderful honeymoon paid for by someone else.

Westinghouse looked after us like children, arranging weekends and ensuring the best doctors, when Pat became ill after our first child. What an introduction to America!!

I worked there for four and a half years and I repaid them quite well with many patents. I built the controls for the first digitally controlled paper mill in the United States and many other things with steel mills and antenna systems. During this time my second daughter was born and my mother made her first air trip to attend the christening. I remember her telling me that on her arrival, after the long flight, on attempting to rise from her seat, she thought a certain paralysis had set in, only to find that she was still attached to her seat belt!!

In 1961 I decided to move into computers and was hired by General Electric in Phoenix, Arizona. in Phoenix, Arizona.This was where my third daughter was born. As a principal engineer I was asked to help design a new computer system to challenge IBM. I knew nothing about computer systems, which was something of an embarrassment because my position was quite senior. I decided that before everyone found out that I did not know anything, I would better learn, so I took a Masters Degree in computer science and graduated in 1967. By that time I had been promoted several times and was now running a very large system design team.

 Some of my very interesting experiences were representing GE in the East Block as their technical liaison. Unless you have worked under communism, it is difficult to describe it. I have many stories about my experiences, but they would take too long. I had my personal FBI agent interview me before and after every trip.

A project I proposed was to build a new system, which was unusual but I needed to convince Toshiba in Japan to pay for it. They agreed, provided that I would come and lead the team of US and Japanese engineers, so I spent many very interesting months in Japan

In 1961 Raytheon asked me to come and design a new computer system under very favourable personal circumstances. I did this and a few other very successful systems. The facility was located in Santa Ana in Southern California and the family moved to Newport Beach, which we loved.

However, Raytheon finally decided to move the operation to Boston, which was not acceptable to the family. I had another offer from Varian Data Machines to head their engineering operations in Southern California, but because Varian and Raytheon were business partners, Raytheon asked me to stay for six months to assist in the transfer of the operation to Boston. I transferred it all in two months and then I had four months on full pay before my next assignment. My wife and our three children enjoyed this very much. We took the train to Mexico and explored part of that country.

After my six months, I joined Varian Data Machines also in Southern California and designed a radically new computer system, which was very successful. Varian asked me to go to Czechoslovakia to rescue a project that they had bid on and which was in real trouble. It was to be the first satellite banking system in the Eastern Block and was in a mess. Again, dealing with the communists was a challenge. However after many interesting experiences I successfully completed the project. My Czech counterpart was the President of the State Bank. One day he said to me; “Mr Dobbie, it is very important to me that this project is successful”. I gave him the usual assurances and he said: “You don't understand. My friend applied for $2M of hard currency and his project was not successful and they took him and executed him”. I now understood.

After Varian, where I had many other very interesting projects including some in Britain, I was recruited to a company in Northern California, Memorex, which was a company in the high tech business, in serious financial trouble.

I and two others took it over and in less than five years made it successful.

After being the CEO for several high tech companies in Silicon Valley, I retired in 1996.

Pat and I had a very beautiful Spanish type house in Palo Alto, but it had very little land. Pat decided that in my retirement I would be bored stiff if I had no land and projects to keep me busy, therefore to the consternation of our children, we sold our house in Palo Alto and bought a property on an acre in Atherton. The house needed to be remodelled, which took us about a year and we have been here since 1994. Our children, although all “flown the nest” now love where we live.

In Atherton I took an interest in civic affairs, was elected to the planning commission, the general plan committee and finally to the Council in 2008. In 2010 I was the vice mayor and now I am the Mayor.

Atherton is a beautiful town of about 7000 residents, 30 miles south of San Francisco and is heavily wooded with lots of oak trees.

My three daughters and seven grandchildren are all now growing up which is a little sad especially in the summer, where our pool no longer resounds with the children's laughter it once had.

My oldest granddaughter is finishing her PhD in biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego and one of my other granddaughters is a junior in environmental science at Harvard.

My children are children no longer and are all happily settled with their own families.

I often think of the beginnings of it all in that small hamlet of Aberargie.


by James Dobbie