Ships of the Fleet
COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE had a long and eventful
career; it falls to few ships to serve both in an enclosed freshwater loch and,
later, the salty main – and the sturdy COUNTESS of 1936 accomplished the
transfer twice, enjoying a sunset song on the fabled Loch Lomond.
She was built, however, for service on Loch Awe in
Argyll; it is hard for us now to recall how poor and scanty West Highland roads
were in most districts until after the Second World War, and how hamlets and
households on the margins of such great lochs as Loch Shiel and Loch Awe were
most conveniently served by boat. There was also, of course, a good excursion
trade in summer; not to mention sportsmen in pursuit of fur, fin and feather in
need of passage to the next hunting-ground.
In 1882 the Lochawe Hotel Co. Ltd had begun their
steamer services with the little single-screw steamship COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE.
She closely resembled the much better known LADY OF THE LAKE on Loch Tay – and
which, “like every other inland Scottish steamer,” records G E Langmuir,
“took her boiler feed-water direct from the loch on which she sailed.”
But this Loch Awe service was suspended in 1914
and did not resume until 1922, when ship, business and goodwill were acquired by
the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd. , now a subsidiary of the LMS Railway. It
was a brave decision and for taking such a commercial risk – the LMS also took
over steamboat services on Loch Tay – the Scottish directors had to overrule
their own managers. The gamble, by 1933, was vindicated when the routes on both
lochs attained profitability, with 20,000 passengers that year on Loch Tay and
6,000 on Loch Awe.
The original COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE puffed nobly
on; but by the early Thirties was plainly rather too small and antiquated.
Accordingly, the Company decided boldly to order a replacement – which would
be the first motor-propelled vessel on the Loch – at a cost of £10,000.
Tenders were invited for the little ship and the contract was duly won by
Denny's of Dumbarton.
The new COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was erected in the
builders' yard, and then promptly dismantled for freight in sections by rail to
Loch Awe where, duly reassembled, she was launched on 7th May 1936.
This was at very short notice – the date was
brought forward as it was feared Loch Awe's waterlevel might shortly fall to a
point that would prevent her ready launch entirely that summer – and, rather
sweetly, the naming ceremony was entrusted not for once to a rich man's wife but
to the youngest apprentice who had helped to build her. (The construction crew,
by the way, were put up in the old COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE, which was broken up
on the lochside later that year.)
Internal-combustion propulsion was still a great
novelty, but the Company had been greatly impressed by the economy of diesel
operation and maintenance on the WEE CUMBRAE, a 60-foot passenger ferry built
for the Millport run in 1935. So the new COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was fitted,
likewise, with the same Gleniffer diesel engines – two sets of six-cylinder
high-speed engines, driving her twin screws through reduction gearing.
She ran trials on Loch Awe on 22nd May
1936, attaining a very respectable speed of 10.47 knots. Internally, the new
vessel was superbly fitted. There was a lounge forward on her lower deck and a
dining saloon immediately aft – catering for twenty at a time. The remaining
space on that deck was occupied by her machinery. The promenade deck ran the
full length of COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE and the deck-house forward had an
observation lounge with large windows, granting an excellent view of the scenery
COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE had a cruiser stern
and one mast and enjoyed the gracious new livery the LMS had ordained for its
inland water craft (indeed, a ship the Company built that year for Loch
Windermere, the TEAL, though larger, closely resembled her.) So the COUNTESS
took up the Loch Awe service in white hull and upperworks with blue waterline
and green underbody.
The only aspect of her appearance which
disappointed many was the entire absence of a funnel. Her engines exhausted
through the hull, near the waterline. Where a funnel might be expected there was
only a small galley-chimney, painted yellow; and this was subsequently removed
when Calor gas was installed for cooking and heating.
Yet, with a gross tonnage of 106, COUNTESS OF
BREADALBANE was the first Loch Awe vessel to win the status of an entry in
Lloyd's Register. Her daily weekday sailing – in summer only - was from Loch
Awe pier, leaving at 11.40 am, and embarking on the return trip from Ford at 3
pm. There were calls paid en route at
Taychreggan and Port Sonachan, and in both directions she made connexion with
northbound and southbound trains.
Besides this principal service, COUNTESS OF
BREADALBANE offered evening cruises throughout the tourist season. She was a
great success and an elegant and popular ship; yet, economical as the new diesel
ship was, it became apparent within a season or two that the profitability the
Loch Awe trade had briefly found in 1933 was not likely to be regained.
