Monday 16 October 2023

The First Review is out!


It's great to see the first review, with a couple more in the pipeline. Also, readers are getting back and seem to be enjoying my efforts. The online shop now has its own dedicated website, so to buy a copy use this link:

Thursday 28 September 2023

The Scottish Islanders


Following my post about the Scottish Yachting Archives, I’m writing to let people know that my book, The Scottish Islanders, is now in print.

The Scottish Islanders were a fleet of identical sailing yachts launched from 1929. Designed, built and organised to ensure absolutely level competition, winning was entirely down to boat handling skills and cunning. In the years before the war they were sailed by some of Glasgow’s best known business families, who abandoned their home comforts each weekend to race against each other, regardless of the weather, sometimes the only fleet seen out on the Firth of Clyde. Their antics excited interest far beyond the yachting fraternity and were eagerly covered in the national press.
I acquired Stroma, number Four in the Scottish Islands Class in September 1976, and over the next four decades kept her mainly on the west coast, before finally passing her on to new owners just a few years ago. Over that period I gathered a huge amount of information and over the last twenty years or so I’ve been putting together a book on them, based on research into the interesting group of families who first owned them, reports from their descendants and my own experiences of sailing in one. For nearly a hundred years the Islanders have been a feature on the west coast. They still regularly turn out for West Highland Week.
The first part of the book has a lot of social history and stories about some remarkable people, such as Udy Russell, a pioneer of women on water. There are occasional excursions abroad, when the Scots did battle with America’s best in Oyster Bay, outside New York. This section ends with a look at the return of the survivors postwar.
The book then moves on to tell a story of decline, when the yacht racing fraternity moved away from wooden boats, but the Scottish Islanders survived in the hands of people who just wanted to sail and who appreciated craftsmanship, style and seaworthiness. They had become cheap enough for young people to buy and use for coastal cruises. The survival of most of the fleet has provided colourful tales of exploits and excursions, as new generations of sailors, very different from the original group, continue to discover the fun of exploring the west coast of Scotland, with the boats still winning races and always turning heads.
I had nearly given up hope of finding a publisher until my old friends Dr William Collier and Antony Harrison told me that they had set up the Scottish Yachting Archives, an operation dedicated to ensuring that the history of sailing on the west coast is preserved. To date they've acquired the records of the William Fife dynasty and the G L Watson design business, a total of several thousand drawings and artefacts, all now preserved in their unit in central Glasgow. Part of their operation will involve publishing, and I’m delighted to report that my book is their first venture.
I'm also delighted that the Rockfield Centre in Oban has agreed to host the book launch in the cafe in the afternoon of Saturday 28th October.
In the meantime, copies of the book can be got via

Wednesday 9 August 2023

A very short Trip


This summer has been utterly dreadful here in mid Argyll. As we head into the second half of the season I'm wondering if I should believe optimistic locals here assuring us that there will be an Indian Summer, starting any day now.

After another couple of weeks of extremely unsettled conditions, the forecasts a few days ago promised a couple of days of sunshine and light westerlies, so I headed off on Monday with three plastic boxes containing lunch, dinner and breakfast. 

Long term readers of this blog will know that Toberonochy is one of my favourite places, sheltered from anything with west in it and excellent holding ground. So, off I went in the late morning, tacking into a light westerly, but there was not too much of the promised sun. By the time I was half way down the loch the wind was really getting up, with some dirty black clouds bringing nasty puffs, but I figured that as I got closer to Shuna and then Luing there would be a bit of a lee, so decided not to reef and pressed on. Mariota is actually a much tougher wee boat than she might appear and there were no scary moments. 

Outside the bay I hove too and got anchor, chain, warp and tripping line nicely rigged and flaked, then sheeted in and tacked up inshore of Mariota's older sister Minna. When I started sailing I tended not to use a tripping line and was perhaps lucky never to lose an anchor, although fifty years ago the seabed wasn't littered so much with discarded fishing gear and debris from abandoned fish farms. Another problem in recent years is the growth of kelp, which seems to be taking over everywhere, perhaps also a bi-product of fish farming, via the excess nutrients dumped in the water column. This can mean that the anchor never actually reaches the seabed, an issue if you're using a wee Bruce or similar type of hook. Even if it makes its way through, it will likely come up with a load of heavy material, giving the foredeck hand a nasty job and maybe rendering the boat difficult to steer until it's cleared. And working alone, it's essential to get back to the helm sharpish, once you're clear. A problem with a tripping line can arise when some lazy fellow comes in after you and mistakes it for a mooring, which traditionally caused some to paint some strong language on the float. With a long line it's possible to keep it on the foredeck.


