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Bert (Haggis) Harkins known far and wide by those interested in motorcycles in general and speedway in particular, still very much involved in motorcycle sports and one of the few riders to be known by two nicknames almost equally; Haggis speaks for its self but his other and probably earlier moniker ‘Bertola’ needed a bit of explanation and Bert explains “the ‘Bertola’ nickname came from a brand of Sweet Sherry which was sold in Scotland in my early days,....’Bertola, Cream of Sherries’.  I am not sure if this nickname came from Ian Hoskins or from my mother, but although I didn't drink, the name has stuck with me ever since, so much so, that Richard Clark, editor of Speedway Star, has recorded  a CD entitled,..."Bertola, Where's Yer Troosers".  (With apologies to Scottish singer, Andy Stewart and his song, "Donald Where's Yer Troosers"!)

Bert, born Robert Pearson Harkins on the 15th April 1940 in the Govan Fire Station, I asked him if his birth was an emergency and he told me “My dad was a Fireman in Glasgow Fire Brigade and we lived in a flat inside the Govan Fire Station. It was from there that I first heard Speedway bikes echoing from the White City track just up the road.” Bert is extremely proud of his country of birth and he misses no opportunity of showing us his knees, courtesy of his elegant kilt. He and some of Scotlands’ other speedway stars make a colourful appearance at many of the World Speedway Riders’ Association events putting their English cousins discreet lounge suits and dinner jackets into the shade.

However he has not always been the ‘known to all’ character he is now he started his working life as an apprentice mechanic for a big motorcycle dealership in Glasgow, JR Alexander Limited, whilst enjoying leisure activities involving the use of the cycle, cycle speedway and road racing. Bert agrees “Yes, I rode Cycle Speedway as a youngster, being Glasgow Champion and qualifying for TWO World Finals, one at Garret Park in London and one in Edinburgh.”  His interest inevitably included the riding of motorised cycles, not just because he began his working life as an apprentice working with them but as a he says “My ambition had always been to ride Speedway but I did road racing with my friend Denis Gallagher for a year when there was no Speedway in Scotland.” In fact as Bert jokes “I was a speedway novice for a long time and it took me ten years to become an ‘Overnight Success’!” It is reported that he started riding speedway at the Edinburgh track on dates stated, by various people, as 1961, 1963 and 1965, I asked if he could give me a true date but this long-term servant to the sport said he first rode in 196? It seems that so much has happened since he is unable to recall which year during that decade he first took to the Old Meadowbank track. So let’s imagine that he started training in 1961, was contracted to Edinburgh in 1963 and began riding for the Monarchs’ team in 1965 and everyone is right to some point. The reason he rode at Edinburgh and not Glasgow would be because at that period, the early 1960s, there was no Glasgow track running, may be, this fact, was instrumental in the shaping of the career of Bert Harkins.

When asked which tracks he had ridden for he replied “it is easier to list those that I have not ridden for”, he added “those that I have strong memories of are Edinburgh both at Meadowbank and Powderhall, Coatbridge, Cowdenbeath, Wembley, Wimbledon, Sheffield, Milton Keynes and the Bakersfield Bandits in the USA” Did a bit of research but could not find Cowdenbeath records except that it did run open meetings in 1965 and I imagine Bert has happy memories for that time, as to the other tracks I have found some dates –

Edinburgh Monarchs 1963 to 1967 inc, the Monarchs home of Meadowbank was not available to speedway from the end of the 1967 season as it was being prepared for the Commonwealth games and the team moved to Coatbridge for the 1968 and 1969 seasons with Bert riding as a heat leader. It was announced that 1969 would be the last year of speedway at Coatbridge. During this first period of riding for a team in his native Scotland he twice reached the semi-finals of the Speedway World Championship and at the end of 1967 he spent the winter season in Australia winning the Victorian Championship, this was to be the start of his international career.  Whilst serving with the Monarchs, Bert was chosen to ride for his country on several occasions and was also appointed their Captain, Bert admits, when asked about his riding highlights, that these  achievements ranked high in his life accomplishments saying “winning the Victorian Championship on my first trip to Australia ranks high and being captain of Scotland and Wembley was pretty amazing too.” With the closure of speedway at Coatbridge Bert, amongst others, was offered a place at Wembley, Bert accepted.

He was a Wembley Lion for two seasons a well-known figure in his colourful leathers, spectacles and red hair, appointed the Wembley captain in 1970 when the then captain Ove Fundin was absent, taking over in his own right the following year, he proved an excellent captain and team member remembering those happy days Bert recalls the time he spent with late Freddie Williams the then team manager “Freddie was a great friend, and it was through him and his wife Pat that I met my wife Edith   I was staying with them when I was riding at Wembley and Edith was their au pair. We have been treated as part of the family ever since”.  When Wembley closed at the end of the 1971 season he moved to grace Sheffield Tigers for 1972 I am sure he was welcomed with open arms.

1973 saw Bert Harkins return south to Wimbledon where his never give up attitude won him many friends and supporters, staying with the Dons for the following two years. At this stage in his career he found he was spending more and more time racing abroad, for the most part as a member of a Scottish group and scoring really well in pairs events.

In 1976 Bert broke the mould a bit and accepted a place with a team in the USA and spent the season riding for Bakersfield Bandits before returning to the UK to ride for the Monarchs again when they re-opened at Powderhall, not only riding 42 meetings for them but managing a couple for Wolverhampton Wolves as well and still finished the season with a points average of over 8 points. Staying in Scotland until the end of the 1979 season although illness meant some of this last year with the Monarchs was missed but he did fit in one appearance at Wimbledon.

Milton Keynes were happy to welcome Bert who joined them for the 1980 season and I thought he retired at the end of this season but he says “I sort of retired from riding in 1980 but then again I sort of didn’t as it did not take too much arm twisting to persuade me to take part in a few of Briggo’s Golden Greats meetings.”

When asked what looking back on his riding career what achievements he was most proud of he replied “I suppose riding for Scotland as reserve, then as second string, heatleader and then Captain, finishing it off as Team Manager before Scotland was unceremoniously dumped out of world speedway (I am still trying to get us reinstated with the FIM) Oh yes, as Scotland, Jim McMillan and I qualified for the World Best Pairs Final in Malmo, Sweden, so we DID make a World Final!”

Then asked about his worse memories of his riding days the answer came without any hesitation “breaking my back at Wimbledon in an unimportant end of season cold, wet, second half and lying in hospital listening to the jumbo jets taking off from Heathrow, I’d been due to fly to ride in Australia the week after the accident so obviously the trip was put on hold.”

He is still very much involved in speedway, he is a member of the World Speedway Riders’ Association committee, a trustee of the National Speedway Museum and he “also writes wee columns for Speedway Star, Classic Speedway Magazine and the WSRA Opposite Lock magazine (now called Tapes Up), plus still campaigning for the return of Scotland to the International stage. And I am lead to believe sponsorship of speedway riders and events, in particular the Bronze Helmet for the Conference League (now National League).

Most will know that Bert also founded and, until he retired a year or so ago, was the managing director of Bert Harkins Racing, an organization sourcing, importing and supplying specialist equipment to the motorcycle fraternity in general and sporting motorcyclists in particular. Under Bert’s direction the business was very successful distributing new and desirable equipment to these shores, he reminds me “we were the sole importers and distributors for the UK for Scott USA (goggles, grips,  etc ), Acerbis Italy (Motocross equipment) and Premier Helmets” 

What is it that strikes one about the man – well I would sum him up as a hard working enthusiast having little time for regrets and blessed with massive drive which seems never to have been geared down no matter what the job in hand.

Bert Harkins

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