Colin Tucker stokes the debate on the controversial subject of funnels. Can we say whether, on any particular ship, they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
I recently came across a little book entitled Ships of the Narrow Seas. Written by Edmund Vale and published in 1936 by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, it includes a chapter on ‘The Clyde and Lake Steamers’. This is part of what Vale wrote:
The Clyde is, and always has been, the most steamerish place in the world. In those parts they are brought up to steamers as one is brought up to horses. They understand steamers and, what is more, they can take their pleasure on them as no one else can.
I can think of few better, and few more succinct, descriptions. But this article is not about the joys of sailing on the Clyde. What intrigued me enough to put pen to paper, or more correctly fingers to keys, was the following:
There is, of course, nothing to be said for the funnels-for-funnels-sake school of ship lovers. However, there is a great deal to be said for good funnelling in a steamer. And cross channel boats show more than any other class what can be done with funnels of correct proportion, rake and shape, properly suited to the rest of the ship. In houses, it was the 16th century builders who understood the art of making chimneys to show off a building. In steamers, the verdict will probably be that the early 20th century understood best how to show off a ship by her funnels. This does not mean that ships will cease to be beautiful just because oil propulsion has rendered big funnels useless.
Mr Vale was referring chiefly to ships sailing the Irish Sea, but my thoughts immediately turned to the West Coast of Scotland. How much of his theory applied there? What follows are my thoughts, loosely based on what I think of as good-looking ships and otherwise. My selection of ships and lums is quite random.
Comet of 1812 can claim to be a west coast steamer. Like many early steamships she had a tall vertical funnel, but in her case it also served as a mast. As such, I suppose it was all in proportion. The same could not be said of William Daniell’s 1815 painting of an early Clyde steamer passing Dumbarton Rock with excursionists on deck. If her length is about 75 feet, then her tall thin stove-pipe cannot be a great deal less. At least the passengers would have been spared soot and sparks.
By the time people had started photographing the steamers belonging to Messrs Hutcheson and later David MacBrayne, the design of their funnels seems to have been totally in proportion with the graceful hulls that were cleaving the waters of the Royal Route and off Iona, Tiree and elsewhere.
Indeed, the majesty of Columba and Grenadier would not have been such without their tall, angled funnels, creating a sense of power and majesty. Almost the only 19th century steamer which did not fit this pattern was the little Linnet, making her way between Ardrishaig and Crinan. She was such a caricature of a ship that, without her tall, vertical chimney, she would not have evoked the same sense of character. Countess of Kellie fared no better. For a ship with such a proud name, her tall stove-pipe stuck near her stern added insult to the fact that she would carry little other than coal and be forced to lie on beaches to unload.
The coming of the 20th century also brought with it oil propulsion, as Mr Vale described it. MacBraynes’ first efforts, Comet and Scout, did not even deign to emit their exhausts to the skies. The third of the early MacBrayne motorships was Lochinvar. She could never have been described as a handsome vessel. She first appeared without a funnel: the waste gases from her three engines were carried away up three exhaust pipes stuck almost randomly at the after end of the ship. A slight improvement to her looks came when these were replaced by a single tall stove pipe funnel. In 1949 she was re-engined, and to go with this a new funnel was fitted. It certainly looked more like a funnel, but was so short as to be lower than the newly fitted wheelhouse, and almost hidden by the framework of what was no doubt a most useful crane.
Let us move forward to the 1930s. By now motor ships were becoming quite common. Lochearn and Lochmor, which appeared in 1930, represented a huge improvement in terms of space and comfort for outer island travellers. But they were fitted at first with tall, thinnish funnels, giving the ships an almost comical shape. What an improvement there was to their appearance when these were replaced by a shorter, squatter version. At last they really looked like the miniature liners they were claimed to be.
These two sisters were followed by what I consider to be three cousins: Lochfyne, Lochnevis and Lochiel. All were fitted with what became recognisable as the MacBrayne funnel(s) of the 1930s — a nice oval shape, well proportioned and with a bit of a rake. But in all three cases there was something not quite right. I have always thought of Lochnevis as an extremely smart little ship, but looking at a photo of her just now, I found myself asking why has the funnel been squashed in immediately behind the wheelhouse. Just move it back a bit and the proportions become even better.
