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Glenshee: The mystery of Fred MacAulay’s vanishing shed

A mock-up of 'Fred's Shed' - a shelter erected at the Spittal of Glenshee by police inspector Fred MacAulay in the 1980s.
A mock-up of 'Fred's Shed' - a shelter erected at the Spittal of Glenshee by police inspector Fred MacAulay in the 1980s.

A shelter named after police inspector Fred MacAulay – the father of the comedian of the same name – was once located in the heart of Glenshee. Gayle Ritchie questions what became of “Fred’s Shed”.

In the frozen winter of 1984 after a dramatic snowstorm hit Glenshee, a small corrugated iron shed was erected a few miles south of the ski centre.

Affectionately known as “Fred’s Shed”, it was the brainchild of Blairgowrie police inspector Fred MacAulay – father of the Perth-based comedy stalwart and radio presenter of the same name.

Fred Senior was revered among colleagues and had been at the forefront of the massive rescue operation at Glenshee on January 21 that year.

More than 2000 skiers were stranded overnight and had to be evacuated from the snowbound ski centre, with some airlifted to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.

Traffic chaos at Glenshee in 1984.

Following the incident, Fred was on a mission to improve standards for his police officers, many of whom who had been outside, shivering and soaked, throughout the ordeal.

He campaigned to get them better equipment and clothing but best of all, built the corrugated iron hut which fellow officers fondly nicknamed “Fred’s Shed”.

It was a place where cops could shelter from the elements, enjoy cups of tea and a biscuit and change out of wet clothes.

It was legendary in its day, sitting, as it did, next to the snow gates at the Spittal of Glenshee.

The snow gates at Glenshee.

The shed withstood blizzards, snowstorms and gale force winds for around a decade.

And then one day, it vanished.

Those who drove past the site saw neither hide nor hair of the shed and many people wondered where it had gone.

“It was like Doctor Who’s Tardis”

Retired police sergeant Willie MacFarlane worked alongside Fred MacAulay in the 70s and 80s and was hugely appreciative of the shed.

“It wasn’t much larger than an old police box but it was just like Doctor Who’s Tardis – much bigger inside,” he says.

“It was just big enough to accommodate two burly cops, and served as a place to dry off, change into dry clothing and have a cup of coffee.”

Fred’s Shed was likened to Doctor Who’s Tardis.

Willie says an electricity pole was installed to power police radio equipment and that officers sometimes had to thaw out bottles of gas to heat the shed!

“It was situated on the right hand side of the road just before the Glenshee snow gates overlooking Old Spittal Farm as you travel northwards towards the Cairnwell summit,” he says.

“It was about five miles or so south of the ski centre.”

A bleak scene from the Spittal of Glenshee.

Willie, of Wolfhill in Perthshire, recalls a sketch of a “Grand Night Out” in Fred’s Shed being created.

“It was hung inside the shed and included various caricatures with the host being ‘Elder Lemon Fred’ accompanied by ‘Lemsip Finlay’, who was based on PC Finlay Morrison, Fred’s able assistant and one of the cops trapped in the snowdrifts in 1984 like myself,” he says.

“I’m not sure why Fred was depicted as a lemon but I think that the saying ‘Elder Lemon’ was common back then and it inferred that the person had age and wisdom behind them.

“Lemsip of course was the cure for the cold which many of those skiers would have developed after a night stranded in their cars.”

The busy car park at Glenshee Ski Centre in 1979.

The sketch boasted other features such as a Grampian Police spy peeking out from a hillside who was reporting back on all the new equipment Tayside Police had been issued with, says Willie.

Sadly, just like Fred’s Shed, the sketch disappeared.

Willie, who retired in 2004 after a 30 year career in the Force, remembers Fred’s generosity was greatly appreciated by officers.

“He was very much involved in the evacuation and spent a couple of nights away from home staying at the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel which was set up as the base.

“Fred campaigned strongly for proper equipment to be supplied for the men and this was stored at Blairgowrie Police Station for the sole use of A93 ski patrols.

Inspector Fred MacAulay in 1980.

“We were given proper snow boots, lovely foam under-boots which were like toast to wear – your feet never got cold.

“We also got black woollen tammies, snow goggles, and an orange two-piece snow suit.

“Before that we had practically nothing in the way of equipment. But the best thing Fred got us was the shed.”

Comic legend

Comedian Fred MacAulay Junior – Fred’s son – says he drove up past the site of his dad’s former shed a few months ago and was disappointed not to find it.

“I got a message a few years ago after dad died from one of his old colleagues telling me about the shed,” he says.

“It was at the snow gates at the Glenshee end of the Spittal and I actually looked for it last year when I was passing through. But obviously to no avail.

