To the uninitiated, the name Johnny Campbell might not ring a bell at first, but if you have lived, worked, or even just visited Portree at some point over the last three decades the chances are he’s reversed across from you, parked beside you, or passed you at a roundabout while imparting his considerable knowledge and experience to his next eager student.
After bursting onto the scene as one of the UK’s youngest driving instructors at the age of just 21, Johnny Campbell has forged a reputation as not only a cool, calm and collected operator in arguably one of the most stressful lines of work, but, moreover, something of a Skye institution having taught the equivalent of half the island’s current population of 10,000 people to drive over a 32-year period.
Having shared many a car journey myself with Johnny a few years back en route to passing my test, I caught up with him after his last lesson of the day at his home in Portree in early September to delve under the hood and find out what makes him tick…
“I started driving when I was eight, just sitting on my dad’s knee while driving up and down the croft in Penifiler – and then I became really keen on cars.” Said Johnny reflecting on how his love of cars was formed in his childhood.
“My dad used to work at the Sconser quarry as a digger driver, and we would go down every Saturday with him. All the boys down there would let you drive their cars if you washed them. You had the chance to go right around this big heap of sand. So, I would wash the cars just to get a wee spin around and then get shots of the diggers – every Saturday was fantastic!”
By the time he had reached the age of 12, Johnny had become somewhat accustomed to driving over short distances around his home patch and while the sight had become something of a familiar one for his neighbours that wasn’t necessarily for those occasionally passing through as Johnny recounts.
“Everyone in the Penifiler used to do whelks at the time and I would go to visit a local woman who would make chips for me. One day, I met a whelk lorry going down that way – so I stopped and reversed back. Because I was that small, though, instead of looking over the wheel I was looking through the arch of the wheel. After I let him past the lorry driver stopped and went into my neighbours and asked, ‘Is there a ghost car here, I just met a car on the road and there was nobody driving it’. My neighbour, who told me his face was white, said to him ‘there’s no ghost car here, it was the wee boy from up the road coming down for his chips!’.
From croft apparitions to career aspirations – it was plain for all to see that Johnny’s ambitions would centre on cars. But rather than the instructor he would later become it was the world of mechanics that he had his heart set on.
“At 16 I started working at the county (now known as the Highland Council) in Portree as a mechanic. I drove an old grey Fergie tractor – and I remember at the end of the day going out and having to wind it up and it smoking away – but I went back up the road as happy as Larry.
“When I turned 17, it was on a Wednesday and passed my driving test the following Tuesday. I was just itching. The last thing I would have thought then was that I would become a driving instructor.”
Rather than design, the first steppingstone in Johnny’s path to becoming an instructor was cemented by a growing demand for his skills and an absence of bureaucracy at the time as he explains.
“When you passed your test then there was no timescale. As soon as the examiner signed the pass certificate you could then legally sit beside the next person going to take their test. If somebody had passed their test, then the average person thought ‘well he’s passed so he’ll sit beside me and tell what he did.’ But I didn’t have a clue what I was doing!”
After his initial trepidation, Johnny began to see the advantages of his newly found role as an unofficial tutor. “One of the guys at the county asked me to take his wife out and then it escalated from that to their friends and family. I was 17 or 18 then. On Sundays, instead of using my own fuel cruising around, I thought ‘this is great’ I can sit here in everyone’s else car and do what I’d usually be doing anyway without spending money on fuel.
“As people started to pass, everyone began to ask, ‘Will you take me out? Will you take me out?’ Still, then it didn’t even cross my mind to do it properly. There was another local instructor and he was working with me at the county – and he said why don’t you do this professionally?”
Despite his initial qualms, Johnny undertook the training alongside trying to obtain a heavy goods licence and a bus license. “I was back and forth every weekend to Inverness – and when I wasn’t driving buses, lorries, I was training to become a driving instructor. There were three stages – theory, your own driving, and you also had to teach an examiner how to drive and he’s trying to be your worst pupil!”
Six months of hard work later, at the age of just 21, Johnny achieved his ADI qualification and was now an Approved Driving Instructor. What followed was a flurry of media attention from the national press, radio and television.
