It might have happened more than 50 years ago, but Colin MacLeod will never forget the day he had a gun placed to his head and thought he was going to be murdered.
And now, in a new book about his decades of working in supermarkets from Northfield in Aberdeen to Catford in London, the north-east man who spent his childhood in Turriff and Fyvie, and his school days at Inverurie Academy, has lifted the lid on his remarkable life in retail.
It’s a story which brought him close to a variety of celebrities such as Lee Marvin on the set of The Dirty Dozen, Norman Wisdom, David Frost and Lesley Crowther, in a career defined by arduous hard work, battles with shoplifters, heartwarming successes and occasional failure.
Laughter in Store
And it once led to him being put in charge of an old railway carriage which had been converted into a Spar shop in Kemnay.
But if his work, Laughter in Store, mostly concentrates on the lighter side of stock-taking and shelf-stacking, the Beauly-based octogenarian has focused on horrific as well as hilarious experiences, including the night when he and three colleagues found themselves in grave danger.
It was an ordeal which ended up in the Old Bailey and one of the gangsters was subsequently involved in the murder of a high-ranking policeman in Blackpool – and Mr MacLeod clearly believes this was a case where justice did not prevail.
He said: “It was 8pm on a Friday in Catford and, lying on my desk in my office in the store were the takings for the busiest day of the week.
“Without warning, the office door was kicked open and a figure in white overalls yelled: ‘Let’s have the effing money now’.
“My immediate reaction was to prevent him getting to the money, and impulsively, I resisted. He tried to bring a club down on my head, but due to the sloping ceiling of the small office, the head of it smashed through the plasterwork.
“Extracting it quickly, he swung it wildly, catching me on the shoulder. The impact spun me around and then I received a knee in the back from a second person who had joined in, and I was viciously kicked and bundled to the floor.
“My assistant manager then landed with a thud on the floor to my left and I could see his hands were tied to his back. As I lay there trussed up, my mind was amazingly calm, and I realised that after it was all over, the police would ask for any information which would assist them.
“I turned my head round at the precise moment that my female clerk was being tied up. She was sitting on her chair and also appeared remarkably calm in the circumstances.
“Suddenly, the scarf which was tied around the thug’s face, fell below his chin and I saw his face clearly.
“’Pull your scarf up’, shouted the villain standing above me: ‘He could have seen you’.
“There was a sudden silence. ‘Look’, said the same voice. ‘If he moves again, blow his effing head off.’
“A figure knelt on the floor beside my head, then there was the loud click of a gun being cocked and the end of the barrel of a sawn-off shotgun was placed on my temple.
“I was sweating so much that the perspiration was blocking my nostrils and, with my face pressed hard against the tiled floor, breathing was becoming nearly impossible.
“It was at that moment that I thought I was going to die – by asphyxiation or worse, by drowning on my office floor. I moved my head slightly to her breath – I had to.
“He obviously and thankfully didn’t pull the trigger. But the telephone wires were ripped out, the safe was emptied and the wallets were gathered together.
“Then, the manager of the nearly Bromley supermarket was passing by, saw the store lights on, and rattled the door, intending to speak to me. One of the gang opened it and yanked him inside, where he too was tied up.”
The victims were subsequently interviewed by the police and Mr MacLeod suddenly realised that his wife, Doreen, would have been expecting him home hours ago.
Even as the CID collected statements from the shop staff and fingerprinting experts dusted the office, the stoical Scot tried to downplay the extent of the crime when he finally walked through his front door.
Understandably, she was shocked at his account and worried about the injuries he had sustained.
But even though his back and ribs were badly bruised, he went to bed and opened for business at 6.30am the next day.
As he said: “The others also turned up at their usual time. There was no such thing as counselling in those days!”
In the days which followed, the police made an arrest with Mr MacLeod’s help, but it was only once he was giving evidence at the Old Bailey that the trauma of what he and his colleagues had endured began to filter through his mind.
He added: “From the dock, I looked ahead at a face I had seen once before. If looks could kill, I’d have been dead, as I nearly was once before.
“But I gave my evidence in full and the case proceeded smoothly. The accused was found guilty of armed assault and playing a part in a £2,000-plus robbery, a tidy sum which at the time – in November 1967 – would have purchased a three-bedroom house in London.
“However, to the utter disgust of many people, he was given a sentence of only two years in prison.
“After the case, Scotland Yard officers took me out to lunch and told me the two-year sentence was no deterrent whatsoever to crimes of this nature and that, sadly, nothing would change after he got out.
