Fitz Robert Mason (1907 – 2007), attended the Burgh School
The admission registers for the Burgh School between 1909
and 1922 are retained by
Fife Council. A brief extract for Fitz can be viewed
In a world bereft of traditional hero figures, Fitz
Mason is John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, and Lawrence of Arabia rolled into
one. For a man who has been fur trapper, mountie, gold miner, and big-
game warden, becoming an author at the age of 90 is just another step in a
life as large as his still-erect six-foot frame. From the age of 16, when
he started a boxing club in his native St Andrews, Fitz seemed to know
that whatever the future might hold, his physique would probably play a
part and that things would rarely be dull. And so it proved.
Fitzrobert Mason was born into an old St Andrews family in the days when
Empire still offered opportunities for Scots lads o' pairts. But initially
his boxing club seemed to offer all the excitement he craved. Fights
between club members, students at the university, and RAF personnel from
Leuchars were monthly affairs. On one occasion he tackled Willie Johnston,
a well-known Dundee professional.
The rawboned Mason seemed to have the beating of most of his youthful
opponents and he was soon earning good money. Apart from boxing, shooting
was his other great passion. For a man who would eventually earn his
living by his prowess with guns, he recalls that before he was 18 his
''collection'' included a 12-gauge pump-action Winchester, a 12-gauge
double-barrelled shotgun, a 10-gauge duck gun, and a .22 rifle with
telescopic sights. Away from fisticuffs, his leisure hours were spent
shooting geese along the Eden estuary, or poaching on a local estate. But,
although he could supplement his boxing earnings by instructing
professors' sons in the noble art, it was not long before Fitz was to find
the old, grey Fife town too restrictive for a lad whose imagination had
been fired by the novels of such as R M Ballantyne and G A Henty.
He answered an advertisement in the St Andrews Citizen placed by a trading
company for a young man of good character and physique for an interesting
position in the Arctic, and, to his amazement, was accepted. He set sail
on his life's great adventure in the early summer of 1926 aboard a
transatlantic liner bound for Quebec. He recalls that his passage was paid
for out of his boxing earnings. It was a journey that would see him joust
with death in places as far apart as Alaska, Colombia, and West Africa,
and pack more into a lifetime than a dozen men, before finally hoisting
anchor again in his home port of St Andrews last year.
Chesterfield, in the wastes of the Canadian Arctic, was to be the young
fur trader's base for the next three years. A thousand miles from the
nearest doctor and with mail deliveries only once a year, Chesterfield was
an endurance test for men far more seasoned than the young Mason, but he
soon adapted to life among the Innuit (Eskimos) who brought their furs to
the trading post to ''sell'' for supplies and provisions.
Although the price of a good white fox at the time was around $15, no
money actually changed hands. Instead a two-inch long piece of wood was
placed on the counter for each white fox. When the Eskimos had absorbed
this, one piece at a time was taken away and substituted by 30 smaller
pieces each representing 50 cents. Trading could then begin and the
Eskimos ''bought'' their supplies and provisions using the smaller wooden
pieces as currency.
One of the perks of the trading business was the opportunity to trap fur
in the company's time and sell it back to them at the going rate. Mason
was soon journeying by dog-sled deep into the Arctic wastes to trap his
own foxes and wolverines. He was to survive numerous brushes with death,
including ice collapsing under his sled on a frozen lake, and losing his
way back to the trading post in a blizzard. But perhaps his most chilling
encounter with the reaper was after he heard about the discovery of
several skeletons on a remote Arctic island, believed to be members of a
British expedition missing for several years. Since there was plenty of
tinned food and all the skeletons were found inside a shelter made of
stone walls with a canvas roof, the cause of death was a mystery.
Mason believes he solved the mystery by almost succumbing himself. He and
an Eskimo guide were camping out in an old igloo during a trapping
expedition. Ever the avid reader, Fitz had a candle on either side of him
as he settled down with his book in bed. 'Soon after my companion had
gone to sleep one of the candles spluttered and went out,' he recalls.
'Since it was a whole candle it seemed a bit strange. Even stranger the
other candle went out after a few more seconds. I started scratching
matches one after the other and this awakened the guide who saw what was
happening and leapt out of bed grabbing a snow knife and plunged it
through the roof to let air in.'
