On the Spot: Charles McCrossan

‘I like ‘Maids’, all ‘Maids’, doesn’t matter what its name is or was – I liked the ‘Maids’. Watching a ‘Maid’ trying to get into Largs during a storm was heart-in-the-mouth stuff. They rolled like corks’: Maid of Cumbrae on the south-west knuckle of Largs Pier on 17 August 1970

Charles McCrossan grew up at Largs, went to sea as an engineer at the age of 19 and is known in enthusiast circles for his love of steam trains as well as steamships. In 2011 he took over responsibility for the CRSC website, transforming it during the following seven years from an embryonic digital platform into a fully formed and widely read facility, featuring a near-comprehensive archive of Club charters and special sailings. Charles also played a valuable role in the 2011 revision of the Club constitution and, though no longer involved in Club management, remains a loyal supporter of our activities. In his answers to Stuart Craig’s regular set of ‘On the Spot’ questions, he shows that, alongside a fondness for the past, he sees further possibilities for CRSC to embrace a digital future.

What is your earliest memory of sailing on a Clyde Steamer?

It’s strange! I have photographic evidence of sailing on several occasions when I was quite young, but no actual memory of doing so. The earliest photograph I have is one of me on a steamer in August 1951. My actual ‘memories’ follow on from doing a couple of Clyde sailings using a Freedom of Scotland Ticket in 1966 and then buying my first 14 day Clyde Rover ticket for the huge sum of £5 5s in 1967 (and whoever issued it couldn’t count, as it was dated for 15 days’ travel!).

What was the last sailing you took?

Charles McCrossan (right) with past president Angus Ross at the April 2016 Club meeting at Jurys Inn. Charles played a significant role in developing CRSC’s website and slide digitisation

Along with at least two other Clyde steamer enthusiasts, I sailed from London Tilbury to Liverpool (6 to 12 March 2020) onboard Hurtigruten’s new expedition ship Fridtjof Nansen, which was supposed to do a series of introductory Showcase Cruises in UK Waters. (I think she headed home to Norway after just the second one.) For various reasons we missed two ports of call and ended up with an extra day in Liverpool — 11 March — which was the day of the Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid European football match, which has since been considered a Covid super-spreader event. I’ve just stayed at home since then and followed all the rules!

Holidays: Dunoon, Rothesay or Arran?

Growing up by the Clyde, a holiday at some other part of the Clyde just never seemed to be considered. I did have a week on Arran in 1988 ‘by accident’ when I won a week in someone’s holiday home which had been included in a church fundraising  auction. I hadn’t expected to win the bidding! My mother ran a boarding house in Largs and the same people came for the same two weeks of the summer, every year for many years, from far flung places like Glasgow, Paisley, Clydebank and even Greenock. We were too busy giving other people a Clyde Coast holiday to think of having one ourselves.

What is your favourite steamer?

Despite what the majority of enthusiasts say about her, the good old Talisman (while not a true steamer) is the vessel I remember most vividly. Hearing the paddle beats, long before you could see her coming round the point at the Noddle burn at the north end of Largs, has stuck with me. A true steamer would be Duchess of Hamilton. In today’s world can you imagine what it would be like with cameras, tablets and phones capturing those wonderful races between the ‘Duchesses’ for Largs pier. The crowds would be shoulder to shoulder from Largs to Skelmorlie, every week.

Which was Waverley’s best livery?

Charles McCrossan (centre top row) and other members of a Waverley winter work party c2010. Sheila Holt and Gavin Stewart are top left, with Margaret Skee between Gavin and Charles. Frank Quinn (orange overall) and Stuart Mears (white) are at the bottom left

I like her as she is today. I know there have been variations and detailed adjustments/changes during her time in preservation but those two black, white and red funnels could never be bettered as her clear trademark – no matter what angle they may be at!

If young enough, what was your favourite ‘streaker’, or if older, your favourite ‘Maid’?

Well I’m definitely a ‘Maid’ person. However, I have never been a rivet, window, door position, angle of the galley lum, or anything else ‘nutter’ — in other words, looking at a picture of a ship, I was never any good at identifying the distinguishing features of multi-class vessels, because of the position of a window or other small details. But I like ‘Maids’, all ‘Maids’, doesn’t matter what its name is or was – I liked the ‘Maids’. Watching a ‘Maid’ class vessel trying to get into Largs pier during a southerly or south-westerly storm was heart-in-the-mouth stuff. They rolled like corks. Your first question was about memories of sailing but, on reflection, most of my early memories to do with steamers/ferries are ones of observation. I watched, I noted mentally, I built up a view and understanding of what was happening before my eyes and noticed when something different happened. I didn’t write things down but I think I was very aware of the passing vessels, and we had a clear view of Largs pier from the house. I could also see the passing merchant shipping on the river, further away but still clear enough with young eyes. No idea how or when I made the decision but I was always ‘going to sea’ for a career and I did achieve that as an engineer.

