Colin Tucker unearths some little known stories about the steamers of Scotland’s west coast.
Recently I was given the loan of a few copies of The Log Line, the house magazine of Coast Lines. They date from the late 1950s. Most of the articles refer to staff of the shipping company, but I came across a few items of Clyde and West Highland interest.
The Handy Handa
The earliest, from the Spring 1957 issue, was entitled ‘The Handy Handa’. My interest was aroused, correctly as it turned out. The article read as follows:
The Handa (G.T.146) was one of the best-known boats in the MacBrayne Fleet and during her long period of service – 1887-1917 – she was at one time or another on almost every run of the Company. Her length was restricted to 84 feet to enable her to navigate the Crinan Canal. There was not one single inch of space wasted. She had a saloon, ladies cabin, and rooms for officers as well as crew’s quarters. She had two holds, a good main deck, and on one occasion carried 48 horses from Tiree to Oban.
At times she had to relieve some of the regular mail steamers. This did not please everybody. One disgruntled passenger was heard to remark that if the King Edward was a turbine steamer, the Handa was a washing byre.
On one occasion when she was on the Harris run, the weather was so bad that the Captain had to make for Portree and reported that the Handa turned back herself at Rhu Hunish.
When Lady Gatty came to Lochbuie she took a great liking to the Handa. She had to have her, whether she was taking some friends to Staffa and Iona or ‘Westering Home’ to her own folk in Islay. When the summons came, the Handa got a good washdown, the brasswork was polished, the crew donned their Number Ones, and she became “Lady Gatty’s Yacht”.
It would be interesting to find out the source of this information. I wonder if there are more hidden ‘MacBrayne gems’ somewhere out there.
Sir Alfred Read Challenge Cup
Every month there were reports and articles from the various Coast Lines offices throughout the country. One such was the ‘Clyde Corner’, headed by a nostalgic view of three Burns & Laird passenger ships. As already mentioned most reports concerned staff, but in the Spring 1958 edition there appeared a report of one of the football matches that the company’s various regional offices played for the Sir Alfred Read Challenge Cup (Sir Alfred having been the redoubtable Chairman of Coast Lines and MacBraynes from the 1920s until 1950). Having drawn in the match at Newcastle, the Glasgow side hosted a replay. The report stated that “our Newcastle friends arrived in Glasgow (and) on the following day at 11.30am both teams proceeded to the M.V. Royal Ulsterman for lunch preparatory to the replay.”
After lunch the Glasgow manager expressed the wish that all would enjoy the game, and thanked the staff of Royal Ulsterman for an excellent meal. The match, which Glasgow won 5-0, was at Cliftonhill Park, Coatbridge, home of Albion Rovers, “who had kindly granted the use of their field.”
No fewer than three articles of interest appeared in the Autumn 1958 issue. The first, written by Jim Birse, a stalwart at 44 Robertson Street for many years, described a ‘Royal Visit to Fort William’. The date was 18 August. The article described that on the day before, “at the pier RMS Lochfyne lay quietly at her berth in preparation for her early morning departure next day to Oban for Staffa and Iona.” On the morning of the Royal visit, “RMS Lochfyne had slipped quietly from her berth at 7am and the pier assumed a deserted but somewhat expectant appearance –- no one daring to defy the rope which closed the pier to all.”
The article closed by mentioning that “the flags and bunting on the pier were returned to the SS Loch Frisa and RMS Lochinvar, the reserve gangway (happily not required) was returned to storage, the staff, with a sigh of mingled relief and anti-climax, resumed normal duties, and thus ended a memorable occasion for Fort William.”
Circus to the Isles
The following autumn the same Mr Birse wrote:
The familiar title used to be ‘The Circus comes to Town’, but in this instance the circus moved away from the town to the isles. On the mainland, the transfer of a circus from town to town presents its own difficulties, but in the case of going to the isles, this presented MacBraynes with somewhat different obstacles. The circus of Winship and Sons was not on the grandiose scale of Bertram Mills, but nevertheless this was something entirely new for the islanders. The islands visited were Islay, Mull, Skye and Stornoway in Lewis. There were no wild animals in the circus but an excellent performance was given with ponies, dogs, etc, and the usual artists. In addition to shipping the animals from the mainland, there was also the usual convoy of caravans and trailers which accompanied the circus. At Islay and Mull the circus caused great excitement and was a success. Unfortunately adverse weather on Skye seriously affected the attendances, but at Stornoway, where they had slightly more equipment, the circus was an even greater success than at Islay and Mull.
Regrettably the article gave no details of which ships were used to carry the circus from island to island, unlike the third article in that issue, entitled ‘Rockets Galore’.
The winter issue of 1958 carried an article about the end of RMS Saint Columba. It noted that “at the end of September, Saint Columba, owned by David MacBrayne Ltd., made her last round trip on the Gourock/Ardrishaig summer service, and has since been sold for breaking up.” The article gave more details about the ship (which was built in 1912 as Queen Alexandra), before mentioning that “during the First World War this vessel’s service included the ramming and sinking of a ‘U’ boat, and for this exploit her master was awarded the OBE and the DSC.”
After more brief details of her history, the article then concluded somewhat nostalgically:
“The Saint Columba in her distinctive MacBrayne livery will live long in the memory of many who experienced her excellent sailing qualities in this link of the Royal Route to the Highlands. By all who love ships, she will be remembered as perhaps the most graceful Clyde steamer since the days of the old paddlers, Columba and Iona. And the day tripper sailing ‘down the water’ will always remember those tasty kipper high teas beautifully served in her dining saloon.”
It is 60-odd years since these articles were published. Coast Lines no longer exists, The Log Line is no longer published, and even the name David MacBrayne no longer holds the same place in the world of coastal shipping. But these memories and events still resonate today.
Catch up with all Colin Tucker’s articles on the CRSC website by clicking here and scrolling through ‘News and Reports’.
Published on 13 February 2019