Another short story from Robin Copland – this time focussing on a trip more than a particular vessel.
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Buses have never done anything for me – really, they haven’t. It is funny how very early in your life, you take a scunner to something, and that’s it. For me – it’s buses. I know, I know; call me old-fashioned, bitter and twisted if you want, but buses have never been my thing. Don’t get me wrong – I use them all the time; I religiously sit at the front of the top deck (tricky that, in a single-decker) and I watch the world go by but if you really want to get me going, show me a ship or a train and I’m your man.
This is a long way of saying that the “Famed Loch Eck Tour”, which involved horrific distances (to my way of thinking) on a bus going up and down hill and dale, surrounded all the while by old people (of which, of course, I am now one!), sniffling and chattering and gazing solemnly and lovingly at the passing scenery, would have sent me into the deepest kind of catatonic coma that it would be possible to imagine. I would of course jump at the chance now of such a trip – even with the bus portion! Imagine sailing on TS Duchess of Montrose down Loch Fyne and round through the Kyles of Bute to Rothesay and Dunoon; sign me up, why don’t you, for such an ethereal and joyous sail. But then, in my, by now, teenage years, buses were for the hoi polloi and not for me!
There was one cruise that did tick all the boxes though in those far-off days and that was the “Three Lochs tour”. If you were resident in Largs, there was really only one day in the mid 1960’s when you could do the “Three Lochs” and that was Thursday. By the time I did it, I was no longer the eight-year-old, jellyfish-splattering youngster of a few years earlier; I was now of an age where I was let loose on my own, as long as I demonstrated a willingness to save up at least some of my pocket money to finance things myself.
Thus it was, one sunny Thursday in July, I made my way out of the house, along past Cairnie’s Quay, named for John Cairnie, the one-armed surgeon who was so instrumental in the development of the great Scottish sport of curling; past the old outdoor drafts game; past the lovely big ice cream kiosk run by Nardini’s – the one that used always to remind me of a Victorian bandstand; past the boating pond, where children set sail to their toy yachts more in hope than expectation; past the putting green with its four separate 18-hole courses; and over the Gogo burn towards the pier in the centre of town. By this time, the lovely wee red sandstone pierhead building that housed a small gaming arcade had been replaced by the ghastly, flat-roofed Cumbraen Club, but beyond it, mercifully, the front remained largely unchanged, with its small games stalls, car park and, behind it, the Victorian frontage housing seaside hotels, shops, pubs and residential flats.
The stone beach to the north of the pier was a scene of bustling activity with the wooden rowing and motor boats doing a roaring trade in the early to mid-morning. Their temporary “piers” fingered out into the shallow water in the shelter of the old stone pier and unused boats bobbed gently against them or lay still and angled up on the shingle.
It was always my practice to head down to the pier early just to see what might catch my eye. Largs at this time was still a busy source of business for long distance cruises so, where possible, the timetable planners either had ships calling directly at the pier or, where that was inconvenient, arranged for transfers via Rothesay, Wemyss Bay or Dunoon. The first part of my “Three Lochs” cruise was a connecting service to Dunoon via Wemyss Bay and it was typically MV Countess of Breadalbane or one of the four “Maids” that transported the Largs customers on the first leg of their journey.
mv Maid of Skermorlie (A&J Inglis 1953)
Waiting on the pier, I watched MV Maid of Skelmorlie on her 9.20am sailing to Rothesay. This was an important sailing, because it connected with TS Duchess of Montrose – now, though I did not know it at the time, in her last year of her service on the river – and her Thursday sailing to Inveraray via the Kyles of Bute. DEPV Talisman came alongside next on her 9.30am sailing to Millport. I knew a number of the crew by this time, so had a cheery wee chat with them before they droned off with their ship towards Farland Point and Millport. In the distance, I could see the Skelmorlie make her diesely, smoky way towards Rothesay and, heading across the estuary from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay, there was the splendid, if distant sight of TS Duchess of Montrose herself. You could make her out quite clearly as she passed Toward Point and disappeared into Rothesay Bay. She enjoyed an Indian summer in her last season on the river and it is a matter of much regret for me that never once did I tread her decks. I would have a closer encounter with her around Wemyss Bay later in the day.
