Robert Cleary spent five summers as a purser on the Clyde steamers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here he recalls the usefulness of the four ‘Maids’.
This picture of Maid of Argyll in windy conditions off Largs reminds me of the period when I was working as an assistant purser on the ‘Maids’ in the summers of 1968 and 1969. Maid of Argyll was my favourite. She was the original Craigendoran ‘Maid’ and Captain Donald Crawford, her first skipper, was a near neighbour of our family in Dumbarton in the 1950s. Her crew were very friendly. Under Robin Hutchison, her skipper in 1968 and 1969, she was always well turned out.
The weather could be distinctly unsummery then too, and I particularly remember serving aboard her at the September weekend in 1969. On the Sunday morning we had sailed light from Gourock to Largs to commence work on the Largs/Millport ferry runs at 1150. The weather was fairly wild by this time, but there are always hardy souls wanting to reach their destination on the Firth, even in the worst of days. We carried out the 1150 run from Largs and Fairlie to Millport (Old).
We left Millport again at 1345 for Largs and the afternoon cruise to Rothesay and Tighnabruaich. In a heavy swell we attempted to berth along the north corner of Largs pier. The ship was ranging considerably and it was difficult to land passengers safely. In one violent movement of the seas we broke a gangway and had to abandon operations until the wind abated.
There were a few folk willing to risk the discomfort of the sail to Rothesay at 1430 — I suppose there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment in Largs on such a day.
Even in the comparative shelter of the Kyles there was plenty of movement, and in calmer conditions the ‘Maids’ could still be lively sea boats when rounding Toward Point into Rothesay Bay, or Farland Head on the passage into or out of Millport Bay. They would roll quite severely but would always right themselves.
It could be alarming for passengers and we usually advised them to remain seated and avoid moving about the ship; the companionways to the main deck were extremely steep, especially the forward one from the purser’s office.
On that September Sunday I think we might have been the only ship sailing at one point as other vessels sought shelter at their respective piers. We were late at Tighnabruaich but it didn’t matter as no one really wanted to go ashore in the prevailing conditions. I enjoyed the extreme weather. I found it interesting to observe the skill of the skipper controlling the ship and battling against the elements.
The conditions would only have been inconvenient for the pursers if any of the ticket cases had detached themselves from their mountings and all the tickets had become dislodged. I had bitter experience of that on a Cowal Games Saturday on Queen Mary II. It was nothing to do with the weather; it was flat calm but a ticket case had to be brought from the CSP offices at Gourock to the steamer and had fallen, probably due to our young selves fooling around. The purser, Jimmy Montgomery, was not amused and we were told to sort out the mess while we were lying off at Gourock in the traffic lull in the afternoon. So we lost out on our rest period that day. Every ticket which was dislodged had to be accounted for, and all the bundles reassembled in proper numerical order. Luckily this episode was not repeated aboard Maid of Argyll on that stormy Sunday in 1969.
Going back to those wonderful days in the past, I began to muse about the large number of piers the ‘Maids’ called at in passenger service in 1968 and 1969 — Craigendoran, Kilcreggan, Gourock, Dunoon, Blairmore, Arrochar, Wemyss Bay, Innellan, Rothesay, Largs, Fairlie, Keppel, Millport (Old) and Tighnabruaich, plus charter calls at Glasgow (Bridge Wharf) and tender duties to Greenock Princes Pier, with cruises to Loch Long, the Gareloch and Dunagoil Bay on the west side of Bute. In 1970 the ‘Maids’ were to add Tarbert and Ardrishaig to their regular calling points.
In subsequent years, after the closure of Bridge Wharf, charters from the city used Princes Dock — as on Sunday 21st May 1972, when Maid of Skelmorlie was chartered by Queen’s Park Camera Club. She left Princes Dock (pictured below) at 1000 and Gourock 1200 for a cruise via Loch Long and the Holy Loch to Dunoon (arriving at 1315 and departing at 1440), with the cruise continuing via Loch Striven, the Kyles and Loch Riddon before returning to Dunoon at 1815, Gourock at 1835 and Princes Dock at 2035.
This charter demonstrated that, although the ‘Maids’ had been built in 1953 to carry out basic services on the upper Firth, they were just as useful as cruise boats.
It fell to Maid of Skelmorlie to make the last call at Craigendoran on Monday 30th September 1972. She had carried a full load from Rothesay via Wemyss Bay, Innellan, Dunoon and Gourock. As she departed light for Gourock in the darkness there was not even the courtesy of a traditional blast on her horn to mark the last sailing. I watched her sail away and indeed I was sad at heart.
By 1974 three of the four ‘Maids’ had left the Clyde. Maid of Argyll and Maid of Skelmorlie went to Greece and Italy respectively. Maid of Cumbrae, converted into a car ferry in 1972, soldiered on alone until 1978, when she too was sold to the Mediterranean. Of those three only Maid of Skelmorlie (renamed Ala) survives, and is currently laid up at Naples. Maid of Ashton, much modified, has been moored on the Thames embankment as a floating restaurant since 1973, with the name Hispaniola.
Robert Cleary was CRSC president in the 1976-7 and 2004-5 sessions, and publications editor from 1981 to 1991. He is an elected member of the Club’s management committee.