Thursday, 22 September 2011

James Buchanan of Govancroft, potter and yachtsman

An enthusiastic supporter of the Scottish Islanders was James Buchanan, the owner of the Govancroft Pottery, which he founded in 1911. It was situated at 1855 London Road in the extreme East End of Glasgow.

He was born in June 1889, so was only twenty one when he set up the pottery. I am reasonably certain that his parents were Duncan Buchanan, a builder from Kilmichael Glassary in Argyll, and his wife Lilias. The 1911 Census has the family living in a substantial house at 199 Onslow Drive in the East End and James is described as a wright and builder, working for his father and his place of birth is given as Largs.

In the early days the pottery made nothing but utilitarian stonewares with a Bristol glaze and in 1922 was described by one rival firm as having almost cornered the market in jam jars. During the 1920s there were vicious trade wars among the Glasgow potteries. J & R Tennent the brewers had established the Possil Pottery to produce bottles for their beer, mainly for the Chilean export market, but that market collapsed and thereafter there was serious over-capacity, with the result that the potteries were often selling their wares more or less at cost. The General Strike and the Coal Strike of 1926 caused severe retraction in the industry with many companies going out of business and by 1929 there were only three significant Scottish potteries left, Possil, Buchans of Portobello and Govancroft, with the third doing best.

No doubt as a relief from the commercial stresses James Buchanan found the time to take up sailing and acquired the six-metre Sunshine, built by Fife in 1926. He then commissioned Alfred Mylne's Bute Slip Dock to build him an Islander and Iona was launched at the start of the 1931 season.

As is well known, even in a one-design class people get the impression that there are differences in boat speed. We saw this in my post about Herbert Thom, who sold his new boat Gigha and acquired the older Westra to prove a point. James Buchanan went the other way. In 1931 he managed just one win out of six places, while William Russell's Sanda ran Herbert Thom's Gigha a close second. Something similar happened in 1932 with Sanda again second  to Gigha and Buchanan managing two wins out of nine places and again in 1933 when Buchanan's total went up to three wins out of eleven places. When at the end of 1933 William Russell put Sanda up for sale James Buchanan immediately bought her.

1934 was Herbert Thom's first year with Westra and unsurprisingly he became class champion in her. Sanda was again runner-up, but under her new owner's flag. In 1935 the same thing happened, Sanda getting four wins out of twenty three places. By then Mrs Bergius was on the scene with Jura and was to provide very stiff competition, actually winning seven times but losing out on total places. Again in 1936 the winning order was Westra, followed by Sanda with Jura close behind. By 1937 Herbert Thom had moved into six-metres and the Glasgow Herald reported:-


Mrs W M Bergius's Jura, sailed by the youngest crew on the Clyde, is the champion in the Scottish Islands class. The members of the crew are Messrs Walter and Cecil Bergius and Miss Margie Bergius, sons and daughter of the owner. With her total of 29 flags Jura shares the distinction with Froya of having won the largest number of prizes during the season. As was the case last year, Mr James Buchanan is the runner up with Sanda. Mr R K Sharps' Bernera and Mr A R Keith Thomson's Fidra have had the most successful season of their careers, with 24 and 20 flags respectively to their credit."

And here is an extract from the Glasgow Herald's review of 1938:-

"The Scottish Islanders as usual provided keen and interesting racing. Mrs W M Bergius's Jura again tops the class, but this year only by a very small margin from Mr James Buchanan's Sanda, which had 4 wins more than Jura, but 4 fewer flags. Mr R K Sharp's Bernera is again in third place, close to the two leaders and well ahead of the other Islanders."

Finally in 1939 James Buchanan got his reward and became champion with fifteen firsts out of twenty seven places, followed closely by Mrs Bergius. By this time he was living at Ferness in Largs and Uffa Fox recorded that he was a member of the Royal Northern, the Royal Clyde, the Royal Largs, the Royal Western etcetera. (I don't know if the etcetera was added by Uffa Fox to save space or if James Buchanan had forgotten which other clubs he belonged to, or felt them too unimportant to mention. There's nothing like taking your sport seriously!)
Racing then stopped for the War and in fact the rose bowl donated to the Class by William Bergius remained with the Buchanan family from 1939 until 2004, when they returned it to me as the class secretary. We had the idea that the surviving boats should compete for it in that, their seventy fifth year, during West Highland Week, but in the event only three boats turned up and we thought it more appropriate to return the bowl to Adam Bergius. The image at the head of this post, taken by the professional photographer Tim Wright, shows the three contenders no 4 Stroma, no 3 Bernera and no 12 Shona.

In 1946 racing resumed and Adam Bergius recalls that  
"from then on after the Saturday race Jura would be off down the Firth with her crew and out of this came the islander’s annual race to Colintraive, with first prize an oil painting of the winner by the accomplished painter James Buchanan of Sanda. Second prize was a 40oz decanter of whisky to be returned empty! I still cherish James’ painting of Jura bowling down the Holy Loch on an evening race with straining spinnaker and crew in their red sock caps. These were jolly occasions when  most  competitors slept in Colin Rae’s hotel but the Juras had to slum it aboard."

Before 1946, Govancroft's wares are the most ordinary of commercial and domestic stonewares. But from then on the range was massively expanded.  Ordinary stoneware, particularly for the kitchen, continued to be made but a series of bowls, pitchers and baskets was designed, often with dabbed colour under an opalescent glaze. It was as if, having seen his pottery from its foundation through the difficult pre-War years, James Buchanan now felt he could indulge his artistic abilities. Through the fifties and sixties the pottery would continue to innovate, producing ranges of decorative items for the tourist trade and some highly successful decorative flagons for the whisky industry, including coincidentally for the distillers Buchanans. I believe that the pottery eventually became so successful with this line that it was taken over, sometime possibly in the early 1960s.
Govancroft Teaset

Meantime James Buchanan continued to race Sanda until the end of 1949, when he sold her to Robert K Sharp, the long-time owner of Bernera. This was the second time Mr Sharp had sold his boat and immediately regretted it; the first time he had been able to buy her back.

Of James Buchanan's boats it seems that Iona no longer exists. There was a rumour that she was destroyed deliberately around 1980, for what reason and precisely how we do not know. Some reports are that she was towed out past Hunterston and scuttled, others that she was broken up on shore. It's unlikely that anyone would have sunk nearly two tons of precious lead. I would dearly like to know anything further about her. Apart from Westra she is the only missing boat.

Sanda was found in Mallaig a few years ago and has been acquired by Huw Jones, who recently informed me that he is looking for someone to take her on.
Start of the Tarbert Race at Hunters Quay
This image, from a photograph by Ian G Gilchrist, shows Sanda  just ahead of Dragon no UK 26. This Dragon, Argee, was built by Robertsons in 1937 for Miss Sheila Leitch, so we can approximately date the photo. (I suspect she may have been a member of the famous Tarbert sailmaker's family.)

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water