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Memories of the 1960s (Robin Copland)

When I was but a lad of seven, my parents decided that Largs was the place for me and for my two younger brothers; they took a house for a number of years on the front – opposite the big buoy. The buoy is long gone, but, if you’re in the town, take a walk along the promenade south towards the Pencil. You pass the old putting green, then the boating pond, then Cairnie’s Quay (named after James Cairnie – a man famous in curling circles). As you carry on along the promenade, you will come across three blocks of red sandstone semi-detached houses – we used to take the very last of the houses, next to the high wall.

It was a summer idyll. In front of the house was a grassy area with trees; two of the trees provided us with one set of goals and anoraks did for the other. So football was covered! As for water, well, you crossed the road and clambered down onto the stony beach. Often, jellyfish would lie at the high water mark having been brought ashore on the tide. God, but we were cruel! The stones on the beach provided great sport! You could splat them with the bigger stones, the secret being to avoid getting hit by the stingy bits of the jelly if you were on the other side of the jellyfish (the splattee, I suppose!) from the splatter!!

Swimming was there, if you wanted it. Guy cold, though and your nethers were fair swallowed up to your tum, if you catch my drift! One day, we managed to get our hands on a “Swallows and Amazons” type of raft – Heaven knows from where. I have the picture yet of me and my mates – names long lost in the mists of an aged memory, standing on said raft in the chill of a west of Scotland afternoon. Date? Well, looking at the picture, I suppose it might have been around 1962.

So why, dear reader, am I telling you all of this? Well, I suppose that I am trying to hint at the fact that I was a normal, well-adjusted pre-teenager! And yet; and yet, as I look at that picture, the wee lad staring back at me down through the years that half a lifetime makes was – even then – able to recite the gross tonnage, the length, the breadth and the engine type of each and every one of the Clyde Steamers that passed our way on a regular basis. Every one! Even the Queen Mary II, which, as we all know, was hardly a regular caller at the stone-shaped “L” that was unforgiving Largs Pier.

The fleet in those distant days was interesting and split into two neat halves. There were the traditional steamers, mostly dating from the 30’s – the one exception being the Waverley. There was a mix of both paddle and turbine steamers. Then there were the post 1950 diesel-powered ships like the Maids and the ABC ferries. The most modern ship was Glen Sannox (1957), the “Galloping Glen” as she became known to later generations; at this early point in her career, she was something of a monstrosity, with her tenement flats towards her bow. She probably looked her best in her early condition: no stern ramp; a bold black hull with white line and a sense of purpose about her. She could move too; her Sulzer engines drove her at 18 knots on trial and she showed the Duchess of Montrose a clean pair of heels on her trial with some VIP’s aboard. She was a regular visitor to Largs Channel – though only to Fairlie Pier to our south. She overnighted there of an evening and visited once a day around 1 o’clock.

The ABC ferries, Arran, Bute and Cowal (1954) were infrequent visitors to the Channel. They concentrated on providing the Principal Services between Gourock and Dunoon and Wemyss Bay and Rothesay. Occasionally, one of them would appear relatively far out in the channel – towards Cumbrae – providing a service between Wemyss Bay and Millport. The timetable of the time advises passengers that they should “apply for particulars” on that particular service, although I do seem to remember a Monday morning as being a favourite time for it to take place.

More frequent visitors were the 1953 Maids – Argyll, Ashton, Cumbrae (with her name written white on black as a distinguishing feature in these pre-car ferry days!) and Skelmorlie. I loved those wee boats! They always created a right good stooshie of foam around their propellers as they approached Largs Pier. They were busy and sassy and they meant business! Where could you go on a Maid from Largs? Almost anywhere in the upper firth that you wanted! Millport and Dunagoil Bay was always a favourite afternoon cruise leaving Largs at 2.50pm and arriving back at around 5.00pm. Dunoon and Gareloch was another journey you could enjoy – leaving Largs at 2.20pm and getting back at 6.30pm.

So, there you had the modern fleet: four car ferries, all of them less than seven years old and four Maids.

