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.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Log of the Stroma

Summer Cruise 1977
Note: Stroma is a twenty eight foot racing yacht built in 1929, number 4 of the first group of Islanders, designed by Alfred Mylne and incredibly fast as well as seaworthy. They were intended to be sailed by a crew of three, originally had an engine, but Stroma had none. I had bought her the previous September and this was my first serious cruise, also the longest trip I ever made in her and the longest holiday I ever took. I found her log when clearing papers during lockdown. The photo is from 1930.

Crew Ewan and Peter
Day One, 16th July 1977
Wind NNW 2-3, cloudy, showers
Departure delayed due to theft of dinghy from Donald Currie’s shed, reported to Police and new one purchased. Left the Brandystone at 15.45
Passed between Maiden Island and Ganavan, tacked to Lismore,
Passed the Lismore light at 17.10, wind dropped, slow progress up the Sound of Mull.
Ardtornish light at 19.00, wind died away, ghosted to Salen, anchored at 22.25. In hotel by 22.55
22 miles, 7 hrs 10 mins
Day Two
Wind fresh SE. Rain
Left Salen 09.45, rann before freshening breeze up the Sound, past Tobermory Bay at 11.00, wind backing ESE,
Ardnamurchan Light 12.15. Severe squalls and wind strengthening, ran under full sail for a time, then dropped main and doing 3 knots under jib alone
15.00 wind moderated, reefed main, good progress to Mallaig, passing entrance at 17.00, heavy rain, poor visibility.
Wind dropped and went NW. Arrived Isleornsay at 19.30.
Spent evening chatting with Black Angus Nicolson (Aonghas MacNeacail) in the Inn
51 miles, 9 hrs 45 mins
Day Three
Wind light, N, dry, cold
Spent morning checking rigging and repairing various fittings, halliard cleats etc, that had been damaged the previous day.
Left 15.00 wind now NNW 2 - 3.
Passed Kyle Rhea 17.30, Kyle Akin Light 18.45, got forecast of fresh N - NE so decided to go to Plockton rather than Broadford, anchored 20.45
20.3 miles, 5 hrs 45 mins
Day Four
Wind light, NE, heavy rain, poor visibility
Left 10.45, close reach past oil platform, Crowlin Islands passed at 12.25
At Sound of Raasay wind went North, rain squalls for one hour. Porpoises in shoals of fish, gannets diving.
Passed An Tom Point in extraordinary winds, light and all directions, anchored Portree 16.05
21.6 miles, 5 hrs 20 mins
Called on Peggy (my then wife’s sister and a nicer person) and Harry (married to another sister)
Day Five
Very heavy rain all day, wind moderate.
Boat very wet inside, decks leaking. Spent day trying to keep dry.
Met Dick Ede and Jean Inman, dined with them and Peggy aboard off mackerel Dick had caught.
Note about Dick: He was a fisherman who had been working single-handed out of Newlyn, hunting bass in the English Channel, a robust activity, who was up on holiday with his then partner Jean. He had moved up to London and was missing the sea. I haven’t seen him for many years and hope that he’s fine.
Day Six
Very heavy rain all day. Wind strong S to SE
Spent day in Portree, then Dick wanted to go sailing. Went out with him, while Peter and Jean headed off to Tianavaig to visit Danny Sleigh, with intention we would all meet up there. Savage squalls off the Point, turned back, re-anchored and hiked six miles over to Tianavaig. Made fire on shore, ate sausages.
Note: Those squalls still haunt me a bit. They came down over the tall cliffs and pinned the boat down, so that easing the sails didn’t help.
Day Seven
Very heavy rain, light wind.
Dick wanted to go fishing and turned up with two lines, with about two dozen hooks on each. Spent day drifting around while he caught mackerel.
Note: Dick worked the two lines together, hauling them over his shoulders and all the while calling to the fish “come fill up me lines, fill up me lines”. He could tell when all the hooks were taken and quickly stripped off the struggling mackerel. They soon had filled the cockpit, then, as I wouldn't allow them into the cabin, the dinghy and he only stopped when we were knee deep in fish and had no space left to put them. We ferried them ashore and found some fish boxes, gave a lot away to tourists, then took residue to the Fishselling Company at the pier, where the manager weighed them at eleven stone, deducted one stone for “water” and paid us £5. We were being watched by local fishermen and considered it wise to go to the Taigh-osta a Cidhe, put the money on the counter and got out alive.
Day Eight
Wind SW 3, heavy rain
