Jim Stirling is a non-executive director of David MacBrayne Ltd and CalMac Ferries Ltd. A former student Purser on the Clyde steamers, he joined CRSC as a teenager and is now a member of the Club’s organising committee. Stuart Craig recently put Jim ‘on the spot’ about his love of the Clyde.
A chartered engineer, Jim Stirling has held a series of top jobs in engineering and construction, latterly focusing on Britain’s waterways. Between 1992 and 2006 he led British Waterways in Scotland, building partnerships to safeguard the canals. This culminated in the reopening of the Lowland Canals and the creation of the Falkirk Wheel. He then played a pivotal role in the formation of the Canal & River Trust, which took over responsibility for the waterway network in England and Wales in 2012. Shortly afterwards Jim retired from full-time employment.
What is your earliest memory of sailing on a Clyde Steamer?
I clearly remember sailing down the River Cart from Paisley Harbour on Maid of Argyll on a CRSC charter in 1966. I also remember sailing to Ardrishaig on MacBrayne’s Lochfyne on Grand National day in 1967. These are not particularly early memories. I have a vague recollection of a trip to Ardrishaig on PS Caledonia which I presume was a CRSC charter, but I don’t remember the year and I might be mistaken! Like many, I have distant memories of ‘seeing the engines’ on a Clyde paddle steamer. Or watching the comings and goings at Largs while on a trip to the coast.
What was the last sailing you took?
I was on Western Ferries just before the lockdown, but before that I went to Mull and Iona as chair of the CalMac board’s safety committee, so I got to do the sailings in the wheelhouse. We sailed into Bull Hole as we wanted to get the skipper’s eye view.
Holidays: Dunoon, Rothesay or Arran?
Arran. We had family holidays on Arran every August from the early 1960s. First in Lamlash, then Brodick. Initially we went for the second fortnight, then the whole month of August. As with many families, Dad would be there for the first week and the last week, together with the middle weekend. He would commute on the Monday morning ‘death boat’ from Brodick. The boat would arrive at Brodick on Sunday evening ready for an early start on the Monday for passengers only. Often it was PS Caledonia or Waverley, but it could be others. Each year we would usually spend a Wednesday afternoon on the paddler Caledonia from Brodick to Pladda. I also seem to remember a Friday trip on Duchess of Hamilton to Ayr from Brodick.
What is your favourite steamer?
Duchess of Hamilton. I always thought she looked great and had a good turn of speed. In the summer of 1967, the last year I was entitled to half-fare on the railway, I bought an 8-day runabout ticket from Paisley for Caledonian Steam Packet Company vessels. I saved up and bought the ticket, and my Mum gave me money each day for meals and for a lounge seat! In those days the ‘Hamilton’ and others had wicker chairs in the forward saloon which could be booked at the Purser’s Office. So each day I would buy a saloon seat together with a lunch and a high tea in the dining saloon. The lunches were usually quite busy, but often the dining room was virtually empty for tea. I spent all eight days on Duchess of Hamilton. I had planned to go on other steamers, but the crew on the ‘Hamilton’ adopted me and persuaded me to return each day.
If we include all CSP or Caledonian MacBrayne vessels then I have another two! I grew very fond of the 1957 Glen Sannox both as a visitor to Arran and as a Junior Purser working on her. She had good passenger and car capacity and a friendly crew. I worked on her on the Wemyss Bay/Rothesay run when her hoist was past its best and causing delays. I also worked on her on the Arran run before the purchase of MV Caledonia.
Of current CalMac vessels, my favourites are Clansman and Hebrides, because they are such workhorses with good seakeeping and enough power to keep going when it is pretty blowy at the piers. Clansman is known on Tiree as ‘the mighty one’, due to her ability to keep serving when conditions are pretty poor.
Which was Waverley’s best livery?
I have to confess up front that I was a fan of the ex-LMS Caledonia and not really too familiar with the Craigendoran paddlers. I like Waverley in her NB colours, but I think she also looked good in her CSP colours, with no red lions.
What was your favourite ‘Maid’?