There were three other motor ships, all of whom were Largs regulars at this time. Ashton and Leven, both built in 1936 and both going strong to this day provided the regular Largs to Millport service. These were great wee sea boats, if a little lively! I can remember on one particularly boisterous day watching one of them come in as close as the yachts moored of Cairnie’s Quay! They were always good for a laugh and one of the wee tricks was to try to get away with buying a return ticket outward on one of them, then try to use the return portion on the Duchess of Hamilton from Keppel to Largs via Fairlie. Strictly speaking, of course, tickets bought on the wee boats were not valid on the Duchess – but I don’t think we were ever challenged!

The other wee boat that came in from time to time was the peripatetic Countess of Breadalbane. She had a much more interesting roster than the Ashton or Leven! Why, you could go to Dunoon on the Countess! She was famous even at this point on her career as the ship that travelled by road from Loch Awe to the Clyde. Later, she made another exciting trip from Glasgow to Loch Lomond before being unceremoniously broken up.

So, what of the traditional steamers? Well, by this time, the Duchess of Hamilton was in her pomp as the star of the show. Regular as clockwork her Captain, Fergus Murdoch and her Chief Engineer Angus Montgomery would bring her swinging into Largs pier on her trip to Campbeltown. They had an arduous timetable to keep to and a number of piers to take. She had typically sailed across from Rothesay and was rostered to call at Largs and Keppel before heading off to Lochranza. What a sight she made, bow wave climbing up her hull as she dashed from pier to pier. There was an air of purpose about her and, although Queen Mary II may have been the Queen of the fleet, there was no doubt which ship I was most impressed by!

The Duchess of Hamilton had been built by Harland and Wolf in Govan in 1932. She was built as a sister to Denny’s Duchess of Montrose (1930). Maybe it was because the Duchess of Montrose was a less frequent visitor to the Channel by this time, or maybe it was because she suffered in comparison to her sister, but she was never as good a ship as Duchess of Hamilton as far as I was concerned. Mind you, I do remember wandering down to the pier of a Friday morning and watching the pair of them steam helter-skelter (or so it seemed) towards me! And what a sight that was!

Queen Mary II? Tubby, if you ask me! Better with two funnels (pre 1957) than one fat lum thereafter! Slow (but she wasn’t really, I know!). And only seen close up in jaunts away from Largs. Not my favourite at the time, I have to say (sorry to all you fans out there!).

Jeanie Deans (1931) was also a less than regular visitor to our neck of the woods. She spent most of her time on the Round Bute cruise from Craigendoran; her glory days were behind here, though interestingly, she was more of a star than was the Waverley (1947) at this point. To be fair, we saw more of Waverley – she did the “Round of the Lochs and Firth of Clyde” cruise on a Wednesday and the cruise to Brodick and Whiting Bay on a Monday, but she was a ho-hum paddler at this point and nothing like the star, nor indeed in as good condition as she is now. She was a sprightly 13 years old at this point in her career.

Then there was the Caledonia (1934): two or three times a week, she would make her heavy-looking way up through the channel from Ayr and Millport. She looked sturdier than the other (ex Craigendoran) paddlers. Her single funnel was big and elliptical and right behind her bridge. She was, by all accounts, a good sea boat; I remember reading somewhere that Fergus Murdoch was her Captain in the winter, when his Duchess was laid up in Greenock. But she looked big and ponderous to me, though she was the last of the 1930’s CSP paddlers on the river, her sister, Mercury, having been lost in the war along with Juno and Jupiter recently laid up.

Of course, there was MacBrayne’s Lochfyne (1931) that could be seen way off in the distance as she rounded Toward Point heading towards Rothesay. Like the Queen Mary II, she was one of those ships only seen when away from the Channel – I have no recollection of her ever appearing in our bit of the river.

Which leaves us with the dear old droner that was the DEPV Talisman (1935). Wemyss Bay to Largs to Rothesay to Millport (and not necessarily in that order). Along with Ashton and Leven, she was the most regular visitor to our wee bit of the Clyde. I wouldn’t describe her as my favourite (how could you?), but she was unique. Many’s the happy sail I had on her ‘twixt Largs and Millport. She was dependable (by this time, though not earlier in her career!). She was like your maiden aunt! You just knew that she had a story or two to tell, if only you’d take the time to listen. And of course, she did! HMS Aristocrat had a good war, by all accounts.

So, there you have it. The fleet of 1960 as seen through a seven year old’s eyes. And wouldn’t it be great if we could wave a magic wand and …

Feature Updated:

9 June 2020

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