The stone beach to the north of the pier was a scene of bustling activity with the wooden rowing and motor boats doing a roaring trade in the early to mid-morning. Their temporary “piers” fingered out into the shallow water in the shelter of the old stone pier and unused boats bobbed gently against them or lay still and angled up on the shingle.
|mv Maid of Skermorlie (A&J Inglis 1953)|
Neat and purposeful little ships were the “Maids” though. In truth, they were unpopular at first – cramped and noisy compared to their steam-driven cousins and rumour had it that potatoes had to be cut with one flat side so as they did not fall off the plate with all the vibrating! They proved useful servants on the Clyde for their twenty years or so of service though and MV Maid of Cumbrae was even turned into a car ferry to act as “pup” to MV Glen Sannox on the Gourock-Dunoon service. Three of them saw further “active” service abroad and you can still walk on the fourth, MV Maid of Ashton; she was transformed into Hispaniola and now sits dormant on the Thames as an expensive – make that “very expensive” – restaurant ship. Gradually, their time came on the river as the fleet moved from “passenger and excursion” to “car-carrying and essential” and they were sold off, one by one.
|Arrochar Pier taken from Waverley|
In the mid-sixties, Arrochar was still visited almost daily by a Clyde steamer and many passengers took the advice in the timetable of the time and made their own way across the narrow isthmus between the seawater Loch Long and the freshwater Loch Lomond. There was over an hour allowed for this traverse, so there was plenty of time to take in the highland scenery and possible even detour up to the Swiss chalet style station on the West Highland line that serves the two communities – Arrochar and Tarbet. Tarbet – then as now – was dominated by the Victorian Tarbert Hotel, a fine stopping point on the notorious A88 up Loch Lomond’s west bank. I went straight down to the pier to see what could be seen and to watch PS Maid of the Loch maker her white-hulled approach, heading south from Ardlui. She made a fine sight and was a beautiful ship to the eye as she sailed through the placid waters of the loch. She still sported two masts in those days and there was plenty of deck space from which to enjoy the sumptuous views on offer.
The standard of service onboard was high, although I had already eaten my lunch on Waverley the smells wafting skyward from the galley chimney spoke of good food being well-prepared. The waters though which she travelled were less punishing than on the river, so she was a bright, airy boat and plenty of light got through the big picture windows that extended all the way back to her stern. Aluminium deck houses, painted overall in white, gave excellent views and passengers could use the open top deck as well.
|Maid of the Loch (A&J Inglis 1953) at Balloch Pier|
Back in those days, the Balloch branch railway line extended all the way to the loch side, hard by the Maid’s overnight berth. The transfer from the Maid to the train was a less onerous affair than from Arrochar to Tarbert. A “blue train” awaited us, still in its original blue colour scheme with the yellow and black line that ran the length of the coaches. The “blue train” was still in its relative infancy, having been introduced in 1959 (there were problems with their transformers, so they were taken out of service before being reintroduced in 1961) and represented an incredible advance on what had gone before. The train was clean and, again, like Maid of the Loch, it was airy. It glided along the single line from the pier, over the level crossing to Balloch Central. Those of us – and there were a discernible number by now on nodding terms – on the “Three Lochs” tour had now completed all three lochs, but of course, there were more adventures to come! We took the train as far as Dumbarton, where we changed to a Helensburgh-bound train to make the connection with our next ship at Craigendoran. This was all new territory to me, I have to tell you! We summered as a family in Largs but were – indeed, if I am honest, still probably am despite my years through in the east! – resolute south-siders. Balloch, Dumbarton, Craigendoran and points north and west – you might as well have been talking to me about Tibet!
Although the railway along the north bank looked settled, in reality, there had been a lot of change over the years since the line to Helensburgh was first opened in 1857. Like all these things, the settled appearance hid the changes of earlier times and was, of course, illusionary. Craigendoran pier and station was only opened, for example, on 15 May 1882, long after the original line to Helensburgh had been laid. The pier and railhead was opened there because of local opposition to a similar facility in the centre of Helensburgh and thus came about the fairly anomalous railhead that was somewhat removed from the population centre that it was meant to serve. Actually – that’s not really fair; Craigendoran was merely a staging post on the NB’s route to the Clyde coast. Within a decade of my visit, of course, in 1972, Craigendoran was finally shut as a Clyde pier and with its closure died almost a century of north bank services to the outer parts of the river. Already, by the time I visited the pier, the offices lay derelict and the pier had seen its best days. Today, if you know where to look, the pier lies empty and derelict and its two fingers seem to be sending one last message of defiance and admonition in the general direction of “the enemy” across the river!
