The Land of the Heederum, Haderum Ho!
A few YouTubes just to get you in the mood for Waverley’s upcoming visit to the Inner Hrbrides in late May (with apologies for the almost legendary YouTube mis-match of audio and video – outwith the poster’s control!):
The first part is taken from a production called ‘Highland Voyage’, which was based on the crew of a ‘puffer’ on he West Coast of Scotland.
A ‘puffer’ is a steam lighter, a type of small cargo vessel developed for use on the west coast of Scotland – they could be no longer than 66 feet so that they would fit in the locks of the Forth & Clyde Canal but the ‘outside boats’ had to be good enough sea-boats to take on the Atlantic swell as they plied their trade, summer and winter, to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Often, when there was no convenient harbour or pier, they would intentionally run over a sandy beach at mid tide and wait until the tide went out, resting on their flat bottom, before discharging their cargo of coal or whatever directly into a horse drawn cart or lorry on the beach. They had sturdy hulls in case they rested onto a projecting rock which could set-up the keel but most of the old time puffer skippers knew the landing beaches like the lines on the back of their hands. The name ‘puffer’ originated from the early boats which were fitted with a simple expansion (single cylinder), reciprocating steam engine with no condenser or air pump. Therefore, the exhaust steam from the engine was emitted via the funnel to atmosphere as puffs of condensate with each stroke of the engine. There was an accompanying sound but, from a distance, you would see the ‘puff’ before you heard it (due to the relative speed of light and sound – something you can still experience if you are Watching Waverley from a distance when the steam whistle is blown). The puffer engine drow a single screw propeller fitted on the centreline. As a result you couldn’t ‘kick’ the stern in the way that you can with modern twin screw coaster. This was usually offset partly by a very large rudder (but usually not a balanced one). Puffer skippers were good ship handlers – they had to be given some of the tight locations that they had to get their vessels into and out of without the assistance of modern aids such as bow thrusters and echo sounders.
The biggest firm of Puffer operators were J & J Hay, which also built many of their own fleet and for other fleets at their shipyard at Kirkintilloch on the F&C Canal. Nowadays, Kirkintilloch is not commonly thought of as a centre of shipbuilding but at one time it had two busy shipyards churning out many new vessels each year and carrying out repair and maintenance of existing boats. The history of shipbuilding at ‘Kirkie’ is a fascinating one in itself, well related in the late Ian Bowman’s book ‘Kirkintilloch Shipbuilding’ published by Strathkelvin District Libraries in 1983 (sadly long out of print now)
The ‘crew’ of the puffer in the ‘Highland Voyage’ were composed of Scottish actors Duncan Macrae (skipper), Roddy McMillan (the ‘Mate’,who later played the role of skipper Para Handy in he 1960s version of the TV series ‘The Vital Spark’), Alex Mackenzie (who played Peter MacTaggart, the skipper of the puffer that was the central theme of the 1954 Ealing Studios movie called ‘The Maggie’) and John Grieve (who played the part of the deckhand in Highland Voyage but is much better remembered for his portrayal of Dan Macphail, the legendary ‘enchineer’ of the Vital Spark.
The 1960s BBC Scotland series ‘The Vital Spark’ with Roddy McMillan as the skipper Para Handy (Peter MacFarlane), Walter Carr playing the Mate, Dougie and John Grieve playing engineer Dan MacPhail was loosely based on Neil Munro’s ‘Para Handy Tales’. The later (1990s) BBC Scotland series ‘The Tales of Para Handy’, with Gregor Fisher playing the role of Para Handy and Rikki Fulton as Dan Macphail, was more closely based on Munro’s original work.
The deck scenes in ‘Highland Voyage’ were shot on the puffer Saxon, a product of Hay’s yard at Kirkintilloch and mainly remembered nowadays for its association with the town of Millport on the Isle of Great Cumbrae.
The Second part has some gems in it including Duncan Macrae recitation of the ‘Puffers Voyage’ followed up by John Grieve’s unforgettable rendition of ‘Its the Crinan Canal for Me!’. The puffer in the Canal shots is the ‘Toward Lass, one of the last surviving of the traditional puffers which is still well remembered from her latter years at her base in the Victoria Harbour in Greenock – her main duties latterly were a regular, short run across the Firth to remove ‘trash’ and scrap from the controversial American sumarine base at Holy Loch . She and her sisters Cloch Lass and Cumbrae Lass (all named after prominent Clyde lighthouses) were owned originally by the Burke family from Ettrick Bay on the Isle of Bute.
