Fraser MacHaffie is one of the undisputed ‘gods’ in the CRSC firmament. His renown is based principally on his books — Steamers of the Clyde and Western Isles (co-written with Iain MacArthur and Ian McCrorie), The Short Sea Route, his definitive history of sea voyages between Wigtonshire and Northern Ireland, and Scotia and Caledonia, the tale of two 19th century Clyde paddlers that crossed the Atlantic to serve as blockade-runners in the American Civil War. In the late 1970s Fraser also wrote booklets on Jeanie Deans and Waverley, the latter now in its 12th edition, having notched up several thousand copies in support of the Clyde’s last paddle steamer.
His contributions to our knowledge of Clyde and West Highland shipping history have continued in the form of talks at Jurys Inn and many immaculately researched articles in Clyde Steamers.
A CRSC member since 1959, Fraser played a pivotal role in the revival of Club fortunes in the 1960s, serving as Honorary Treasurer before employment took him to London, where he joined the shore staff of The Peninsular & Oriental S.N.Co.
During student days at Glasgow University he spent the summers as assistant purser, mainly on Caledonia sailing out of Ayr. He was also purser of Waverley for parts of 1975, 1976 and 1977. Fraser and his American wife Barbara moved to the United States in 1976. In 2011 he retired from Marietta College in Ohio as Professor of Accounting and Management. Judging by his answers to Stuart Craig’s regular ‘On the Spot’ questions, it is clear that, from his transatlantic perspective, Fraser has maintained a lively interest in all that’s happening in the land of his birth.
What is your earliest memory of sailing on a Clyde Steamer?
It would be Talisman in 1953. I must have been on a paddle steamer previously since I remember my disappointment at not being able to find the engineroom! Same year, we sailed on Maid of Skelmorlie. Compared to the spartan interior of Talisman, I remember the ‘Maid’ as much brighter and fitted with more comfortable seating. There is a photograph of my sister and me on a steamer going to Arran. From the little bit of the ship in the photograph, it must have been Glen Sannox, but I have no recollection of the trip.
What was the most recent sailing you took?
That would in September 2019 on Caledonian Isles to Brodick and, I think, I returned on Isle of Arran.
Holidays: Dunoon, Rothesay or Arran?
Largs was the holiday destination for me from 1951 to 1959, except 1952 when it was Ayr. At a very young age I worked for the summer with a firm of boat hirers at Largs. Since we operated off the shore by the pier, I must have been aware of the steamers coming and going but have little recollection. I remember seeing Marchioness of Graham on the Sunday afternoon cruise and I do remember the first time I saw an ABC ferry. I looked up and she was coming straight at me as she took the sweep into the pier. I was puzzled by the goalposts and the fact that I could see no funnel. From my perspective at the water’s edge, she looked enormous!
What is your favourite steamer?
Am I allowed to reply historically? My favourite to work on was Caledonia. She was a happy ship and, thanks to the miracles worked on his coal stove by ship’s cook Tommy Blyth, we ate well. To sail as a passenger, Duchess of Montrose would be top of the list.
Which was Waverley’s best livery?
Undoubtedly the way she is today.
If young enough, what was your favourite ‘streaker’, or if older, your favourite ‘Maid’?
The only ‘Maid’ I didn’t particularly like was Maid of Cumbrae because of the high-pitched whistle that emanated from her funnel. If I had a favourite it would Maid of Skelmorlie. When I was working on the CSP steamers, Captain Donald McPherson kept her spotless. Everything that could be polished was polished.
Jeanie Deans or Waverley?
When both were still with us in service, I had a preference for Jeanie Deans. This is mainly because in the early 1960s, Waverley was a bit rundown and had left some of her vitality back in the 1950s. The stairway to the after boat deck was home to moss, and scuppers sprouted grass in some areas. Younger people today probably don’t realise that Waverley is now in the best condition she has ever been in.
A new turbine has been built on the Clyde. What would you call her?
That needs some thought. I don’t think Scottish aristocracy cuts much ice today. Do people have any idea who the Duchess of Hamiton is? According to Google, it’s Sophie Rutherford. Doesn’t ring a bell does it! I wonder if even steamer enthusiasts are still reading Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels or are knowledgeable about Roman mythology. For now, I would settle for New Turbinia.
What would you like to see happen on the Clyde ferry scene over the next few years?
I’m probably not going to be popular here and I may be out-of-date. I think the Dunoon-Gourock ferry needs to put out of its misery. It’s an incredible waste of taxpayer money. What does the future hold for Dunoon pier? Is it just being left to rot and fall down bit-by-bit? The unused ferries, the unusable pier, and the unused ramp all add up to a display of profound incompetence and lack of planning.
The best point-to-point route you’ve sailed on?
I suppose point-to-point rules out the Kyles of Bute! Another favourite was the sail into Lochgoil that Waverley made on Fridays in her first few WSN seasons [which she has continued this summer on Tuesday afternoons]. A short trip which I always found enjoyable was sailing on Talisman — or Caledonia when we would occasionally fill in for Talisman on Fridays — from Largs to Wemyss Bay along the Skelmorlie shore. I have to admit I just like being on the water.
Apart from Millport, which pier would you like to see re-open?
Helensburgh is of considerable importance to Waverley and I had hoped it would be included in the rejuvenation of the seafront. Can I add a second choice that may seem odd? I would like to see some form of landing stage at Inveraray that would be usable by cruise ships like Hebridean Princess and larger cruise ships. The village is attractive and of historical interest, not least because of Inveraray Castle which is within walking distance of a possible landing stage site. Inveraray Castle became known outside of Scotland because of its appearance in ‘Downton Abbey’. Whether it would be of interest to Waverley is debatable. The last time I was in Inveraray, the pier was barricaded off and was becoming a very prominent eyesore on the shoreline.
What inspired you to join CRSC?
I can’t remember.
Would you like to see Zoom meetings become a permanent feature of the Club’s year, even once normal meetings are allowed again?
I live thousands of miles from Glasgow, and the Zoom meetings from CRSC and PSPS have been very welcome. I would like to see them continue. I take my hat off to the CRSC volunteers who got Zoom up and running during the pandemic.
What makes you continue your membership of CRSC?
Undoubtedly, the CRSC magazine, Clyde Steamers. The mix of articles is excellent and the quality of writing is superb. I was involved with Iain MacArthur when the magazine started [in 1965] and I appreciate how labour intensive it is. I don’t know how Andrew Clark keeps it going at such a level. The annual Review is another reason to stay with CRSC. Its reliability makes it valuable. But it must be a challenge keeping up with the activities.
What could the Club do better?
Does the Club have an organised archive? I never see references to it. I’m at an age when down-sizing is the name of the game, but I’m disinclined to pass material to the CRSC if it’s not wanted and used but will languish in someone’s attic. Storing, cataloguing and making an archive accessible is not the most exciting work. The Club is now of a stature that folk should be able to have access to an organised archive. I realise that’s easy for me to say, since I wouldn’t be the person doing the work, but I pass my opinion along.
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Published on 26 August 2021