“How right they were! In March 1972, my assailant at Catford was part of a group who were involved in a bungled robbery of a jewellers in Blackpool. The police had received a tip-off of the crime and were keeping the shop under surveillance.
“The jeweller was badly beaten up and the premises ransacked before the thugs fled.
“But, in the case that followed, Frederick Joseph Sewell – my second assailant – shot Superintendent Gerry Richardson dead. Another chasing policeman, Sergeant Ian Hampson, was also shot and seriously injured.
“All the gang were eventually captured and my assailant was sentenced to 25 years for the attempted murder of Sgt Hampson, 20 years for the manslaughter of Supt Richardson, 15 years for conspiracy and 15 years for armed robbery.
We remember Supt Gerry Richardson today as the access road outside our new West Division Police Headquarters is named in honour of him. Supt Gerry Richardson was killed in the line of duty after being shot while attending an armed robbery in Blackpool on 23 August 1971. pic.twitter.com/un3RKsYNxl
— Blackpool Police (@BlackpoolPolice) May 10, 2018
“When I read this, a distinct chill swept over me. I now fully realised the lengths that this gang were prepared to go to and that my life must have hung by a thread at the time of the robbery at my store.
“When I reflect on the full and interesting life I’ve been privileged to live and enjoy, I find it difficult to accept that capital punishment is not the appropriate sentence for those who murder innocent people who are simply doing their job.
“Only those who have been close to death in circumstances like mine and have survived can truly understand how it feels when they read about someone else who, too, had faced a loaded gun, but who had not been so lucky.”
Supt Richardson, who was only 38 at the time of his death, was posthumously awarded the George Cross and a street has been named in his honour in Blackpool.
Wandering with the stars
Colin MacLeod spent more than half a century in the retail industry and had to deal with an often rapidly evolving world, transformed by supermarkets, hypermarkets and guant malls.
Yet he admits he was lucky to meet some famous names throughout his career, including one of Hollywood’s classic Western stars.
While in London, Mr MacLeod was part of a football team called Ocean Athletic, who played in the Harlesden League, and was passing Hendon Police Academy one Sunday when the sound of military band music caught his attention.
He and a friend clambered into the grounds where they discovered that a film company was shooting a scene from a military movie.
They quickly became engrossed in the action. So engrossed in fact that Mr MacLeod was almost struck by the descent of a heavy hydraulic camera platform until he was rescued by a man with a distinct American drawl.
“You alright, fella. You gotta watch these things, they can be dangerous,” said Lee Marvin, the star of The Comancheros, Cat Ballou, The Caine Mutiny and other classic films.
As Mr MacLeod added: “I learned that this was The Dirty Dozen they were making. I thanked him sincerely for helping me, and asked if he’d mind letting me have his autograph – which he was happy to do. Then he nodded in the direction of some people off set and we made our way there.
“Resting in a hammock, reading a paperback book was Clint Walker, who was well known from the TV series Cheyenne.
“And, near him, strumming a guitar was another personality we recognised who had had a No 1 hit with If I Had a Hammer.
“It was Trini Lopez, who came across as a warm, friendly individual who I later learned had done a great deal of charity work.
“Whenever The Dirty Dozen gets another airing on TV, the memory of our little escapade brings a smile to my face.”
How the cats got the cream in the North of Scotland
We’ve all had them: deflating days at the office where nothing seems to go right.
And Colin MacLeod thought he was enduring that scenario after a very cold, snowy night in the north of Scotland when he was a supermarket duty manager.
With the weather worsening, he took the decision to shut the store early and set off on a long, treacherous journey home.
The next morning, he set off for work at 4.20am on a hazardous trek over roads which had either been badly gritted or not at all. Finally, after reaching his destination and opening the shop, his first phone call was from head office, bawling him out for the previous night’s closure. It was not a pleasant conversation.
However, as Mr MacLeod explained, there was a positive codicil to the story.
He said: “As I put the phone down, I thought I spied a cat at the top of the stairs, leading to the stock room.
“And, on further inspection, I found a beautiful white cat with two new kittens. She had somehow got into this rather dilapidated office by climbing up the wall and entering through an air vent. She now wanted to leave, but a very cold and snowy morning awaited her if we allowed that, so we gave her some food which was hungrily received.
“One of the staff lived on a farm and offered to give the kittens a new home. But she was also quickly drawn to the mother and all three found a new, warm place to live.
“Looking back, it was a rewarding conclusion to a day which started so badly.”
Copies of Mr MacLeod’s book Laughter in Store can be obtained from Amazon or www.lumphananpress.co.uk.