“I wondered if I’d misunderstood where it had been – but hearing that it’s gone will explain why I couldn’t find it!”

Comedian Fred MacAulay.

Fred is keen to find out more about the shed and asks that anyone with information on its whereabouts comes forward.

“I’m fairly sure that some of the older members of staff at Glenshee Chairlift Company might remember dad and ‘Fred’s Shed’,” he says.

“If not, there might also be a few police officers around the country with some stories to tell.”

Perth and Kinross Western Division of Tayside Police in 1980. Fred MacAulay is in the back row and fourth from right.

Fred joined the police in 1956 – the year Fred Junior was born.

His first posting was in Callendar from 1957 till 1960. He was then in Killin until 1963 when he was transferred to Blairgowrie.

“We lived in the police house on the main road in Rattray,” recalls Fred.

“At some point while serving in Blairgowrie, dad was promoted to detective constable.

“In April 1970 he was promoted to sergeant and we moved to Scone although dad was stationed in Perth.

“After a few years as sergeant in Perth, dad was again promoted to detective sergeant – this time with The Scottish Crime Squad which initially meant daily travelling to their headquarters in Airdrie.

“After a while the Squad opened a branch in Dunblane where dad worked with two detective constables.

“His final promotion and move was back to Blairgowrie – this time as inspector.

“I think this was the perfect end to dad’s police career.

“He was very fond of Blairgowrie and had many friends there.”

Gleneagles Hotel.

After retiring from the police, Fred worked as head of security at Gleneagles Hotel where he’s still fondly remembered by staff. He finally retired at the age of 65.

An elder at Scone Old Parish Church, he was keen on fishing and shooting and was a talented piper.

Fred died in 2003 at the age of 74. His wife Moira died the following year.

Glenshee storm of 1984

The Press and Journal described the evacuation from Glenshee in 1984 as “the biggest rescue operation of its kind in Scotland”.

Around 2000 skiers, who had taken to the slopes on January 21, were trapped for more than 24 hours as the area saw some of the worst weather in decades.

As food and drink supplies at the centre ran out, an RAF helicopter was called from Leuchars to airlift nine sick people, including four diabetics, to Ninewells.

A helicopter arrives at Ninewells Hospital after airlifting people stranded in Glenshee who were diabetics or had taken ill during the snowstorm of January 1984.

Braemar Mountain Rescue worked round the clock and Grampian Police set up a control point at the centre to coordinate the massive evacuation.

“I attended many incidents in my 30 years of policing but I can honestly say that this was one event which will live with me forever,” says Willie.

“It was an afternoon and evening never to be forgotten.”

Willie was a member of the Tayside Police Traffic Department at the time and along with a colleague, was sent out to routinely patrol the A93 between Blairgowrie and the county boundary at Cairnwell.

“Weather conditions were fine down in Blairgowrie, and as to be expected there was a fairly heavy volume of traffic making its way up to the ski centre north of Glenshee,” he recalls.

I attended many incidents in my 30 years of policing but I can honestly say that this was one event which will live with me forever.”

Willie MacFarlane

“Around lunchtime we were alerted to the fact that conditions were worsening at the Cairnwell summit and as our vehicle made the steep ascent towards the top, we came upon a broken down car abandoned and almost invisible due to the white out conditions.

“Amazingly there were two young girls huddled up inside the car, yet the winds were so high, and with little oxygen in the air it proved to be quite a task transferring them into our vehicle.

“Fortunately a council snow blower edged past and by way of following in its tracks, we were the very last vehicle to make it down to the Glenshee Hotel.

“The situation was classed as a major incident and it was estimated that around 2000 skiers and staff were stranded at the top with only the ski centre itself being available for shelter.

Retired police officer Willie MacFarlane.

“An emergency meeting was held down at the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel, now ravaged by fire, and it was decided to requisition every four wheel drive vehicle in the area to effect a rescue.

“The following day when conditions were quieter, a helicopter was employed to drop food and medical supplies at the summit.

“Satisfied that no one was in immediate danger the actual rescue was postponed until the Sunday morning when at 7am sharp, a convoy of snow ploughs and cutting machines, under the command of Jim Baxter the roads divisional surveyor, cut their way to the top, a task that took several hours.”

Skiers at Glenshee.

Willie says the road up to the Cairnwell Summit was “a much trickier route” to navigate than it is today.

Items of safety equipment issued to the police for snow patrol duties consisted mainly of a Range Rover, a waterproof anorak, two torches and a pair of communal wellies.

“From then on, though, matters improved and each officer assigned to winter patrol duties was issued with a fine wardrobe of winter protection gear,” he says.

“Fred’s Shed, officially referred to as the POD, provided a police base for patrolling officers.

“This structure remained in position for many years but there’s no evidence of it now.”

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