Left Portree 12.25, reached out of bay, wind freshened in the Sound of Raasay, fast run to North of Rona, passed at 14.45, weather cleared and had great broad reach in force 4-5, passed Carra point at 16.15. Anchored in Shieldaig, Loch Gairloch at 17.15
Evening in the Badachro Inn
29 miles, 4 hrs 50 mins
Day Nine
No wind, heavy rain
Went to hotel for breakfast, spent day drying out.
Dick and Jean turned up, having watched us leave Portree and driven round. Dick had found a broken creel and fixed it, also had caught some whiting and cod, which we cooked aboard and ate with them. After dinner baited pot with a Gurnard Peter had caught and set it.
Gale warning.
Day Ten
Gale from North, heavy rain. Recovered pot, got two large crabs and ate them. Evening in hotel.
Note: That pot had been set over a mile from where we were anchored and was a hard upwind against the gale, which Dick enjoyed.
Day Eleven
Wind NW 3 - 4 heavy rain
Left Loch Shieldaig 10.05, tacked down loch, passed Port Henderson at 11.00. The Ballad “Scalliwag” motored up to join us and set sail. Wind veered North, freshened and day cleared. Raced Scalliwag South, Passed Applecross 1.20, Lonbain 13.20. North end of Crowlin abeam at 15.15, gybed onto Port tack and reached down to Kyle Akin, passed light at 15.47, seven minutes ahead of the Ballad, arrived at top of flood tide, then South going stream carried us down, severe squalls between Glenelg and Isleornsay, anchored there at 18.10 just in front of the Scalliwag.
Evening in the Inn
48 miles, 8 hrs, 5 mins
Note: This was surely sailing at its very best, hour after hour at maximum speed before a following breeze, with a strong tide the entire distance.
Day Twelve
Wind light, variable, sunshine
Left Isleornsay 10.20, ghosted down Sound of Sleat, passed Armadale 13.00, wind died and caught mackerel on way into Eigg, where anchor down at 17.15
21.5 miles, 6 hrs 55 mins
Note: We anchored in about two fathoms inside the island that protects the bay. Our efforts at fishing were just as pathetic as our day's sail had been. The fish that swam about under our keel were so small that they had no difficulty in nibbling the bait from our hooks without any risk to themselves. After a walk ashore, when after we discovered that at that time there seemed to be no facilities whatsoever on Eigg we turned in for an early night.
Day Thirteen
Wind fresh NW, bright
Note: At about five in the morning I was woken by Stroma rolling on an Atlantic swell which seemed to be setting in. I took a look outside and noticed that there had been a definite change in the weather. We now had a very clear dry summer morning and there was a breeze. By this time Peter was also awake and after some discussion he agreed to assist with getting the anchor and setting sail, provided he could then return to his bunk to complete his night's repose.
Thus at about 5.45 am Stroma was underway. We slipped out Southwards from the bay and were soon on a close reach in a fresh Northwesterly breeze. I was pleased that I was alone in the cockpit and could treat the bright, sparkling morning as my very own. Actually I was sharing it with various seabirds and the occasional fishing boat could be spotted far off when we rose on the big Atlantic swell.
The Islanders are wonderful boats on a reach, when you really feel the power of the mainsail. Soon the Cairns of Coll started to appear on the horizon and then we were in flatter water as we sailed down the East side of the island to Arinagour.
If you are engineless it is always better to pick a safe spot to anchor where if necessary you won't have difficulty getting underway during the night. I was glad that Peter was now awake as we had some tight tacking to get into the chosen spot some distance from the steamer pier. By nine thirty we were anchored and ready to spend the rest of a lovely summer day ashore. It would have been fun to carry on, but we only had a couple of days left.
20 miles 3 hrs 50 mins
Day Fourteen
Wind SW 3, bright
Left Arinagour 11.10, broad reach to Ardmore Point, wind dropped and caught five mackerel before it returned. Close reach to Tobermory Bay, sailed round the bay to see if any boats we knew were in, left again at 15.30, fast reach to Salen, anchored at 17.10
15 miles, 6 hrs
Back to hotel.
Day Fifteen Wind N 3-4, cloudy, slight rain.
Left Salen 09.15, got spinnaker up and had fast run down the Sound, passed Lismore Light at 11.30, moored at Brandystone at 12.30.
15 miles, 3 hrs 15 mins
We had sailed on ten days out of fifteen and covered about 240 sea miles at an average speed of about four and a half knots.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