Jeanie Deans or Waverley?

If you added ‘Which is it’ at the front of that question I’d refer you to my previous two answers.  It’s been a lot easier since Waverley changed the colour of her lums in 1974. Going through old photos I still struggle to get it right. I can’t be sure that I have sailed on Jeanie Deans, but I’ve sailed a lot on Waverley and hope to continue doing so. Waverley it is!

A new turbine has been built on the Clyde. What would you call her?

August 1951 — the first steamer trip undertaken by Charles, pictured on a paddle-box between his father and his fathers cousin, with a second cousin on the right

I find this a hard question. I’m no fan of repeating names that have gone before, which has happened often. If a new turbine was built, perhaps Miraculous or Impossible Dream would be appropriate. Turbinia, the name of the first steam turbine powered ship, was very appropriate and, while not wanting to repeat it, something equivalent would be very acceptable. I feel a great sadness that the skills and capabilities to build such a ship and engines have been lost from the Clyde, if not the UK.

What would you like to see happen on the Clyde ferry scene over the next few years?

It would be so nice just to have something different from the same old back-and-forth routes. Being able to do a day trip to Campbeltown on summer Sundays is great, but any other out of the ordinary route or sailing would be so welcome. The successful introduction of the new Glen Sannox is eagerly awaited but, after the first return crossings on her, will it be another 25 years before anything different happens on the Clyde?

The Cumbrae service is one major change that I think should happen soon – not so much the ferry, but the terminal arrangements for cars. Whether that development is at Largs, Fairlie or even Hunterston (on the mainland) will produce many arguments, and a suitable matching facility is needed on Cumbrae. Another Loch Shira-standard of vessel is needed for consistent quality of service. If allowed a magic planning pen with no financial or political restrictions, my ideal solution would be a new ferry terminal at Hunterston with a new railway station at Hunterston High Level, and a battery-operated light train connecting to the ferry terminal via the existing rail infrastructure on the site. I love when trains and ships get close together!

The best point-to-point route you’ve sailed on?

It was on a Newcastle to Bergen holiday that Charles McCrossan took this photo of Stavanger harbour, with the preserved ships Rogaland (nearest) and Gamle Salten

When I sail, I am very keen for opportunities to photograph the shipping scene. I long for the days shown in photographs when ships lined the side of the river from Broomielaw to Clydebank and all the docks in between. Sailing down the Thames or Southampton Water on Waverley, or other vessels, can produce lots of opportunities, but the best point-to-point sailing I’ve experienced is the much missed Newcastle to Bergen ferry sailing which I was fortunate to do several times. Harwich to Tower Bridge on Waverley comes in a close second.

Apart from Millport, which pier would you like to see re-open?

We are regularly told that ferries and trip boats need piers but it is equally true that piers need sailings. The one I’ve missed most is Helensburgh Pier. It gave great flexibility to starting or finishing a Waverley trip with the easy and frequent train access. However, the small ferry link to Kilcreggan and Gourock also provided a fine round trip opportunity – down one bank by train and back up the other. Arrochar would be another contender to provide links to Loch Lomond and Maid of the Loch, or any vessel doing the trip back to Balloch, but all the services need to be there, at any new pier, as a complete package. 

What inspired you to join CRSC?

A work colleague, Russell Darling, took me to my first CRSC meeting (after we had had a high tea in our work canteen).  I think I expressed an interest in his CRSC Calendar by his desk. Russell’s father produced many famous shots of steamers in Rothesay Bay. If he reads this, I wonder if he remembers giving me a row for not breathing through my nose to avoid my breath freezing on the windscreen of his (I think, Vauxhall Viva) car. It was a bitterly cold evening on my first Club meeting.

Would you like to see Zoom meetings become a permanent feature of the Club’s year, even once normal meetings are allowed again?

How trains and ferries should be integrated: Norwegian fjord ferry Gudvangen at Flam, with the railway immediately on the left of the berth – the perfect model for a new Hunterston to Millport service?

