On the Spot: Fraser MacHaffie

Fraser MacHaffie

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?

Fraser MacHaffie (left) as Relief Purser of Waverley on 4 July 1976, US Bicentennial Day, with Cameron Marshall (centre) as Chief Purser

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.

An early edition of Fraser’s Waverley booklet — still going strong

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.

The 1964 booklet which Fraser co-authored with Iain MacArthur and Ian McCrorie opened up a whole new world for enthusiasts young and old. It is still in demand on the internet

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.

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

Fraser MacHaffie (second from right) with a gathering of CRSC ‘royalty’ on Helensburgh Pier on 26 May 1962, when the Club chartered Countess of Breadalbane for a ‘doon the watter’ cruise marking the 150th anniversary of the debut of Comet. The group includes former Review editor George Train (left, with spectacles), Captain Alex Rodger (Honorary President, second from left), Club co-founder George Stromier (fourth from left), Club curator David Morton (centre foreground), Graham Langmuir (behind) and, on either side of Fraser MacHaffie, Willie Fergus and Alastair Fraser

Fraser MacHaffie (right) on the MacBrayne mail boat Lochnevis on 5 April 1969. His sailing companion on the left is the late Geoffrey Grimshaw, a well-known enthusiast of that era

The extraordinary tale of two Clyde paddlers that crossed the Atlantic in the 1860s is told in a paperback published by and available from CRSC

Destination Liverpool: Fraser MacHaffie in purser’s uniform (far right, with a group of Waverley supporters) on the paddler’s ground-breaking first voyage out of Scottish waters on 29 April 1977. Others pictured include Douglas McGowan and George Train (centre, holding fan boards), John Beveridge (crouching) and work party volunteer John Craig (right of centre, in Waverley hat), father of CRSC’s Membership Secretary Stuart Craig

Fraser MacHaffie (second from right) on Waverley on 13 August 2002, with Norman MacGilvray (left), Iain MacArthur (second from left) and Andrew Clark (right). Fraser collaborated with Iain on early editions of the Club magazine Clyde Steamers and has continued writing for it ever since

Barbara and Fraser MacHaffie in the forward lounge of MV Balmoral during a cruise to Lochranza and Campbeltown on 21 September 2017. They make a point of sailing on the Firth whenever they return to Scotland

Fraser’s celebrated portrait of the two turbine ‘Duchesses’ off Gourock was taken on 9 August 1962, when bad weather down-firth had forced the Ayr-based paddler Caledonia (with Fraser on board) to retreat to Gourock. Fraser comments: ‘The photo has an ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ tinge to it, and illustrates the real or imagined rivalry between the ‘Montrose’ and the ‘Hamilton’. It was my experience that at night the ‘Duchesses’ would berth at the ‘wires’ with bows pointing up-river, but here is the ‘Montrose’ (right) showing a better way, with the ‘Hamilton’ (left) mimicking the manoeuvre’

Favourite steamer to work on: PS Caledonia arriving at Rothesay in 1960. Fraser MacHaffie was her assistant purser in the early 1960s. This is one of more than 150 photos from those years that he has donated to the CRSC digital photo archive

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Lawrence Macduff

Paul Semple

Barbara Craig

Charles McCrossan

Andrew Anderson

Anne Mitchell

Gavin Stewart

Graeme Phanco

Walter Bowie

Kay Hutchison

Graham Lappin

Jim Stirling

Carrie MacKinnon

and plenty more….

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Published on 26 August 2021