The Pierce Bracket

My original intention in providing the Mariota with auxiliary power was to build a conventional outboard well at the aft end of the cockpit and use a nice, quite light, 3hp Mariner outboard I had bought twenty or so years earlier and never used. After I had built the well, which included the painful exercise of cutting a hole in the bottom planks, I learned that two strokes don’t like operating in enclosed spaces; they misfire if not provided with plenty of air.
I wasn’t willing to finish the build and take a chance on this, so I decided to look for an alternative motor. Four strokes being heavy, expensive and very bulky, this led me to researching electric power and the purchase of a Torqeedo outboard, also expensive but very light. I’m comfortable with that decision and convinced that a nice clean unit is the way to go, but being slow revving the propellor is 12 inches diameter and would have required that dreadful hole to be much enlarged.
I spent a week or two surgically removing the well and filling in the hole, leaving myself with a nice little storage space to keep a radio or binoculars out of harm’s way, meanwhile thinking about an external bracket.

Freeboard on the Kotik design, an extended Wee Seal, is too high for even a long shaft to bury the propellor adequately. The motor has to be dropped nine inches or so, which means that there is enormous torque. My first attempt at a wooden bracket failed miserably, but with no injury of loss of life. What I thought was quite robust broke apart as soon as the motor’s full thrust came on and showed that any replacement would need to be a metal fabrication, probably with an extra fastening low down on the hull for security.
The guru from An Cala then arrived, examined the state of affairs and came up a with a solution that is simple and strong. It’s a sliding beam that travels within a strong wooden box behind the aft bulkhead, easily pushed out when required and unnoticeable when it’s not. The box is bolted to the bulkhead, but for additional security I’ve added an oak bar. The beam itself is oak. At the outboard end I’ve added a plate, so that we know it’s fully home when not required.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Modelling Admiral Popov's Battleship

Last November the Riverside Museum launched their publication celebrating their wonderful model collection. It’s a beautiful work of art and a great tribute to the museum staff such as Emily Malcolm, who spent years on it. We heard Professor John Hume speak of his childhood visits to the ship models in the old Kelvingrove Art Gallery. I was another of those Glasgow children taken there at weekends in the days when much of the ground floor was devoted to the city’s enormous collection of ship models, a tradition that continues nowadays in a rather restricted form at the Riverside.
Among the sleek racing yachts and the ocean liners some real oddities stood out, none more than the almost circular Russian Imperial yacht Livadia, her mystique enhanced by her constantly being referred to as Admiral Popov’s battleship. That isn’t exactly true. As we have seen, Vice-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov was attracted to the idea of circular battleships that John Elder had floated and in September 1879 appointed John Elder & Co to construct the Livadia as a prototype. We can see that it was convenient to test the design as a yacht; a battleship that didn’t perform would be embarrassing.
By 1879 John Elder had died and his widow Isabella had taken over the yard with its workforce of a couple of thousand men. The city of Glasgow owns her portrait and we see one strong, dynamic industrialist. She had head-hunted William Pearce from the Royal Dockyards as chief architect. Popov gave them an unlimited budget, the price being on a “cost plus” basis with a massive bonus if the ship exceeded fifteen knots on her trials. On 27 September Livadia on her third attempt beat the fifteen knots target and won Pearce a bonus of 414,000 Rubles on top of the base price of about 2.7 million.
Thanks to the new book we know that the model at the Riverside was built to the order of William Pearce. For many decades it sat in a case in the boardroom at Fairfields. A second, perhaps more elaborate, model was built and sent by Pearce as a present to the Tsar. It sits today in St Petersburg.

