I am told that my passion for ships began when about two years old, whilst perched in a homemade infant seat on the back of a Great Uncle’s ancient bicycle and apparently observing departure preparations from Ayr’s South Harbour of a Clyde Steamer bound for the Isle of Arran.
I had jumped with fright when someone whom I had been watching, had reached up to sound the then obligatory three long blasts of the ship’s steam whistle to denote departure. By all accounts I had then queried “Who is he?” pointing upwards. Henceforth, I had made it known to all relatives and others when the oft raised childhood “when you grow up” question was posed; “Captain of a ship!” was my forthright response.
By age eight I had deserted my siblings, in favour of a world of ships and the sea. At my ‘homeport’ of Ayr, I would initially observe on the south side of the river, the comings and goings at the Firth of Clyde’s then main dockside fish market of the large (mainly purse netter) fishing fleet. Later and somewhat more daringly, ventures to the infinitely more interesting North Harbour was where I could get up close to ‘real’ ships – the seemingly endless flow of John Kelly’s “Bally boats”, where I would become acquainted with Ballylumford, Ballymoney, the ancient Ballyhalbert and the then only motorship in the fleet and rather more rare visitor, the all aft Ballyedward (soon to be joined by the Company’s new motorships, the Aberdeen built Ballyloran and Ballylesson).
On occasion, a Robertson’s Gem Line ship, such as Pearl or London & Rochester’s Crescent Shipping, Quiescence might arrive with a cargo of fertilizer and following discharge, load at either a river or dock basin berth the high quality steam coal brought by rail from the then numerous Ayrshire mines and destined for the ever hungry maws of the Belfast and Londonderry power stations. Ayr through the ‘50’s was the semi-permanent home for at least one unit of Caledonian Steam Packet’s excursion fleet, either the coal burning Marchioness of Graham during the earliest years or the faster Duchess of Hamilton. By 1960, the paddler Caledonia had become the ‘resident’.
A permanent and seemingly little used vessel within the confines of the harbour, was the 1938 Simons, Renfrew built steamer, the bucket ladder dredger Carrick of the British Transport Commission whose sole task appeared to be the maintenance of Ayr and nearby Troon waters. On very rare occasions would she stray to more distant shores, to Fleetwood for example. At that time, the bustling port of Troon, serving the needs of the Ailsa Shipyard and its two graving docks and on the north wall a never ending flow of miscellaneous vessels, large and small, merchant and naval, for demolition by the West of Scotland Shipbreaking Company, called upon the periodic attention of Carrick.
In time I began to be recognised and acknowledged by Dock staff - the affable Customs & Excise Officer for Ayr and Troon and the Ports’ Berthing master/Harbour pilots. Later and within the confines of the then ancient and pipe smoke laden atmosphere of the Pilots’ Roundhouse located at the NW extremity of Ayr’s North Harbour, I was tutored and challenged by the Senior Berthing Master, in his gentle and lilting Western Isles tones, to ‘box the compass’ to 32 points. After coaxed success, I ‘graduated’ to visits to the lower level of the building during cold and often stormy winters’ evenings, there to become practised in the mysteries of compass correction, the use of parallel rulers and dividers, leading ultimately to my laying off courses, distances and position finding on Admiralty charts. A true delight was accompanying my instructor aboard an imminently departing vessel, to discuss times, tides, drafts and other details.
By the mid 1950’s, Ayr had developed a healthy scrap metal export business, with such cargoes usually destined for Spain and where the commodity was shipped by small (usually ex Dutch, none too tidy and well worn) all aft Spanish flag motor coasters and which without the appropriate exemptions, by regulation required Pilotage services. Whilst rare, I also experienced the joys of the Port’s ancient pilot boat. Collectively these activities were the fuel to my ever developing interests and passion for ships.
Consequent to a Glasgow schooling and acquaintance with that city, I was naturally drawn to its extensive docklands and bustling shipyards. Another enthusiast, schoolmate Allan and myself would begin our spotter expeditions at the city centre’s Customs House Quay and work our way downriver, where possible by use of the network of free Clyde Navigation Trust operated pedestrian ferries. Beginning at the 1864 Tyne built sailing vessel, another Carrick, with her cut down masts (the vessel now preserved for posterity at Port Adelaide, South Australia in her original City of Adelaide name) could be observed one or more of J & A Gardner’s small coasters such as the ageing (1920) Saint Aidan working a cargo of phosphates, sand or other bulk material, duly enshrouding the adjacent Clyde Street ‘SMT’ bus station and awaiting vehicles in a fine dust coating.
Under the Central Station railway lines and by crossing the Glasgow Bridge at an early hour, could be seen during ‘the season’, a CSP steamer, usually the turbine Queen Mary II alongside Bridge Wharf preparing for her daily “Doon the Watter” passage to Rothesay and the Kyles of Bute. Seen also at this vantage point immediately downriver of Bridge Wharf, a member of William Sloan’s coaster fleet such as Fruin, Tay or Deveron loading for Bristol Channel and South Wales ports. A check beyond could then be made on which of David MacBrayne’s all-cargo ships Loch Ard, Loch Carron or Loch Dunvegan was on turnround in the Kingston Dock. By contrast and immediately downriver at Springfield Quay might be the rare sighting of a Paddy Henderson passenger/ cargo vessel such as the ageing Salween loading for Burma. Later, that Company’s ships including their ‘K’ class all-cargo vessels would occupy Prince’s Dock berths.
Returning to the North bank of the river, my mate and I would trudge the first mile or so down Glasgow’s Broomielaw to catch a glimpse of one of Burns & Laird’s essentially identical overnight sailing ‘Belfast boats’, Royal Scotsman or Royal Ulsterman – distinguishable only by the thistle wind vane at Royal Scotsman’s mainmast truck or the shamrock at her sister’s fore. Perhaps Lairds Loch might also be sighted preparing for her thrice weekly sailings to Londonderry. By surreptitious access to the cargo sheds we could view Irish Coast or younger and virtually identical sister, the Burns & Laird marked Scottish Coast slightly further upriver, loading for a night sailing to Dublin. Further ‘stealth’ in these sheds would be rewarded with a view across the river of one or more deep drafted ore carriers berthed at the General Terminus Quay discharging their Puerto Ordaz, Vitoria, Sept Isles, Narvik or Murmansk cargoes via grabs and a complex conveyor belt system into railway wagons for transhipment to Colville’s Lanarkshire smelters and steel works at Motherwell.
From time to time Grangesberg Oxelosund’s Swedish flag, grey hulled, beautifully maintained and somewhat uniquely designed/minimalist midships house oil/ore carriers such as the 16,000 ton Vassijaure could be seen alongside, providing interesting contrast to the rather more conventionally designed British flag Denholm, Common Brothers, Houlders, Lyle, Souter’s Sheaf Steam & Bamburgh Shipping, Silver Line, Bolton Steam’s North Yorkshire Shipping and Wm. Cory’s Garth fleets.