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Issue 76 - Scotland's Industrial Heritage

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014


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Scotland's Industrial Heritage

John Hannavy explores the remains of a seafaring nation

n the early 1960s, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, which operated many pleasure steamers on the Clyde, sold its passengers a little booklet, priced 6d (2½p), which identified everything they would see on their trip ‘doon the watter’. In addition to castles, distilleries and other points of interest, the booklet still pointed out the locations of no fewer than thirty shipyards.

Some of the most famous ships in the world were built in Scotland, including the
Cutty Sark and the mighty QE2, arguably the most beautiful Transatlantic liner ever built, launched into the river from John Brown’s yard in 1967. But of Brown’s yard, Napier’s, Inglis’ and many other great shipbuilding names, hardly a trace remains. Only a restored but solitary Titan crane marks where John Brown’s launched more than 300 ships, including the RMS Lusitania, RMS Queen Mary, RMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Hood and the QE2.

Of the thirty yards listed in 1961, only those at Govan and Scotstoun – formerly Fairfields and Yarrows respectively and now owned by BAE Systems Surface Ships building naval vessels – and Ferguson Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow, still launch ships on to the river. Today Ferguson’s output is restricted to small ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne, and when they launched CalMac’s
MV Hallaig in 2012, it was the first vessel to be entirely built on the river in five years. The future of the former Yarrow & Company yard at Scotstoun is in doubt as BAE seeks to rationalise and modernise its warship facilities.

Scotland’s maritime heritage goes back a long way, with yards in Dundee, Leith and Aberdeen, as well as the Clyde yards, turning out some of the finest specimens of both sailing ships and steamships.

On the edge of a supermarket car park in Port Glasgow, behind unnecessarily heavy black iron railings whose bars are just a little too close together for a camera to be pushed through them, stands a strange-looking craft. This is the paddle steamer
Comet – or at least a replica of her – the first-ever passenger-carrying paddle steamer in Britain, and the first example of a vessel for which the shipyards on the Clyde went on to became world-famous.

As with every ‘first’, there are competing claims, and while
Comet was certainly not the first viable steamboat, she was certainly the first in Britain to successfully carry fare-paying passengers.

Comet which is on display in Port Glasgow today was built in 1962 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the date in 1812 when the original Comet entered passenger service between Glasgow and Helensburgh. The replica was built as a working vessel, complete with functioning steam engine, and fifty years ago she was filmed in several locations along the Clyde with smoke billowing from her tall funnel – what looks like her mast is, in fact, the funnel. But decades of neglect have subsequently reduced her to a static exhibit, which meant, of course, that she was not able to sail in 2012 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her introduction into service.

Comet was built for Henry Bell, a former stonemason who had worked with the great engineer John Rennie. Bell and his wife had moved to Helensburgh, he as superintendent of the town’s baths, and she to run their hotel. He was fascinated by the idea of steam power, and was already aware of the experimental stern-wheeler Charlotte Dundas which had steamed along a length of the Forth and Clyde Canal near Glasgow as early as 1803. Comet’s paddles were very basic and rather inefficient, but still she proved a very popular vessel for the few years she was in service. But, as with any ‘first’, others learned from Bell’s design – and its shortcomings – and quickly evolved larger and more efficient craft.

In 1823, in Glasgow, Robert Napier was awarded the contract to build the engine for the paddle steamer Leven, and his side-lever engine still survives, now on permanent display outside the Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank in Dumbarton. It powered the
PS Leven for 17 years before being installed in the PS Queen of Beauty in 1845, where it worked until 1863. This is believed to have been Napier’s first marine engine, and thus of great historic importance – a fact not lost on his family who, in 1877, presented it to the town of Dumbarton. Of the PS Leven herself, little is known except that she regularly sailed between Dumbarton and Glasgow, and in the summer operated excursions down the west coast of Scotland and around Ailsa Craig. Napier’s subsequent engines would power many of the finest 19th century Clyde-built ships.

Three years after the launch of
PS Leven, in August 1826, the Inverness Courier newspaper carried an account of the first passenger steamship to sail round the north of Scotland – the PS United Kingdom – from Glasgow, through the Hebrides, round Cape Wrath, up to Orkney, south again to Wick, Aberdeen and Newhaven on the Firth of Forth. Several sightings of early steamships belching smoke as they made their way slowly along the north west coast of Scotland at the time were reported as being ‘ships on fire’.

A & J. Inglis at Pointhouse on the Clyde constructed the last large paddler ever built in Britain. At the time of writing, that steamer, the
PS Maid of the Loch completed in 1953, is undergoing restoration at Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond. Waverley is the only other surviving paddle steamer in Scotland, from the many hundreds which were launched down the slipways of Clyde yards.

Indeed, only five steam ships in total currently survive in Scottish waters – the 1901-built
SS Sir Walter Scott on Loch Katrine, the 1943 puffer VIC32 and HMY Britannia from 1953 all being screw-driven rather than paddlers. Plans to launch a new steamer Spirit of the Tay on to Loch Tay a few years ago ended in failure.