It was only then that he realised the ice-covered igloo walls had
hermetically sealed the two men in. Had he not been a reader and seen the
candles go out from lack of air the story of Fitz Mason - and that of his
companion for that matter - would have ended there and then.
But the Recession was taking its toll on the fur trade and from hunter of
animals Mason switched to hunter of men as an officer in the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police. Posted to Dawson in the Yukon, he saw life at its
rawest among the miners, drifters, alcoholics, and goodtime girls left
high and dry by the goldrush of the 1890s. It was here, it seems, that the
Fife lad discovered the darker side of adventure and was forced to grow up
fast. One of his most sobering duties was as assistant to the local
'I remember leading one man up the steps to the gallows,' he recalls.
'That didn't feel so good because I'd been playing cards with him the day
before. I gave him a glass of whisky before he left the condemned cell,
and he looked at it for a moment before saying, 'Here you are, Johnny
Walker. You got me into this, now you're going to see me out.' He downed
the dram and these were his last words this side of paradise. He was a
murderer and deserved to hang, but I can tell you I got drunk that night.'
Low wages and too much regimentation are Fitz's excuses for quitting the
Mounties, but legal murder was clearly no more to his liking than the
illegal variety. He went to Toronto University to study mining and soon he
had swapped the icy wastes of the Arctic for the tropical jungles of
Colombia where he began dredging for platinum in the San Juan River.
'It was during the war and platinum was in huge demand because of its
heat-resistant qualities. For a while I managed a platinum mine in
Colombia with around $2m-$3m worth of platinum in it. Later I prospected
for emeralds on the Amazon and diamonds in Liberia. I also mined for gold
in the Yukon.'
But while he always made a reasonable living, his years as a prospector in
various parts of the world seem to have brought wealth in experience
rather than in huge financial terms.
In Ghana he fell foul of the Government who wanted his black workers in
the diamond fields to become politically organised. ''I refused to sack my
workers and defied the Government, but I could see the way the political
winds were blowing.''
Diamond poachers were another major problem and he would often find
himself sleeping with two revolvers at the ready. 'Many's the night the
police came to tell me poachers were trying to steal the diamonds. I'd
have to get up and fire off a few shots to scare them away.'
It was the guns and his expertise with them that was to lead to the next
and happiest phase in Fitz's career. When he was only 10 someone had asked
the young Mason what he wanted to be when he grew up. He remembers wanting
to say 'a pirate', but since he was some 200 years too late he said the
next best thing - a big game warden.
Kwame Nkrumah's black Government had nationalised Ghana's mines and since,
in any case, he had had enough of union trouble, Fitz jumped at an offer
from a fellow Scot in the country's forestry division to become a game
warden. Later he was appointed chief game warden for the Cameroon
Government and created two game reserves and a zoo in that country which
won a listing in the International Zoological Year Book.
'It was a wonderful life,' he recalls. 'At last I was able to fulfil all
my boyhood fantasies. I helped preserve stocks of lions, buffaloes, and a
host of other wild animals. I was sometimes called on to deal with rogue
elephants, although I have to say I didn't enjoy killing those wonderful
beasts. I came to learn that animals are far less dangerous than humans.'
But, like the big game, Fitz was himself becoming an endangered species.
The Africa he had grown to love was disappearing. From his perspective the
winds of change were delivering only darkening clouds. Indeed, the
certainties with which he had grown up in the Canadian Arctic, Colombia
and now Africa were all being challenged - by the anti-trapping
organisations in Canada, by the drug cartels in Colombia, and by
politicians and ivory hunters in Africa.
'I shouldn't complain,' he says. 'I had 50 great years travelling the
world doing precisely what I wanted to do. I never felt I actually worked
for a living. I never knew unemployment and I was never bored for a
While his lifestyle allowed no room for a family, Fitz's recently
published autobiography, ‘Beyond the Horizon’, gives the occasional hint
that even in the most hostile environments he did not lack female company.
While he is admirably tight-lipped about his private life, you can gather
that his retirement years in the tranquillity of Spain were made more
bearable by a certain German countess among other lady friends. But, like
a character in a John Buchan novel, for Fitz the gels seem to have been
something a chap fitted in only when more important pursuits had been
From The Herald,
www.heraldscotland.com , 10 May 1997 and the book Beyond the
Fitz Robert Mason, who has died aged 95, was an "old
St Andrean" who spent most of an extraordinary life working abroad, in
the Americas and in Africa, but who always retained close links with
At the funeral service, conducted movingly by the Reverend Priscilla
Robertson at St Andrew's Episcopal Church, Queen's Terrace, on January
28, his relatives and friends gathered to commemorate the passing of
this remarkable man.