Looking at these models one can see the major features that were important to the Victorians. The model would enable the Tsar’s dream to be shared with an audience who would otherwise have had little opportunity to see the ship in real life. The model would ideally be a demonstration of the modelmaker’s skill and by implication that of the actual shipbuilders.
Victorian modellers sought total accuracy, a “good” ship model being expected to show every screw and rivet, even where it was impossible to produce this truly to scale. Sadly the effect of doing this could be distortion and a loss of the viewer’s ability to appreciate form. Elaborate gilding and paintwork further confuses the picture.
In 2014 I opened a fine art gallery in the city centre. We were on the ground floor of one of what John Hume describes as Glasgow’s Jolly Red Giants, the enormous red sandstone commercial towers that sprang up in late Nineteenth Century Glasgow and still dominate the cityscape.
Our building featured a Sixteenth Century French Renaissance exterior, with external statuary that includes a replica of the tomb of the Medicis, lots of mythical green men and other oddities. It was designed by the extraordinary Scottish architect William Leiper. To describe Leiper in one sentence, think the Scottish Branch of the Gothic Revival, throw in some Scots Baronial, season with Sir Walter Scott and you’ve got him. I decided to put on an exhibition dedicated to Leiper as part of the Festival of Architecture 2016.
So, what’s the connection to Livadia? In 1879 Leiper was having a gay time with his artist friends in Paris when the Tsar brought him back to Glasgow to create a Gothic interior in his new yacht. Being a bit mad about model ships, this was all the excuse I needed to get hold of a model.
I considered but quickly discarded asking the Riverside Museum for a loan of the Pearce model. There would be very obvious practical, insurance and security issues. A new model could show what could be done with modern technology.
I’m glad that we decided not to go with Virtual Reality. In theory we could have portrayed the spectacular interior, but it has to be done well and the cost would have been enormous. Doing it at a basic level, such as can be seen at the Museum in Irvine, does nothing for me. We also wanted something visual to draw people into the gallery, rather than something they would only access once already inside and perhaps have to queue to see.
Also, I simply like physical models. They are easy for the viewer to explore and can convey a sense of romance that technology doesn’t.
Of course this leads to adults and children alike wanting to examine not just visually but with the fingers, the sense of touch adding another perspective to understanding. As a result we lose some magic by protecting them behind glass. The Riverside Museum has solved this in a way that works at a superficial level, but has deficiencies. Livadia is immured at a high level, so you only see her from below, making it difficult to appreciate her remarkable design. We decided to put our model under a glass bubble.
To funding. We had put in for a grant towards the cost of the exhibition from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, but of course had been awarded a tiny fraction of what we asked for. At meetings of the steering group for the Festival of Architecture I had met the representative from the National Lottery. There was encouragement to go ahead and we needed a legacy destination. I spoke to Fairfield Heritage to find out if there might be a home for the model in the longer term and they was supportive, but had no funding to buy it.
At this point James Pierce heard about the project. He had just returned from Russia with a wife. I was still investigating sources of funding when I discovered not only that James was keen to go ahead, he’d already made a start, perhaps partly with encouragement from his new in-laws. We allocated part of our grant to reimburse the cost of the materials, but warned him that he was proceeding at his own risk.
Starting work ruled out any prospect of Lottery funding, but looking back it’s obvious that James had to make a start, to meet the exhibition date. Going through a tender process and waiting for an answer would have left no time for actually building the model.
In the event James built the model in his evenings, after a day spent building the spectacular model of the racing hydrofoil Britannia that today sits in the foyer of the British America’s Cup Challenge headquarters in Portsmouth.
We wanted to ensure accuracy and had a problem finding the original drawings. A set on deposit at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow had mysteriously disappeared, as had all the best of the photographs taken by Queen Victoria’s photographers when Livadia stopped in Southampton during her maiden voyage. There was huge disappointment when we untied the ribbons on the lovely leather bound album and found it almost empty. This problem was resolved when James found that a fellow in the States who sold model kits of various historic ships had somehow got copies of the originals and was willing to send him images of them.
Regarding the style of the new model we opted for simplicity with no colour and no attempt to replicate all the features of rigging etcetera. We also decided on a waterline model that could be displayed easily in the gallery window and internal lighting, given our location on a busy street with a lot of evening traffic.
Our exhibition was a great success in terms of numbers, with lots of people attracted purely because of the model in the window. Among the visitors were the organisers of the James Watt Dinner, a major annual event in the shipbuilder’s calendar, and Richard Pierce and I were invited to show it there. Sadly none of the industrialists present offered to buy it.