There was then a lull at the pier; in the distance I could see one of Ashton or Leven approaching me from Millport, but my attention was drawn to MV Maid of Cumbrae heading our way. The four Maids were amongst my favourites when it came to standing watching them take a pier. Though small, they had twin screws and there was always a nice head of creamy foam as they gripped the water going astern to bring them to a halt. She tied up and the gangway was put out from the landing deck atop the bridge. This would have been a wonderful viewing point for passengers, but the high heid yins thought otherwise for health and safety reasons – they feared the ships would have been top heavy. Stuff and nonsense! Take a look at pictures of the Maid of Cumbrae in her later career as MV Ala in Italy. There she sailed for twenty-five years with an extra deck added the length of her main deck – top heavy indeed! What was a perfectly good observation platform was roped off when they were on the move on the Clyde and this was always a pity.
Neat and purposeful little ships were the “Maids” though. In truth, they were unpopular at first – cramped and noisy compared to their steam-driven cousins and rumour had it that potatoes had to be cut with one flat side so as they did not fall off the plate with all the vibrating! They proved useful servants on the Clyde for their twenty years or so of service though and MV Maid of Cumbrae was even turned into a car ferry to act as “pup” to MV Glen Sannox on the Gourock-Dunoon service. Three of them saw further “active” service abroad and you can still walk on the fourth, MV Maid of Ashton; she was transformed into Hispaniola and now sits dormant on the Thames as an expensive – make that “very expensive” – restaurant ship. Gradually, their time came on the river as the fleet moved from “passenger and excursion” to “car-carrying and essential” and they were sold off, one by one.
In the mid 1960s, they were all as one. The only external difference that all but the most observant could tell was that the Maid of Cumbrae had her name written on the hull in white, slightly lower than on her sisters whose names were emblazoned in black above the hull. A friend of mine was able to tell another couple apart because the staining on the galley door was slightly darker and apparently, one door swung the other way (this was in the days before that phrase had any other meaning!). I gently pointed out to him that, by the time you were close enough to see which side of the door the hinge was on, you could presumably have seen the name on the hull – but that was a detail!
The Cumbrae pulled up handily against the pier and I and about fifty or so others boarded her across the blue gangplanks that were on all the busier piers that the fleet visited. She shook her way from Largs with a goodly crowd aboard her to make her way over to Dunoon via Wemyss Bay. The sail was uneventful and as we approached Dunoon, I could see PS Waverley coming across the firth from Gourock. We berthed at Dunoon and as I disembarked, Waverley made her final approach. She must have been ahead of schedule because she went around the Gantocks and approached outside the Cumbrae and came to a halt in the middle of the three berths at the pier.
Dunoon in those days was a far cry from the Dunoon of today. You can still get a flavour of what it was like when Waverley approaches and one of the streakers occupies the car ferry berth – all is hustle and bustle and there is a hint of what it was like in the sixties. It seemed as if ships were coming and going all of the time in those far-off days – and of course, there was the variety of ships on offer as well. I later learned that the pier had been built by my paternal great grandfather, one William R Copland; he was the chief engineer in charge of the project to increase the size of the pier from single to triple berth. Little did I know, as I tramped from one ship to the other that I was walking upon the work of an ancestor!
At 11.05am, the engine bells sounded and the great paddle wheels started slowly to reverse their ship against the aft rope. Her bow left the pier and once there was enough of an angle, more bells sounded and the paddles, having slowed to a stop, gradually began their forward motion and the stooshie at the rear of the pierside port sponson took shape. As we took our leave, MV Arran approached on her 10.50am run from Gourock. To be honest, my memory is letting me down here and I suspect she may have been running late! Suffice to say that she should have been approaching the pier as we took our leave.
Although the youngest of the paddlers in the fleet by some 13 years or so, Waverley was already 17 years into her life on the river. Her Craigendoran consort, the much-loved Jeanie Deans was in her last season of service on the river and most of the “dreamer” attention was hers. Waverley was a member of the fleet, but still had not developed the following that she enjoys today. She was one of four paddle steamers in the fleet, three of which had originally been “north bank” boats, Waverley, Talisman and Jeanie Deans. The only Gourock survivor by this time was PS Caledonia – still based in Ayr.