Fitz was born at 158 South Street, St Andrews, in 1907. His father,
David, was a local blacksmith - he built the iron bridges that
straddle the Kinnessburn in Dempster Terrace - and his mother, Elise,
was a Swiss governess who had come to work in Scotland. Fitz, with his
four brothers and three sisters, would walk every Sunday to worship at
the "English church" as the Episcopal Church was known, where his
father was a member of the choir.
Fitz attended the former Burgh School where a close friend was the
late Alec Paterson, founder of the Byre Theatre. Another of his
contemporaries was Gordon Christie, who went on to run the popular
bicycle and toy shop in Market Street.
Fitz's older brother, Willie, was a fireman under the command of
Gordon's father, who was the firemaster. Fitz was also a friend of the
late Bobby Jessiman, the well-known local golfer who became a golf
professional in the US.
The only money Fitz made from golf was at the 1921 Open in St Andrews
when he was employed by a newspaper to relay scores from the course.
When Fitz left school he went to work for the men's outfitters,
Jamieson & Sons. He would rise early before going to work and walk out
on the links to the Eden Estuary with his guns, usually returning with
a rabbit, hare or duck for his mother's cooking pot.
The other principal interest in his life at this time was boxing and
by the age of sixteen he was running a successful boxing club in St
Andrews. He often travelled, by bicycle and ferry, to Dundee where he
would appear in exhibition bouts.
Fitz saw limited prospects for himself in St Andrews. His oldest
brother, George, had emigrated to Canada and was now employed in the
fur-trade. Fitz followed his brother's example and applied
successfully for a post with the French company, Revillon Freres, who
had fur-trading stations in Arctic Canada.
Thus, in July 1926, Fitz - just turned 19 - sailed by liner to Quebec,
having paid for his own passage from the proceeds of his boxing
endeavours. There, he boarded a small company-owned schooner on which
he sailed to their trading-post at Chesterfield Inlet which lay on the
Arctic rim in Hudson Bay.
In this isolated spot he spent the next two years. While there he took
a wonderful series of photographs of the local Eskimos which he later
donated to the University of St Andrews.
The onset of the Depression saw a decline in the fur-trade. Fitz
enrolled on a course in mining at university in Toronto and in the
summers he went on prospecting trips.
When he finished the course, he did not initially embark upon a career
in this field. Instead, he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
and, after five months of training at Regina, was posted to Dawson, in
Of the many experiences he had as a "mountie," the one that most
affected him was attending an execution after spending the preceding
three months guarding and getting to know the condemned man. It did
not, however, alter his belief in the need for capital punishment.
The regimentation of barracks life did not suit Fitz and he resumed
his mining career, initially dredging for gold in the Klondike and
subsequently in Colombia.
During this time he made his home in San Francisco which became his
With the outbreak of war with Japan, he returned to Colombia to mine
platinum, a key material in the war effort.
At the end of the war, a chance circumstance took him to the Gold
Coast as dredge-master.
He was to spend the rest of his career in Africa, mostly in the gold
and diamond mining industry but, for a period, his career took a
He was a game warden in Ghana, as the Gold Coast had by then become,
where he set up a reserve. Later, he established Victoria Zoo in West
By the time he retired at 70, he had made his home base an apartment
he purchased in Alicante where he added a new set of ex-patriates to
the friends he had accumulated on his travels.
Each year, he made the long trip by car and ferry to St Andrews, where
he spent the summer and played golf. Eventually, at the age of 87, a
hip-replacement operation brought this lifestyle to a close and he
sold up and returned to live in St Andrews.
There, he continued to lead an active life, following his own advice
to others "do not be afraid of taking on a challenge" and which had
guided his own life.
He found time to complete his autobiography, and when this was
published in 1996 - under the title "Beyond the Horizon" - it became a
His sudden, peaceful death, albeit at a great age, nonetheless took
his relatives and friends by surprise.
As the news item in the St Andrews Citizen of July 3, 1926, said when
reporting his departure to Canada: he "will be greatly missed."
From St Andrews Citizen,
www.fifetoday.co.uk , 20 February 2003