Friday, 13 November 2020

The Fyfes of Bute


On the front at Rothesay in June 2003 during the Fife Regatta I made the acquaintance of a delightful and well-informed lady, who turned out to be Miss Jean M Fife, perhaps the last surviving member of the Bute Fyfe family still in Scotland. I arranged to keep in touch with her and she later supplied me with much more information, with permission to publish it as I saw fit.
While she was doing this I researched the old Census records in order to trace the family and their connections with the other Fifes on the mainland, not helped by their habit of changing the spelling of their surname from time to time. There was also a Scottish tradition of favouring just one or two first names, in this case John and William, also of reusing names for later children after earlier ones had died, which doesn't help the researcher.
What follows is based on Miss Fife’s work in local libraries, conversations with local residents and so on, but not least her own memories of her family and a lifetime of holidays on Bute, plus my own efforts on Scotlands People
The starting point for any Fife research is always "Fast and Bonnie", May Fife McCallum’s masterwork. She records that a John Fyfe was born in Kilbirnie in 1743 and moved to the Earl of Glasgow's Kelburn Estate to work as a wright in 1770. He and his wife Janet, nee Fyfe and probably a cousin, had at least six children of whom four sons, John, James, William and Allan followed their father's trade, William becoming the famous William Fife I. She goes on to record:-
"It appears that John Fyfe Junior, the eldest son of John the wright on Kelburn estate was building fishing boats at the beginning of the 19th century. Old customs records list fishing boats built by him at Fairlie and registered at Irvine, the local port of registration at that time. As a youth William Fife, born in 1785, may have been attracted to his older brother John's business, and thus began his introduction to boat building."
Later, relevant to our story, she narrates:-
"A cousin [of William Fife I] John, who was a carpenter in Ardrossan, and his wife, both died about the same time, and an uncle in Ardrossan took care of their three sons. Apparently these orphaned boys were not happy in this household and walked from Ardrossan to Fairlie, a distance of about ten miles, to throw themselves on the mercy of their father's cousin. He took them under his wing and employed them as apprentices. On completion of their apprenticeship they crossed to the island of Bute where they set up a successful boat building business at Ardmaleish."
Nothing more is said of this carpenter cousin John and I was intrigued to confirm that he was indeed the father of the three orphans, whose names I already knew, courtesy of Miss Fife, were John, James and Thomas. I discovered from the 1841 Census for Ardrossan, the following:

This John is almost certainly the father, but we can see that he was an established shipbuilder, not simply a carpenter. A further search showed that he died from jaundice on 14 May 1848. I couldn't find his wife's date of death and it seems the youngest, Daniel, died in childhood. Note that John's brother James is living in the house, so he is “the uncle in Ardrossan”.
A look at the 1851 Census, confirms that they’re still in Ardrossan, John a ship carpenter lodging at number 5 Harbour Street and James with his uncle James next door, still an apprentice. I haven't managed to trace younger brother Thomas, but it’s likely he was also lodging nearby.

This seems to confirm that far from being helpless young orphans the brothers were useful, fully or at least partly trained ship carpenters by the time they moved back to their place of birth in Fairlie, sometime after 1851, and joined the workforce of William Fife I. Nor did they stay there long, for by 1856 a large wooden building had gone up on the shore at Rothesay, the Red Shed, probably not actually red in colour but named for the red rocks on which it stood. See Alexander Wilson's depiction of it:

