Heroin in Fraserburgh

The small fishing port of Fraserburgh in Scotland has the highest rate of heroin addiction in Britain. But these aren't stereotypical addicts. Here, the junkies are well-to-do housewives and trawlermen with money to burn. Peter Stanford reports. Photographs by Sam Faulkner

Peter Stanford
Friday 16 October 1998 23:02 BST

This could be a commercial for one of the big house- builders. A young mum, her hair tied back in a neat chignon, gold buttons sparkling on her tailored red jacket, is lifting her child out of the back of a shiny blue Range Rover. On the doorstep of her new ranch-style bungalow a heap of shopping bags waits to be put away in the state-of-the-art kitchen. The garden is well- tended. The dips in the ruched blinds are symmetrical. Even the street- sign looks polished.

But that's when the film suddenly snaps. Despite outward appearances, the woman in question is not living out a three-dimensional version of the latest Marks & Spencer catalogue. She is a heroin addict. And, according to local GP Sandy Wisley, there are many other affluent drug abusers hiding behind the double-glazed picture windows of this upmarket estate in the fishing port of Fraserburgh in north-east Scotland. "If I threw a stone now," says Wisley, as he drives along streets lifted from the set of Knots Landing, "there's a one-in-three chance I'd hit a junkie."

Trainspotting gave Scotland's drug problem an international airing. The film confirmed the widespread prejudice that addicts live in run-down tenement blocks with poor sanitation and lack money, hope, insight and a job. Fraserburgh turns such stereotypes on their head. For "the Brock", as it's known to locals, has the highest rate of heroin addiction per head of population of anywhere in Britain. There are 325 known addicts out of the town's population of just 14,000.

And the problem is growing daily. In the whole of 1997, there were 14 emergency resuscitations at the local hospital because of heroin overdoses. In the first three months of 1998, there were 19.

Yet the cause here is not deprivation or lack of opportunity. It is prosperity. Unemployment is well below the national average. Petty crime - usually a sure indication of young people with a drug habit to support - is low. Of the 33 people brought back to life in casualty, half were working fishermen earning good money on the trawlers that are the lifeblood of the town. "Here we don't steal to pay for our habit," says Wisley, "we work for it."

Maria is 26 and a neighbour of the woman with the blue Range Rover. Her own four-wheel-drive is parked outside the four-bedroomed bungalow she shares with her three children. She's currently studying, but maintenance from her ex-husband, rent-free accommodation from her wealthy parents and accumulated savings keep her in the style to which she has grown accustomed. And it keeps her in heroin.

As we sit chatting in her toy-strewn sitting room - there's a larger, more formal, lounge next door with a pink leather three-piece suite - she suddenly gets up, shuts the blinds and disappears down the hallway. She reappears with a small tin, the sort that normally holds cigars. Its got her gear in it, she explains.

There's her "tooter", a tube of tin foil for chasing - like most of the affluent addicts in Fraserburgh, she has enough sense not to inject - and a tiny quantity of heroin powder wrapped up tightly like gold dust. It is dull brown and looks like the droppings from a vacuum-cleaner bag. "I meant to be off it," she says. It's a line I'm going to hear many times in Fraserburgh. "I tell everyone I'm off it, but after I put the children to bed last night, I just had to have some. So I rang round and I got two lots. This one is for later." The need for a fix after an exhausting day with children is something many parents will recognise. But while I reach for a glass of wine, Maria phones a heroin dealer.

This is the first time I've seen heroin. It's the first time, knowingly, I've met a heroin addict. I'd imagined it differently. Maria doesn't inhabit another planet. She's pretty much like many other young parents.

What I had anticipated is the personal tragedy. There's something vulnerable about Maria. She is slight of build, with shiny fair hair framing an unlined, almost imploring face. In the oldest of male cliches, she presents herself as the damsel in distress. She makes me want to rescue her. After all, dry land is so tantalisingly close. She has money, a supportive family - her siblings are hard-working, happily married Christians - good looks and a brain. She has half completed a university degree course. She shouldn't be drowning. So why is she?

She was, by Fraserburgh standards, a late starter. Most of her fellow users acquired their drug habit on leaving school. Some began even earlier. But she waited until two years ago, when her marriage broke up. "I would go out with my friends to cheer myself up and there was cannabis around. So I did that and that led to Ecstasy and then to acid. And then we thought we'd get a bag of smack. Just one between two. To see what it was like."