There was no real reason to go ashore, but having brought the tender I went for a walk up to the old Kilchattan church. Over the years I've tried unsuccessfully to get a good photograph of the ancient graffiti, which is as interesting as the church itself. This time the light was perfect and it worked!


You can read more about the history behind this here: From Toberonochy to the Battle of Largs

And since writing that earlier post a kind friend has donated an authentic image of the battle.

When I turned in, the forecast was for a day of beautiful sunshine and a gentle westerly breeze, so it was a surprise when, just after I had taken down the cockpit tent, black clouds came over with quarter of an hour of a strong, very cold northwesterly and a downpour. Then, all was calm. The anchor came up loaded with mud, no kelp at all. I rigged the electric outboard and used about 0.5% of the battery storage travelling at about two knots across to the mouth of Loch Melfort.

Off Kilchoan, the wind arrived, providing a dead run back to base. I was lucky to be hooked up before it strengthened to a fierce, cold blow that lasted until night time.  

Sunday 23 July 2023

Summer Report

Here in mid Argyll it's been a very mixed summer for sailing. We had a great spell of sunny weather in June, but with many days when there was either no wind at all, or a furious land breeze brought on by the heat. Then it seemed that summer had gone, and for a month there we had cold wet days, with a lot of easterlies, which here mean nasty squalls and no fun at all. The image above was taken by pals on one of the few recent good days.

We have had some interesting visitors to our loch. A month ago the extraordinary Kaos managed to squeeze her way into the head of the loch, the flagship of a Walmart heiress with, one understands, two skippers and a crew of forty two. The weather was dreadful that day, with little visibility and lots of rain, so it wasn't a surprise when she left and returned to warmer climes, where she was visited by environmental activists with pots of red paint. 

Around the same time, there arrived on our shore one of the oddest ships we've seen ever seen here, a reinterpretation of one of the oldest craft in the world, and the brain child of the guru of Ullapool. Arriving in bits, it took him some time to connect it all together, with what looked like scaffolding poles.

I declined the chance to spend a wet weekend on Eilean na Gamhna, the Isle of the Stirks at the head of our loch.

The weather improved the next day and the Admiral posted this image of her travelling fast.

Finally, a visit from a ship that would suit fine, if one were seeking a live-aboard and had a bit of cash.

Built by Hall Russell of Aberdeen in 1963, she's one of the last of the fine, stylish cruisers that Scotland once produced in great numbers. Now named Jura II and sailed by her hands-on owner, Cameron McColl, it was lucky that we had a fine morning for me to get out for a photograph.

The lack of good sailing days hasn't bothered me too much, as I've been very busy with the publishers of my book on the magical fleet of Scottish Islanders, one of which, Stroma, adorns the top of this blog.  I'll soon be in a position to reveal full details, so, if you're interested in traditional boats and the folk who fall in love with them, watch this space! In the meantime, see my last post for information on the Scottish Yachting Archives.

Thursday 13 July 2023

The Scottish Yachting Archives

William Collier and David Gray

I’m just back from a fascinating visit to the Scottish Yachting Archives, run by my old friends Dr William Collier and Antony Harrison.

My association with William and Antony goes back over thirty years, to the time they acquired the business of G L Watson & Company Limited. The founder, George Lennox Watson, pioneered the idea of a pure yacht design company not associated with a working boat yard. This meant that you would get a well engineered design that could then be taken to any of the ship yards and boat builders operating around the Firth of Clyde for tendering. By contrast, builders such as the Fifes would expect a client to have them carry out the whole operation, from initial discussions to launching your yacht from the muddy shore at Fairlie.
Despite these different approaches there was no hostility between Watson and his contemporary, the third William Fife, the latter frequently building the former’s designs and both no doubt benefiting from the other’s ideas. There have been numerous articles written about the relations among one of these brilliant men and the third member of Scotland’s great boat design trilogy, Alfred Mylne, who was trained by Watson and left to form his own company, again a pure design agency, at the age of twenty four. I and others have written about this elsewhere; my own view is that the idea of conflict between Watson and Mylne has been at least partly stirred up by some of those who followed, to nobody’s credit. While Mylne lived until the late 1950s, his mentor Watson worked himself to death at the age of 51 in 1904, so there have been no living witnesses to speak for him. ‘S e saoghal beag a h’ ann, it’s a small world, as the Gaels say, and my own view is that there would have been enough work to keep all of these fellows too busy to spend time squabbling. The good news is that their successors are on the best of terms and it’s not true to say, if it ever was, that “Mylnes don’t drink with Watsons”, as the lead photograph shows.
William and his opposite number at Mylnes, David Gray, share the ambition of keeping the surviving records and artefacts safe for posterity, despite the truth that such things are expensive to preserve and there’s almost no chance of profit from old drawings. Having said this, many of those plans are capable of producing fast, safe, wholesome boats, as we saw exactly a year ago at the Fife Regatta, when Hubert Stagnol launched his lovely recreation of Watson’s Red, the first one design in the world, into Scottish waters at Portavadie.

