Book review: ‘From the Clyde to St Kilda’

Iain MacLeod applauds Donald Meek’s new study of McCallum, Orme & Co: a company which long stood in the shadows of west coast shipping history has finally achieved the profile it deserves.

The front cover of Donald Meek’s new book

It was in 2006 that Donald Meek, with Nick Robins, treated us to a grand tour of The Kingdom of MacBrayne. Now, he invites us on another journey, From the Clyde to St Kilda, a journey during which he shares with us, in pleasurable and stimulating detail, the history of Martin Orme, John McCallum, their steamers and their long-lasting contributions to island life.  

Donald Meek is a gracious guide on this journey: he starts by thanking many who have helped him plot a course and he includes CRSC in those thanks, for giving his work a spur when we invited him to talk to us in February 2019. It is we who should thank him, though, for flooding with light what has previously been a relatively inaccessible corner of steamer history.

Professor Meek’s is not the only voice we hear along the way. He quotes extensively and aptly from the newspapers and literature of the period and enriches the story greatly by incorporating the lively memories of others, recalling the steamers, the personalities and the communities. He describes Iain Hope’s account of a 1952 ‘Hebridean Voyage in a Veteran’ as the ‘crowning chapter’ of the book and few would argue with that judgement of a minutely-observed journey in a still-Victorian Hebrides. What comes across as strongly as anything is the friendly interest taken by the officers and crew in their young and appreciative passenger.

That voyage aboard the 1898 Hebrides was not without the sort of incident – a ‘grounding’ at Uig – which nowadays would attract the immediate attention of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. The story of these steamers’ voyages in waters that could all too often turn treacherous and inhospitable is littered with strandings and storms and a flexibility with timings that in modern times travellers might well find taxing. Communities and crews alike emerge from numerous episodes characterised by a resilience and a determination to see cargo and passengers through to their destination come what may.

The companies carrying the names of Martin Orme and John McCallum evolved in very different ways. Donald Meek untangles the strands with great precision, demonstrating the extent to which each man relied on business partners and connections to develop their services to areas not then served by Hutcheson or, later, MacBrayne. The list of those places is surprisingly long: Colonsay, Coll, Tiree, the north-west of Skye, the Uists, Barra. The author knows, from his own young life in Tiree, how deeply embedded in the culture of those places McCallum and Orme became and remained, and many episodes in the book bring the strength of that relationship into sharp focus.

The 1898 Hebrides in Village Bay, St Kilda

‘McCallum, Orme’ is a phrase which, though not as recognisable as ‘David MacBrayne’, many will still greet with a degree of recognition. Donald Meek’s account reminds us, though, that despite a lengthy period of co-operation the amalgamation of John McCallum’s and Martin Orme’s companies happened only in 1929, over a quarter of a century after both had died. McCallum, Orme & Co had an independent life of less than 20 years before it was subsumed into David MacBrayne Ltd at the beginning of 1948.

One wonders how often Orme and McCallum came across each other in person and how they got on. The lives they led were certainly very different. Orme – born on 2 January 1824 at Dumbarton – was a town-dweller, a shipping manager, his life-long habitat the Glasgow office: in April 1903 he even died the death of a traveller to and from the city, suffering a heart attack in Paisley Gilmour Street station one Saturday lunchtime, perhaps on his way home after the customary six-and-a-half-day week at his desk.

John McCallum, on the other hand, was a died-in-the-wool seafarer, born at Bellanoch on the banks of the Crinan Canal in 1842. When he took and passed his Master’s ticket exams in August 1865 aged 23 he had been at sea for 11 years or more. As a boy he joined the smack Active, recently arrived in Glasgow from Fife and owned, certainly later, by Andrew McKenzie Ross with whose family McCallum would have a lasting business relationship.

McCallum’s first steamer was Iona of 1855, in which he spent two seasons as an AB before in 1861, aged just 18 or 19, taking command of the schooner James Irving and then the smacks Mermaid and Catherine. So, when in 1874 McCallum took command of Lady Ambrosine, the ship he actually bought the following year, he was already a skipper of some experience – and a skipper he remained until his untimely and apparently rather undignified death in June 1902.

Martin Orme (1824-1903) was a manager and town-dweller

However unlike one another they were, Orme and McCallum between them brought to the fringes of Scotland’s western seaboard an ever-improving service for cargo, largely, and passengers. It is good to see a wealth of evocative pictures of steamers of theirs such as Dunara Castle, Hebridean and Hebrides alongside at piers or lying off settlements where they were such familiar and welcome callers – and there are other steamers aplenty, not so well known but each with its role in the story. 