I had been on Waverley before as she was a pretty regular visitor to Largs. She had a much more interesting roster than Jeanie Deans to be honest. For the past few seasons, the Jeanie was spared onerous tasks and concentrated on her daily “Round Bute” afternoon cruise. Of all the large cruising ships in the fleet, her lot was the easiest and I suppose we should have seen the writing on the wall, for at the end of the 1964 season, she was withdrawn. Waverley, on the other hand, regularly cruised the waters for which she was originally designed, Lochs Long and Goil, but she also broke free from time to time and was a summertime cruiser around Bute (on her “Round of the Lochs and Firth of Clyde”) as well as a Friday visitor to Glasgow. She took her share of ferry duties on Saturdays when her bigger capacity was needed on the north bank staple run from Craigendoran to Rothesay. In the shoulder season, she regularly took on the turbine cruises as well – to Campbeltown and Ayr. She always acquitted herself well on these runs, according to contemporary reports and had the extra speed in reserve when the occasion demanded.
It was a busy and well used member of the fleet on which I found myself, then. This was her last season in the plain and unadorned buff and black funnels. By this time, the old NB funnels with their distinctive line part way down the buff section where once there had been white paint – they had gone and their replacements’ ever-so-slightly different rake gave her an eccentric look for the next forty-odd years. Her hull was in full camouflage by this time and her black paddle boxes had been repainted the standard issue white in 1959. Her lower hull was still painted black – the blue hull did not make its appearance until the next season and of course the lions would be affixed her to funnels in 1965.
I always think that the nearer the land, the more interesting the sail, so I have always preferred the sail up Loch Long to the sail down Kilbrannan Sound, for example. In those days, and to ensure that it really was a tour of “Three Lochs”, Waverley would poke her nose into Loch Goil about as far up the loch as Carrick Castle. There had been a pier at Lochgoilhead for many a year, of course and up until recently, it had been a regular destination for the Clyde Steamers. Not by now, though, so after a wide and lazy circle had been drawn in the waters of the Loch, she turned to port and headed north and Cobbler-wards to Arrochar, where the second, entertaining diversion would take place, for it was here that I took leave of Waverley for the day and went for a walk! We fetched up against the old wooden pier on time at 1.25pm.
Arrochar Pier taken from Waverley
Arrochar is a pretty little highland village that straddles the north-east tip of Loch Long. It is at a crossroads and three roads wind their way away from the village – the road to Inveraray over the infamous “Rest and Be Thankful”, the road west to Loch Lomond and onwards to Glasgow and the road that twists its merry little way down Loch Long towards Gareloch and Helensburgh. The small pier – now sadly a derelict matchstick reminder of former glories – had been a regular destination for north bank steamers for over a hundred years, but the Caledonian Steam Packet Company was not averse to sending its “crack” steamers into enemy territory in answer to Jeanie Deans early-thirties invasion of Arran! TS Duchess of Hamilton, for example, used to snake her way up the loch to the pier all the way from Ayr on a day excursion and there are photographs of her and her great rival, the Jeanie cosying up to each other on the single berth pier. Words would have been exchanged had there been damage to respective hulls, I have no doubt!
In the mid-sixties, Arrochar was still visited almost daily by a Clyde steamer and many passengers took the advice in the timetable of the time and made their own way across the narrow isthmus between the seawater Loch Long and the freshwater Loch Lomond. There was over an hour allowed for this traverse, so there was plenty of time to take in the highland scenery and possible even detour up to the Swiss chalet style station on the West Highland line that serves the two communities – Arrochar and Tarbet. Tarbet – then as now – was dominated by the Victorian Tarbert Hotel, a fine stopping point on the notorious A88 up Loch Lomond’s west bank. I went straight down to the pier to see what could be seen and to watch PS Maid of the Loch maker her white-hulled approach, heading south from Ardlui. She made a fine sight and was a beautiful ship to the eye as she sailed through the placid waters of the loch. She still sported two masts in those days and there was plenty of deck space from which to enjoy the sumptuous views on offer.
She approached the pier in somewhat leisurely style compared to her cousins on the river, but she was on time, as I recall, for her 2.35pm departure; this being fresh water as I have mentioned – the commotion as her paddles went into reverse to fetch her up against the pier was less impressive. Gangways were loaded; some passengers disembarked and it was time to board her for the first time in my young life.