It seems that there were two James Fyfes building boats in Rothesay in the mid 1850s, described as Senior and Junior, but with only half a generation between them. This suggests that Uncle James (born about 1816) had moved from Ardrossan and nephews James (born 1832), John (born 1833) and Thomas (born 1838) had crossed from Fairlie to join him.
These Bute Fyfes were an industrious bunch and built almost anything that could float, apart from yachts. In his "History of Rothesay and its People" Dr Lawson records:-
"The Red Shed was below the level of the road. What is now the [New Rothesay, later St John's] manse garden was the ground on which the larger keels were laid of smacks of a goodly size. Smacks, fishing skiffs and rowing boats (also small boats with round sterns and one sail) were the craft built by Messrs Fyfe. There would be a number of new boats lined up on the ground on the margin of the roadway extending to the ladies' bathing place (now Isle of Bute Sailing Club). Behind the ladies' and gents' bathing places (the old bathing station) the land was lower than the roadway. This depression was used in winter time for the laying up and storing of small rowing boats."
On 13 June 1857 The Buteman announced:-
"On Wednesday last there was launched form the boat-building yard of Messrs. Fyfe a beautiful craft of the gigger rig, c. 20 tons, property of Mr Thorburn, Farmer, Isle of Muck. She was named "The Islander's Bride" by Miss Richmond, daughter of Mr Richmond, Temperance Hotel-keeper, Rothesay and is intended to carry produce of the isle of Muck to Tobermory, the nearest market port in that district, the owner being the lessee of that isle. She has a very faviurable appearance and, considering the cost she is built for, promises to be a swift sailing craft and a credit to her young and enterprising builders."
This would have been one of the first larger vessels built by the family, but they went on to greater things. In April 1858 the Buteman again:-
"Launch! On Tuesday afternoon there was launched form the building yard of Messrs Fyfe a sloop of c. 70 tons burden, the property of Mr Kelso of Arran. The vessel was name "Catherine Kelso." The launch was conducted with systematic accuracy and the vessel glided down the ways gracefully. We hope soon again to witness the launch of as large, if not larger craft form the same yard."
By 1861 the Census described James as a Master Ship carpenter, John as a ship carpenter and Thomas as a mere journeyman. One can see that they all knew their station.
With the coming of the railways and the Clyde steamers Rothesay entered its heighday as a holiday destination for all classes of society. Wealthier families could afford to build or rent villas along the front, while more ordinary ones went into lodgings for the annual Glasgow Fair. There was terrific business for boat hirers well into the Twentieth century, in fact right up to the arrival of cheap package holidays in the 1960s.
After many years the road along the front at Rothesay was improved and the Red Shed was taken down. The Fyfes moved round to Ardmaleish, where they established their second yard on the site where there now stands a sea-food factory. Thomas (Miss Fife's great-grandfather) didn't join his brothers. Instead he concentrated on building rowing skiffs and in the 1881 Census is described as "boat-builder/hirer (17 boats)."
The remaining Fyfes eventually concentrated on building fishing skiffs and three of James Fyfe's sons were working at Ardmaleish until the 1930s, by which time the boats were getting much bigger and designs were changing fast. Two of John Fyfe's sons were trained there, but George was drowned aged twenty in 1898 and John emigrated to Canada in 1906. Most of Miss Fyfe's surviving relatives are now in Canada and the United States.

People reached

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Highland Cowes


I have to share an utterly remarkable book that I have just received from Amazon. Being a sucker for all kinds of material on sailing and marine heritage it looked like something I had to have for my library, but can see now that it’s much more than that.
At 800 pages, including countless footnotes and references, it’s a massive contribution to the social history of the West of Scotland as well as a record of Scottish boat designing, building and sailing over the last two hundred years, with dives into earlier periods to give context. I don’t think it’s a book you would start reading at page one; the table of contents is so enticing that I had to dive into episodes that appealed and then found myself reading anecdotes almost at random. I’ll probably return later for a second, more conventional read.
I particularly enjoyed the detailed history of the early Scottish Navy. For years I’ve tried unsuccessfully to inform myself about the Great Michael and it looks as if everything we can know about this terrifying behemoth is here. There are tales of Clyde paddle steamers galore and a fascinating history of the Coats and Clark families and their incredible fleets of steam yachts and fast little racers.
It was also nice to see that this blog was mentioned a few times, with proper acknowledgment of the source, something that in my experience often doesn’t happen.
Euan Ross is to be congratulated on his massive effort, a wonderful, entertaining read, written in a fast moving, captivating style.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Happy Holidays on the Costa Clyde

MacAllisters yard in the 1970s was a cheerful place to spend winter weekends. It was run by two men, I think brothers-in-law, Mr Buck and Mr Kinnear. It was rumoured that the family fortune had been made from manufacturing carbon paper and when photocopiers came along they had decided that the next growth industry was running boatyards.