With the advent of war in 1939, her sailings were
promptly suspended and she was laid up on the slipway near Lochawe Station.
COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE would not resume her summer-butterfly existence until
1948 and it became rapidly apparent that in the post-war era a Loch Awe steamer
service was grotesquely uneconomic. At the end of the 1951 season its closure
was announced, on the grounds of insufficient traffic.
But it was by no means the end for COUNTESS OF
BREADALBANE. “Four fruitless seasons had convinced British Railways the
service was doomed,” writes Iain C MacArthur. “The problem now was what to
do with the COUNTESS. Rather than sell her for scrap and in view of the need for
smaller units on the Clyde it was decided to transfer the vessel from her inland
water home to the Firth of Clyde. This courageous and sensible decision was both
tricky and expensive to execute.”
On Monday 17th March 1952, work began
on dismantling her superstructure and deck houses. It took a full month before
her hull – which weighed ninety-six tons – was ready to travel the seventeen
miles overland from Loch Awe to Loch Fyne by the road from Dalmally to
It was a spectacular operation which excited huge
public interest. “The journey was made on Sunday 20th April by two
104 h.p. Tractors operated by Pickfords (British Road Services.) The 97-feet
long green and white hull was taken on two bogies at about five miles per hour
along the winding, unfenced road. The haul, which began at 6.50 am, was
completed shortly after seven pm.
“It took the engineers four hours alone to get
the hull up the one-in-seven slop from the side of Loch Awe to the road. The
road journey started at eleven o'clock and progress at first was slow on the
route by Cladich. Along the road six bridges had to be strengthened with heavy
steel plates. Several trees had to be cut and other obstacles removed to give
the ship a full twenty-feet clearance. Cameras recorded the journey for
television and newsreel services. In the evening it was decided not to take the
hull through the arches of Inveraray itself. Instead it was left about 350 yards
inside the Argyll estate across from Inveraray Castle...
“Next morning the hull was taken out of the
Ducal grounds and into the front street of the town by the lochside. This
process took two and a half hours. Meanwhile a slipway had been constructed with
6 cwt steel plates laid out for more than 250 feet, and around three pm the
ship, still on the bogies which had carried her from Loch Awe, was manoeuvred
into place ready to be launched at high tide around nine in the evening. Once
afloat again COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was towed to Denny's yard where she
underwent a refit for the best part of a month...”
No doubt many involved in this Herculean transfer
from freshwater to salt consoled themselves with the thought that COUNTESS OF
BREADALBANE would never have to be carried back.
Denny's carried out a substantial overhaul, though
the most important job in equipping the COUNTESS for exposed, saltwater service
was the replacement of rather vulnerable, rectangular windows in her hull with
“All was ready,” records Mr MacArthur, “and
on Tuesday 18th May she duly arrived at GOUROCK. After a hush-hush
visit to Glasgow under the command of Donald MacLeod... apparently to time her
on the run and to give railway officials and others an opportunity of inspecting
her for charter work, she took special parties over the weekend on short runs
calling at Gourock, Kilcreggan and Craigendoran. On Monday 26th May,
she carried the press from Bridge Wharf to Gourock, Dunoon and Rothesay...
Thereafter, COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE, now in the normal Caley hull colours and
with her small square windows on the main deck converted to portholes for
safety, entered her second career.”
She would prove a great success. At first the
COUNTESS was generally deployed on short, “feeder” routes – for instance,
a special weekend service that summer, from Rothesay to Tighnabruaich, and on
Saturdays around midday she helped with the Millport traffic. In 1954 she
started a Largs-Rothesay route to connect with the bigger excursion steamers.
Besides, she would undertake charter sailings; and assorted forenoon, afternoon
and evening cruises, a trade for which she was certificated to carry 200
passengers. Longer runs, like a late afternoon feeder-sail from Craigendoran to
Rothesay – she assumed this in 1955 - became all the easier when she was
re-engined in 1956 and obligingly increased her speed to twelve knots.
Indeed, her duties became extremely complicated; a
mixed bag which covered practically every pier on the Clyde and Upper Firth. For
the first time, too, she had winter duties: COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE covered,
off-season, the Kilmun-Gourock-Craigendoran service, including all winter calls
at Blairmore and Craigendoran.
