top of page

We Can But Dream! (Robin Copland)

If you had just arrived at Gourock station and wandered through to the pier – as folk were wont to do if they were onward bound on a steamer in the very early 1960’s, you would have been struck by how peaceful the scene looked half an hour before the Duchess of Hamilton let go for’ard, eased her bow out from the pier under the watchful gaze of Captain Murdoch on the port bridge wing and set sail for her cruise to Campbeltown.

Peaceful the scene may have looked, but the impression given was perhaps somewhat unfair on those who laboured through the night to make it appear so. There were the bakers who baked the tarts and fly cemeteries; the dairymen who delivered the cheeses and milk; the galley staff who heated the stoves; the engineers who kept the boilers warm; the seamen who scrubbed down the decks; and the cleaners who tidied the mess left by the previous day’s voyagers.

So, peaceful and serene looking, perhaps, but that impression belied the truth. Steam curled from the two tall, slender funnels – buff with black tops and, as yet, unadorned with the lions of later years. The engines – well, what can you say? You knew they were there in the bowels of the ship; you knew they were powerful; you knew they were Belfast-made; you knew that, now the old Glen Sannox had sailed her last, four short seasons in the past and MacBrayne’s Saint Columba was similarly no more, they drove the fastest ship on the Clyde. But they were so quiet and the ship so smooth. Imagine, if you can, being wafted along a road in a Bentley; now imagine the same road in a transit van. And there, my friends, you have it! The difference between a turbine and a motor ship writ large. Really, there is no comparison.

Take a trip along the pier and admire her lines. It is early in the season, so the paint is fresh. The lower hull is black. The older hands preferred the white paintwork at the waterline; for you – well, you are probably ambivalent – the dark red with the white line is fine and probably holds up better the later in the season we get. At main deck level, the hull is white. Look at the arrangement of the windows; there is a synergy about the two Duchesses that is missing on the Queen Mary II, the only other turbine by now remaining in the Caledonian Steam Packet Company’s fleet. At the bow, there are portholes; then three groups of three windows; then four windows – her sister only had three – before the engine room ventilating window; then more windows spaced evenly before a flurry of smaller gaps in the bodywork and finishing with eleven picture windows for the dining room.

Look at how the stern narrows and at the neat arrangement of the rope-handling deck – its level is halfway ‘twixt main deck and lower deck. The stern view as she tapers is one of her most attractive.

She dominates the pier. Like one of the liners to which she occasionally tendered in the drab grey dank days of the war. The passenger gangplanks lead onto the promenade deck above – into the shelter so thoughtfully provided in the first instance by whomever the naval architect was who had made such a fine job of King George V in 1926. And they are beginning to fill, as they should on a fine Clyde morning. Initially a stream and now a steady flow of passengers snake their sometimes cautious way onto the ship.

And where to take your picture? Do you go for’ard to the bow and look back or do you go to the stern and look for’ard? You look at your watch and make your decision – plenty of time to do both!

What’s the sudden din? MV Arran, new but already careworn, rumbles noisily, untidily, but purposefully towards the pier, there to disgorge some cars and vibrating people! She seems to say to our Duchess “move over! Your time is already passing. I am the future!”

And the funny thing is that in fifteen years or so, she will be! But, strangely, she herself is already behind the times. Half an hour late on her schedule and why? Well – what can be said except that she is a dinosaur; she is testament to a new disease on the Clyde – call it self-interest; call it conservatism. But she is a half way house and it would take a brave wee private company ten years or so in the future to show the mandarins what a car ferry should be able to do on the upper reaches of the Firth of Clyde. She is, to be honest, based on the revamped plans for a motor-driven car ferry that were drawn up before the war. Imagine! She’s late because her popularity is such that her over-conservative design with a side loading lift just cannot cope with the demand.

It’s time to board. In five minutes, we leave. Activity starts to quicken. The ship seems to pull at her leash, like a puppy. No, not like a puppy – like a Labrador, for she is mature and sure of herself. Save a minor skirmish with Corsewall Point in 1945, there is nary a scrape nor accident to report. Her service record is exemplary.

You cross the wooden gangplank and you are on the ship. She is spacious and the wooden decks are smooth. There is no noise, save the clanging of the bells and the splash of the bow rope slapping at the water. People on the pier wave – you wave back. You feel, rather than hear the ship move – imperceptibly at first then faster and faster as she creams her way across the firth towards Dunoon.