The yard was a sort of retreat for the various dreamers and escapists who inhabited the boating scene of those days and the two functioned as wardens. Discipline was maintained through the mechanism of Johnnie Buck’s Fourteen Day Clause, which nobody had ever read; the mere mention of it was enough, as most of the craft couldn’t have been shifted in a fortnight even if one could have found another home.

The sheds contained a remarkable collection of yachts in various levels of disrepair, probably about half of which went to sea each summer. A few, such as the wonderful Solway Maid, seemed to have been there for decades, I think because Mrs Carr, the widow of the original owner, couldn’t bring herself to part from her.

George Wolfe was one owner who did go to sea each year, in a lovely big motor cruiser, the Whigmaleerie, possibly a Laurent Giles design or a Fred Parker Fleur de Lys, but it pained him greatly to do so. Each winter every varnished surface was taken back to bare wood and redone, only to be subjected to salt spray and ultra violet all summer.

Young Alfred, Freddie Mylne, kept his Hillyard the Hillary there. He was very kind to me and gave me bits of gear when he found I was working on Stroma, his uncle’s design from 1929, in the adjoining shed.

John and Billy Gardner were present each weekend to work on the Unity, thirsty work that invariably took them to the end of Woodyard Road, where we discussed Rippingille Stoves and other niceties from the Riddle of the Sands. Sadly that nice wee hostelry, like the Gardners themselves and many of the others I write about, isn't there any more.

The doyenne was Mrs Keppie, a wonderful old solo sailor, who was privileged to be allowed a caravan in a corner of the yard, and kept a little cruising yacht in perfect condition.

Latterly the yard was managed by George Hulley, who has also died, just at the end of last year. He ran a chandlery business and had the sole agency for the epoxy glue that many of us were using. He refused to stock the slow hardener, because he claimed Scotland was too cold. When you used the fast stuff in hot weather it could go off in minutes with lots of waste, which perhaps helped sales.

George was best known for his involvement with the Ardens, and that’s a good topic to end this essay.

Here is an advert from the Glasgow Herald of 25 May 1960:

“Holiday Afloat for £30

The first motor charter cruiser service on the Clyde has been established at Helensburgh and on Sunday the eight ton cruiser Morning Sky is due to leave with the first party of six persons on a week’s cruise on the Firth of Clyde.

The prototype motor cruiser was specially designed for hire work by the Glasgow naval architects Alfred Mylne & Co for the Arden Yacht Company, a new venture by two Glasgow business men John McNiven and Donald Crockett.

The second boat is due to be launched by the end of the month. Chartering from Sunday to Saturday costs £30, and such has been the demand that the first boat is booked until mid September.

The boat was designed to keep down the price both of construction and chartering, so that a high class yacht finish was not contemplated.

Morning Sky is 28 foot 8 inches overall with a beam of 8ft 6in and a shallow draft of 2ft 6in. The air-cooled diesel engine of 13hp, driving a four bladed 18 inch propeller through a 2 to 1 reduction gear, gives a speed of seven knots and a cruising range of 150 miles.

There are berths for six persons, more than 6 ft headroom in the cabin, and the boat is chartered fully fuelled and watered and complete with cooking stove and utensils, crockery cutlery and bedding. The firm will even put groceries on board if they are ordered in advance.

The cruisers will be covered by insurance and for third party risks up to £25,000. Their cruising range has been limited to the Clyde above a line drawn West through the Little Cumbrae and the North of Arran, which leaves plenty of water to explore.

The boat’s outfit includes the sailing directions of the Clyde Cruising Club, a set of charts with suitable anchorages marked, anchor, chain, warps, fenders and a ten foot dinghy."