There really is something special, is there not, in “bagging” a new ship! To this day, I get excited boarding a ship for the first time and I always make a point of going to explore her nooks and her crannies almost before I do anything else! Not for me this “sitting down in one place and watching the world go by” type of cruising! I’m much more of an “up and at ‘em” kind of a chap!
PS Maid of the Loch had been built at the A and J Inglis Ltd yard in 1953, but was too big to be towed up the river Leven, so she was dismantled and the sections transported by road to Balloch, where they were reassembled. The aluminium superstructure was then added and the vessel fitted out with boilers and machinery, the work of Rankin and Blackmore Ltd of Greenock, whose engine, of course, powers Waverley to this day.
The standard of service onboard was high, although I had already eaten my lunch on Waverley the smells wafting skyward from the galley chimney spoke of good food being well-prepared. The waters though which she travelled were less punishing than on the river, so she was a bright, airy boat and plenty of light got through the big picture windows that extended all the way back to her stern. Aluminium deck houses, painted overall in white, gave excellent views and passengers could use the open top deck as well.
Maid of the Loch (A&J Inglis 1953) at Balloch Pier
There was one big difference between her and her river cousins: if you stood on deck as still as you could, you could detect an ever-so-slight forward and back motion as she travelled through the water – reminiscent, I suppose, of the older Clyde paddle steamers. The reason was that only two cranks drove the paddles compared to the three then prevalent on Waverley, Caledonia and Jeanie Deans. This was a real throwback to older times. You soon got used to it though and the sail down to Balloch passed serenely and all-too quickly, the journey between Tarbet and Balloch taking just under an hour and a half. Back in those days, the Balloch branch railway line extended all the way to the loch side, hard by the Maid’s overnight berth. The transfer from the Maid to the train was a less onerous affair than from Arrochar to Tarbert. A “blue train” awaited us, still in its original blue colour scheme with the yellow and black line that ran the length of the coaches. The “blue train” was still in its relative infancy, having been introduced in 1959 (there were problems with their transformers, so they were taken out of service before being reintroduced in 1961) and represented an incredible advance on what had gone before. The train was clean and, again, like Maid of the Loch, it was airy. It glided along the single line from the pier, over the level crossing to Balloch Central. Those of us – and there were a discernible number by now on nodding terms – on the “Three Lochs” tour had now completed all three lochs, but of course, there were more adventures to come! We took the train as far as Dumbarton, where we changed to a Helensburgh-bound train to make the connection with our next ship at Craigendoran. This was all new territory to me, I have to tell you! We summered as a family in Largs but were – indeed, if I am honest, still probably am despite my years through in the east! – resolute south-siders. Balloch, Dumbarton, Craigendoran and points north and west – you might as well have been talking to me about Tibet!
Although the railway along the north bank looked settled, in reality, there had been a lot of change over the years since the line to Helensburgh was first opened in 1857. Like all these things, the settled appearance hid the changes of earlier times and was, of course, illusionary. Craigendoran pier and station was only opened, for example, on 15 May 1882, long after the original line to Helensburgh had been laid. The pier and railhead was opened there because of local opposition to a similar facility in the centre of Helensburgh and thus came about the fairly anomalous railhead that was somewhat removed from the population centre that it was meant to serve. Actually – that’s not really fair; Craigendoran was merely a staging post on the NB’s route to the Clyde coast. Within a decade of my visit, of course, in 1972, Craigendoran was finally shut as a Clyde pier and with its closure died almost a century of north bank services to the outer parts of the river. Already, by the time I visited the pier, the offices lay derelict and the pier had seen its best days. Today, if you know where to look, the pier lies empty and derelict and its two fingers seem to be sending one last message of defiance and admonition in the general direction of “the enemy” across the river!
It was still an important railhead in 1964 though and, each night, Jeanie Deans, Waverley and one of the Maids – in the fifties, it had been the Argyll, but by this time, the ships rotated rosters. Can you imagine that, dear reader? Two steam-driven paddle steamers and a Maid! Where’s the camera? We exited the train, made our way to the pier and onto the ship. I was mildly surprised to find that it was, in fact, Waverley that was waiting for us – I remember assuming that it was going to be one of the Maids. After dropping the “Three Lochers” off at Arrochar, Waverley had waited at Arrochar for barely an hour before retracing her route down Loch Long to Blairmore, then across the firth to Craigendoran. Her regular Arrochar passengers – the ones who had arrived by train that morning at Craigendoran, made their way off the ship and onto a train.