The concluding part has a wee bit repetition but is well worth the watching – also a kind of time warp with a much later excerpt of the 1970s MacBrayne Small Isles mail boat Lochmor, which also ran through the Sound of Sleat and the fast tide race in the Kylerhea on the service between the great herring port of Mallaig, terminus of the North British Railway Company’s West Highland Railway and the Skye Railway terminus at Kyle of Lochalsh. Obviously this was not part of the original ‘Highland Voyage’ film but I think it comes from a BBC Scotland compilation, part of which was a nostalgic commentary by John Grieve (I think it was made not long before he died). Sadly, it is a few years now since Waverley made the sailing up to Kyle and it is not included in her 2010 schedule. This is regretable because the sailings that she has run up to Portree and beyond are amongst the finest that she has ever done but latterly the support for these midweek sailings has not been sufficient to justify her visits. Those that have managed to do these sailings in the past will be hopeful that they can be repeated, at least occasionally, in future. The scenery, including unsurpassable views of the Black and the Red Cuillins, especially in the gloaming with the sun setting in the west, is awesome (a much overworked word but justified in this instance).
Slightly off-subject but another bit of nostalgia for those of us that have been sailing through the Hebrides for as long as we can remember – the following film comprises rare footage of the construction of the three sister ships Hebrides, Clansman and Columba during their building and launch from the Hall Russell shipyard in Aberdeen in 1963-64. I barely remember this (I was only 7 years old at the time) but I can clearly remember my first sailing on any of the three ships – on the Columba from Oban to Craignure and Lochaline some time in 1964. It was a day most memorable for the almost incessant rain which forced us to stay inside the comfortable and warm lounge. Unfortunatly the term ‘Observation Lounge’ was not very fitting as the high set lounge windows meant you could see nothing of the scenery from a seated position. For my grandparents, more used to the views from the lounge of the magnificent Oban-based MacBrayne excursion turbine steamer King George V and her likes, this new vessel was definitely not progress. Although I developed a liking for these vessels in subsequent years (particularly the Hebrides) my grandparents never did – well the KGV was a trully mangificent ship, even though she didn’t like her original high pressure Babcock & Wilcox boilers!
Mention of Kyle of Lochalsh brings back some memories of fondly recalled MacBrayne mailboat Loch Seaforth, built on the Clyde in the same year as Waverley, which connected Stornoway, capital of the Isle of Lewis, with the railheads at Mallaig and Kyle, where she is seen in the following film – at the end there is a shot view of the swing deck vehicle ferryboat Kyleakin (built by James Lamont at Port Glasgow) at Kyleakin with two typical MacBrayne buses in attendance. At that time David MacBrayne Ltd still operated a fleet of buses and freight lorries as well as their world renowned steamer fleet. David MacBrayne Ltd still exists to this day as the parent company of CalMac Ferries Ltd (Caledonian MacBrayne), Cowal Ferries Ltd and Northlink Ferries. The Company can retrace its origins to 1851 when it was formed as David Hutcheson & Co (David MacBrayne was the ‘& Co’ junior partner at that time). It became David MacBrayne in 1879. The MacBrayne family lived at MacBrayne Hall, one of the magnificent town houses in architect Charles Wilson’s Park Circus development on Woodlands Hill in Glasgow’s west end.
For the first time in many years an opportunity to sail through the Crinan Canal is being offered duirng the holiday weekend at the beginning of May 2010. The venture is being organised by Iain Quinn and Clyde Marine Services Ltd using their motor vessel Rover. Clyde Marine Services, operated by the Munro family, has been serving users of the river and Firth of Clyde for 90 years. Currently they operate a fleet of modern small excursion vessels and a small but very versatile and practical modern tug fleet. Over the last 35 years CMS have been extremely supportive and practically helpful in the long running effort to maintain Waverley on an operational basis and this is continuing as any profits from the special sailings on the Rover in May will go towards Waverley’s preservation. Therefore, it is an excellent time for the Scottish Branch to record their gratitude to CMS management and staff for their crucial support. More information on these Crinan Canal sailings can be found here