One of the difficulties in producing a full colour book recounting a history which effectively ended in 1955 with the withdrawal of Hebrides is that the subjects of the story were photographed overwhelmingly in black and white. Donald Meek circumvents that problem through the generous use of modern colour images which remind us not only of the continuing beauty of McCallum, Orme’s territory but also of the changes time has wrought, particularly to the infrastructure which supported their steamers.

The story is told through documents as well as photographs. The specification for Hebrides is full of intricate and absorbing detail, and it is fascinating to see what information the census returns throw up about crew and passengers.

John McCallum (1842-1902) was a seafarer through-and-through

Informative, too, is a transcription of Hebridean’s crew list for the first half of 1915: the digitised images for the whole year (at give yet more detail about the men and the ship’s employment as she neared the end of her career with McCallum.

Recorded during the first part of the year at Scrabster and Longhope (with an unexplained March interlude at Ardrossan) and laid up in Bowling for most of August, she then returned until mid October to the Isle of Man trade where she was well known.

Sailings to one island more than to any other brought the steamers of Orme and later McCallum into the public eye: St Kilda. Martin Orme was managing the steamer Islesman when in November 1860 it was arranged that she should deliver to HMS Porcupine at Lochmaddy goods paid for by public subscription for onward carriage to St Kilda, to help alleviate the effects of a violent storm the previous month. This may or may not have been the impetus for a voyage the following July advertised quite simply as a ‘Pleasure trip to St Kilda’ from Glasgow.

The calling places read like a roll-call of McCallum, Orme’s communities: from Glasgow to Tobermory, Dunvegan, Lochmaddy and Rodel on the way out, and Lochmaddy, Dunvegan, Kallin, Lochboisdale, Barra, Tobermory, Staffin, Bunessan, Iona and Oban on the way home.

The voyage straddled a Sunday spent at anchor in the Sound of Harris (at ‘Bunintrue’, a transliterated location not yet identified) and the Sabbath was decently observed with ‘a very interesting and appropriate discourse’ from a minister on board. The passengers’ reactions to the St Kilda islands and islanders would become familiar in the reports of later visits, as they marvelled at the ‘active and perilous manner in which the natives descended from stupendous rocks’, the ‘wild precipices’ and the ‘grandeur and magnificence of the scenery’.

Dunara Castle at Carbost

Donald Meek takes up the story of the more regular visits which Martin Orme’s steamers began in 1877, and his examination of the effects upon tourists and islanders alike is one of the most thought-provoking characteristics of his book. He quotes extensively from a variety of sources which illuminate all too clearly the supercilious and censorious attitudes of some visitors who found ‘primitivism’ on St Kilda – an ‘unkempt human menagerie’ – and offered ‘grotesque and unworthy caricatures’ of the islanders on their return to ‘civilisation’.

It is shocking to read that visitors often arrived on the island the worse for drink, earning the reproof of the St Kilda minister that they were ‘very loose in their character’. The unintended but inescapable consequence of all this was that the islanders began to play the part expected of them as embodiments of an alien way of life, happily showing off their skill as cragsmen, offering knitwear, cloth, eggs and fowl at prices ‘about twice the value of them’ and earning for themselves the view that visitors must ‘be lavish [in giving sweets and tobacco], or you will not please’. The steamer visits ‘introduced islanders to a cash-based economy’ and encouraged them to participate in ‘an inauthentic “myth” or “stereotype” which probably operated against them in the longer term’.

From the Clyde to St Kilda is, without reservation, a book which steamer enthusiasts will enjoy: its photographs old and new, its descriptions of life aboard, its affectionate portraits of crew members, its accounts of a surprising number of vessels – they all see to that. But it is also a thought-provoking book and above all a book which reminds us that the parody of Psalm 24 ascribing ownership of the Kyles and Western Isles to MacBrayne is very wide of the mark.

Donald Meek is an academic, a Gaelic scholar, a Tirisdeach, a poet, a draughtsman, an enthusiast, a grateful collaborator, a man with an eye for detail and for the broader picture. Martin Orme and John McCallum could not have hoped for a more distinguished and engaging teller of their tale than they have found in the author of From the Clyde to St Kilda.

‘From the Clyde to St Kilda: The Ships and Services of Martin Orme and John McCallum’ by Donald E. Meek, with contributions from others. 256 pages, copiously illustrated. Published by Ferry Publications, £22.

Iain MacLeod was CRSC President in 1988-89 and 2008-09, and editor of Clyde Steamers from 1993 to 2007.

Published on 28 November 2020