Within days, she was hooked. She sped through thousands of pounds every month, until those closest to her found what she was doing. They put a stop on her credit cards, took away her savings book, encouraged her to see Dr Wisley and find a way back. "I've tried. I'm trying. I was clean for 12 weeks. But it's got a hold on me. It's like a marriage. My relationship with heroin is like that. It's the only love in my life. The rest of it, I think, is shit."

What makes her keep coming back is what she and other addicts refer to as "the hit". "I've read books that talk about heroin wrapping you up in cotton wool and it's right. It's just that. You just feel so relaxed, so mellow, everything in the world is great. From the minute I wake up, getting that feeling is the main thing on my mind."

The hit is a phrase other heroin addicts here use repeatedly to describe the draw of heroin in this world of plenty. And it is Sandy Wisley's basic explanation for a small town's big-town problem. The landlady at my B&B sums it up neatly when she recalls her days as a local guide leader. Girls as young as 10, from well-to-do families, would turn up with a pounds 20 note to pay for their 25p admission fee. "They have money here so early and they get streetwise. And if you're waving pounds 20 notes around when you're 10, by the time you're 14, you expect the world. And Fraserburgh cannae offer the world."

Maria has worked that out now, but it's too late. She has lost three close friends to heroin. And her lover: "When I met Sam, he was clean. I think that's what attracted me. I thought he could save me.

"My parents thought it, too. They encouraged him. He worked in the fish factory. Then, without telling me, he started getting into drugs. He was unhappy. His ex-wife wouldn't let him see his children. I didn't know about it until he overdosed. Really, no one believes me. They say I killed him. That time they saved him. Then one day, I came home and he'd hanged himself after taking smack. I had to cut him down."

On a sunny autumnal afternoon, down on Fraserburgh seafront, I could be in some genteel resort on the south coast of England. There are small pavilions with neat benches, ornate monuments, bowling greens peopled by ladies of a certain age and girth in pleated skirts and sensible shoes, and a square, grid-like good order to things. Only the grey stone - to match the grey sea - of the Victorian Gothic buildings is incongruous.

The high street is equally prim, with occasional chain-store facades mixing with the one-man-band furnishers, butchers and haberdashers that are fast dying out elsewhere. The Saltouns Hotel, named after the local gentry who still live down the road at Cairnbulg Castle, has the picture- postcard look so beloved of townies who crave mini-breaks. And in the back streets, there is that staple of all Scottish seaside towns - Bicocchi's, the Italian ice-cream makers.

Tourism is part of the local economy. There are acres of sand to the south. The lighthouse may have been turned into a museum, but fishing remains the main purpose of Fraserburgh, the last bastion of the flat, sparsely populated and rather melancholy north-east coast of Scotland, beyond Aberdeen, before the land turns abruptly westwards and heads back in towards Inverness. The town came into being for fishing when, in 1542, King James V gave Alexander Fraser, ancestor of the Saltouns, rights to plunder the local waters for herring.

Today, the port lands white fish and supports a local fish-related industry that involves up to 90 per cent of the town's population. There have, of course, been problems with Brussels and quotas. Boats have to go further afield for a decent haul. Turn-around times in port have been cut. But the financial rewards that built Fraserburgh's prosperity remain.

Fraserburgh's trawlers work on a share-fishing basis, rather like partners in a law practice. Each member of the crew gets a share of the value of the haul proportionate to age and rank. Young men of 16 and 17, fresh out of school, come ashore with pounds 700 in their hand, and only two days to spend it before they risk their lives at sea again.

In the past, they would frequent the pubs that still line the road up from the port to the high street. The binge culture has been a way of life here for as long as there have been fishermen returning with a fistful of money. Once it was drink and fast cars. A three-litre Ford Capri was the ultimate status symbol, an old fisherman told me, as he pointed out the "flagpolers" circuit along Broad Street, Cross Street and Victoria Street. If they didn't wrap their Capri round a flagpole, then they'd try the "nine-minutes run" - the 14 or so miles between Fraserburgh and Peterhead in nine minutes. In my rented Ford Fiesta, it took 35.

Today, there are still cars, but the binge culture has moved on. "Towards the end of the 1980s, I began to see cases of solvent abuse among 14- and 15-year-olds," recalls Sandy Wisley. "Then the 17- and 18-year-olds, back from the sea, would use cannabis. Then they graduated to heroin." Nowadays, young men go straight to heroin. It has snowballed, says Wisley.