“I had them for two days recording me driving a lorry, doing mechanical stuff, and teaching someone to do a three-point turn in Gaelic, but in the end, it was probably about a 10 to 15-minute slot on TV.”
While Johnny’s 15 minutes of fame proved to be good for business, his standing as one of the youngest driving instructors in the UK sometimes led to an uneasy easy dynamic with some of his students. He said: “Being 21 – the average pupil was twice my age, and people are probably thinking ‘This wee guy’s trying to tell me what to do!’ ‘He’s only been driving a wee while, how can he teach me what to do?”
Although Johnny’s credentials speak for themselves with his pass rate at 80 per cent and his roll of successful students standing at more than 5,400 people to date, that doesn’t stop him getting nervous come test day.
“I’m like a bear with a sore head before the test day” he admits in the knowledge that there is nothing more he can do for his students once they are in the test scenario.
Recounting what he was once told by one of the examiners, he said: “You’ll need to get the standard 30 per cent higher than what the pupils need to be for their test because the minute I get into the car their standards will drop 30 per cent for nerves.”
Highlighting such an instance of knee-shaking nervousness afflicting one of his students he said: “I said to the examiner, I am coming with you this time whether you like it or not because I have no idea how I am going to get this boy through his test. He gets so nervous.
“For the first 10-15 minutes, he was faultless. Having driven 55mph on the way to Drumie he became nervous and was driving 25 mph or the way back. The examiner said to me, Johnny any chance of us getting back before the MOT runs out on your car?
“I’m not allowed to play any part in the test, or I can be reported – so I’m sitting in the back not knowing whether to laugh or cry – I thought what can I do. The next thing the boy picked up the speed and away we went, and he started to settle.”
As Johnny’s experience grew so did his clientele as word began to spread of his business. Although positive reviews were his primary means of endorsement, others were attracted to his services for more novel reasons.
“When people passed their test, I would give them a pen but then I changed to keyrings.”
Johnny’s merchandise led to would-be students from south Skye and Lochalsh travelling all the way up to Portree just to get their hands on a keyring, while one man contacted Johnny to ask for a replacement keyring as he wife who had passed with Johnny had lost hers and considered it something of a good luck charm.
“It’s such a great gimmick – but I just thought a keyring is a keyring,” said Johnny.
During his career, 16 different driving instructors have come and gone in the Skye and Lochalsh area, but he remains and is one of four currently working on the island.
Now more than 30 years into the job, Johnny is quick to admit that for all his technical expertise and the thousands of miles he’s clocked up during his time at the wheel, there is still one vital yet variable factor that he yet to master – people.
“The one thing about the job is you have to change your personality and attitude every hour because what works for one person, doesn’t work for the next person.”
While he might not have developed a full-proof formula when it comes to people, he doesn’t have to seek work despite the signs on his car being his only means of advertising his business.
“I had a boy, who said, you’ve taught my granny to drive, you taught my dad to drive, you’ve taught my uncles and aunties to drive, now you are teaching me to drive.”
As our conversation begins to wind down, I seize the chance to ask him about one of his trademarks which all his current and former students, like myself, have doubtless noticed – his Borrower-sized notes which he takes fastidiously during lessons.
“It’s about where we go, and what we do. Also, there’s method in it, because if you see me sitting back and relaxing, you concentrate hard because you think that I am not.”
“I have old ones in the garage, but if I were to hand it to you just now you wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of it. It is maybe two or three lines about things I want to come back to not a detailed report. If you are doing 12 hours a day, there is no way you are remembering it all”
Touching on the matter of retiring, he says: “I’ve no ambition to retire, it’s the challenge. For every one person that passes, I get four or five phone calls from new students.”
Having reduced his hours to 12-hour days between Monday and Friday a few years ago and having “taken a day off for their wedding” earlier this year as his wife Mina testifies to, Johnny doesn’t wear the look of someone fatigued by 32 years at the wheel.
But then again “It’s a team effort” as he says “Because Mina does a lot of stuff at home. She does the paperwork and answers the phone.”
While Johnny and Mina are currently building a house back on the family croft in Penifiler where Johnny’s love of cars all began, there appears plenty of gas left in the tank where Skye’s most recognisable motorist is concerned, so don’t expect him to put the brakes on – permanently that is – anytime soon.
Profile by Adam Gordon.