Monday’s fog-blanket on the Clyde reduced visibility to 50 yards in places, bringing CalMac’s ferry services to a halt and forcing Balmoral and Western Ferries’ vessels to proceed with extra caution across the Firth. Iain MacLeod recalls an incident more than a century ago, when a Clyde steamer actually got ‘lost’ in fog.
Earlier this week, when Balmoral, welcome visitor to the Clyde, ran into such thick fog at Largs that she had to stay there for the night, I thought of the Para Handy story in which Neil Munro has Vital Spark’s mate, Dougie, read from the evening paper about two sailors from the steamer Benmore going ashore at Bowling and being unable to find their way back on board, so thick was the fog surrounding them.
Fact or fiction? The newspapers of 9 December 1909 reveal that it did indeed happen and that the whole story is even more remarkable. On the Monday morning of that week Benmore had set off on her usual run with cargo, livestock and a few passengers from Rothesay to Glasgow, a half-day’s trip at most.
Her regular skipper, Hugh McPherson, was in command: having spent almost 30 years aboard Campbell and Caledonian steamers, he had joined Williamson’s fleet around 1906 and knew the Clyde well.
So dense was the fog on the river that December morning, though, that soon after leaving Greenock for the hour and a half trip up to Glasgow, even the experienced Captain McPherson resolved that he could go no further and had to drop anchor.
When the fog eventually lifted, fully two days later, it became clear that Benmore had been lying near Milton Island, between Bowling and Dumbarton, though at the time McPherson had had little idea where exactly they were stopping.
Aboard the steamer were about a dozen passengers, some of whom perhaps understandably became impatient and asked to be ferried ashore. What happened next seems to have given Munro the idea for his story. Two sailors did take those passengers ashore in one of Benmore’s boats – but when they tried to get back to their ship they simply could not find her. Instead, they returned to Bowling and took up their search again in the morning, this time with better luck.
There were sheep on board Benmore as well, and a Kilcreggan man in charge of some of them decided in the fog and the dark to get them ashore, a risky procedure which lost him a valued collie dog. Although the cold was so intense that it was difficult to stay on deck for long and the fog was as dense as anyone could remember, the remaining passengers (two children, two women and two men) were well looked after in the saloon and eventually brought safely to Glasgow on the Wednesday afternoon, no fewer than 52 hours after their steamer had left Greenock.
When steamer historian R.N.W. Smith told Benmore’s story in the CRSC magazine Clyde Steamers 40 years ago, he was unsure whether she had indeed gone missing when the fog came down on the Clyde one cold December day: but now we know that, unlikely as it seems, that is exactly what happened.
Thanks to today’s sophisticated navigational equipment, Balmoral did not go ‘missing’ between Rothesay and Largs on Monday afternoon when, as one of the few commercial vessels moving across the Firth, she was enveloped in thick fog and began to blow her horn at regular intervals. But, when deciding whether or not to proceed, her Master, Captain David Howie, must have faced a dilemma not entirely dissimilar to Captain McPherson’s all those years ago on Benmore.
Iain MacLeod was CRSC President in the 1988-89 and 2008-09 sessions, and Editor of Clyde Steamers from 1991 to 2007.
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