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Issue 60 - Steaming into History

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011


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Steaming into History

John Hannavy revisits Scotland's Loch Steamers.

It was on a cold and rainy morning in May 1953 that I first stepped aboard the SS Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine’s Trossachs Pier – a primary school outing which we had been looking forward to for weeks, dreaming of a sunny sail on one of Scotland’s most spectacular lochs followed by a picnic. We did sail up to Stronachlachar and back, but nobody, as far as my memory serves me after all these years, ever even ventured on to the deck until we were disembarking.

Two things I didn’t know then – the SS Sir Walter Scott was already more than half a century old by the time I stepped on board, and just a few miles away, a brand new paddle steamer was just days away from entering service on Scotland’s largest inland water, Loch Lomond.

Once upon a time there were steamers on several of Scotland’s lochs – including Loch Tay, Loch Awe and, of course, the lochs which were linked by the Caledonian Canal – but in 1953, there were just those two left in service. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Loch Awe’s new cruise vessel, MV Countess of Breadalbane had also entered service, but she was diesel-powered rather than coal-fired. As recently as a decade ago, there were grand plans for the construction of a completely new steamer – and a return to steaming on Loch Tay.

The SS Spirit of the Tay, built by Fergusons on the Clyde, was to have entered passenger-carrying service on the loch in 2006, powered by a rebuilt steam engine from a Grimsby trawler, and there were even plans to have her served by a steam railway from Killin to a pier at the loch side. But seemingly irreconcilable disputes between the operator and the shipbuilders left her rusting hull stranded on dry land. The hull design for the 115ft long Spirit of the Tay was based on the steamer Rob Roy which had worked Loch Katrine for more than thirty years before displaced by the SS Sir Walter Scott more than a century ago. Spirit of the Tay was built at Ferguson’s yard and then shipped to Loch Tay in sections – the same technique which had been used for Maid of the Loch in 1953, and Sir Walter Scott in 1900. But that’s where the similarities end. Maid of the Loch and Sir Walter Scott were both successfully completed and launched on to their respective lochs, while Spirit of the Tay was effectively abandoned in 2003, her almost-completed hull left high and dry on trestles by the loch side.

PS Maid of the Loch was built by A&J Inglis at Pointhouse Yard in Glasgow. She was the last paddle steamer ever to be built in Britain and, at 555grt, by far the largest steamer to ever sail on the loch. She was dismantled and transported to Loch Lomond in sections where she was put back together again on the slipway at Balloch, launched on 5th March 1953, and put into service on 25th May that same year. Originally built for the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, and later sailing in Caledonian MacBrayne colours, she was a regular sight on the loch for 29 years before being decommissioned in 1981, and left to slowly decay at Balloch Pier for eleven years. And there, but for the intervention of Dumbarton Council which bought her in 1992 to attempt restoration, her story might have eventually come to the inevitable and ignominious end which has befallen so many grand old vessels.

It is hoped to steam her again in 2013, by which time she will be sixty years old, but judging by her appearance in late summer 2011, that must surely be considered an improbable goal. She remains at the pier, an impressive but static exhibit – and now on the Historic Ships Register. Despite widely advertised opening times throughout last summer, she was visible only beyond padlocked gates one both our visits – to the disappointment of more than a dozen people who had turned up to visit her at the same time as us in August.

The Balloch steam slipway, restored to working order at huge expense thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, was also locked up! Surely that’s an odd way to raise funds to continue the steamer’s restoration?

Just a few miles away, through all those years, the SS Sir Walter Scott has been continuing her regular journeys up and down Loch Katrine. Built by Denny Brothers of Dumbarton in 1900, her total cost at launch was £4,269, of which, nearly half, was the delivery charge! But the steamer we see today looks very different from her profile at launch, as early Edwardian postcards illustrate.

The sleek, elegant steamer of a century ago is almost unrecognisable since her 2007 rebuild which plonked an unsightly forward saloon on her deck. A similar fate has befallen the preserved RY Britannia at Leith, with a modern visitor centre plonked just as incongruously on her stern deck.

Loch Katrine is Glasgow’s water supply, so the steamer had to be built and operated in a manner which preserved the purity of the loch’s water.

Originally fuelled by coal, and later by coke, her 2007 rebuild – funded by a huge Lottery grant – saw her converted, not to burn oil as with so many steamers, but bio-fuel.

The wonderful plume of smoke and steam as she got underway from Trossachs Pier on a crisp morning is, sadly, now a thing of the past. But at least the 111 year old steamer is now in a sound enough condition to sail the loch for many more years to come.

On Loch Lomond work progresses – albeit slowly – while on Loch Tay, nothing is happening at all.

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