Jamie started at sea when he was 16, and started with heroin at the same time. "I'd say that 90 per cent of young fisherman in this port take some sort of drug," he says. Ten years on, he is still battling to kick the habit. He's just done his first work as a trawlerman for months. Captains wouldn't hire him. Fraserburgh is a small town and reputations travel fast.

Short and wiry, but with a strong handshake, Jamie has suffered six overdoses in recent times. Once, while he was shooting-up at a friend's flat - Jamie is one of the few needle-users here - he overdosed and was dumped on the street corner. His mates called for an ambulance, but didn't want to give their address. With the drug trade so blatant in Fraserburgh, it's sometimes easy to forget that it is illegal, and fear of the police is ever-present.

When he's been unable to work, Jamie has turned to dealing to support his habit. Fraserburgh has a couple of major suppliers, but most of the time it is addicts struggling to make a little extra to pay for their drugs. You get used here to describing people not in terms of their income - he's got a pounds 30,000-a-year job - but rather in relation to their habit. Jamie has a pounds 250-a-day habit, Maria's is pounds 125.

And while Maria has been able to keep up the outward appearance of respectability, Jamie has plumbed the depths, ending up in a boarded-up flat in Marconi Road, the town's only sink street. "Every time I walk down the road, there are people offering me something," he says. "It's so hard to keep off. I look forward to being at sea. At least then there is no temptation."

But even Marconi Road would fail to make the grade for Trainspotting. Someone may have painted the word "Bronx" on a garden wall, and this bleak, barren street would not be your first choice to walk the dog at night, but it still houses families trying to make a decent living. And over their back walls is a small estate of smart starter homes at Bawdley Head.

Sandy Wisley has been a GP in this community for 20 years. He is a local man and loves the area and its history. If Fraserburgh ever wanted to appoint an ambassador, then Wisley would be the man. At the moment, however, he has his hands full.

Every addict who has made a serious attempt to give up heroin is full of praise for him. "He's great," says Maria. "He tells you it straight." Jamie regards him as an uncle figure. Janice, a mother whose 22-year-old son is hooked, calls him "an angel". Others dub him "Doctor Resurrection" on account of his success at getting addicts clean, and keeping them that way.

His one-man campaign is attracting recruits, but also enemies. There are many law-abiding citizens in the town who would prefer him to turn a blind eye. Janice's son was thrown out by another GP who told him: "This is not a drugs practice." The hope, evidently, is that the problem will just move on somewhere else.

The dealers, who first came to the Brock from the big cities because they wanted a quieter life, talk darkly of teaching Wisley a lesson. And the representatives of the fishing industry have accused him of pursuing a vendetta against them. "All we are getting from the doctor is over-reactive soundbites," says George MacRae, secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association. "This is a problem across society, not just fishing."

Wisley's greatest crime in this regard has been to highlight the extent of drug abuse by fisherman. There is strong anecdotal evidence, he says, that addicts are continuing their habit at sea and thereby endangering the lives of their colleagues. There have been collisions, snagged nets and a tide of older, married men deserting for work on the oil-supply vessels at Peterhead. There, all members of crew are subject to random drugs tests. Wisley would like to see these introduced in Fraserburgh.

Any campaigner who washes a town's dirty linen in public is bound to attract disapproval, but Wisley seems genuinely puzzled at criticism: "This is a social problem and I'm not going to run away from it. Anyone who can turn their back on this problem is not, in my book, fit to be a doctor."

A royalist and a paternalist, he is unrepentant at the fundamentalist tone of some of his message. Many parents applaud his efforts to wean addicts off heroin and his drugs education work in Fraserburgh's schools, but they become uncomfortable when he places the fate of the next generation squarely on their shoulders. "Parents here are too busy earning money," says the doctor. "They neglect family activities. You never see families out walking together. That's when it starts to go wrong." Mothers and fathers see wider influences than their own parenting skills at play.

Wisley believes that the churches, Boys' Brigades and the sort of sports clubs that he used to run need to make a bigger effort. He is fighting for an all-weather running track in the town and wants to convert the old police station into a drop-in centre. It will undoubtedly make a difference because, for all its airs and graces, Fraserburgh has the definite feel of being at the end of the world.

But it is only part of the answer. Fraserburgh's status at the top of the heroin-addiction league is not so easily explained. Affluence, hard-working parents, a long-established binge culture and the peculiarities of the fishing industry all deserve consideration, but they can all be found elsewhere. To this outsider, the core of the problem and why it has grown to epidemic proportions in this forgotten corner of Britain remains as cloaked in mystery as the appeal of the hit to those who haven't tried heroin

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