And you wonder at the speed she travels and how quickly Dunoon approaches. In less than twenty minutes she is gliding alongside the wooden piles of the pier. You are on the top deck, by the funnels and you notice the observation deck of the pier. Dunoon – perhaps second only to Gourock itself – is a busy, busy pier throughout the day. There is the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the car ferry to Gourock; there are the visits of the Holy Loch Maid – at this point it is the Ashton on that roster; Waverley and Jeannie Deans are regular visitors on their way to Rothesay from Craigendoran; DEPV Talisman occasionally visits from Largs and Millport; TS Queen Mary II makes a stately appearance twice a day on her way to and from Tighnabruaich; and the Caledonia arrives from Ayr. Plenty, in other words, for the “nutters” to content themselves with!

No sooner are the gangplanks out than they are back on the pier and we have cast off again, this time heading south for Rothesay. It is obvious that you are on the crack steamer of the fleet. There was an air of “occasion” at Dunoon; there was a deference shown there by the pier hands and the pier master. The master stands on the bridge wing and you know that here is a man who knows his trade. The ship was positioned beside the pier “just so”. She departed the pier “just so”. There is an economy about him and the way he handles his ship. They are a team. They are as one.

You look to the east, there to spy DEPV Talisman heading north up the firth. She had earlier left Largs at 1000, and Wemyss Bay at 1030. She is paddling her way across the Firth to Dunoon, there to meet up with Waverley, which is on a trip to Arrochar and Lochgoilhead. She seems hardly to move in the distance, but the hint of a bow wave and disturbed water to her stern tell a different story – she is on her way.

Away in the distance, you spy a Maid at Wemyss Bay loading for her 1015 sailing to Rothesay, but you know that you will have a closer encounter with her as she approaches Bute and you make your way over to Largs. Out in mid channel, Bute is on the 0945 car ferry service from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. As you approach Rothesay, you notice a Maid on a converging course coming over from Largs. The two ships look as if they are going to arrive at the pier at the same time, but, in truth, the Skelmorlie is 5 or so minutes ahead of you on one of her famous forenoon “café” cruises. She is going on to Loch Striven before returning her passengers to Largs in time for lunch at 1220.

Rothesay pier can be a hard one! Today, the tide is low, though, so getting the gangplanks on and off is not the problem it sometimes can be! You are alongside the pier by 1010, just as the Maid of Skelmorlie departs. Smart handling by the pursers sees you on your way for the dash to Largs by 1015. As you depart, the Bute comes alongside the pier to disgorge her load of tankers and cars and lorries. A busy wee spell for the pier hands at Rothesay! Once Bute is on her way, they might have time for a quick cuppa before the 1015 Maid from Wemyss Bay comes alongside!

But your crew have their difficult time ahead of them, for you are now embarking upon the most difficult hour of the cruise. The crew have but that time from leaving Rothesay to have crossed over the Firth to Largs, from Largs to hop to Fairlie and from Fairlie to sprint to Keppel. This will involve some smart handling at the piers – including the stone-built and unforgiving letter “L” that is Largs, some luck with stray yachts, some smart passenger and gangplank management and seamanship of the highest order.

Let’s just take Largs as an example: it is OK and relatively easy to build up to a speed of about 18 knots on the short 25 minute crossing over from Rothesay, but as you approach the pier, you do so at a 45° angle. The pier, as I have already said, is unforgiving, so seamen will be carefully placed with balls of rope around the stern and midships of the ship to protect the belting. As you approach the pier, a watchful eye must be kept, not only for the yachts – hopefully the sailors on board will have a rough idea of the rudimentaries of seamanship – but also the little wooden motor and rowing boats, peopled by complete amateurs that surround the pier like hornets.

Once alongside, the pursers come into their own; Largs is typically the busiest of the embarkation points, so deft management of the queues is the order of the day. Captain Murdoch will remain impassively on the bridge wing throughout, but you can bet that he is willing the passengers to move along.

Largs Channel is normally clear on the more westerly routing that the ships to Millport will take, but our good Captain is fretfully aware that he is not going to Millport! No. He is going to Fairlie, which involves hugging the mainland coast somewhat and, again, avoiding the yachts! For years, people have wondered why the ship bothers calling at Fairlie at all – it is barely 3 miles down the coast from Largs. The answer, I suspect, is that Largs provides traffic in her own right, but is not a friendly railhead; Fairlie, on the other hand provides a railhead and ample parking spaces for buses.

