DEPV Talisman – The One and Only

Supporting the preservation and operation of paddle steamers Waverley and Kingswear Castle

DEPV Talisman – The One and Only

Any of us who have viewed the Clydesite web forum will know Robin Copland – a long time Clyde steamer enthusiast who is well known on the site for his stories and musings entitled “Monday Morning Light Relief”. During Waverley’s sailing to Oban this year I was chatting to Robin over a dram when the subject of this Clyde Steamer stories came up in conversation. I asked Robin if he would consider writing something for this blog to which he agreed and this piece about Talisman is the first of hopefully many from Robin. So enough from me – relax and enjoy some time travel courtesy of Robin Copland……….

She wasn’t what you would describe as pretty as she droned her way past the big buoy in Largs Bay, heading towards the pier in the centre of the town. Not pretty in a conventional sense in any case. She wasn’t speedy like the Duchesses; she wasn’t beautiful like the occasional Jeanie Deans (occasional to the Largs Channel, at any rate); she wasn’t purposeful like the Maids and she wasn’t cute like the Ashton or Leven.

Talisman was different, somehow. She was noisier than the other paddlers in the fleet. She was certainly more plodding and her roster rarely varied from Largs, Millport, Wemyss Bay and Rothesay. Maybe it was the plaque behind the Bridge. HMS Aristocrat – that spoke of other adventures furth of the river. What a name too – HMS Aristocrat! Later, I learned that she was nicknamed “Wasp” during her war service – somehow apt. When built, though she looked like a conventional North Bank paddler, she was anything but internally. She was the first and only – and as Duncan Graham puts it in his wonderful book Sunset on the Clyde, those two words “are seldom a good combination” – Diesel Electric Paddle Vessel in the fleet.

She was a flighty mistress in her early years and had her marine superintendent, Mr Perry, taking the happy pills for her first four years. There was talk of selling her on or perhaps re-engining her with more conventional steam-driven machinery as the war approached in 1939; she was so out of favour and sorts that she had been laid up for part of that year. She was in disgrace if we are honest and her revolutionary machinery was just that – revolutionary; but not in a good way.

And then came reprieve. Now it is not often that the Second World War has been described as a reprieve, but for Talisman, reprieve it was. But first, we should record that there already was a Talisman in the Royal Navy, so the jokers in the Admiralty (and if you had asked the Marine Superintendent on the North Bank, “jokers” is the word he would have used!) renamed her HMS Aristocrat.

She sailed south down the estuary and out to the world of the deep-sea and the grown-up. She contrived to be in the right place at the right time; she led a charmed existence and what’s more, she charmed all who sailed in her. She visited France; she weathered channel storms; she avoided V1 doodle bugs in Antwerp harbour; she entered MacBrayne’s kingdom and even helped rescue a liner from the rocks of the Gairloch. And all of this while the turbine stars of the Clyde fleet, Duchess of Hamilton, Duchess of Montrose, King Edward, Glen Sannox and Queen Mary II, to name but a few, were on more mundane ferry and tendering duties on their home river. Oh, what a life of adventure did HMS Aristocrat lead until 1946, when all returned to peacetime normality.

Talisman circa 1947/48.

New deckhouses were added to bring her into line with modern expectations of sheltered accommodation, but back came the gremlins – so much so that she was laid up again in July 1953 on the arrival of the last of the four Maids, the Maid of Cumbrae. This time, it seemed, her fate was sealed – but for the unhappiness of the good folk of Cumbrae with the wee Marchioness of Lorne. Believe it or not, the Marchioness’s 12 knots had been just about OK for her original Holy Loch service; hopeless though for the slightly more exposed Millport station and her cause was not helped by the longer journey times between piers. The good folk of Greenock thought long and hard about their problem and decided to equip Talisman with new diesel engines. Thus improved, she went a whole knot faster than previously she could manage post-war and miraculously – though not without the odd scare – she gave good service on the Millport run for another 14 years.

By the time she hove into view around the lion rock and ponderously paddled her way towards a very young me, standing on the shingle beach watching in awe, seven years had passed since her re-engining and she was about midway through her time on the Millport run. She was a busy boat by this time and although her route rarely varied as I have said, her passengers certainly did. Cows, bulls, sheep, cars, post, newspapers, produce, locals and holidaymakers all graced her decks, though the people were less apt to leave their calling cards than were the animals! I became a regular on the hops between Largs and Millport, Rothesay and Wemyss Bay and though she was no Duchess of Hamilton, she was certainly more interesting and entertaining to my way of thinking than the Ashton or Leven!

Her typical weekday and Saturday roster took her from Millport at 7.20am to Largs and Wemyss Bay, returning from Wemyss Bay along the same path to Millport, where she arrived at 9.55am. After a short layover at the Old Pier, she retraced her steps leaving at 10.15am and returning to her home base at 12.45pm. Following a half-hour layover, she returned to Largs, leaving at 1.15pm and arriving at the unforgiving L-shaped Largs pier at 1.40pm. Unusually, she laid over at Largs for half an hour before striking out for Rothesay.

