Retired Scottish fire chief Wayne McCollin recalls racial intolerance he endured in childhood after moving from Barbados in 1960

The most senior black firefighter to serve in Scotland has spoken of the racist abuse he endured as a young man and how he hopes his struggles will inspire others facing discrimination to realise their dreams.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 4:55 am

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Wayne McCollin, who rose to the rank of assistant chief officer in the former Lothian and Borders Fire Service, first experienced racial intolerance when he moved to the UK with his family in 1960.

Now retired, he has recalled the racial slurs directed at him in his younger days.

“That was a culture shock. People wanting to play with your hair and calling you nig-nog or coon,” he said.

“It was how things were in the 60s – there was nothing you could do. It was completely wrong, but it was what it was".

McCollin did not let the racism hinder him – when he was a child he dreamed of being a doctor or a dentist, and after he left school, he went off to do a dental technician’s course with the RAF.

But his plans all changed when his older brother Louis became a firefighter – with McCollin deciding to follow in his footsteps.

Wayne McCollin receiving his Queen’s Fire Service Medal in 2006 when he was Assistant Chief Officer at Lothian & Borders.

“We were very young when we arrived in the UK, and when Louis saw a fire engine it captured him,” he said.

"He always wanted to be a firefighter. He tried four different services before getting accepted by Walsall Fire Brigade, a small service in the West Midlands.

“When the West Midlands came together, he become one of 2,500 firefighters - and one of three black and minority ethnic (BME) firefighters. I started my career being told if you are half the firefighter of your brother – you will be alright.”

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Wayne McCollin has spoken of the racist abuse he endured as a young man

In his career as a firefighter, and then as a senior officer, McCollin pushed for greater diversity within fire and rescue services.

He said: “I was the chair of the joint recruitment board for the three services – Lothian and Borders, Fife and Central. We introduced some initiatives to try and improve the diversity of the services, and although we managed to get the numbers up of BME, they weren’t as high as we would have liked.

“Culturally, services are still evolving but it is going to take time. Trying to break it down has been the biggest challenge.

“There are feelings of ‘we’re really good at what we do – why change?’ and individuals who saw nothing prejudicial in their actions or thoughts and couldn’t understand why these issues were being raised.”

Wayne McCollin receiving his Queen’s Fire Service Medal in 2006 when he was Assistant Chief Officer at Lothian and Borders.

Since McCollin retired from Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, he has become involved with training and is currently vice treasurer of the Asian Fire Service Association.

He has also been active within the Fire Brigades Union, and was the first chair for black and ethnic minority members.

“We all have a desire to make life for the next generation less traumatic than what we have gone through,” he said.

"Being the role model has always been part of everything I did. It’s not saying if I can do it, you can do it – it’s just to show that it’s possible for people from all backgrounds to do this job.”

While McCollin has faced racism in UK, he still gives credit to his parents for making the move from Barbados decades ago.

He said: “They took a decision they believed was right for their family and leapt into the unknown. They worked hard - it must have been really tough for them, and I am really appreciative of what they did.

“I’m proud to be a Bajan, or Barbadian, and I hope for a better future for my three daughters and six grandchildren.”

Assistant chief officer Stuart Stevens, who is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s ethnic minority champion, said: “Black History Month is an opportunity to not only celebrate but to celebrate the contribution and legacy of Scotland’s BME communities.

"Stories such as Wayne’s allow us to take stock through lived experience, both positive and negative, and learn from that to support our drive to be more inclusive as a service and as a society.

“Serving Scotland’s diverse communities is an honour, and I am fully committed to advocating for excellent public services that meet the unique needs of different community groups”.

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