Suffice to say that all is well and within the hour, TS Duchess of Hamilton is leaving Keppel pier, having disembarked perhaps twenty passengers at most and embarked some 50 or so, for the cruise to Lochranza and thence to Campbeltown.

She casts off rounds Farland Point into the Tan with Millport to starboard and Sheanawally Point on the Little Cumbrae to port and makes her heading for the Cock of Arran – some 50 minutes steaming away. Where before, all was hustle and bustle, now there is rhythm. Where before, it was stop and start, now the ship is being driven purposefully towards her destination. Where before it was sprint, now it is remorseless middle distance running. Where before it was calm on the sea, though, now there is a noticeable swell as the waters of the upper firth are attacked by their deep-sea cousins.

And yet – there is hardly any vibration; there seems to be hardly any noise. Chief Engineer Angus Montgomery is a calm man as he tends his turbines engines. Little does he know that, where now there are still three ships on the Clyde whose names are prefixed proudly by the letters TS, within fifteen or so years, there will be none. The Duchess of Montrose will be removed from the fleet at the end of the 1964 season, his own Duchess of Hamilton by 1970, leaving the Queen Mary to soldier on alone until 1977.

But all that is in the future. You wander up to the top deck to take in the views. To the front of the deck, the traditional rails become solid wood and provide a welcome windbreak as you look westwards to Arran. Details on the island become clearer as the island comes closer. In no time at all, you are rounding the Cock and heading south into Lochranza Bay.

Lochranza itself is a typical, sleepy little west highland village, which comes awake once a day or so in the summer when the steamer arrives. Where earlier in the century, the Davaar and Dalriada served her on their regular year-round runs to Campbeltown and Carradale, now the village has to make do with the bus connection to Brodick and her summer-only visits from the long distance excursion steamers – the most regular of which is the Duchess of Hamilton.

Again, there is that sense of purpose and bustle as the pier is approached. The telegraph bells sound; the engines slow; the ship loses speed; the pier gets closer and closer. The churning of the water at the stern tells you that the screws are reversing to bring the ship to a stop and then back into the pier structure itself at an angle. Ropes for’ard and aft are made secure, the gangplanks are loaded and, suddenly, we are attached to the land again. More people on and off and just time to wonder about the ruined castle on the beach, before the clanging of bells tells you that you are on your way to the ship’s ultimate destination, Campbeltown.

Kilbrannan Sound. The name is evocative enough, but it is a long stretch of open water that is subject to a fair old pounding if a good sou’westerly gets up. Where before, the monotony of a one and a half hour sail might have been broken by a call at Carradale, now you make do with lunch!

Crisp white tablecloths adorn the tables. You have booked the third sitting, timed for the sail down the Sound and 7/6 (37p) seems fair enough for the meal. A table shared with fellow passengers is no hardship as you find yourself sitting next to another dreamer, like yourself – except this one’s gone mad – he has a two-week all-piers season ticket, priced at 82/6 (£4.12 in new money!!) to himself and is on a serious pier- and ship-bagging fortnight! He tells you his plans and where he has been so far. For the first week, he had based himself in Largs.

Monday: a full day cruise from Largs to Brodick and Pladda on Duchess of Hamilton.
Tuesday: The Maid of Skelmorlie from Largs to Rothesay and connect to Duchess of Montrose on her Inveraray cruise via Tighnabruaich and the Kyles of Bute.
Wednesday: Campbeltown on Duchess of Hamilton.
Thursday: Lochgoilhead and Arrochar on Talisman and Jeanie Deans.
Friday: Brodick and Ayr on Duchess of Hamilton.
Saturday: Round Ailsa Craig on Duchess of Montrose.
Sunday: Morning to Millport and back – out on Ashton and back on Leven
Afternoon to Rothesay and Loch Riddon on PS Caledonia, then position on Waverley to Craigendoran.
Monday: general plooter about the upper firth, departing Craigendoran at 0845 for Gourock and returning on the 1925 Gourock – Craigendoran service.
Tuesday: Tarbert and Ardrishaig via Rothesay. Waverley and MV Loch Fyne
Wednesday: Round of the Lochs and Firth of Clyde.
Thursday: a gaither-up plooter!
Friday: up-river cruise to Glasgow.
Saturday: whatever takes his fancy.
Sunday: a final cruise round the island of Bute with a meeting in the Kyles with Talisman and Waverley.

You drool at the very thought as you finish your lunch and head up outside to see if Campbeltown Loch is indeed made of whisky and watch the action as we head towards the town!

Feature Updated:

9 June 2020

bottom of page