Waverley at Craigendoran (Caledonia just out of shot)
Waverley reversed out of Craigendoran pier and we began our sail back towards Dunoon, via Kilcreggan and Gourock. As we made our way across the firth, TS Queen Mary II was returning direct to Glasgow (Bridge Wharf) from Dunoon and we passed each other mid-firth. “Majestic” might be the word to describe Queen Mary II. She was not swift, like the Duchesses, but her greater beam meant that she could cope with the large crowds that regularly joined her of a morning. She called at Gourock on her way out to Tighnabruaich, but missed out the Caley’s headquarter pier on her return trip to Glasgow. The pursers had to be sharp at Dunoon and make sure that the Gourock passengers disembarked at the Argyll pier to connect to one of the regular Dunoon to Gourock services. If you were a really smart Gourock passenger, you went for a wee walk in Dunoon – maybe enjoyed an ice cream as you did – and you awaited either TS Duchess of Montrose at 7.00pm or TS Duchess of Hamilton at 7.20pm! Those in a hurry caught the official 5.45pm connecting service on one of the ABC car ferries.
Please; give me a break – nobody’s in that much of a hurry!
At Dunoon, we said our goodbyes to Waverley and made our way to MV Maid of Cumbrae, which was returning to Largs after her afternoon cruise to Loch Goil. We left Dunoon sharp at 5.45pm and made our way across the firth to Wemyss Bay. As we left the pier, the car ferry departed and made her plodding way back whence she came to Gourock. Can you imagine it? Back and forth, day-in day-out on the MV Arran!
The next half hour or so was actually rather fun for the “steamer dreamers” onboard! As we crossed over the firth to Wemyss Bay, PS Jeanie Deans came round Toward Point on her return from the Round Bute Cruise that was her lot by this last season in her career. She was similar in layout to Waverley, though her 1930’s hull was longer than her younger consort and somehow more elegant; her main deck windows were completely different in their layout. The big difference between the two ships though was the fact that the Jeanie proudly held on to her NB heritage to the end; she never lost her black paddleboxes. Everything else conformed to the Caley norm except, for some reason, her paddleboxes. And she looked all the better for it.
As we crossed the firth making for Wemyss Bay, TS Duchess of Hamilton could be seen on her sprint from Largs to Rothesay and her sister, TS Duchess of Montrose followed the Jeanie out of Rothesay on her return from Inveraray. She came straight across the firth heading, like us, for Wemyss Bay, but was scheduled to arrive 15 minutes after we departed. We left Wemyss Bay on time at 6.20pm and as we turned to head south along the coast towards our final destination, Largs, the Montrose began to slow on her final approach into Wemyss Bay.
There was just something about the two Duchesses that set them apart from the other turbines of similar vintage. Where TS Queen Mary was beamier but shorter, with her boat deck extending all the way (almost) to her bulbous stern, the two Duchesses were longer and their boat decks had a nice “step” in them towards the back. The “step” theme was echoed in their sterns where a small half-deck for the rope handlers seemed to finish them off – just so. If you see a picture of either of them taken from the stern, you will see how tapered and graceful their hull shapes were. TS King George V – based in Oban of course, but originally built for Turbine Steamers Ltd, an operating subsidiary of Williamson-Buchanan Steamers Ltd – did not have that stepped arrangement and looked less elegant – to my eyes at least – as a result. Though older than the Montrose and Hamilton by four and six years respectively, she outlasted them, so her builders, Denny’s of Dumbarton obviously did a good job when they built her as the first of the “new-generation” turbines in 1926!
Gradually, we picked up speed for the last leg of our trip along the coast to Largs and, with a lingering glance back to the pier to watch Duchess of Montrose make fast, we made our uneventful way home.
What a day it had been, mind you – what a day indeed! A Maid, Waverley, Maid of the Loch, a trip on the north bank rail line and a nice highland walk to boot. Sadly, the fleet was about to embark on the first of a series of changes that would result, within the decade, in there being only two traditional steamers left on the river – one turbine and one paddler. Jeanie Deans and Duchess of Montrose were the first to go; they were followed in quick succession by Talisman, Caledonia and Duchess of Hamilton. Not long after that, the pioneering Maids were disposed of one by one.
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