Inglis’s Pointhouse yard is now the site of Zaha Hadid’s spectacular new Glasgow Museum of Transport, with the
Glenlee – built in Port Glasgow in 1896 – magnificently restored and tied up at the quayside.

Naming a steamer was an important part of attracting passengers, and the huge popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s writings made his book titles and characters obvious choices for the steamer companies in the early 20th century.
Rob Roy, and Sir Walter Scott on Loch Katrine may have been screw steamers, but there were plenty other names to be exploited by the operators of west coast excursion steamers. The majority of them were built by A & J Inglis at Pointhouse, and operated by the North British Steam Packet Company – later the North British Railway.

Amongst the Inglis-built steamers whose names were drawn from Scott’s novels were
Meg Merriles, two steamers carrying the name Talisman, Marmion, Fair Maid and Kenilworth. And, of course, there were four called Waverley, the last of which is still sailing today.

The North British Railway also operated
Redgauntlet, built by Barclay Curle & Co; Lady Rowena, built by McKnight of Ayr; Lucy Ashton built by Seath & Co of Rutherglen; and Diana Vernon, also built by Barclay Curle.

The 1886-built
Madge Wildfire actually carried two names associated with Scott in her 59-year life. As Madge Wildfire – a character from Scott’s Heart of Midlothian – she sailed the Clyde lochs and, after being sold several times and sailing for many years on the south coast, she returned to Scotland in 1927 to sail on the Firth of Forth as the Fair Maid. Jeanie Deans, another character from Heart of Midlothian, gave her name to two much-loved steamers, and The Firth of Clyde Steam Packet Company operated the Ivanhoe for forty years from 1880 until 1920.

The brief era of the trans-Atlantic paddle steamer was dominated by just a few shipping lines, probably the best known of which grew out of the Glasgow steamship operators George and James Burns who, after selling their Scottish coastal steamers to David Hutcheson, went into partnership with the Canadian Samuel Cunard.

The Cunard Line – originally known as the British & North American Steamship Company – operated regular fortnightly sailings to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and to Boston, from 1840, originally using the especially constructed wooden-hulled paddle steamers –
Britannia, Acadia and Caledonia – built by the Clyde yards of Robert Duncan & Company, John & Charles Wood, and Robert Steele & Company, sub-contracted from Robert Napier who constructed their engines.

An early passenger on
PS Britannia was Charles Dickens, whose description of a transatlantic crossing on such a fragile vessel, during which several lifeboats were lost overboard, and the paddle boxes were partly destroyed, makes alarming reading. On a voyage like that – and with roast pork and beer the only option he mentions on the menu – who could blame them! Dickens, however, used the experience to create a dramatic word picture in his book American Notes, published in 1850.

Of his experience he wrote ‘I say nothing of what may be called the domestic noises of the ship, such as breaking glass and crockery, the tumbling down of stewards, the gambols, overhead, of loose casks and truant dozens of bottled porter, and the very remarkable and far from exhilarating sound made by seventy passengers to ill to get up to breakfast. I say nothing of them: for although I lay listening to this concert for three or four days, I don’t think I heard it for more than a quarter of a minute, at the expiration of which term, I lay down again, excessively sea-sick.’

But what survives today?
Cutty Sark, of course, is preserved – or, more accurately, rebuilt after her disastrous fire – at Greenwich, and Waverley still cruises Britain’s coastal waters. Britannia is moored at Leith, her elegant lines spoiled by a visitor centre on her aft deck, and views of her hidden by the large shopping centre next to her mooring.

The 19th century engine shop from the Linthouse yard on the Clyde was carefully dismantled and rebuilt at the Scottish Maritime Museum’s Irvine site, where a wonderful collection of ephemera relating to the country’s maritime past has been gathered together and displayed – everything from Waverley’s original coal-fired boiler to beautifully detailed ship models, photographs and documentation. Amongst its most bizarre exhibits is a wooden mock-up of one of the steam turbines for the
QE2, used at the time of her construction to help engineers correctly locate the miles of pipework necessary on a working vessel.

At the museum’s other site – the former Denny Brothers yard at Dumbarton – the only surviving Ship Model Test Tank is open to visitors. Here new hull designs were tested to ensure maximum efficiency
SS Shieldhall – the bridge binnacles they were propelled through the water.

There are other Scottish boats still operating away from Scotland – in British waters the most important being the Renfrew-built steamer
SS Shieldhall which, after a career dumping Glasgow’s sewage well out to sea, now offers excursions out of Southampton Docks.

Memories of the thousands of other ship launched into Scottish waters over the past two centuries and more survive only in drawings, paintings and photographs. While preserving and operating a railway locomotive is just about manageable, operating a heritage steamship is prohibitively expensive.