‘It was bracing, but it was fun!’

Sileas at Acharacle: CRSC’s intrepid adventurers disembark for lunch at the Loch Shiel Hotel. Copyright Robin Copland

Robin Copland describes the sensations — both wet and warm — engendered by CRSCs trip to Loch Shiel on Saturday 28 October 2017 for a cruise on Sileas.

At 7.30 in the morning, a group of hardy CRSC members was gathering in Glasgows George Square to board the specially chartered bus on the latest of Cruise Coordinator Neil Guthries imaginative days away. Meanwhile in Uig, Past President Angus Ross was bemoaning a full Armadale to Mallaig ferry (dark mutterings about camper vans and RET) and the resultant (and more stressful) journey via the Skye Bridge. Still more were setting out privately from other airts and pairts, and all were looking forward to meeting MV Sileas at her home pier at Glenfinnan.

For those travelling from the south, the journey started in relatively benign conditions but by the time we had reached Crianlarich, the weather had changed; cloud had descended and that horrible, wet, mizzly rain was soaking everything it touched.

Sileas’s skipper, Jim Michie

A comfort and breakfast stop at the Green Welly cafe in Tyndrum preceded our drive over Rannoch Moor and through foreboding and atmospheric Glencoe. Ballachulish and its eponymous bridge passed in the blink of a soggy raindrop; Onich came and went; Fort William was gawped at — if ever a town did not deserve its wonderful setting, then surely that town is Fort William? — and we had a close encounter (though thankfully not in their wakes!) with two giant wind turbine towers being transported along unsuitable highland roads.

And here was our first surprise. It turned out that Allan and Margaret Nicholls had travelled north from their home in Bexleyheath. This was their first CRSC cruise since the Club’s September 1969 charter of PS Caledonia. No real surprise there until Angus Ross revealed that he too had been on that cruise — and furthermore it had been his first ever CRSC cruise!

At last, we reached Glenfinnan and our bus got us as close to the small pier as it could. There, sitting at the pier was our ship for the day, MV Sileas (pronounced Sheilass). Sileas is a 52-ft ex-Admiralty pinnace or harbour launch built in 1940 by James A. Silver Ltd of Rosneath. This boatyard was well known for its high quality vessels built under the direction of master designer and craftsman, John Bain.

Wet and windy: boarding Sileas at Glenfinnan

Sileas was one of three boats commissioned in 1940 by the Navy and is built in double diagonal construction of teak on oak frames. Fortunately, Angus Ross was on hand to explain to an inquisitive Robert Beale (CRSC vice-president) that Sileass hull is made up of two layers of teak: the outer one is traditional and horizontal, but the inner one is butted against the outer one diagonally. The two parts of the hull are joined to each other by copper rivets.

These boats were used to run cargo and crew from harbours to and from the larger warships, which would sit off-shore. Some were fitted with guns for harbour defence. Sileas was in Admiralty service until the mid 1960s, ending up at the naval base at Invergordon.

After that, members may remember seeing her as MV Vital Spark at Kyle of Lochalsh from the early 70s onwards, from where she operated a mail service under contract to David MacBrayne, plying mainly between Kyle of Lochalsh and Toscaig.

This was a daily service carrying mail and passengers and ran for close on 20 years until she was sold on in 1987 to MacNab MacKenzie, who operated her as one of several pleasure boats from Ullapool to the Summer Isles.

Angus Ross came from Skye to join the CRSC party on Loch Shiel

Three years later the boat was sold to Iain Morrison of Mull who operated her between Ulva Ferry and Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Isles from 1990 until October 1994.

Vital Spark was then taken off service and lay in a sheltered bay at Croig near Dervaig in Mull until December 1996, when the boat was bought by Jim Michie, the present owner.

Jim restored her, renamed her Sileas and started running cruises on Loch Shiel. This was CRSCs first charter of her.

Our journey down the loch to Acharacle was wet and windy and maybe least said, soonest mended. Most of the party elected to stay under the deck shelter at the stern of the ship, though a few of us chanced standing outside in what were trying conditions: we were sailing into the teeth of a south-west gale.

Eventually we found ourselves approaching Acharacle pier, where pier hand Stuart Craig (CRSC Membership Secretary on a cycling holiday) found that the act of slipping a rope over a bollard was more difficult than it appeared!

Rope catcher Stuart Craig in action at Acharacle

Gamely, he tried again and again; eventually he succeeded to much acclaim!

We had an hour or so ashore, where most of the party enjoyed a convivial lunch at the Loch Shiel Hotel, a short walk up a wet path.

The return journey was altogether more pleasant. The wind was behind us and more of the party took advantage to go up onto the deck. It was bracing, but it was fun!

Mercifully the rain, which been incessant for our outward journey, held off and, for fleeting seconds at a time, there were tantalising glimpses of blue sky overhead or sun suddenly appearing on the hillsides. The chat turned to Duchess of Montrose on a sailing from Glasgow Bridge Wharf in 1961 and moved on from there; nothing changes when you put a group of steamer dreamers together.

Throughout the cruise Jim Michie gave us a most excellent and entertaining commentary. I think he knew his audience because he was light on the birds and heavier on the steamer history!

He was able to take us close inshore on a few occasions to view points of interest — such as the piles of the original pier at Polloch beside the new construction which, though doubtless less photogenic, is more robust and fitter for its purpose.

In the gathering gloom, we sailed past the pier at Glenfinnan and on down maybe 500 yards towards the Glenfinnan monument — fitting perhaps that we should leave the most famous attraction until last. It sat there, framed by the majestic concrete viaduct behind it.

Sadly, too much light had gone out of the sky for a quality photograph to be taken but the general feeling was that we had seen enough to merit a return visit in more clement conditions.

Bow view: (left to right) Harry Silvers, CRSC Vice-President Rob Beale and Cruise Coordinator Neil Guthrie on Sileas on 28 October

Libby Jamieson and Margaret Shutt

Richard Orr, Ken Mills and John McCormick

Graham Hutton and Carl McIntyre

Bill Coull and Eric Schofield

Rob Beale serves as bow rope man as Sileas battles the wind on approach to the pier at Acharacle. Copyright Stuart Craig

Discussion with skipper Jim Michie (foreground) and crewman Graham Flett (far left). Copyright Stuart Craig

Lunch at Acharacle: Tom and Helen Roberts

Allan and Margaret Nicholls enjoy a post-lunch cuppa


Alistair Deayton

Alex Russell and Norman Leitch

Laughing off the wintry conditions, Robin Copland braves the elements on board Sileas. Copyright Eric Schofield

Autumn colours on Loch Shiel, as seen from Sileas during the CRSC charter on 28 October 2017

Ken Mills describes a cruise on Sileas in glorious summer sunshine

Fraser MacHaffie tells the story of the restoration of Sileas 20 years ago

For information on Loch Shiel cruises operated by Jim Michie click here.

Except where individually credited, all photos on this page are copyright Robin Copland.