A Tryst in the Kyles (Robin Copland)
Where to begin our story?
We could, I suppose, start in 1866 when the North British first attempted a Clyde steamer service from the old and inadequate stone jetty in Helensburgh. Or perhaps we should look to 15 May 1882 when the pier at Craigendoran was opened to traffic and was home that far-off morning to three steamers, Dandie Dinmont, Gareloch and Sheila – all of them ready to convey their passengers to all parts of the upper firth. The pier was u-shaped, with the northern arm longer than the southern. It was built to accommodate 4 ships on her arms at low tide.
But maybe the story really starts on 7 April 1931 when the Jeanie Deans made her graceful way down the slip from Govan’s Fairfield yard into the river. Now this was a steamer! Perhaps her funnels were too short and dumpy in her first season; and you would not really have wanted to be on the bridge in a stiff sou-westerly as she made her 18-knot way south from Dunoon, say, to Rothesay. Longer by some 10 feet than the Waverley of today, she had an altogether traditional feel about her. Her stern was graceful and almost Victorian; her paddle box had the traditional scrollwork on it. Her saloon was apparently the last word in elegance on a Clyde Steamer and George Stromier wrote of it “Certainly never before nor since have I witnessed one anywhere on a pleasure boat to equal that of Jeanie Deans. Panelled and furnished in light oak with rose pink and pale grey upholstery and carpeting, the cabin’s appearance was further enhanced by artistic etchings, depicting scenes culled from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Heart of Midlothian’.”
And she was a flier – one look at the long, raking, slender hull told you that she was a flier! She had been built with the 1930 Duchess of Montrose in her sights and although her trial speed of 18 knots was slower than that of her Gourock rival, her nimbleness at the piers and the fact that she seemed to have an extra notch of speed when required, made up for it!
She had been built with long-distance cruising in mind and took the L.N.E.R house flag and distinctive red, white and black funnels to far-flung areas of the firth She never let the flag down! She was an impertinent, cheeky, sassy interloper into turbine territory and did not mind one little bit rubbing their superior faces into her expanding wake! King Edward, by this time into her 31st season, was an easy catch; but she would even take on the more notable speedsters like the 1926 Glen Sannox.
A typical day in her life in the early 1930’s read as follows:
7.36am Craigendoran – Dunoon
8.36am Dunoon – Kirn – Kilcreggan – Craigendoran
10.10am Craigendoran – Dunoon – Kirn – Blairmore – Lochgoilhead – Arrochar
2.10pm Arrochar – Lochgoilhead – Blairmore – Kilcreggan - Craigendoran
4.35pm Craigendoran – Kirn – Dunoon – Innellan – Craigmore – Rothesay
6.20pm Rothesay – Craigmore – Innellan – Dunoon – Kirn – Kilcreggan – Craigendoran.
So she did her fair share of the ferry and railway connection duties as well as the glamorous cruising work and, yes, 1931 would be a good place to start!
Actually, the 1930’s were something of a golden era as far as “new build” was concerned. The roll call of new ships reads like a who’s-who of Clyde Steamers.
1930 Duchess of Montrose
1931 Jeanie Deans and Lochfyne
1932 Duchess of Hamilton
1933 Queen Mary
1934 Mercury and Caledonia
1935 Talisman and Marchioness of Lorne
1936 Marchioness of Graham and Arran Mail
1937 Jupiter and Juno
1938 Ashton and Leven
But it is the 1935 Talisman that provides the next link in the thread of our story. Now, we have to say that she wasn’t an oil painting when first she appeared! To be fair, the traditional paddle boxes were firmly in place – not the “art nouveau” hidden boxes of the sisters Caledonia and Mercury. Her looks were spoiled though, by the solid bulwarks that extended to her bow and by the house that had been added almost, it seemed, as an afterthought towards her stern.
What was that noise, though? Where were the whirring crankshafts of a triple expansion steam engine? This ship positively droned – she vibrated like the 1931 Lochfyne. Talisman was a solitary crusader indeed and was the only ship on the Clyde to be prefaced by the immortal letters D.E.P.V. It would not be until the 50’s that she finally found her niche on the river. True, she had an exemplary war record and made it as far as Dieppe and Antwerp. But her engines gave her trouble in her early and mid-years and she was nearly on the scrap heap in 1953, until rescued, ironically by an ex-Caley master, who recommended her for the Millport station instead of “the wee Lorne”.
The final strand of the tale comes with the launch of the somewhat utilitarian Waverley on 2 October 1946. Traditional in appearance (with the exception of the cruiser stern), she was a little sister to Jeanie Deans as altered. The deckhouses were an admission that it was not always sunny on the Clyde in the summer and in recognition of the superior facilities offered on the later turbines. She soon settled into her role at her Craigendoran base and found herself sailing up the Lochs Long and Goil towards Arrochar and Lochgoilhead and providing north bank railway connection services.
The 1940’s and 50’s
And then came nationalisation.
And buff and black funnels.
And white deckhouses.
