The North Company’s last steamer


Outstandingly handsome: St Magnus unloading at Kirkwall. Copyright Eric Schofield

For Eric Schofield, the impact made by the North Company’s St Magnus half a century ago was such that he has never forgotten her.

Exactly 50 years ago, on Saturday 1st April 1967, I sailed aboard an outstandingly handsome coastal passenger steamer on her journey from Aberdeen down Scotland’s east coast to Leith. I had joined the ship that morning at Matthew’s Quay in Aberdeen Harbour, in time to watch completion of cargo unloading after her arrival from Kirkwall — a slow process, as reluctant ‘passengers’ of the four-legged variety were cajoled somewhat unwillingly up the gangway. The trip south was thoroughly enjoyable, but it was also an extremely sad occasion, as the ship, St Magnus, was making her final voyage before withdrawal and subsequent breaking-up in Belgium.

By that time she was known officially as St Magnus II, the suffix having being added to allow the name to be passed on to a ‘cargo only’ newcomer to the fleet of her owners, the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company. Onboard, evidence of the numeral addition to her name was inconsistent: it had been put on the lifebelt on the second class accommodation block, but not on that next to the stairway down from the first class area.

The ‘Saint’ names were first adopted by the company serving Scotland’s Northern Isles in 1867 when Waverley, a three-year old paddle steamer, was purchased from the North British Railway Company’s Solway section and renamed St Magnus. She was sold out of the fleet in 1904, and it was not until 1912 that another ship was so named, only to have her career cut short when she was sunk by enemy action in the last year of the Great War. The third St Magnus served with distinction from 1924 to 1960, when the name passed to the subject of this piece. The ‘cargo only’ St Magnus, fifth of the name, served from 1967 to 1977.

The St Magnus I knew was a truly majestic coastal steamer. She had been built in 1937 by Hall, Russell & Company in Aberdeen as St Clair, the second of that name (the first St Clair ran from 1868 to 1937). Originally a coal-burner that had been converted to oil in 1946, she was 266 feet in length with a large forward hold, first class accommodation in her midship section and second class aft of a secondary hold. She was initially employed in summer on the traditional ‘west side’ route from Leith and Aberdeen to Stromness, Scalloway and Shetland’s west coast, and in winter on services to Kirkwall and Lerwick. She took the name Baldur for the duration of the Second World War, at times carrying troops to and from Iceland.

Kirkwall Harbour, viewed from the tower of St Magnus Cathedral. Copyright Eric Schofield

After the war she operated the direct run between Aberdeen and Lerwick until 1960, when she was replaced by a new St Clair, a motor vessel. Briefly renamed St Clair II, she then became the fourth to carry the name St Magnus. Sailing on the ‘weekend’ run (Leith, Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick), she incorporated the extremely popular six-day Thursday to Tuesday ‘Mini Cruise’.

This year’s 50th anniversary of her last public voyage, when I sailed on her from Aberdeen to Leith, has reminded me of an earlier, more carefree encounter I had with the same vessel. In 1965, two years before her withdrawal, I enjoyed a ‘Mini Cruise’ holiday on St Magnus in company with former CRSC member John Ellis. On that occasion we joined her from Leith in the late Thursday afternoon and were soon enjoying a fulsome dinner in the mahogany panelled dining saloon. After retiring to our two-berth cabin as the steamer ploughed her way north, we were lulled to sleep by a combination of the gentle rolling motion and the almost harmonic creaking of the ample timber work.

We woke to a still ship but with the faint sounds of cargo handling activity, and on coming up on deck into the bright early morning sunshine, found the ship’s derricks busily loading all sorts of goods from the Aberdeen dockside down into the cavernous holds. As we had a free morning in Aberdeen, John and I began by exploring what we could of the harbour area, searching without much success for suitable spots from which photographs of St Magnus could be obtained, before heading into the city centre, traversing the full length of Union Street, the grey granite buildings giving an impressive if somewhat cold look to the city.

By late afternoon we were back onboard in time for departure, the next leg of the cruise taking us to Orkney. An abiding memory of that day was the rather dramatic introduction to the northern North Sea, as shortly after passing Girdle Ness Light, at the mouth of the River Dee, St Magnus felt the full force of the waves rolling in from the north east, bucking and dipping her way out from the land and then, having turned to the north, rolling, not violently, but with an almost sedate calmness built from years of experience. With an 11-12 hour voyage ahead we wondered if that evening’s dinner would make a sudden unwelcome return, but thankfully neither of us was affected.  Yes! we thought — we had gained our sea-legs and now felt like proper sailors.

