Meeting Report: On the Trail of the Inner Islands Mail

Claymore looms out of the mist, Tobermory Bay, July 1963’: Martyn Mackrill’s line drawing perfectly sums up the astonishment Andrew Clark felt when suddenly confronted by the sight of the 1955 Claymore bearing down on him, as the vessel approached the pier on her Inner Islands mail run. In his Zoom presentation Andrew also recounted his memories of sailing on Claymore to Coll, Tiree, Barra and Lochboisdale. Copyright illustration © Martyn Mackrill

Usually to be found at the wheel of the CRSC website, writing, reviewing and editing delectable articles for everyone to enjoy, it is only fitting that CRSC magazine editor Andrew Clark now finds himself the subject of critical scrutiny. His Zoom presentation, titled On the Trail of the Inner Islands Mail, was screened on Wednesday 10 November. Stuart Craig reports.

Knowing Andrew Clark well, as I’m delighted to admit, I’ve always suspected his steamer enthusiast heart lies with David MacBrayne Ltd — with the actual company and with those red-funnelled ships many of us remember with fondness. Andrew’s  Zoom presentation illustrated that for once I am correct.

As a retired journalist Andrew Clark knows how to compose a good story, and he started this one in true Hollywood style – in the middle. He then took us back in time, before developing his story forwards to a fittingly upbeat, yet ever so slightly morose, finale.

The genesis of his interest in ships may have begun when, as a young lad let loose in a rowing boat in Tobermory Bay, he was almost run down one foggy morning by MacBrayne’s Claymore — an incident so embedded in his mind that he had Club member Martyn Mackrill sketch a drawing of the event for his talk. And so Andrew’s embryonic interest in steamers developed, although he reckons ‘it was the funnels that initially caught my attention.’

You can be sure that any dissertation from our Mr Clark will be full of accurate historical narrative. This one was no exception, and with every detail backed up visually with the appropriate photograph (and that Mackrill drawing), those lucky enough to watch the presentation were treated to a fascinating history from someone who really knows his steamers.

The Inner Islands Mail had its origins in the 19th century and effectively ended with the coming of Ro-Ro ferries in the early 1970s and the withdrawal of Claymore in 1975. Andrew gave us a concise history of the ships that plied the Inner Islands route, with particular emphasis on the 1930 diesel sisters Lochearn and Lochmor.

But Andrew is very much a ‘people person’, and his talk was every bit as much a biography of the businessmen and the skippers behind the helm at MacBraynes as it was of the ships themselves. At times he was uncompromising in his choice of words: regarding the 1955 Claymore, he asserted that ‘her domed modern funnel was window dressing…..from the start she was old-fashioned.’ The much loathed 1904 steamer Cygnet, which inaugurated the Inner Islands Mail on 2 February 1920, was given a mauling — even the sheep complained about her, it seemed. Andrew referred to her as the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of the fleet.

He went on to explain in his own lucid style how the services to the isles evolved, especially after joining forces with the Post Office in the final years of the 19th century, how they were affected by both World Wars and how they adapted to changes in personnel at the top.

The expansion into tourism, the nationalisation of the company and then the inevitable decline with the arrival of a more modern Ro-Ro fleet were all clearly demonstrated and, of course, illustrated. The presentation itself then evolved as Andrew gave us a detailed account of the development (especially of the funnel) of the ship with which he had that close encounter — the 1955 Claymore. He evidently has a soft spot for this ship, and did I detect a wobble in his voice as he recounted her final sailing for MacBraynes between Colonsay and Oban in November 1975, and her demise in Greece 25 years later?

The 116 who attended this Zoom presentation witnessed a masterclass in how to present a history lesson in an enlightening and informative way. Andrew’s sourcing of photographs from the archives was quite splendid. He hinted that his latest literary labour is about MacBraynes. Coming to a bookshelf in the near future, I hope. Tonight we saw the movie – the book follows soon!

You can see all 170 images in Andrew Clark’s presentation in a ‘Members Only’ video here.

Join CRSC for £10 here and get the full benefits of membership, including access to hundreds of rare photographs in the Club archive.

Published on 13 November 2021