I liked the ‘Maids’ as workmanlike passenger boats. My favourite has to be Maid of Skelmorlie. I was a summer Assistant then Junior Purser on the Clyde from 1969 until 1973 or 74. My first season saw me allocated to No. 4 Roster, which was the Millport ‘Maid’.
The ‘Maids’ rotated on a weekly basis so I sailed on them all that summer. Only two crew members did not rotate – the Assistant Purser and the Luggage Man. The Luggage Man, Robert Hill, lived in Millport. My wage was £4 and a shilling for a five day week. Assistant Pursers got every fourth Sunday to boost their wage! 1969 was the first year of the Scottish Transport Group running the Clyde fleet, taking over from railway ownership. I therefore did not get Privilege Tickets for the train. My train fares reduced my take home pay to 11 shillings, I used to sleep onboard at Millport each night, often in a sleeping bag in the bar. Sometimes I would be lucky enough to get a bunk if one of the crew was ashore. In those days the generators were switched off at night and the boats were in total darkness. The bar was below the water line and pretty black!
Maid of Skelmorlie was my favourite because of the crew. She was a very jovial , happy ship. The regular Purser was Willie Muir, known as scrubber on account of his crew cut. The regular skipper was Hugh Campbell, known as the ‘Duke of Argyll’. I am not inferring that the crews on other ‘Maids’ were not good crews — of course they were — but the ‘Skelmorlie’ was special in my experience.
Jeanie Deans or Waverley?
Don’t really have a preference – see my earlier comment about Craigendoran. I did work on Waverley for maybe about a week. I remember the condensation running down the steel hull inside the cabin. My grandfather was a locomotive driver for the Glasgow & South Western Railway and later the LMS, so as a family we had an affinity for LMS vessels, not LNER.
A new turbine has been built on the Clyde. What would you call her?
Given my other answers, the answer is pretty obvious — Duchess of Hamilton.
What would you like to see happen on the Clyde ferry scene over the next few years?
As a board member of CalMac, I would like to see spare capacity and a reduction in the age of the fleet. Greater resilience if you like. As an enthusiast and resident of the west of Scotland, I would love to see a revival of the Cowal and island communities. Dunoon and its neighbours are pretty sad these days. Such a revival could lead to a return to passenger-only vessels providing commuter services each day and easy connections. Of course, that would require some piers to be reopened. I am not holding my breath!
The best point-to-point route you’ve sailed on?
On the Clyde, I would say Ardrossan-Brodick. I have many happy memories of going on holiday or visiting Arran. It was a good run to work on as a Purser, because it was only really busy going to Arran and a lot less work on the return!
Apart from Millport, which pier would you like to see re-open?
This is a difficult one. I would love to see Gourock much more the kind of pier it used to be, but that is pure nostalgia. Again, nostalgia would say Fairlie to give resilience to the Arran run, but it would also require a new train station – so not realistic. Possibly Arrochar to reinstate the Three Lochs cruise.
What inspired you to join CRSC?
My Dad was a member when I was younger and we sailed on CRSC charters in the 1960s and 1970s. I have already mentioned my 8-day runabout ticket when I was 14, so I was keen on the steamers. That’s why I worked as a summer Assistant/Junior Purser for five or six seasons.
If CRSC had loads of money in the bank, what would you spend it on?
Currently, of course, we have two steamers looking for support – Maid of the Loch and Waverley. Laying that aside, because we are probably not talking such large sums in the bank, I would probably say more Club charters, or possibly some premises to mount a permanent exhibition and window to attract more enthusiasts.
What makes you continue your membership of CRSC?
To continue to meet like-minded individuals, old friends and to keep alive the memory of the halcyon days of the Clyde steamers. As simple as that!
What could the Club do better?
This is again a difficult question. The core of the Club is a winter programme of meetings combined with, hopefully, regular and interesting charters. Taking the last first, it cannot be easy to organise charters as there are not readily available vessels. So the next best thing is what the Club already does, which is to organise gatherings on normal timetabled sailings. Perhaps we could do this more frequently? As far as the winter programme is concerned, I find it interesting and stimulating. It must be becoming more difficult to come up with a new programme each year. I know we have been including speakers and topics from further afield, and would suggest we need to keep doing this to maintain some novelty.
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Published on 27 May 2020