top of page

A Grand Day on Waverley (Robin Copland)

There’s always a wee sense of excitement in this West of Scotland man’s heart when he knows he is returning from the East for a day out on the Clyde! Not too early a start (just as well after the day before, when much wine had been consumed), but early enough to make sure of the 11.40 connection at Custom House Quay with two youngsters in tow and a picnic to prepare.

The journey along the M8 was trouble-free with all the road works just about complete and we made good enough time to catch our first glimpse of the Waverley as she paddled her purposeful way “doon the watter” with what looked a goodly crowd aboard just off Langbank. On closer inspection she looked busy – over 500 on the trip from Glasgow, we later learned – so much so that I had a minor panic attack about being able to board her at Greenock!

I had been hoping for a car parking space on the quay itself, but (and you may want to note this yourself for future reference) some pretty permanent looking underground drainage work put paid to that idea. I cheated and parked up in the James Watt College staff car park – it was a weekend, so I reckoned that I wouldn’t be causing too much of a problem!

Greenock to Helensburgh

And on to the quay – haunt of many a photographer Clydesiter! I wondered if I would meet John Crae again – I did, but only in the waving later!

The ship herself came into view – well ahead of time. She looked spruce and bright and she looked busy. As she came past the Garvel dock entrance, I took a couple of photographs (not digital, I am afraid, so if they are any good I may post them – but later!). She fetched up against the pier in good style and we duly boarded for the day’s cruise.

One of the great things about Clydesite is the ability to post a note saying that I was coming through. Not so important, I know, for those who travel regularly, but for me a great boon. I knew that Gavin and Shelagh were going to be on board as well as Ali Black. Now – and here’s the funny thing – I had never met one of them in the flesh. Never in my life! Not one. But it was if I had known them for a good number of years. I suspect it was the same for Joe Collins and Jimmy Monson out in the middle of nowhere in Canada the night they met up for the first time. It had been the same for me when I had met Stuart Cameron, Jamie Shorthouse, John Crae, John Newth, Colin Gillies and Colin Smith on earlier occasions. I suspect it will be the same when I eventually meet up with Bruce, Billy Murdoch, John Robertson, Vic McClymont, Ian Montgomerie, Gregor, Angus, Jimmy, Brenda – the list goes on and on. I suspect it will be the same when any of us meet up in the flesh for the first time!

Even although I was “the outsider”, I was made to feel welcome immediately and brought into the bosom of the group without further ado. As well as these three, I met David Edwards, described as “the silent Clydesiter” and dressed for the occasion in shorts and tee shirt! Brave was my thought at the time; sensible he turned out to be as the day progressed. It was grand and, if any of you have a care or a doubt about posting that you might be on such and such a cruise or trip for fear of embarrassment or shyness – worry not. You can come and go as you please and you will be given a warm welcome and a friendly ear.

To the cruise itself: well, the sun shone the entire day. The river looked just as it does in all of the pictures. The paddler excelled herself and the crowd fair sweated and drank and enjoyed itself. But I’m ahead of myself! For suddenly on the quayside and looking down, camera in hand was John Crae. I was told to wave. So I did and the result duly appeared on the site that night! Turns out that Ali was at Heriot Watt, so knows Balerno pretty well and that Shelagh knows my old doctor (oops – it’s not that the doctor’s old, you understand, it’s just ….. aye – never mind). Small world, in any case.

Helensburgh to Dunoon

I popped up to the top deck and managed to inveigle my way in to one of my favourite spots on the ship. If you go either to your right or to your left (depends which side is more interesting) and walk diagonally to the corner where the top deck narrows (just in front of where the old lifeboat used to be), there’s a great vantage point to watch the ship being manoeuvred. I watched our departure from Helensburgh from that very spot. The two pier hands (they later displayed their colours – the one at the west end of the pier being a Celtic fan and the other a ‘Gers man!), had to show their mettle as Captain Mishel had decided to cant, using the rear rope to pull Waverley’s bow away from the pier and give her a head start as she had to go through almost 180 degrees in order to head for Dunoon. As a landlubber I was worried that the stern might give the corner of the pier a bit of a bang on her way out. I need not have bothered! As Captain Mishel demonstrated time and again on this trip, he is a master handler of a paddle steamer. We performed a graceful arc and headed past the Lieutenant John P Bobo (that’ll be an American ship, then!) and onto Dunoon.

Now, I have to say that I am not sure about this breakwater malarkey! Here I have to admit to a familial interest as I discovered that it was my great grandfather, one W R Copland who built the original pier over 100 years ago (thank you Ian McCrorie, I should have mentioned this to you when we met later! I read the offending page in your Dunoon Pier book somewhere between Bournemouth and Swanage some years ago). I mean, it is enormous (the breakwater that is)! I worry about the original structure falling into disrepair due to lack of use – my understanding is that even Waverley may use the new structure. Hopefully my worries are ill-founded. In fact, we were held up at Dunoon because a Streaker had beaten us to the pier – it can only accommodate one ship at a time for the moment.