Lochfyne, of course, had two funnels. The forward one, as we all know, was a dummy. Without it she would have been an odd looking ship. Perhaps the lesson of Lochinvar had been learnt? If she had been built as a steamship, would two taller funnels have made her even more impressive — for without a doubt, I always thought she had a powerful profile.
I am always wary of commenting on Lochiel, for I never knew this ship. Judging by photographs, she was a handsome vessel, but if Lochnevis’ funnel was too far forward, then Lochiel’s seems to be too far back, sitting alone on the deck and making for a rather uneven shape. No doubt the old Ileachs amongst us will have something to say on this.
Thinking of ships with ‘extra’ funnels, I cannot forget to mention Saint Columba, which, of course, could boast of three. Was someone trying to emulate Titanic (or the Cunard Queen Mary?) when they decided to add an extra and extraneous third funnel, out of which thick, black smoke would never add to the scene? Whatever the reason, it certainly made for a handsome, powerful looking steamer. I would love to have seen her powering her way through the Kyles of Bute on her daily journey to Loch Fyne.
I come now to what I consider to be one of the best proportioned MacBrayne ships, Claymore of 1955. It is interesting to see how each new generation improved on the previous one, and Claymore was the next step on from Lochearn. Her funnel definitely reflected the time, modern, rounded, sleek and well proportioned. With a funnel similar to her predecessor she would not have been the same. But look at what they did when she went to Greece – can you imagine sailing into Castlebay with that monstrosity sitting atop the ship?
What can I say about the car ferries? All started well in the 1960s: the three original ferries carried well shaped funnels, blended in to the superstructure to create a modern image, heralding a new age for the islands. After that, things, and funnels, have in many cases gone downhill. When Iona appeared she had that stupid little dummy stuck on the top, completely out of proportion. What an improvement came when the real funnels were lengthened and given a coat of red and black.
More ferries appeared, with varying degrees of funnel success. Two funnels became the order of the day, but now athwartships rather than one behind the other. While Claymore and Isle of Arran had nicely tapered funnels with rounded edges, Pioneer and Hebridean Isles had angular funnels, designed by an architect who clearly favoured using a ruler and thought this would match the lack of sheer on the hulls. Isle of Mull has a monstrosity, but somehow it works. Suilven had a graceful, curved funnel, tapered to form the mainmast – a piece of Scandinavian design, perhaps.
The three ships which have served the Small Isles since the 1960s have all had proper funnels. But the first two, Loch Arkaig and then Lochmor, had funnels which were so small that they were totally hidden behind the wheelhouse, as if they were embarrassed to be seen. That could not be said about the funnel of the present Lochnevis — even if you are looking at her from the starboard, for, as is common on many ships today, the funnel, which is of a good size, has been placed off-centre, a case of efficiency and economy against aesthetics. Ah well.
I must not forget the small ferries, each playing such an important role in the islands. The ‘Island’ class, when they first appeared, had nicely proportioned funnels, in keeping with their status. Then came the raising of Eigg’s wheelhouse: the diminutive red and black funnel now sat perched atop the tower. And the ‘Lochs’: who had ever heard of a wheelhouse trying to be a funnel? Loch Portain has silver exhaust pipes sticking up at a corner of the superstructure, a bit like ostriches craning their necks.
At least when Coruisk appeared in 2003, the casings on her exhausts were given a coat of red and black, even if there are ostriches peering out of them as well.
As Edmund Vale said, and I think very wisely, there is a great deal to be said for good funnelling!
All images on the CRSC website are protected by copyright law. Do not reproduce them on Facebook, Pinterest or any other public platform.
Click here to join CRSC for £10 and take advantage of the benefits, including the encyclopaedic 12-monthly Review of west coast shipping, the annual magazine Clyde Steamers, plus photo offers, DVDs, special excursions and access to ‘Members Only’ posts, encompassing hundreds of rare archive images.
MORE BY COLIN TUCKER:
By Sea to Portree (Members Only)
Colin Tucker’s memoir of life aboard the 1947 Loch Seaforth can be read in the 2013 edition of Clyde Steamers, CRSC’s annual magazine.
Published on 10 May 2021