Monday, 27 April 2020

A haunted Mill, Watery Graves and the Toberonochy Lemon Shop

As the MacCrimmons were to piping so the MacFadyens are to handling the wee ferries that keep the place running. Single tickets are on offer, for those who expect to fall in love with the island, or maybe have a boat to recover, but most will buy a return for their eventual reluctant departure.

Since the start of this century an event has taken place in conditions of secrecy only rivalled by the Bilderberg Conference, but less damaging by far to global peace and prosperity, consuming no oil whatever and attended by a much nicer bunch of people, on this small island off the West coast of Scotland.

It takes place in the open air, but participants are untroubled by the vagaries of the weather, viewing extremes of rain, strong wind and temperature as stimuli to, rather than distractions from, their water-borne adventures. In all conditions they congregate. Strong winds and adverse tides present challenges to ever-longer turns to windward; in fact one year the weather obliged with a 180 degree wind shift while the crews were resting for lunch after tacking half a dozen nautical miles South towards the deadly Dorus Mor, coinciding with high water which gave a return journey of equal unpleasantness against a cold wet Northerly and a strong ebb tide. Despite, or maybe because of, such things participants, who like those at Bilderberg are all personal invitees, return year after year. Only the Great Johnson Plague has put a temporary stop to it.
Once over the ferry you’ll travel down slowly through a very Hebridean landscape, unusual for an inner island. Be careful when you reach the water mill; it’s inhabited by water elves, sithichean-uisge, who will inflict terrible punishment if you fail to leave a hair from your head as a tribute. Great hares, the size of dogs, will lollop past you.
Since we started only one of our number has left the scene, the lovely, gentle Hugh Gray, who sailed a little black cutter named after his Tanta Hedwig. His son created a Viking ship for his ashes and we watched as he set off on his fiery last voyage from Cullipool.

To end in the waters you love seems rather a nice destination. In 2004 the Brother came to perform at the special wee ceilidh we hold in the Toberonochy Hall and was captured by some American Campbells who had brought their aunt back to her place of birth. As he played a suitable lament the urn was opened, about half of the aunt entered the Sound of Luing and the residue engulfed the crowd.

On the Sunday morning there was little wind and the fleet was becalmed under a dreich grey sky, the drizzly rain trickling down their necks.
Through the Sound came a commodious plastic-hulled vessel, which dropped anchor in Kilchattan Bay and sent a lady crew member ashore on a mission, to acquire some lemons for the gin and tonic. Asking a local resident where such a purchase could be made she got the reply "I regret, Madam, that there are no lemon shops in Toberonochy, in fact there are no shops here at all."
At that moment out on the water the Brother, still in sombre mood, filled the bagpipe with blaw and started on a tragic lament, in keeping with the grim morning. On hearing this the lady said, obviously stunned at thinking she had gate-crashed an aquatic wake, "I'm terribly sorry to intrude on your small community in this time of grief," and made her way back embarrassed to her yacht.