Thus was introduced Scotland’s first charter business, set up by two enterprising Glasgow businessmen and boating enthusiasts in premises in East King Street, Helensburgh. To build the boats they recruited the young George, a time-served boat builder who had been building Air-Sea Rescue craft in the RAF.

Years ago, John McNiven’s son Renwick sent me some nice memories of the early years of the business and a picture of the first of the “Skye Class” boats.

It would be interesting to know if either of the two survives. John wrote:

“Charter operations started up from an abandoned wooden pier near the head of Loch Long, however it turned out to be abandoned for a reason and the council promptly condemned it and put up the barbed wire fencing shortly before the charter boats were due to return.

One of the first charter parties turned up with a sea-going trunk fit for a passenger liner, this being too big to go in the cabin was left on the cockpit sole for the duration of the charter. However after this start the party phoned later to say that they were in ‘A-roach-er’ and after some language translation it was ‘Arrocher’ at the head of Loch Long, turns out that the point of the call was to say they needed a new anchor. The 30 fathoms of chain and anchor had gone runaway over the side in too much water depth in Loch Long breaking the securing strop.”

The motor cruisers were followed from 1963 by the very neat little Arden Fours,

“the concept being a ‘Folkboat with headroom’, sketched during a meal using napkins!”

Thirteen were built in wood, then another fifty five hulls were built in fibreglass in England and shipped to Helensburgh to be finished. A final two, to a slightly different design, were built in 1971/2.

"The journey along Helensburgh’s promenade always had a large following, but then the tractor could only pull at a walking pace of 4 mph!"

Lots of Arden 4s survive and do good service as tough, seaworthy little ships with no great pretensions. One of them, built as Dirlie for the Crockett family has arrived in Kilmelford.

Post script: I found online the following quote, which could be a transcript of our chatter in that wee pub at the end of Woodyard Road, as it makes as much sense.

"Dumbarton is never fun.
Fine, young man, it was fast… I found an old buy boat chin, and it has a photo of yore Ardennes forest zone tribe, she is generic can not see the keel - This is the same design? …the yore Ardennes forest zone 4 would have been to add wood and then later in the GRP…. im not sure if the george hulley is designer when time i being chatted designer he mentioned a certain extent, he suggested it was not his. He also told me that some arden 4s augmented england south.- georges hulley in the dunbarton in operating a candle maker enterprise.
In Hulley Dumbarton Now, I may be disturbed."