Red at the Fife Regatta, photo from Marc Turner

The archives also contain, at the more extreme end, a few designs that were never built at all, perhaps because the building techniques and materials then available couldn’t have made them strong enough. There have already been a few recreations of boats actually built, German Sonderklasse and American carpetbaggers being examples, using modern epoxy resin techniques. While Watson preferred to concentrate on sea keeping ability, the Fife archives contain several enticing possibilities for those seeking pure fun.

So, to the Scottish Yachting Archives, located in one of Glasgow’s many cultural hubs, an old industrial building that is now home to many in the arts and creative sectors, next to the historic Forth and Clyde canal.

I was astonished at the sheer volume of materials, from actual drawings, working notes and specifications, to builder’s half models and client’s full models, to volumes of records, correspondence and the occasional fragment of an actual vessel. Families have donated their albums of photographs, while my friends have examined auction catalogues at home and abroad to locate and bid for anything relevant. Surprise finds have included a model, made for an aristocratic client, found in a sale of agricultural machinery in Switzerland.
The unit in the north of central Glasgow is very much a working hub, rather than a potential museum that people can drop into, so the more obvious public benefits will be seen in what emerges in due course from the analysis and research that I saw going on. One aspect of this will be a series of published works on aspects of yacht and boat design and construction in the Scottish golden years, for which purpose my friends have established a publishing imprint. This has led me to the best bit of serendipity to come my way in years!
I bought a Scottish Islands Class yacht, designed by Alfred Mylne, when in my twenties, as an affordable way to get afloat, but ended up keeping her for over forty years, during which time such little ships acquired the status of classics. Towards the end of 2010 I conceived the idea of writing a history of the class and to this end set up a blog, Scottish Islands Class, which in turn led to an initial draft of a book three years later.
It then took a further decade to follow the leads that arrived in online comments, before I was in a position to start propositioning established publishers. The results were in virtually all cases the total absence of even an acknowledgment. A couple of very small operations did reply, negatively but at least politely. Learning of William’s ambition to start an imprint was therefore a piece of unimaginable good fortune, especially when he read the text and decided to go with it.
On the face of things, the Scottish Islanders may seem to be something of a niche interest. Only a dozen were built and there are few survivors from among the early sailors, although three nonagenarians shared their memories. Because of this I have broadened the scope.
The work starts with something of a social history of some of Glasgow’s families at play a hundred years ago, then takes us through their struggles as the survivors returned to sailing after the war and finally moves into our times, when a new generation now cherish these remarkably sea worthy and fast little yachts as basic cruisers. I’ve added in a few west coast anecdotes and sketches for good measure. If I’ve sparked your interest, please feel free to send me a message by commenting here.

Monday 1 May 2023

A New Season awaits


Just a quick reminder that I'm still here and hope to be posting more often as the year goes on.

A great delight about living beside the sea is that Mariota can be run down the drive, across a single track road and over the foreshore when the tide is out, to float off later and be towed to her mooring.

I've had a lazy winter, as far as maintenance is concerned, just a few spots touched up and of course that dreaded antifouling.

Friday 22 July 2022

Brian Corbett

About ten years ago I was looking out of our house at Loch na Cille in mid Argyll and saw a fellow on the other side of the loch launching a very pretty, interesting little yacht. I soon saw that he was in some difficulty and realised that he was in a spot where the seabed is mud rather than the hard shingle that we have on our side.

After a quick change of clothing I raced round the head of the loch and found a fellow above his waist in extremely cold water faced with a problem that he couldn’t resolve on his own. After Winifred was duly launched and moored and the trailer recovered my new friend Brian came round to the house to warm up. Thus started a friendship that continued on the water, when he visited for events and regattas and also online, as we found that we shared an interest in yachting and boating history.
I was to learn that Brian was a man of wide interests, with an unpretentious confidence in his ability and a belief that we should all try to leave the World a better place. Latterly we were in contact regarding Heritage Harbours, of which Brian was keen to identify a few here on our West Coast, also the Coastal Project and Pericles, a European initiative aimed at sharing cultures across nations.
Brian’s sailing ability requires no comment from me. On his visits to Argyll he was usually single handed and although I was never aboard her I imagine Winifred wasn’t the easiest boat to sail in a breeze. I’ve annexed a selection of images from times here and on the Clyde.

He was a most decent and entertaining man, about whom Anne and I will retain many happy memories.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water