Chan eil bùth an drasta

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Gylen Castle from the sea

Gylen Castle stands guard at the South end of Kerrera, a former MacDougall stronghold built in 1582 and occupied until the inhabitants were besieged by General Leslie in 1647, Deprived of water, they surrendered on the faith of Leslie's promise to spare them, on which of course he promptly reneged, allowing only one young MacDougall boy to survive.

I've written before about my acquisition of the sailing vessel Gaudeamus, here; The Crinan Canal not quite for me. I eventually made it through the canal in 1974 and moored my ship at the Brandystone in Oban Bay, thanks to the wonderful Donnie Currie, then one of our last surviving boatbuilders. Our old friend Donald Brown soon heard of the move and demanded that I take him to see Gylen Castle from the sea. 

Mr Brown was not a man whose demands you could easily refuse. Born and brought up in the family farm at the head of Loch Feochan he had walked daily the five miles to school in Oban. Standing well over six feet he was a commanding presence, also a loud one, as his wartime service as a front line doctor had left him quite deaf. A man of principle, as a medical student he had refused to take part in University boxing. Like many from Argyll he had cousins everywhere, John Stevenson the procurator fiscal and the inspiration for Sutherland's Law, in which he was played by Iain Cuthbertson and Jimmy Macdonald the Oban undertaker being two of them. Jimmy's hearse proved useful when Donald bought a grandfather clock in Oban, but started rumours when it was seen parked outside his house in Glasgow.

We had arranged to meet at the boat, the Browns being already in Oban. On the appointed day I left Glasgow early, but my car developed problems on the way and on arrival I had to leave it in a garage. This was fortunate as by the end of the day I was to be in no fit state to drive.

At the Brandystone I was met by Donald in full white surgical dress, which he assured me being bloodproof was also waterproof, his wife Barbara in more normal clothing and their golden labrador, Juno. The Browns were namely for matrimonial discussions, both being of wonderfully strong character. Donald felt that wife and dog should stay ashore, Barbara disagreed and had Juno had a vote she would have been with Donald. Barbara of course won and we duly made a somewhat risky trip out in the eight foot pram dinghy to my ship.

Gaudeamus is a Loch Long, number 98 in the class, twentyone feet overall and with minimal shelter. here's a picture of a sistership.

Celeano II, built by Robertsons in 1949
We were quickly underway in quite a brisk following breeze. From the outset Juno was distinctly unhappy and cowered under the wee cuddy that you'll see in the photograph. Donald took the helm, while Barbara held on tightly and I did my best to keep calm. We were soon past Horsehoe Bay, avoided the Cutter Rock and made a swift turn to starboard at the bottom of Kerrera Sound.

There followed a nice fast reach in a flat sea under the lea of the island, with a wonderful clear view of the castle, before clearing the coast for the trip back North.

Loch Longs are tough wee boats and I had no doubt that we would make it, but they're not comfortable in a blow with the nasty short waves that we get when there's a good strong tide running. It took several tacks to work our way back to the entrance to the bay, after which we had a run down to the Brandystone. As we picked up the mooring Juno saw her chance to jump into the water, swim ashore and make off.

Once all stowed, dinghy back in Donnie's shed and  Juno recovered, Donald drove us to the summit of one of Oban's peaks, where we were met by the above mentioned John and Jimmie. They said they had been concerned about us and greatly relieved when they saw the Gaudeamus coming round into the bay and flying down to her mooring. Once we were seated we were each handed a pint glass of whisky topped up with strong ale to fortify us for the trip back to Glasgow in Donald's Rover.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Black Boat is for sale

The 'Black Boat' is for sale. A Shetland skiff that arrived on Iona about 35 years ago. No idea how old she is but I'd put her at 80 plus. Very well maintained by Mark Jardine, boat builder, who also owned her before the present owner, my friend John McLean. Just had a new plank put in by Mark and a paint for the season. A bonny boat and a pleasure to row. £1000. Lying Iona. Contact John McLean on the island on 01681 700 642

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water