Monday, 18 May 2020

The Song of the Shieldhall

The Song of the Shieldhall
Glasgow Corporation had two fine ships taking sewage sludge from the population, then of a million or so, down the river. All of our major cities commissioned similar vessels, which operated until such an activity ceased to be permissible. The Captains of the Shieldhall and the Dalmarnock had to endure daily signals from passing ships along the lines of "Where are you bound? What is your cargo?" in the days before the city ceased to be a great port.
The trips were a great boon for the pensioners of the city, who could get a free trip, a cup of tea and dancing to live music. Many a geriatric romance must have started on board, especially for those without a sense of smell.
Many years ago the Brother and I went to the Deep South on a last visit to our Auntie, who was having her hundredth birthday. We came across the Shieldhall trying to earn her living as an excursion boat on the Solent, a nice legacy from my native city. I resolved to do something for her, not sending money of course but providing her with a shanty, the royalties from which could perhaps secure her future.
From this project I have learned about the difficulties faced by the budding songwriter/singer. You don't just write the thing and sit back to await fame. Writing it was the easiest part, certainly a lot easier than persuading my musical wife Anne to provide a tune.
A group of local women were in the habit of singing in a cowshed on Thursday evenings, but by the time I approached them they had disbanded. Months went by without the song being heard, delaying the anticipated revenue stream endlessly.
The world premiere eventually took place at that centre of the universe, Toberonochy. The song was duly performed by a male voice choir, Charlie, Ken, Bill, John and self, before an invited audience to ecstatic applause. Sadly the event wasn't recorded as Richard, who had the camera, had fallen asleep.
I tried again years later, giving live solo renderings at the Cullipool Ceilidh and later in a shed on the shores of Loch Tummel, but so far I haven’t been invited onto BGT.
The Song of the Shieldhall
The Shieldhall was a sludgeboat and she sailed upon the sea
Her keel was laid at Renfrew in Nineteen fifty three
To Ailsa Craig she'd go, in sunshine and in snow
dropping off her cargo in the deep blue sea
To Ailsa Craig she'd go, in sunshine and in snow
dropping off her cargo in the deep blue sea
The Shieldhall was the finest ship that I have ever seen
Her captain wore a jacket of Corporation green
Her hull was painted grey, she chugged along all day
While the sailors scrubbed the decks and kept them clean, kept them clean
Her hull was painted grey, she chugged along all day
While the sailors scrubbed the decks and kept them clean, kept them clean
Now some ships sail to India and some sail to Tiree
Some sailors meet with sharks and whales and some just see the sea
Those sights are pretty rare, but the best thing I declare
On the Shieldhall you were always home for tea, home for tea
Those sights are pretty rare, but the best thing I declare
On the Shieldhall you were always home for tea, home for tea
From Whiteinch and from Partick and from Yoker to this boat
All had in mind a purpose, to get themselves afloat
And if they did incline, to drink a little wine
Making sure they had a bottle in their coat, in their coat
And if they did incline, to drink a little wine
Making sure they had a bottle in their coat, in their coat
For many years the Shieldhall did sail upon the sea
delighting all, who got a cup of tea
but the finest thing to tell, never mind the rain and smell
for pensioners the trip's completely free, all for free
but the finest thing to tell, never mind the rain and smell
for pensioners the trip's completely free, all for free

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Cold Return to Normality

Today the weather is absolutely dire, low visibility, constant rain, strong wind. Although I’m glad the boat is ashore I’m reminded that such conditions have resulted in some of the most memorable trips.
This is the first time this Century when a group of small boat lunatics hasn’t assembled at Toberonochy on the Isle of Luing, thanks to the Johnson Plague. That weekend is incredibly special, with overtones of return to childhood, challenging trips in small open boats, most of which we have built ourselves, and most of all an extraordinary bunch of people from incredibly diverse backgrounds united by an interest in traditional boat types.
My yellow boat, the Kelpie, was built by me in 2006 specifically for the muster. I wanted something primarily seaworthy that could carry up to four but also be easy to single hand, with an interesting, safe rig and lots of bits of string to keep the crew busy. She’s an open boat, fifteen feet long, with a lot of displacement which makes her stable but a hard pull if you have to row her.
The design is based on an old New England salmon wherry, drawn by Walt Simmonds of Duck Trap Boatworks in Maine. I’ve changed quite a lot, including the rig, which is a sprit sail cut for me in 1988 by the late Gayle Heard of Tollesbury, one of very few with the ability to do it. He’d made it for another New England boat I’d built before, a Swampscott racing dory that had proved to be just too racy. Here's a photo of her under her original rig; the sprit sail tamed her but when the boat went to Angus, seen here, I kept the sail.

Decades later it still sets perfectly. At first the wherry wouldn’t sail properly to windward, something my designer friend Richard Pierce sorted by advising me to move the centreboard forward. Perhaps New Englanders usually sail in reaching winds. Richard also donated a jib, which helps greatly going into the wind.
At the end of the event in 2012 my crew had to go home promptly, leaving me with a single handed trip. The forecast on the previous evening was dire, offering a strong cold North-easterly building up during the day with rain arriving from mid-day. I decided to set off, because if things became impossible that wind would blow me back to where I’d started from and I’d be no worse off. With an escape route available you should always go.
My friend Brice took some photos of my departure, see below. I got the jib up at the start, but it soon had to come back down as the wind freshened. As a result progress was slow, with the Kelpie slamming a lot in the nasty short chop, then the waves gradually got bigger and she really got into her groove, charging along with her rail a couple of inches clear, luffing in the puffs and eating up the distance to windward. In the squalls bathfuls of water would come in over the side and it was tricky pumping it out, a bit like wrestling with an eel while still steering and keeping control of the sail.

