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Meet the traditional signwriter who painted Dundee’s bus fleet for decades

Paint brush in hand, signwriter Brian Robertson spent decades decorating the Dundee bus fleet with adverts and numbers.

Brian spent most of his working life on the buses after following in the footsteps of his hero Stewart Hutchison and learning his craft as a signwriter.

Brian Robertson next to one of the buses he painted during his long career.

Stewart’s work is etched into the very fabric of the city including the famous Land o’ Cakes mural on the gable wall of the old Wallace’s bakery on Dura Street.

“I still remember Stewart Hutchison after all these years,” said Brian.

“He was the top signwriter in this area when I was growing up.

“He’d have his paint brush in one hand and a cigarette in the other!

“He had vast experience and could turn his hand to any job and it’s very sad that there are now so few of us left who are traditional signwriters.

“I was 15 when I got the signwriting bug and Stewart was a great help and influence on me when I was just starting out.

“Every spare moment I had, I’d watch him work, hand lettering the lorries where we worked together at Allison’s Transport.

“He was a very good tradesman and my hero at that time.”

Brian found he had a natural artistic flair for signwriting

Brian Robertson was born at Clement Park Nursing Home in Harefield Road in 1950.

He left Linlathen High School at the age of 15 and started a four-year apprenticeship with Allison’s which was a haulage contractor in Clepington Road.

Brian next to one of the buses he painted during his time with Dundee Corporation.

As an apprentice coach painter Brian’s duties involved sanding panels, washing brushes and mixing paint.

He was paid two shillings and sixpence per week when he started.

Brian had a natural artistic flair for signwriting and he was interested in the letterforms on the lorries and how these were created.

This would mark the start of a lifelong involvement with commercial vehicles and hand lettering.

Brian attended a coach painting and signwriting course at Kingsway Technical College and gained a city and guilds diploma.

Following his apprenticeship, he worked for local coachbuilding company WBS Keillor before joining Dundee Corporation Transport Department in the early 70s.

He would quickly become a true master of the craft.

“I was driving and painting during my time at DCT,” said Brian.

“I would paint the vehicles and also the advertising signs on the buses.

“Bell’s Whisky and McEwan’s Export were the main advertisers at that time.

Brian painted buses in Dundee for decades.

“I had always used my learnt skills for various projects out with my employment and decided to start my own business in 1988.”

Brian was still in demand for his work until the early 90s

Instead of painstakingly painting each detail, signs could now be made of vinyl which was introduced to the industry in Dundee in the late-80s.

Brian was still in demand and almost all of his work in the up until the early 90s was hand lettering in Dundee and the surrounding areas.

He was working mainly on commercial vehicles, shop fronts and painted signs.

A photograph of a bus painted by Brian during his time as a traditional signwriter.

Working from home until 1990, he then relocated to workshop premises at Drumsturdy Road on the outskirts of the city.

Around that time, the sign industry was changing and painting by hand was slowly being written off as an archaic trade of the past.

Hand lettering in Dundee was become scarcer too.

Signwriters were hanging up their brushes and apprenticeships disappeared.

“If I hadn’t taken up a computer course I couldn’t have kept working,” said Brian.

“We utilised the computer because hand lettering was considered dated, competition was increasing and clients now expected a quicker turnaround for less.”

Brian purchased his first computer and vinyl cutter in 1992.

The business combined traditional signwriting and painting methods with vinyl lettering.

Brian’s son Barry joined the business full-time aged 15

Brian’s youngest son Barry would help his dad out at weekends and school holidays and slowly learned the tricks of the trade.

Brian was a master of his craft and brought the Dundee bus fleet to life.

“Growing up, he sanded panels, mixed paint and washed brushes,” said Brian.

“When I went up to Aberdeen to paint a bus he would come with me.

“It was a three day job and you would sleep in the bus for a couple of nights then go to bed and breakfast once the job was finished.

“You were under pressure to get the bus back on the road as soon as possible.”

Barry joined the business full-time aged 15 in 1998.

The business name changed in 1999 to Robertson Signs and won a contract with a global advertising agency who sold advertisement spaces on fleets of buses.

Brian and Barry would travel all over Scotland to install, remove and maintain advertising campaigns on the buses, both in vinyl and paint.

Another bus with art work courtesy of Brian who was inspired by the legendary Stewart Hutchison.

Barry said: “For many years, a large portion of our business’ turnover involved bus advertising.

“We removed and installed posters on large fleets across the north-east of Scotland.

“Our contract involved travelling regularly from Perth to Inverness and along the east coastal route; visiting bus depots at all times of day and night, throughout the seasons.

“Vinyl wrapping buses in advertising was a major part of the contract.

“A new set of skills were learnt, and a new industry was emerging from signmaking.

“The increasing interest for vehicle wrapping meant learning more about materials and application techniques.

“Mainly in Aberdeen, we wrapped hundreds of bus rears and had a team of installers.

“The team now also covered Fife bus depots as the contract increased in capacity.

“Hand lettering has seen a resurgence in recent years and is very much alive.

“With many talented signwriters in Scotland and further afield, artists are using traditional techniques to hand paint amazing typography.

Brian has painted imagery on vehicles of all kinds over the years.

“Stewart Hutchison’s legacy lives on in Dundee too.”

Brian is still keeping very busy in his retirement

Brian retired in 2018 after the trading name was changed to Robertsign.

Barry began to restructure and the business left the Drumsturdy Road workshop.

Today, Brian still helps Barry with hand lettering and painting projects.

He also volunteers at Dundee Museum of Transport where he is kept busy by painting, hand lettering and restoring vintage vehicles to their former glory.

Now 70, he also teaches signwriting at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Reflecting on his long career, Brian said he has painted boats, buses, planes, lorries, cars and taxis over the years.

Brian doing a sketch at Dundee Museum of Transport where he is now a volunteer.

The most tricky?

“Definitely painting the numbers on aeroplanes,” said Brian.

“I would do work for Tayside Aviation and it was really awkward because you had to lie on your back on the runway and paint these big numbers on the planes.

“I still do signwriting jobs and help Barry out when I can but you’ll often find me these days at the Dundee Museum of Transport where I am a volunteer.

“No day is ever the same.

“Sometimes you’ll find me on the door and other times I’ll be putting lettering on the vehicles or painting a mural on the wall.

“Vintage vehicles and lorries are my passion so it’s a labour of love.

“I’ve no plans to hang up my paint brush just yet.

“I’m still in demand and I still enjoy what I do.”

Brian has worked on thousands of vehicles during his career but what is his favourite?

Stewart Hutchison with some of his art work from a restaurant in Dundee.

“AEC lorries, without a doubt,” he said.

“I painted quite a few over the years.

“These were classic lorries and I have always loved them.

“If you had one of these in the 60s or 70s you were the king of the road!”

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