A Clyde steamer at Oban

Oban, September 1902: Queen Alexandra is on the right heading out of the bay, pursued by Alexander Paterson’s Princess Louise in the centre foreground

As Waverley prepares to sail round the Mull of Kintyre for a week of sailings in the Inner Hebrides, Iain MacLeod recalls a visit to Oban by a previous Clyde steamer equally intent on tapping the excursion market there.

Waverley’s voyages round the Mull of Kintyre, to and from Oban, are rightly a much anticipated feature of her annual routine. Perhaps surprisingly, though, it is possible that only one other steamer specifically built for passenger service within the limits of the Firth has ever collected passengers from Clyde piers and landed them at Oban.

1902 saw the introduction of Turbine Steamers’ second ship, Queen Alexandra. That summer she sailed mainly to Campbeltown while her predecessor King Edward, the world’s first commercial turbine steamer, ran most days to Loch Fyne. Two days in that first season stand out: a July visit to Toward to collect foreign parliamentarians for a trip to Loch Long and a fruitless diversion one August morning down Arran’s eastern coast almost as far as Brodick in the hope of catching a glimpse of Their Royal Highnesses King Edward and Queen Alexandra aboard the Royal Yacht. The turbine did eventually meet up with Victoria and Albert in the Kilbrannan Sound, off Dougarie, briefly stopping her engines as loyal passengers sang the National Anthem.

Queen Alexandra in the Sound of Kerrera, dressed overall for her week of cruises out of Oban in 1902. Click on image to enlarge

Early in September, though, came news of more excitement: Queen Alexandra would soon be going to Oban to run excursions during a week there of games and regattas. Furthermore, reports seemed to promise that in 1903 a turbine steamer would run between Ardrishaig, Oban and Fort William, considerably shortening the journey from Glasgow to the north-west highlands.

So, on Tuesday 9 September Queen Alexandra left Princes Pier at 9.00. She called at Wemyss Bay, left Fairlie at 10.35, was off Pladda at 11.50 and passed the Mull of Kintyre light at 1.15. Her passage took her through the Sound of Jura, where a salute was fired and the siren blown. Why? Because on 16 June 1867 Queen Alexandra’s master had been born into a farming family at Keills and in 1902 he still had plenty of relatives on Jura to receive these noisy greetings.

As the steamer passed Crinan those on board noticed that Chevalier, delayed by foggy weather earlier in the day, had not left for Oban. Queen Alexandra, though, kept speeding on and reached Oban at 5.20: her voyage from Fairlie, 127 nautical miles, had taken ‘the remarkably short space of six hours and three quarters’.

Next day the turbine was advertised to leave at 4.00 for a two-hour afternoon cruise, destination unspecified. On the Thursday she left at 10.00 and 2.00 for ‘Cruising After Yachts’ and on one of the trips nosed into Tobermory Bay, where Captain Keith’s ‘friends were very pleased to see him’. Tobermory was a significant place for the captain: just under 10 years earlier he had been married in the town, where his father-in-law had long been a policeman, rising to the rank of Inspector.

In contrast to her Oban experiment in September 1902, Queen Alexandra regularly drew capacity crowds on the Clyde (above off Greenock). She continued sailing for John Williamson until 1911 when, after fire damage in harbour, she was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Renamed Princess Patricia, she spent the next 25 years sailing between Vancouver and Victoria Island. In 1912 Williamson commissioned a new Queen Alexandra, almost identical in design to her predecessor

That day, Queen Alexandra had direct competition from Alex Paterson’s little Princess Louise. Instead of her usual run to Dunstaffnage and Connel, she followed the ‘Principal Yacht Races in connection with the Royal Highland Yacht Club Regatta’, leaving the North Pier at 10.15 and returning at 2.00 in time for a second trip in the afternoon which cost 2/6, half the fare charged by Queen Alexandra.

On 12 September the turbine left Oban at 10.00 to sail round Mull, ‘passing Staffa and Iona en route’. On the next day, Saturday 13th, she again left at 10.00, this time to sail round Jura. The weather was apparently fine all day, and as the steamer passed through the Sound of Islay she berthed for half an hour at Port Askaig. Surely someone must have photographed this unique visit?