All of these inter-pier runs were listed in the Principal Services part of the company timetable, but the last Millport to Largs run was also part of her daily “Cumbrae Circle” cruise. For the princely sum of 4/3d – that’s about 22p in today’s money, a holidaymaker could leave either Largs or Millport, head for Rothesay with an hour and a quarter ashore, then cruise via Kilchattan Bay and around the west coast of Cumbrae back to Millport and Largs. The last Millport to Largs sector of the cruise became the first part of her final round trip of the day to Wemyss Bay. She reversed out of Wemyss Bay for the last time at 6.20pm, headed south for Largs (6.50pm) and arriving for the last time at Millport Old Pier at 7.15pm where she tied up relatively early for the night.

During her day, she came into close contact with many of her fleet mates.

• She would regularly bump into (not literally, of course!) one of the ABC car ferries at Wemyss Bay or Rothesay, sharing the pier with them there on a number of occasions throughout the week.

• As she vacated Largs pier on a summer Wednesday at 2.10pm, Countess of Breadalbane would slide alongside the same pier ready to take up the sail to Dunoon at 2.20pm. Passengers on that Wednesday cruise returned to Largs on Waverley. Often, Talisman had to bide her time off Cairnie’s Quay to let her bigger Craigendoran sister offload her passengers. I can remember one such occasion; I wondered why Talisman was holding off and also noticed that, as she started off again for the pier, the water was fair pounding out of her starboard paddlebox – a combination, I suppose, of a full passenger load and all of them on the starboard side of the ship awaiting disembarkation.

• As she sailed on her afternoon cruise, she would pass Maid of Skelmorlie to the west of Cumbrae, which was on the Cumbrae Circle cruise going the other way round. I imagine that it must have been a pleasant diversion for the golfers on Millport Golf Club to watch the two ships pass in waters rarely visited by the Clyde fleet, although obviously busy with steamers coming and going from further afield.

• In those far-off days, Duchess of Montrose took the Inveraray cruise on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the summer and, on her return, she would sail from Rothesay across to Wemyss Bay between 6.00pm and 6.25pm, arriving just after our ship had vacated the pier for her final sailing to Millport at 6.20pm. Looking west on that same sail on a Thursday, a passenger might notice the Montrose’s sister ship, Duchess of Hamilton, as she powered her way from Largs to Rothesay on her homeward run from Campbeltown.

• On a summer Saturday, Duchess of Montrose returned from her cruise round Ailsa Craig and was scheduled to arrive at Millport (Keppel) pier at 7.20pm. Talisman would come buzzing round the Lion Rock on her final leg of the day from Largs into Millport Bay at about the same time that the Montrose approached Keppel.

• On Tuesdays, her near contemporary, Caledonia sailed north from Ayr on a cruise to Loch Goil. She was scheduled to leave Millport (Old) pier at 12.20pm and sail to Largs for 12.45pm. Talisman and Caledonia passed in the Largs Channel right in front of our house and it was interesting to compare the two ships. Talisman, seemingly lighter built and smaller that the heavy-looking Caledonia; more traditional looking with her fan paddle boxes than her fleet mate.

The truth was that in 1960 it would have been strange had she not met her fleet mates as she went about her daily business. Interestingly, her encounters with Jeanie Deans were few and far between – unless of course, you happened to be in solitude of the Kyles of Bute on a Sunday afternoon. Then you would see a sight that would gladden the heart of all fans of the North Bank tradition. Yes, the three steamers’ funnels were painted in the buff and black of their Gourock bosses; yes, both Waverley and Talisman had paddle boxes painted in Caley white and yes, Talisman was no longer based in her spiritual home at Craigendoran, but …, but …. there they were in all of their glory – Jeanie Deans, Talisman and Waverley. Talisman returning from Tighnabruaich (her one weekly diversion from her staple summer diet) to Largs; Jeanie Deans on her cruise round Bute and Waverley on her run to the Kyles of Bute all the way from Craigendoran. Still going strong; still sailing on the river of their birth; still giving pleasure to all those who eschewed, for the time being at least, the joys of foreign travel. It would be nice to think that the captains of each of them doffed their caps in each other’s direction as they piloted their charges through the narrows.

Image is from a photo of the author’s John Nicolson painting.

Talisman continued to serve her adopted home until 1967. In her latter years, her funnel had been scarred by a tiny lion and her hull had been painted the BR blue that became the norm for four or five years. Jeanie Deans had already flitted to the Thames for an unhappy year or two and Duchess of Montrose had bowed to the inevitable and been towed to Belgium to be broken up. The fleet was moving with the times. Talisman was unceremoniously towed to Dalmuir and the end, when it came, was swift.

Talisman – First and Only. Maybe not a bad way for those of us who still do, to remember a fine and faithful workhorse of the fleet.

[sig]Words by Robin Copland, pictures as credited[/sig]