It was still an important railhead in 1964 though and, each night, Jeanie Deans, Waverley and one of the Maids – in the fifties, it had been the Argyll, but by this time, the ships rotated rosters. Can you imagine that, dear reader? Two steam-driven paddle steamers and a Maid! Where’s the camera?
We exited the train, made our way to the pier and onto the ship. I was mildly surprised to find that it was, in fact, Waverley that was waiting for us – I remember assuming that it was going to be one of the Maids. After dropping the “Three Lochers” off at Arrochar, Waverley had waited at Arrochar for barely an hour before retracing her route down Loch Long to Blairmore, then across the firth to Craigendoran. Her regular Arrochar passengers – the ones who had arrived by train that morning at Craigendoran, made their way off the ship and onto a train.
|Waverley at Craigendoran (Caledonia just out of shot)|
At Dunoon, we said our goodbyes to Waverley and made our way to MV Maid of Cumbrae, which was returning to Largs after her afternoon cruise to Loch Goil. We left Dunoon sharp at 5.45pm and made our way across the firth to Wemyss Bay. As we left the pier, the car ferry departed and made her plodding way back whence she came to Gourock. Can you imagine it? Back and forth, day-in day-out on the MV Arran!
The next half hour or so was actually rather fun for the “steamer dreamers” onboard! As we crossed over the firth to Wemyss Bay, PS Jeanie Deans came round Toward Point on her return from the Round Bute Cruise that was her lot by this last season in her career. She was similar in layout to Waverley, though her 1930’s hull was longer than her younger consort and somehow more elegant; her main deck windows were completely different in their layout. The big difference between the two ships though was the fact that the Jeanie proudly held on to her NB heritage to the end; she never lost her black paddleboxes. Everything else conformed to the Caley norm except, for some reason, her paddleboxes. And she looked all the better for it.
As we crossed the firth making for Wemyss Bay, TS Duchess of Hamilton could be seen on her sprint from Largs to Rothesay and her sister, TS Duchess of Montrose followed the Jeanie out of Rothesay on her return from Inveraray. She came straight across the firth heading, like us, for Wemyss Bay, but was scheduled to arrive 15 minutes after we departed. We left Wemyss Bay on time at 6.20pm and as we turned to head south along the coast towards our final destination, Largs, the Montrose began to slow on her final approach into Wemyss Bay.
There was just something about the two Duchesses that set them apart from the other turbines of similar vintage. Where TS Queen Mary was beamier but shorter, with her boat deck extending all the way (almost) to her bulbous stern, the two Duchesses were longer and their boat decks had a nice “step” in them towards the back. The “step” theme was echoed in their sterns where a small half-deck for the rope handlers seemed to finish them off – just so. If you see a picture of either of them taken from the stern, you will see how tapered and graceful their hull shapes were. TS King George V – based in Oban of course, but originally built for Turbine Steamers Ltd, an operating subsidiary of Williamson-Buchanan Steamers Ltd – did not have that stepped arrangement and looked less elegant – to my eyes at least – as a result. Though older than the Montrose and Hamilton by four and six years respectively, she outlasted them, so her builders, Denny’s of Dumbarton obviously did a good job when they built her as the first of the “new-generation” turbines in 1926!
Gradually, we picked up speed for the last leg of our trip along the coast to Largs and, with a lingering glance back to the pier to watch Duchess of Montrose make fast, we made our uneventful way home.
What a day it had been, mind you – what a day indeed! A Maid, Waverley, Maid of the Loch, a trip on the north bank rail line and a nice highland walk to boot. Sadly, the fleet was about to embark on the first of a series of changes that would result, within the decade, in there being only two traditional steamers left on the river – one turbine and one paddler. Jeanie Deans and Duchess of Montrose were the first to go; they were followed in quick succession by Talisman, Caledonia and Duchess of Hamilton. Not long after that, the pioneering Maids were disposed of one by one.
More of those changes another time...