On the sector from Helensburgh to Rothesay, my impression was that the ship was at her busiest. There is a large and regular group booking that joins the cruise from Helensburgh to Rothesay and they swelled the numbers to over 900; as the day was so warm, most passengers were up on deck – apart from my 14 year old son and his cousin. They had decided on a card school in the lower bar. Sometimes, I worry!

Dunoon to Rothesay

On our passage south along the Cowal coast, someone – either Ali or Gav – remarked on our speed; we were fair clipping through the water. Later in the cruise, on our return journey, Gav opined that Waverley was the fastest ship on the firth. “Not bad for a 60 year old hooligan” was his thought. Not bad indeed when you think about it. Apparently, one of the effects of the rebuild and renovation has been more economical running and a turn of speed that takes her back to her early years – she trialled at over 18 knots. Those in the know – and there were a few to talk to this particular Saturday, talked of 19 knots being available at 57 rpm if the need arose. Every so often, she is given her head, lifts her skirts and off she goes!

You probably remember the lovely story of a fine September day in the early 60’s when Waverley deputised for the turbine steamer Duchess of Hamilton on the testing Campbeltown route. I say “testing” because of the two long runs from Keppel to Lochranza and Lochranza down the Kilbrannan Sound to Campbeltown. The general feeling of the time was that while Waverley might have been more nimble on the short upper firth runs between piers, her perceived relative lack of speed compared to Duchess of Hamilton would catch her out on the lower firth. The Waverley crew were having none of it and, so the story goes, she arrived back at Gourock about 10 minutes ahead of the tight schedule, much to the amazement of the Duchess crew, sun bathing on her decks.

Anyhow, with the exception of that little run along the Cowal coast when she needed to make up time, her engines seemed to me to be running at a fairly consistent 48 rpm. – more than enough to keep to time.

The Kyles of Bute

Rothesay came and went – with more disembarking than coming on board, so we were somewhat more comfortable on the unforgettable cruise through the Kyles of Bute, past the slipped puffer Maryhill and on towards Colintraive. By this time Iain Quinn was in full flow: talking about the rich merchant who built his daughters wee rosa hooses…; about the famous Maids of Bute….; about the back-door ferry to Bute…. it would make an exiled Scots Canadian weep to hear him!

Meanwhile, on the steps leading to the upper exit gangway area above the paddles, Stuart Cameron was regaling us with tales of paddle steamers on the Swiss lakes, plastic glasses of drink were being enjoyed and Joe McKendrick joined the party from his duties down in the shop (good book, Joe by the way and I liked the video too!). The Narrows were taken at a fair old clip (I didn’t see any evidence of our slowing down to take them), we swung to port and 10 minutes later, we were smartly alongside Tighnabruaich.

The pier was awash with people! Waverley was scheduled to do a short 45 minute cruise in aid of the pier restoration fund and the local population turned out in force to support the initiative. There was a real crush as those who wanted to “get aff” pushed their way through those waiting to embark. We wanted “aff”, so “aff” we went! There were stones to be thrown into the water and skimmers to be skimmed; there were jellyfish to be splatted and photographs to be taken. And not much time to do it if we were to keep to the rigid timetable set us by the crew. “Back by quarter to,” was the cry.

So what is it about people, then? Why are there always last-minute scramblers running up the pier at ten to? Me? I’d just go, I am afraid, but they are a more caring lot than I in charge of things today. So we wait impatiently and straining at the leash. And then there was a lovely announcement: “would Mr and Mrs Bloggs of the Brightwater party please make themselves known to the purser? You were supposed to disembark the first time of asking at Tighnabruaich …”

I mean, can you imagine it? There they are on the ship looking for their mates and finding not one friendly face. Where’s the tour director? Where are Fred and Ginger? Where are the McTavishes? We had better just lie low and just hope the problem goes away! Or maybe they were just terminally thick!

On the way back, the talk was of whether Captain Mishel was going to take the dog leg on or not – the feeling was that he was just the man for the job! As it happens, we didn’t although, to be fair, there were a fair number of yachts in the channel as we approached. Another time, maybe.

I suppose the other main highlight of the cruise for me (apart from meeting Ian McCrorie and Iain Quinn for the first time – both famous steamer enthusiasts) was watching Captain Mishel take Dunoon pier. Since the breakwater, the accepted norm is for Waverley to go to the east of the Gantocks and approach the pier from the north. Not for our gallant captain of the day. In what Stuart Cameron claimed was as good a bit of ship handling as he had seen for quite a while, we described an “S” manoeuvre, passing northwards between the rocks and the breakwater, turning hard-a-port then hard-a-starboard, fetching up roughly at the linkspan, then reversing back to our berth. Remember, this is without bow thrusters and the like – to the landlubber, it was impressive! John Newth was impressed and his photo of Waverley at the pier later provides us with a historical record of the event.

And so back to Greenock with the warmth still in the air and the crowd for Glasgow settling in for what seemed like something of a party! Did I enjoy it? You bet! Will I be back? Count on it.

A grand day out indeed and thanks to all who made us welcome.

Feature Updated:

9 June 2020

bottom of page