It was unfortunate she lacked a funnel because it
made COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE look smaller than she actually was and the Kilmun
passengers were a notorious bunch of moaning minis, blithely refusing to
acknowledge that their new winter vessel was actually bigger and a good deal
more comfortable than the two vessels she had replaced. They insisted that
COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was still too small and her admitted propensity for
rolling in stormy weather invited the sort of anxieties more becoming The Wreck
of the Medusa.
Still, it was a little
unkind of the wags to suggest British Railways might shortly advertise,
“Cheap; for immediate disposal, for quick sale, the desirable vessel COUNTESS
OF BREADALBANE, complete with oars, guaranteed safe in calm water!” And they
gained good ammunition when, if the weather were very wild indeed, the COUNTESS
was on occasion ignominiously laid up and the sturdy TALISMAN undertook the run.
For the winter of 1953 to '54 the Holy Loch and Kilcreggan commuters were
placated with one of the new MAIDs.
It was for
charter-work and short cruises that the newly invigorated COUNTESS OF
BREADALBANE really excelled and from the late Fifties she was in high demand by
such bodies as the Clyde River Steamer Club for outings to long-forgotten piers
and jetties on the Firth. Iain MacArthur records calls to “Helensburgh, Custom
House Quay, Carrick Castle Pier, Ardentinny ferry, Strone, Hunter's Quay,
Ormidale, Kames and even up the River Cart to Paisley harbour.”
In reflection of such a
gracious trade, COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was even painted in her Loch Awe livery
in 1961. With her immaculate brasses and spotless desks, she looked, says an
admirer, like a “private yacht”, but the white hull was difficult to keep
clean in salt water and soon it was stained with rust, especially below the
A mounting sense of decline
– even economic crisis – forced the CSP to cut out most evening cruises
after the 1961 season. 1962 saw the COUNTESS forced to take on most of the
Largs-Millport roster – especially as the two little diesel veterans of 1938,
ASHTON and LEVEN, had just had the passenger complements slashed from 112 to 72
– and still more of her short cruises from Largs and Gourock were cancelled.
With their final disposal in 1965 she became the fulltime Largs-Millport vessel
and what was left of her excursion trade was hovered up by the MAIDs.
Politics, and an inability
by CSP and public officials to cut the Gordian knot and rationalise Clyde
services as the Sixties dragged through, saw COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE restored to
the Holy Loch service in 1967. The Company had been trying in vain to close
Kilmun Pier for fifteen years and a desperate 1966 bid to wriggle from provision
of what was, in fact, the very first Caley route – the CSP had been running
the Holy Loch trade since 1889 – failed again.
So the COUNTESS took up the
commuter trade to Gourock from Kilcreggan, Blairmore and Kilmun on Friday 26th
May 1967, relieving MAID OF ASHTON after fourteen years on the station – and,
indeed, assuming the service for which she had originally been intended when she
was hauled from Loch Awe in the first place. She lay at Kilmun each night Pier
In addition she provided a
Sunday service between Dunoon and Helensburgh; the first railway-owned ship to
call there regularly since 1951. Later she even provided a Sunday afternoon
cruise up the Holy Loch. She was, however, spared the task of maintaining a
Craigendoran-Gourock link in winter; permission had been granted for that
closure at least, and calls to the north bank terminal ceased from October.
The advent of the Scottish
Transport Group in 1969, joint-management with David MacBrayne Ltd and the
commissioning of new modern tonnage finally brought common sense to Clyde
shipping services. It was 1971, however, before at last the STG succeeded in
closing the Holy Loch route, when authorities and the Scottish Transport Users
Consultative Committee finally agreed that its withdrawal would cause no
hardship if an adequate bus service was provided. Cowal Motor Services duly laid
on frequent runs to Dunoon from Kilmun and Blairmore and COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE
ceased operation on Friday 28th May 1971.
She was laid up and offered
for sale and, in November 1971, COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was bought by Walter Roy
Ritchie of Gourock, who renamed her COUNTESS OF KEMPOCK and deployed her –
well, on the same passenger services she had maintained for much of the Sixties,
between Gourock, Kilcreggan and Helensburgh, as well as short cruises on the
Upper Firth. Indeed, these passenger ferry services were even included in CalMac
timetables COUNTESS OF KEMPOCK served W R Ritchie on these runs till 1978; she
was then sold on to Offshore Workboats Ltd of Oban. They in turn chartered her
to Staffin Marine between 1979 and 1980. For a time she braved the Sound of
Iona, sailing between that island and Ulva Ferry, and in 1981 COUNTESS OF
KEMPOCK offered little cruises from Oban, trading as OWL Cruises.