I do hope normal meetings will resume sometime. But I don’t just hope, I think it is absolutely essential that Zoom-type meetings become part of the standard syllabus. I would go so far as to say that December, January and February meetings would be better as Zoom meetings to avoid the worst of the winter nights, but I’d be happy to attend more than that. I have missed the social aspects of the meetings but I have thoroughly enjoyed sitting with a coffee and a biscuit, in the comfort of my own home, watching a story or sequence of slides unfold on my screen. I have a much better view than at the back of a long narrow room, with 80 or so folks in front of me, and I don’t have to go back out in the cold at the end of the meeting. Some of the clubs and societies I belong to have provided similar events, and I have visited many places in the UK and all around the world which I wouldn’t have got to otherwise. Zoom is about the only positive thing I can think of that has come out of Covid, and I hope all organisations further develop the concept.

What makes you continue your membership of CRSC?

Worried I might miss something! I enjoy the nostalgia of going on virtual trips and sailings. I really enjoy the images and memories of actual sailings,  particularly around the 1950s and 60s which is when I was mainly doing my ‘observations’. I’m not so interested in the presentation of historical papers or research material, but each to his/her own. I recognise that there are many who do enjoy that aspect of the Club, which some members are very good at. The opportunity to sail together and chat with friends is probably the strongest drive to me continuing my membership. I hope that can be resumed sometime soon.

What could the Club do better?

Digitising the past: one of Charles’s early ship photographs, showing Maid of Argyll in the Millport berth at Wemyss Bay Pier c1966

I first became active in CRSC when I tried to find out more about the archive, and I feel I played a small part in starting to get the Club’s collection of images digitised. This work has continued under the stewardship of a few key members, and the digital image archive has grown significantly year on year, but I still think members could be told more about the ‘Archive’ on perhaps a yearly basis. A Club archive catalogue/inventory would be a useful start as an online reference point. This could be updated at least annually with details of new acquisitions, digital imaging progress report, any new image collections donated to the Club, etc etc.   

I fully support Anne Mitchell’s comment [in a previous ‘On the Spot’] regarding providing digital literature. The Club spends a huge amount on postage each year which is unnecessary when the vast majority of members could receive their Club communications by email. The production costs of Club publications are significant in hard copy. These too could be offered in electronic format. ‘But I want hard copy’ is the cry I’ve heard many times when the subject has been raised in any organisation. Choice is everyone’s right and that should never be denied, but in this day and age there should be ‘a choice’, and a sophisticated club like CRSC should be examining every possible way it can reduce costs, waste and environmental impact. I’m not interested in reducing my subscription, but I would be much happier if unnecessary cost elements were removed and more surplus went towards subsidising what is meant to be our main activity – meeting and sailing together.

All images on the CRSC website are protected by copyright law. Do not reproduce them on Facebook, Pinterest or any other public platform.

The young enthusiast: Charles on the starboard side of the aft deckhouse of Waverley in 1967, during his first runabout season ticket on the Clyde

It was in 1966 — the summer between school and college — that Charles developed an interest in ship photography. Having worked all summer, he had two weeks’ holiday in August before starting college on the first day of September. He bought a Freedom of Scotland ticket to get round the railways, and then had a couple of days’ ‘rest’, sailing on the Clyde. On one of these, 25 August, he captured two transatlantic liners at the Tail of the Bank — including Empress of England, seen here with a luggage puffer alongside (photo taken from PS Caledonia)

The Cunard liner Carinthia at the Tail of the Bank on 25 August 1966

On the Up River Cruise of 14 July 1966, Charles captured a taste of the busy river activity, with the outbound cargo ship Lady Sophia passing between PS Caledonia and the Shell tanker Hemimactra at Bowling

The Burns Laird/Coast Lines fleet at the Broomielaw, with the stern of Royal Ulsterman on the left, Irish Coast in the centre, and Lairdscrest and Brookmount astern

Caledonia enjoys a two-and-a-half-hour rest at Bridge Wharf during her day trip from Largs to the heart of Glasgow on Friday 14 July 1966

The diesel-electric paddle vessel Talisman, Charles’s favourite ‘steamer’, is caught ‘smoking’ in August 1963 on her way past Hunterston en route to Largs, his boyhood home. This photo was taken by the late Jim McCaul, a CRSC past president, whose family recently donated his slide collection to the Club. It is now being digitised, and will be the focus of a ‘members only’ feature on this website in due course

Charles McCrossan, David Robertson and Neil Guthrie on MV Isle of Arran during the CRSC 2012 New Year trip to Brodick and Blackwaterfoot: ‘The opportunity to sail together and chat with friends is probably the strongest drive to me continuing my Club membership. I hope that can be resumed sometime soon.’

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Anne Mitchell

Gavin Stewart

Graeme Phanco

Walter Bowie

Kay Hutchison

Graham Lappin

Jim Stirling

Carrie MacKinnon

Allan Smith

Andrew Anderson

Paul Semple

Lawrence Macduff

and plenty more….

Published on 7 August 2021