Sunday, February 23, 2020

Phone box drama with Russian defectors - or something like that

Theres something appealingly (or appallingly depending on your point of view) incongruous about rural phone boxes that at first glance seem to be in the middle of nowhere. Even as a child in the 1970s when it wasn’t unusual for houses to still not be on the phone part of the appeal of our* phone box was that it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.

At the time the immediate area was very sparsely populated indeed, and it’s on a road to nowhere very much (See Google maps here) unless you live along it, for some of the houses it would have served that phone box must be almost a miles walk. Which is still a lot closer than the nearest village which is another mile or two further on.

Considering that has made me think a lot about how our relationship with phones has changed. The houses near this box could only really make calls, and you’d need ready cash to do it. Or you’d use it in an emergency. There’s something about the idea that information only goes out, doesn’t come in, that fascinates me.

This map ought to expand Here

Now, back to June 1958. It’s midsummer so there’s more or less 24 hour daylight, and the Russian factory ship Ukraina (there for the herring, Russian factory ships on the skyline were a feature of Shetland summers well into the 1990s) is sitting of Footabrough on the west side of Shetland. 

Around 9pm William Fraser senior and his son, Willie junior, are working in a field on their croft - Crookataing** which is also the closest house to our phone box - when they spot a stranger. The stranger turns out to be an Estonian fisherman who has jumped ship from the Ukrania in a commandeered motorboat and made for land. Happily both the escapee and Willie junior speak just enough German to understand each other and the Frasers agree to hide this man, Erich Teayn (the Shetland Times calls him Erich Klaub, but all other sources say Teayn).

Willie then goes to our phone box to call the police***, meanwhile much to the annoyance of the coastguard around 30 Russians have landed at Footabrough in pursuit of Erich, which is totally illegal and basically an invasion of British territory. They search the countryside passing close to Crookataing, but not going in. 

Erich was taken to the Lerwick police station where local authorities point blank refused to hand him back to the Russians, before being transported south. It seems he got to stay in the U.K. though not much is known about what happened to him after this. 

Questions were raised in parliament, though not many See Hansard here, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot in the British press or much fuss - searching around for details I’ve found more references to American publications than any other. But it’s still a curious story and even more curious that it’s not better known. 

Erich was definitely lucky that he found people to take him in, the Shetland landscape doesn’t offer much cover if a search party is after you and reports of 30 men sounds like the crew of the Ukrania meant business. An account from The Shetland Times is Here.

There’s now a go fund me page Here

*By our I’m thinking of all or any of us who might read this.

**Years later my father and stepmother bought this croft house, renovated it, and lived in it for a number of years, it has an amazing view and seems a ridiculously tranquil spot for this kind of excitement. 

***Absolutely the sort of emergency that demands a phone call.  


  1. What an amazing story, and what a beautiful place! Good luck to your father's phone box plans

    1. I’m wondering what other stories might be attached that box now. It must have been used to relay all sorts of news about birth and death, and possibly some romance in between. Keeping fingers crossed that he manages to raise enough money to get the work done.

  2. Fascinating (and perhaps unexpected!) story - different times... Though I too remember the times before home phones when I was dependant on the phone box at the end of the road! (a bit closer than this one, I think...)