After a couple of hours Kelpie and I were well into Loch Melfort when the rig fell down. The sail is tensioned by a long, bendy spar, the sprit, held in place by a line curiously, for Glaswegians anyway, termed the snotter. This had parted during a squall, leaving the rig accidentally scandalised and flapping like mad, quite useless for further windward progress. It would be easy to fix, provided I could make it safely to land to do so.
There was no possibility of rowing up to windward to the safe, North side of Loch Melfort. The South side was quite close, but a dangerous lee shore with waves breaking on the rocks. The exception was one little inlet with a bit of shelter, but I saw at once that it was inaccessible, being barred by the lines of black buoys of the mussel farm, fastened with steel wires along the surface stretching for several hundred metres.
Mussels have never been successfully cultivated there, due to the prevalence of seasquirts, but the Swiss company who “own” this bit of Scotland’s seabed keep the floats there in order to preserve the value of their planning permission. This is exactly the sort of problem some of us have tried time and again to bring to the attention of the authorities who license these things, to absolutely no avail. The general public have the inalienable right to use the surface of the sea for the purposes inter alia of navigation and recreation, but the Crown Estate, who hold the seabed in trust for us, ignore these rights and make money by granting leases of the seabed. Surely the Swiss, with no seas of their own, should stick to tax dodging, cuckoo clocks and occasional sorties into the America's Cup?
Downwind from the mussel farm was another nasty lee shore with waves breaking on sharp boulders. The only course was to run downwind to the shelter of the point at Arduaine, losing over a mile of hard won distance to windward, passing close inshore inside the reef, where there's a deep narrow passage before beaching on a nice sheltered sandy bay, completely out of the wind. There I had something to eat, fixed the problem and tied in a reef to reduce the sail for the return to the fray.
I relaunched and there now followed a hard beat of about three hours into a really cold North-easterly with occasional squalls of sleet, each tack bringing us closer to home and a hot shower.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

The strange habits of the Seilachs

“It's a kind of black market activity, kept under the radar to avoid accidents with inexperienced people sailing boats with no built in buoyancy or side decks, and all the more delectable for the illicit flavour.”

The above quote is from Professor Pedro H Watson, the well known mathematician, naturalist, traditional boat builder, green guru and plague survivor, on hearing that the simple islanders of Seil had put up a sail on their skiff.
We can’t get too angry with those wretched islanders. No state of the art bridge for them, equipped with devices to remove ice, electric signs to warn of escaped wildlife, these primitive folk have to traverse one of the oldest bridges in the World. Not only that, it crosses an ocean, so mostly they stay at home.
They exist in small hovels along the shore, eking out an existence by the manufacture of scarecrows and the staging of strange shows. At times they can be heard singing curious songs composed by one of a family famous for boating songs. From a distance they sound like happy seals.
In the days of sailing ships these islanders were namely for rowing out to vessels in distress looking for plunder. Nowadays, sadly, modern navigational systems have deprived them of this simple pleasure.
In mitigation of their crime we can only say that having seen those ships and their modern equivalent, the sailing yacht, temptation got the better of them when they came across a neat little mast, a sprit sail and a tiny jib. It took them just minutes to make a hole in the forward thwart and off they went.
Through the Cuan Sound they went, admittedly under oars, then up went that sail and North they flew before the breeze.
They had heard of Oban and its world famous tower which jealous folk and jesters have been heard to call a folly. When, ahead, they saw a magnificent stone pile atop a cliff they promptly made landfall, thirsting for strong drink, but found instead a castle that had lain abandoned for several hundred years. Fortunately they also found nearby an extremely nice cafe, where they had a cream tea before returning home. To their delight they found that the skiff went well to windward under those tiny sails.
In conclusion we must stress that although innocent of the ways of the world those islanders were by no means inexperienced in sailing small open boats on the sea. Indeed they had among their number a fine navigator with a curious resemblance to Professor Watson.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water