In 1982, though, her
fortunes took an astonishing twist – and saw what no one thirty years before
would have predicted; her return to inland water. Alloa Breweries Ltd. Has just
acquired MAID OF THE LOCH and the Loch Lommond excursion goodwill from
Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd.; but most cynically refused to believe their
protestations of a continued excursion role for the paddle-steamer.
Instead, the former
COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE was hastily acquired and her purchase – and new role
– were announced on 2nd April 1982. A new company, Maid of the Loch
Ltd., would own and operate both vessels.
The COUNTESS duly sailed on
16th April from Troon to Stobcross Quay where she was hoisted from
the water by the massive (and famous) crane and laid on the quayside. Her screws
were removed and her hull was sandblasted; once most of her superstructure had
been removed, she was cut carefully into two sections. Thus, on 29th
April, she was transported to Balloch by road and offloaded by the lochside,
near Balloch Pier station and the Loch Lommond excursion steamers' slipway.
Here she was carefully
rebuilt and – the loch being rather shallow by this corner – a “wet
dock” was excavated in the shingle for her launch. This, though, on 24th
May 1982, proved rather an embarrassment; the Countess of Arran (sometime Fiona's
Colquhoun of Luss) performed the rites, but the duly christened COUNTESS FIONA
refused to move and it was that evening, after the toils of a JCB, before she
was finally afloat.
Her fitting-out was
completed and after almost half a century the COUNTESS finally acquired a funnel
– mounted on the upper deck aft, painted red and black, and a dummy. It was
Wednesday 16th June, however, before she assumed a schedule of Loch Lommond
cruises with a certificate for 200 passengers – a programme Allan Brown
describes as “rather tentative”, based at Balloch and with calls at Luss,
Rowardennan and Inversnaid. In addition she circled brioefly in Tarbert bay
though it was 1984 before the pier at Tarbet – closed in 1975 – was rebuilt
and open for berthing. She was also, as so often in her past, available for
charter; and there was no role for MAID OF THE LOCH – already deteriorating
– save ignominious use as a landing-stage.
It was never a particularly
neat or elegant operation. Catering was basic; MAID OF THE LOCH's elegant dining
facilities were replaced with “hot and cold snack and a bar service.” And,
if less than forty passengers turned up for an advertised cruise, COUNTESS FIONA
would not sail at all – they were offered, instead, the doubtful charms of a
short outing in a little motor-launch with the unhappy name of STRANGER'S FOLLY.
In the 1982 season,
nevertheless, COUNTESS FIONA carried over 10,000 passengers. The next year,
however, Alloa Breweries assumed entire charge of the operation. The COUNTESS's
spring overhaul in 1983 saw a number of alterations which were supposed to
increase passenger comfort; the observation lounge was enlarged, with the
fitting of bigger windows, and her rather gloomy bar area brightened. The galley
stairway to her lower deck was removed, to grant more space, and the toilets
were moved to a more convenient location on this deck. Unfortunately all these
changes resulted in a reduction of her passenger certificate, from 200 to 180.
summer service was now provided with her principal cruise leaving Balloch at
10.15, returning at 15.20 after calls (both out and back) at Luss, Rowardennan,
Tarbet and Inversnaid. In her high season, from 30th June to early
September, she ran a shorter afternoon cruise to the same jetties but with but
one brief turnaround call at Inversnaid. TV advertising vaunted her charms and
the re-opening of Tarbet Pier allowed COUNTESS FIONA to claim a minor historical
distinction – the only steamer to have worked both salt and freshwater
sections of the “Three Lochs Tour” route (ie, from Craigendoran to Arrochar
and Tarbet to Balloch.)
But 1984 also saw COUNTESS
FIONA ram Tarbert Pier when her gearbox malfunctioned; five people were slightly
hurt and emergency repairs to her bows delayed resumption of the cruise by
She attained her fiftieth
birthday in 1986 and it says something for the character of her new management
that nothing was laid on by way of commemoration. That season's end, too, saw
closure of Balloch Pier station; hardly anyone now bothered to stay on the
“Blue Train” (which rolling-stock, by now, was a lurid and usually rather
grubby orange) as far as Balloch Pier since MAID OF THE LOCH ceased operation,
and by getting rid of the station the rail authorities could also get rid of the
level crossing at the west end of Balloch Bridge. The last train left Balloch
Pier station, without ceremony, on Sunday 28th September 1986.