When sitting down to that dinner, I remember being surprised at the way the waiter approached our table bearing a large jug of water, which he proceeded to pour direct onto the white linen tablecloth in front of each passenger and at strategic spots elsewhere on the table. This seemed odd to me, my only previous experience of meals aboard ship having been on Queen Mary II, Duchess of Hamilton, Glen Sannox and other Clyde vessels. It soon became obvious what this strange ‘North Isles’ custom was, as the damp surface stopped the various dishes and cutlery from sliding about as the ship rolled to and fro — my first experience of a common enough practice on deep sea ships. Despite warnings of the wild seas to be found where the Pentland Firth merges into the North Sea, things were calming down markedly as we tracked northwards. Sitting out on the upper deck as the day wore on we watched the late evening sun barely dip below the horizon, still leaving sufficient light to sit and read that day’s paper as midnight approached.

Cattle being ‘cajoled somewhat unwillingly’ up the gangway at Aberdeen, before St Magnus continued to Leith on 1 April 1967. Copyright Eric Schofield

Waking on Saturday morning, again to a still ship, we were now berthed at Kirkwall. I came on deck for a quick breath of fresh air before breakfast. Not expecting to see much, I had left my camera below in our cabin. Imagine my annoyance as I stepped out onto the deck and saw the Orkney Islands Shipping Company’s last and still coal-burning steamer, Earl Sigurd, setting off on one of her inter-island services, with a huge plume of black smoke issuing from her very erect mid-ships funnel. I was never going to get below and back on deck with camera in time for a picture, so had to burn that image into my memory, at the same time vowing to make sure I would in future have my camera to hand, even when not expecting to see any suitable shipping subject.

The Saturday morning soon passed, with little other than a cursory survey to see what Kirkwall might have to offer when we returned south on the Monday.  Sailing promptly at noon, we got the full benefit of an eight-hour daylight passage, sailing close by Fair Isle and on past Sumburgh Head to Lerwick. A morning bus trip to Sumburgh Head, with its nearby Shetland pony farm, followed by a visit to the Pictish dwellings at Jarlshof, then subsequent exploration in the afternoon of the rocky coastline around Lerwick, perfectly filled our time before we returned to our ship for the Sunday evening departure back to Kirkwall. Regrettably, as we found in Aberdeen, neither Kirkwall nor Lerwick allowed much in the way of photo opportunities of St Magnus.

We did however have time the next morning at Kirkwall to explore the ancient St Magnus Cathedral, climbing to the top of its tower from which I took the picture looking over the town towards the harbour. An overnight run from Kirkwall brought St Magnus back to Aberdeen, which we left in the afternoon for the run down the east coast back to Leith by early Tuesday evening. That six-day cruise was a magical experience, made doubly so by being onboard such a magnificent vessel.

I will always treasure the memory of that wonderful cruise on St Magnus. Even back then, I sensed I would never again experience any steamer with the stately appearance, elegance and abundant character that was so evident in the North Company’s last steamship.

St Magnus at Leith, her home port for most of her 40-year career for the North Company. Copyright Eric Schofield

Orcadia and Earl Sigurd at Kirkwall in 1965, with the funnel of St Magnus visible behind. Copyright Eric Schofield

Deck scene on St Magnus on her final voyage from Aberdeen to Leith in 1967, with lifebelts showing different names. The suffix II was added in the closing stages of her career, so that a new ship could continue the name. Copyright Eric Schofield

Sunset at sea, viewed from St Magnus between Orkney and Shetland. Copyright Eric Schofield

St Magnus at Aberdeen. Copyright Eric Schofield

The first of two dramatic shots from 1947 depicting the arrival of St Clair at Aberdeen during a storm (Orkney Image Library)

It was not until 1960 that this magnificently seaworthy steamer became St Magnus, bequeathing her original name, St Clair, to a diesel newcomer in the fleet (CRSC Archive Collection)

The first St Magnus at Lerwick. Built in 1864 as Waverley for the North British Railway Company’s Solway Firth-based services, she passed into the hands of the North Company’s predecessors in 1867, when she inaugurated the ‘Saint’ nomenclature there. Copyright CRSC Archive Collection

Eric Schofield adds: When John and I visited Kirkwall in 1965, access to St Magnus Cathedral and its tower was unrestricted. This changed in the 1970s when it was felt too risky to allow people to wander round freely. Whilst the Cathedral remained accessible, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the upper levels were made available again following restoration.

Tours of the upper levels, including the tower, take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and last about an hour and a quarter. They cost £8 per person and, to avoid disappointment, it is recommended that you book in advance by calling 01856 874894.

To do the tour you have to be ‘in reasonable health’, a requirement I well understand, as the climb to the top is far from easy. John and I spent quite a bit of time at the top, partly to enjoy the fantastic views over Kirkwall and surrounding area, but mainly to give us time to recover our breath before facing the equally daunting descent.

Fran Hollinrake, the Custodian and Visitor Services Officer, says the Cathedral is in remarkable condition for a building that is nearly 900 years old.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. Photo by visitorkney.com