Eric Schofield recalls a winter when days were lit up by a fascinating array of unexpected excursion opportunities.
Winter months are when active opportunities to follow our passion for all things steamer/ferry-related are limited. This is the time of year when daylight hours are reduced, services cut back and travel is made more difficult by inclement weather.
This has always been the case, but some years seem to provide greater scope for generating interest. The 1967-68 winter stands out in my memory for its wide range of opportunities.
That active and diverse winter began for me on the last Saturday of October, when I boarded Countess of Breadalbane at Gourock for the 1400 sailing via Kilcreggan and Blairmore to Kilmun, with the sludge boat Dalmarnock returning upriver as we and the Dunoon bound car-ferry Arran were about to depart. This regular service run saw arrival at Kilmun at 1450, allowing ample time for a good walk ashore before the return sailing at 1550: what a pleasant way to spend a bright off-season afternoon to a pier that only a year earlier had been under severe threat of closure.
Back in the 1960s the excursion steamers were laid up in dock for the winter, and with the Albert Harbour at Greenock having been closed for infilling to allow the Greenock Container Terminal development, a new winter berth for the steamers had to be found. Queen’s Dock in Glasgow was the chosen venue, with King George V being the first to arrive, and on a visit on Saturday 25 November I spotted her in splendid isolation at the top corner of the North Basin, with only MacBrayne’s cargo boat Lochbroom a distant neighbour, having a working berth on the opposite side of the Basin near the dock entrance.
In contrast, the South Basin was home for Waverley, Queen Mary II, Caledonia and Duchess of Hamilton, two pairs of CSP steamers double berthed in an altogether more crowded dock.
Bizarrely, the next event that would encourage me to get out and about was the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, initially in Wales, later spreading through much of England. To prevent the disease reaching the Scottish islands, disinfectant-treated straw was laid on the mainland piers, over which vehicles had to drive aboard the ferries, and on mats at the gangways for foot passengers. I judged it sufficiently noteworthy to get a picture or two of the steps taken, and so made my way to Oban on Thursday 14 December for a return sailing on Columba to Craignure and Lochaline. This was the only day I could manage and regrettably it proved to be rather dull and at times quite wet. I had expected to see straw and mats on Craignure Pier as extra protective measures, but as can be seen in the picture taken from Columba, this was not the case.
On my next outing, a couple of days later, I made a return visit to Queen’s Dock to view again King George V on another splendid winter’s day. This was followed by time spent watching tugboats in the river, Warrior setting up the tow of a Blue Star cargo liner about to leave for undoubtedly warmer climes. I then took a trip across the Clyde on one of the Clyde Port ferries, giving me the opportunity to catch a rather pleasing view of Royal Ulsterman at Lancefield Quay, it being generally known by then that she was getting close to the end of her Burns Laird career.
A fortnight later, on Saturday 30 December, I paid a visit to Ardrossan for an ‘Open Day’ viewing of Burns Laird’s new vessel, the car ferry Lion, prior to the commencement of her service on the daylight Ardrossan-Belfast route on 3 January 1968. The following day my chance came to sample one of the two advertised Sunday Wemyss Bay/Largs/Millport links by one of the two ‘Maid’ class vessels on winter duty, on this occasion Maid of Skelmorlie.
The new schedule had the ‘Maid’ sailing from Wemyss Bay via Innellan to Rothesay, then returning direct to Wemyss Bay, before sailing from there at 1230 to Largs and Millport, arriving 1325. Leaving Millport at 1555, the ‘Skelmorlie’ returned to Largs, Wemyss Bay, Rothesay, thence via Innellan back to Wemyss Bay, arriving 1815.
There may have been nothing out-of-the-ordinary about the trip or the piers visited, but it was a most interesting day out, and a break from the traditional winter Sunday Gourock-via-Rothesay-and-Largs route to Cumbrae.
Having rested the next day (nothing to do with recovering from Hogmanay celebrations, I can assure you), I finished off this busy festive period with a traditional MacBrayne outing onboard Lochfyne via the Kyles of Bute to Tarbert, but even here on this occasion there was an enticing bonus.
Following a major breakdown towards the end of November, the regular Islay mailboat Lochiel had been dry-docked for repairs, and this took Lochnevis out to the Islay service for the rest of the year (she was in fact there until mid February).
After arriving in good time at Tarbert on Lochfyne I took the opportunity of a trip by MacBrayne bus over to the West Loch to picture Lochnevis at the pier.
The west coast was then hit by a severe hurricane on 14/15 January, causing considerable damage to Clyde and West Highland vessels and infrastructure, and this provided me with another unusual opportunity.
In mid February I headed north to Oban for the rare opportunity of a trip on Loch Eynort, pressed into service between Oban and Lismore due to the sinking during the January storm of the regular Lismore boat, Loch Toscaig.
Alighting from the train at Oban I had my first sighting of the elusive Loch Eynort, interestingly berthed at the South Pier, with the Lighthouse tender Fingal behind.
Turning the other way I found a sight which presented me with a conundrum, for beyond Claymore lay Clansman on overhaul relief: do I sail to Lismore on Loch Eynort as planned or, almost as unusual, to Craignure and Lochaline on Clansman?
Loch Eynort won, being the rarer opportunity, and a landing at Achnacroish Pier on Lismore duly followed. But as a wee bonus, back at Oban Clansman had chosen to berth at the North Pier facing south, giving this fascinating winter period a final out-of-the-ordinary twist.
Now, if only the long winter months these days had a feast of interest like that!
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