HRH Prince Edward joined
COUNTESS FIONA for a cruise out of Balloch on 16th April 1988 and her
overhaul the following winter saw further improvement both to her amenities and
her appearance. She acquired a full-width saloon and her bridge wings were moved
forward and level with the front of her (surviving) original wooden wheelhouse.
A shorter, oval funnel of more pleasing lines replaced the 1982 installation and
new metal masts replaced her wooden ones, also acquired in 1982. (This may have
been a consequence of a well-known affliction called Loch Lommond Mast Rot.)
Yet her brand new tripod
mainmast was removed shortly afterwards, to increase open deck space – and her
passenger capacity was cut stioll further as a result of all this, to 150. And,
despite all their promises, Alloa Breweries Ltd had done nothing whatever to
restore MAID OF THE LOCH, even for static use; she was now in a deplorable
state. Negotiations had begun, though, for the 1953 peddler's transfer to some
kind of locally organised, publicly funded charitable trust when John MacKenzie
– Alloa Breweries' managing director and whose visions for their Loch Lommond
operation was undoubtedly honourable enough – suddenly died.
Allied-Lyons, their parent
company, rapidly decided this curious Scottish outpost could not be justified
and early in 1989 Alloa Breweries Ltd were ordered to put the whole concern on
the market. A new company, Sea Management Corporation of Queensland, Australia
– associated with a marine management group based at Barrow-in-Furness –
took over in April 1989.
The newcomers had grand
claims – to restore the MAID OF THE LOCH to her former glory, for one – and
ridiculous ideas; lochside residents were appalled when it was announced that in
the autumn of 1989 it was hoped to introduce a 350-passenger high-speed
catamaran; LADY OF THE LOCH was even now under construction in Australia.
Whether the authorities
would have ever allowed such a monstrosity to join COUNTESS FIONA was never
ascertained. The old lady sailed from Saturday 15th April 1989 on
what would prove to be her last summer in passenger service. Balmaha pier had
reopened earlier that year and – though her master advised against scheduled
calls, considering the approaches two hazardous, COUNTESS FIONA did berth there
now and again, as and when requested; she also cruised as far as Ardlui and paid
her usual respects to Tarbet, Rowardennan, Luss and Inversnaid, before retiring
for the winter on 25th September – Holiday Monday – 1989.
She would never sail again.
The non-appearance of LADY OF THE LOCH excited gleeful speculation and through
the winter of 1989-90 nothing was done to ready COUNTESS FIONA for a new Loch Lommond
season. On 2nd May 1990 it was announced her schedule had been
“temporarily suspended” until further notice. In fact, Sea Management
Corporation had gone bust and, on 17th September, all its Loch Lommond
interests were sold by the Receiver to the Francis Hotel Group of Newcastle.
Their grandiose plans for a
“leisure complex” at Balloch came to nothing and in the spring of 1991 the
Francis Hotel Group, too, went into liquidation. By this point there was a
mounting outcry about the state of MAID OF THE LOCH – filthy, corroding,
looted and vandalised, and with so much water flooding her scuppers that she had
developed a marked list to port. The COUNTESS OF FIONA, which had lain afloat
through 1990, she was pulled onto the Loch Lommond slipway and left to rot.
Dumbarton District Council
were persuaded to move quickly to pay for site security and have the vessel
pumped dry (her aft portholes were already below the loch surface.) On 4th
December 1992 the Council duly acquired the MAID, the COUNTESS and everything
else for the bargain-basement price of £55,000.
The trouble was that public
interest focussed almost entirely on the glamorous (if distressed) paddle
steamer. Few took the least interest in the fate of COUNTESS FIONA and, as the
Nineties dragged on, she became not merely a liability – increasingly
vandalised and abused – but a plain political threat to the peddler's eventual
restoration. There were a few people, and even some with access top serious
money, eager to acquire and restore COUNTESS FIONA to active service.
As a going concern on Loch Lommond
she would have proved a massive threat to any prospect of a revived, operational
MAID OF THE LOCH. All bids for COUNTESS FIONA were accordingly denied and in
September 1999, with singular ruthlessness and against a backdrop of anger and
incredulity, she was broken up where she lay.
Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)
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