And, one by one, the three Craigendoran sisters were assimilated, Borg-like into the CSP fleet. First one set of paddle boxes turned white. Then another. And Jeanie Deans alone was left with her black boxes. And even some of the funnels, with their distinctive ring where the black line once had been, were replaced.
And all vestiges of the L.N.E.R were gradually removed, so that, to look at the three ships, you would hardly have known whence they had come.
And then, to rub salt in the wound, Talisman left her Craigendoran base for good to find a new life in Millport, Largs, Wemyss Bay and Rothesay. She was replaced in her old stamping ground by, of all things, a Maid!
Sundays were different at Craigendoran! True the midweek commuter runs were not nearly as busy as they had been earlier in the century and although the introduction of the “Blue Train” had provided a much-needed fillip to the north bank of the river and to the transport service all along the coast, it was still more convenient for most of the honest citizens of Rothesay, Innellan, Dunoon and Cove to travel over to one of the railheads on the south bank – Wemyss Bay for Rothesay and Gourock for the rest. But traffic there still was on the commuter runs and people from the north and west of Glasgow preferred the Queen Street connection to having to tramp through Glasgow to Central station.
But Sunday was nonetheless different! Jeanie would slumber gently against the pier for the morning, safe in the knowledge that she would not be called to arms until her 12.40 sailing clockwise around Bute. Waverley was off on her travels, but would be at the pier in good time to take the 2.30 afternoon cruise to Tighnabruaich.
Meanwhile, in the lower firth, their erstwhile L.N.E.R fleet mate, Talisman was making her way between Millport, Largs and Wemyss Bay.
But somebody, somewhere in timetable planning had a sense of the romantic – had a sense of history and had a sense of what was right and proper. And that person had decreed that every Sunday during the summer season the three ships would meet in the Kyles of Bute – to salute each their and their heritage. Yes, two of them had white paddle boxes; yes, the third was about to be retired; yes, Waverley’s funnels were by this time squint; yes, they had white deckhouses and white hull uppers; but yes, they were the three remaining ships of a fleet whose lineage went back a hundred or so years. They were the inheritors of the history of ships that had borne such names as Dandie Dinmont, Diana Vernon, Marmion, Redgauntlet, Meg Merrilies, Kennilworth, Guy Mannering, Lady Clare and Lady Rowena. This was a tradition worth inheriting and worth preserving.
So this person (I am hoping there was such a person!) arranged for the three of them to have a wee outing, to lift their skirts and to meet in the Kyles of Bute of a Sunday afternoon. It went something like this.
Jeanie Deans would quietly reverse out of Craigendoran at 12.40 and head placidly down the firth towards Garroch Head on the island of Bute. She made her way round Garroch Head and into the more sheltered waters of the Kyles. Let’s imagine a blue sky with clouds scudding across it and a mild chop on the water’s surface. The rhythmic 8 beats echoes off the hills to either side as the Kyles narrow towards Tighnabruaich.
Meanwhile, Talisman has left Millport at 2.00, crossed the Largs Channel to Largs for 2.30, made her way over to Rothesay for the back of 3.00 and has steadily made her way from the opposite direction towards Tighnabruaich. She sits quietly at the pier. The sun is beating down; there is hardly a breath of wind by this time, so the beat of another paddler can clearly be heard from distance. Sure enough, as the passengers – including a 10-year old ragamuffin away for the afternoon on his own (and, can you imagine letting a 10-year old do that nowadays!) - board Talisman for the return journey to Largs and Millport, there in the distance, but coming up strong beats the Jeanie. She makes a fine sight from the starboard side of Talisman. Steam escapes from her whistle, followed a second or so later by the noise of her friendly salute. Her bow wave shows that she is moving at speed, not the 18 knots of her youth, but perhaps 16 or so and certainly more than our ship can match!
We depart the pier and head out mid-channel to follow Jeanie Deans towards the Narrows. As we do, the familiar bow of Waverley comes through the Narrows, turns to port and heads in our general direction. She is on the 2.30 cruise from Craigendoran to Tighnabruaich. Again, steam, followed by whistle, this time twice as the two quasi-sister ships salute each other. Waverley paddles on towards us and again salutes are exchanged.
Jeanie Deans disappears at speed through the Narrows, homeward bound to an uncertain future. Our last sight of Waverley is of her taking the pier and we paddle and drone our way back to Rothesay and Largs with just the merest hint of a spring in the old girl’s step as she retraces her steps to her regular haunts.
Sadly, these meetings ceased in 1964, when the Jeanie Deans was retired – fortunately never having the ignominy of a monasteral blue hull foisted upon her. She spent some time in London – a venture that sadly was ahead of its time and resulted in failure, before leaving these shores for good on 27 December 1967, to be scrapped in Antwerp. A be-lioned and blue Talisman defiantly droned on until 1966 – she was broken up in Dalmuir in 1967. Craigendoran became but a memory as of 10 May 1973 and, as for the Waverley?
Well, that’s history!