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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Lochfyne History

Under the terms of the 1928 Parliamentary package that rescued David MacBrayne Ltd as an ongoing concern, the Company was obliged to build four new ships – and the last of these, LOCHFYNE, attracted huge public interest and was the subject of much technical journalism.

The reason? LOCHFYNE was, as G E Langmuir starchy records, “the first British passenger vessel to have the propellers driven by direct-coupled electric motors which received their energy from generators deriving their power from Diesel engines; or, in normal parlance, she was a 'Diesel-Electric' ship.” She also had a remarkably long career for a motor vessel, sailing from May 1931 to the end of the 1969 season – a feat beaten by only one other major unit in the fleet, LOCHINVAR (1908) which chugged on till 1960 but was twice re-engined.

More, enthuses the great man, “the prime movers [on LOCHFYNE] consisted of two sets of five-cylinder four-stroke Diesel engines running at 330 rpm and developing a total of 2,000 IHP. Each set was coupled to a direct-current generator of 540 kW capacity at 500 volts, Lastly the two propelling motors, located in a separate compartment aft of the electric generating plant, were coupled direct to the port and starboard propeller shafts and developed a total of 1,340 SHP at 430 rpm...” More, she was the first vessel in the fleet to have the option of bridge-controlled engines – starboard these many years, but until the late Sixties extremely unusual.

Whatever, LOCHFYNE was not the sort of rugged West Highland mailboat for which MacBrayne's became famous; she had neither crane nor hold and served no far-flung isles. She was to be a swift cruise and excursion vessel by summer and would operate the Gourock-Ardrishaig mail run each winter – an electric summer butterfly with off-season potential. The Ardrishaig run was part of MacBrayne's celebrated “Royal Route” to the Highlands, unwittingly endorsed by Queen Victoria – other elements being small steamer through the Crinal Canal; swift steamer to Corpach and still another up the Caledonian Canal to Inverness.

So proud were MacBraynes of her radical machinery, however, that – as on most paddle steamers – a good view was afforded of LOCH FYNE's engines from her main deck.

It is little cause for wonder that such an innovative vessel required three firms for her construction – Denny's of Dumbarton to build her; Davey, Paxman & Co. Ltd for her diesel plant; and Metropolitan Vickers Ltd., who supplied her electrical machinery.

LOCHFYNE was duly launched on 20th March 1931 and underwent sea trials on 25th May. Her appearance reflected the keen, sleek lines of her day. She had a cruiser stern, a straight, slightly raked stem and two funnels (of which the forward was a dummy.) Apart from crew and engine space she was occupied entirely by modern passenger accommodation in accordance with the taste of the time – but with no sleeping berths. Initially certificated for almost 1,200 passengers, she was latterly certificated for 906.
 
She required careful planning as one of her intended routes – the popular Oban-Staffa-Iona excursion – was a “one-class” service; but the Ardrishaig mail catered ruthlessly for First and Third Class fares until well into the Sixties! (In modern times there was, inexplicably, no Second Class.)

Initially she had a grey hull, like the other new boats (LOCHNESS , LOCHEARN and LOCHMOR) and this was for a time the standard MacBrayne livery; it was shortly abandoned, as a grey-hulled vessel is practically invisible in fog.) Shortly before commencing her duties LOCHFYNE was famously displayed – and photographed - on the Broomielaw, Glasgow, in June 1931, alongside the the veteran MacBrayne paddle-steamer GLENCOE of 1846. LOCHFYNE took up service, from Oban, on 8th June 1931.

Picture: John Newth
In pre war condition in Rothesay Bay


After five summers of Iona cruising she was gently ousted by KING GEORGE V and thereafter LOCHFYNE was employed largely as supporting-cast at Oban and Fort William. She was not requisitioned during the Second World War and maintained the Ardrishaig mail for the duration, sailing from Wemyss Bay as an anti-submarine boom from the Cloch Light to the Gantocks precluded service from Gourock. Her dreich wartime livery included dark grey hull and upperworks and black funnels. She had an especially busy 1946 season as, in the continued absence of KING GEORGE V – she was requisitioned - she had to cover both the Fort William and Iona excursions, sailing on alternate days – and indeed maintained some Oban cruises thereafter until assuming permanent base on the Clyde.

In 1953 she was re-engined and on trials at the Skelmorlie Measured Mile attained 16.224 knots, two knots faster than her previous service speed of 13.75 knots. LOCHFYNE was a popular shift but, being the summer excursion steamer she was, her amenity was badly limited in two respects – the promenade deck was very cluttered with ventilators, hatches and other obstacles; and her diesel engines provided much unwelcome noise and vibration.

Like many other technological pioneers, too, she was plagued with breakdowns; in her early years there were several major failures, the most sensational befalling her at Oban on 25th July 1939 when her starboard engine exploded. A serious fire in her port engine, in October 1965, put her out of service for seven months.

After the withdrawal of SAINT COLUMBA at the end of the 1958 season, LOCHFYNE returned to Clyde service and became the dedicated Ardrishaig mailboat. Her upper deck was extended aft for this full-time job and in 1960 a cafeteria was installed; but – as the decade advanced – this ageing, passenger-only vessel, neither pleasure-steamer nor car ferry nor good red herring, became increasingly an anachronism.

The axe fell when the Scottish Transport Group acquired MacBraynes in 1969 and began the rapid integration of the future CalMac operation. A swift rationalisation was to end all David MacBrayne Ltd operations on the Clyde (though, oddly, they did not acquire the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd's Kyleakin service as a quid pro quo). Some thought LOCHFYNE might survive on the Clyde excursion trade, if the STG were minded to force the CSP to discard one or more of its expensive summer steamers.

But the diesel-electric pioneer's limited charm as a pleasure boat, and her advancing age, meant the prospect was not considered for long. LOCHFYNE made her last call at Ardrishaig on 13th September 1969 and her very last passenger voyage, to Tarbert, on 30th September. She was dressed overall for the occasion – the closing of a run associated with MacBrayne's, and their predecessors, for over 120 years.
 
The CSP took over the Gourock-Tarbert mail route the following day – their only available vessel for the run being the 1934 paddler CALEDONIA! It was widely believed the red MacBraynes funnel had disappeared, permanently, from the Firth of Clyde scene.

In January 1970 LOCHFYNE was sold to the Northern Slipway Ltd., Dublin- but got no further than Faslane on the Gareloch, where she spent some time as a floating generator and accommodation ship, providing power for ship breaking operations there. In 1972 she was sold again, to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, and – not for the last time in disposal of a Company veteran – hopes were high of her survival in a static role, as a floating restaurant or similar.

Picture: John Newth
Lochfyne (centre) at Faslane


The hope, as usual, proved forlorn and on 25th March 1974 LOCHFYNE was towed for scrapping to Arnott Young Ship breakers at Dalmuir, Dumbarton, where several famous predecessors – including IONA (1864) and COLUMBA (1878) had ended their careers. On 1st April G E Langmuir photographed the old favourite there. That same day, at Leith, Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. launched the third PIONEER – and thus Graham Langmuir linked directly this second-generation CalMac car ferry to a paddle-steamer launched in 1846.

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)



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