Queen Alexandra remained at Oban over the Sunday but on Monday 15th set off for the last time at 10.00, expecting to reach Greenock at 6.00. Although Captain John Williamson, the driving force behind Turbine Steamers Ltd, was on board for at least part of this visit north, it is tempting to wonder whether the whole thing might not have owed something to Angus Keith’s local allegiances.

The enterprise was clearly not an overwhelming success: ‘considering the other attractions the different trips were fairly well patronised’. The service between Ardrishaig and Oban never materialised and it would be many years before a turbine steamer sailed again with passengers from Oban.

Queen Alexandra carried a young crew of 44: only a handful were 40 or more years old. The steward’s department was well staffed: under the chief and second stewards there were another 11 stewards and, remarkably, 6 stewardesses, two of them possibly sisters, and a third, Georgina Edgar, looking forward to her marriage in December. Charles Murdoch from Kilmarnock had joined as second engineer but became chief during the season, aged only 32: he would go on to be Turbine Steamers’ Superintendent Engineer. Three of the four firemen were Irish, as were the greaser and one of the trimmers.

Captain Angus Keith during his time as master of the first Queen Alexandra: a native of Jura, he is believed to have been the inspiration behind the steamer’s visit to the West Highlands. Captain Keith served with distinction on the second Queen Alexandra during the Great War and brought out King George V in 1926, four years before his retirement

By the time of the trip north the 22 year old chief purser Alexander Macnair had returned to his divinity studies: in his place came William Duncan from the G&SW’s Juno who later worked ashore as a clerk for the Anchor-Donaldson line. The leading seaman, James McDonald, was designated second mate. The mate was Alexander Weir, who had served the previous season with Angus Keith aboard King Edward and left soon after Queen Alexandra returned to the Clyde. Perhaps he was the Alexander Weir from Blairs Ferry in the Kyles of Bute who in October 1915 died serving in the Mercantile Marine Reserve aboard the hired yacht Eriska.

About the later story of Angus Keith there is no doubt. In early February 1915 he took a new Queen Alexandra south to Southampton for service as a troopship and in May 1918 famously rammed a German U-boat. He was honoured by the King twice within five weeks with the OBE and the DSC. In 1926 he became the first master of King George V, retiring in 1930 as Commodore of the Williamson fleet.

Angus Keith’s career, though, had begun when he was 19 years old and joined the tug-owning Clyde Shipping Company. He continued with them for 14 years and it seems possible, though surprising, that he had never worked on a passenger ship before he left the tug Flying Serpent to join King Edward. Despite that inexperience, he was the man designated to step up as master of the pioneer turbine when, towards the end of July 1901, Captain Alex Fowler, on loan from one Williamson brother to another, returned to the bridge of the G&SW paddler Glen Sannox.

Did the young man from Jura dream in September 1902 that before long he would be guiding his turbine steamer day by day amongst the lochs and islands he and his wife knew so well? Who knows? What we do know, for certain, is that all these years later we still have the chance to enjoy those lochs and islands aboard another steamer, one also built for service on the Firth of Clyde and not the Firth of Lorn.

Waverley’s West Highland season runs from May 20 to 27, and includes excursions from Oban round Mull, through the Gulf of Corrievreckan and up Loch Sunart. Details from Waverley Excursions Ltd https://waverleyexcursions.co.uk

Iain MacLeod was CRSC President in the 1988-89 and 2008-09 sessions, and Editor of Clyde Steamers from 1991 to 2007.

‘It would be many years before a turbine steamer sailed again with passengers from Oban’: King George V became MacBraynes’ Iona steamer in 1936 and, with the exception of 1940-46, continued to be based at Oban in summer until 1974. She is pictured in CalMac colours during her penultimate season, with the Hutcheson monument on the far right

Waverley at the North Pier, Oban, on 4 June 2016: her upcoming week of excursions in the West Highlands maintains a tradition established by her turbine predecessors. Her 2024 programme includes a return to Coll and her first-ever visit to Ullapool

Published on 14 May 2024