Main The Fleet Fleet Features Duchess of Montrose v Saint Columba (Part 1)


I suppose that, if we are being truthful, our story starts on 10 September 1911 in the Albert Harbour Greenock, wherein sat a smouldering Queen Alexandra (1). She had been built as a larger and slightly faster consort to the King Edward of 1901 and had proved a great success on long distance cruises. All of that was sadly forgotten though as Captain Williamson viewed his badly damaged charge tied up to the harbour wall. So badly damaged was she that Captain Williamson felt that the travelling public on the Clyde would have a problem sailing on her again, so she was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway, rebuilt and renamed Princes Patricia. She was a popular servant on the run from Vancouver to Nanaimo until finally scrapped in 1937.

As a result of the fire, Captain Williamson immediately ordered an almost identical replacement from Denny’s, which was again named Queen Alexandra. This one was a real flier from the outset! She raced the measured mile at 21½ knots for’ard and 12½ knots astern – one of the continuing problems with King Edward being her relative lack of reversing power. So, the new Queen Alexandra was more nimble at the piers and quicker in a straight line, to boot. Her first public sailing was on 23rd May 1912 and, fittingly, she was on the Campbeltown run.

She set the standard for Clyde steamers of the day. Built at Denny’s Dumbarton yard, she was blessed with a magnificent hull form, all 270.3 feet of her - she remains the longest turbine steamer ever built for Clyde service. She enjoyed a shaded promenade deck amidships and an upper deck out of which rose two tall slim funnels; no mainmast in those far-off days – just the foremast rising from the promenade deck in front of the ship’s bridge. What a sight she must have been, racing to far-flung points on the firth day after day after sun-filled day.

Then came the war. She was requisitioned in 1915 and distinguished herself by ramming and sinking a German U-boat. Back she came to the Clyde in 1919 to take up her long-distance cruising programme again, by this time spending more and more of her time on the long run to Inveraray. We shall leave her there in the cool, clear waters of Loch Fyne and the Kyles of Bute– suffice to say that she continued to give excellent service for a further 15 or so years until next we shall encounter her.

TS Duchess of Montrose

Come 1930, the LMS-owned Caledonian Steam Packet Company was in need of a new direction. Their 1925 Glen Sannox, though an admirable ship in her own right was essentially a copy of the 1905 Duchess of Argyll. She was trumped the following year by the groundbreaking King George V. Where Queen Alexandra had set the pace 14 years earlier, the KGV rewrote the rulebook for Clyde Turbines. Where, on the earlier ships, the promenade deck remained open to the elements – if shaded by the upper deck, KGV’s promenade deck was partially enclosed. Look at a picture of TS Glen Sannox and then look at one of TS King George V, to see the change.

So when the railway company approached Denny’s to build their new excursion steamer and flagship, they made it clear that KGV was to be the model, rather than Glen Sannox. TS Duchess of Montrose was to provide the Clyde with an entirely new standard of steamer. She was one-class (First!), which made the interior designers’ job a lot easier; she had an enclosed observation lounge and a bar fitted out in an English Pub theme; her dining room was situated aft on the main deck and had eleven superb picture windows to port and to starboard, so that diners could enjoy their meal, but at the same time continue to enjoy the views. A wooden bridge (though open to the elements) was situated towards the front of the upper deck, which itself was enclosed by the same wood. Her vital statistics were 262 by 32 feet, with a gross tonnage (when built) measured at 806 – later in her life that figure was remeasured as 794; her trial speed over the measured mile was a very respectable 20.65 knots. She was, in summary, a stunning addition to the river’s fleet, with perhaps the only adverse comments surrounding the stump mainmast – it was as if the designers were scared to go the whole hog and came up with a half-sized compromise!

So successful and profitable did she prove to be that her owners commissioned a sister ship, TS Duchess of Hamilton in 1932 to service the important Ayr trade.

RMS St Columba

TS Queen Alexandra, in the meantime, had continued to provide an excellent service on the Clyde long distance excursions. In 1932, in recognition perhaps that the river’s weather was not always Mediterranean, she had her promenade deck enclosed in line with KGV and the Duchesses, but the big change to her was about to take place. In 1935 all the assets and goodwill of Williamson-Buchanan Steamers Ltd and Turbine Steamers Ltd were acquired by the LMS Company in association with David MacBrayne. MacBrayne’s received two ships, TS King George V and TS Queen Alexandra. The latter went to Lamont’s yard and, when she emerged in May 1936, she was scarcely recognisable. Gone were the two slim funnels, to be replaced by three shorter elliptical funnels (the latter a dummy), painted in MacBrayne’s colours. She became known as MacBrayne’s “little Cunarder” and a fine sight she made on the river. In 1937, and crucially for later in our story, she was converted to burn oil. Her name was no longer Queen Alexandra; she was renamed Saint Columba – an echo of the famous paddler, Columba, she was to replace on the Royal Route. She took up service on MacBrayne’s all-the-way sailing, departing Glasgow’s Bridge Wharf at 7.11 – not a minute earlier or later – for Ardrishaig and return that same day.

The War

Perhaps in recognition of her advancing years, Saint Columba was an accommodation ship in Greenock’s East India Harbour, while the Montrose concentrated on tendering duties, the run from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay and two or three forays to Stranraer for the important run to Larne.

Both ships were reconditioned after the war, the Montrose returning in 1946 and Saint Columba in 1947 – interestingly, the last of the Clyde steamers to be returned to service after the hostilities.

The Forties and Fifties

Fair to say, I think, that the Montrose was not the ship she had been. Still palatial; still with a fair turn of speed; still used on the long distance cruises that had been her forte pre war – but not the ship she had been. So worried were the Caley bosses about their previous star’s lack of pace and sparkle, that they had her dry-docked in 1949 to have her bottom cleaned! Perhaps the problem was a conservative master and engineer – after all, her sister, the Duchess of Hamilton was already joined at the hip to Captain Fergus Murdoch; more likely it was the fact that all the Caley fleet, including the Montrose were still coal-fired, as opposed to the oil-fired boilers of the Saint Columba. Even the Hamilton was found out on occasion at this point in her career by the swashbuckling Saint Columba under Campbeltown’s own Captain “Big Bob” McLean.

They met from time to time in the Kyles of Bute where, despite the Montrose’s ten-minute start, Saint Columba would often catch, draw level with, and then glide away to take Tighnabruaich before her Caley rival. But that’s the subject of another story!

Duckworth and Langmuir, Clyde River and Other Steamers, published by Brown, Son and Ferguson, Ltd in 1990;
Ian McCrorie, Tighnabruaich Pier, published by the Tighnabruaich Pier Association in cooperation with the Douglas Press in 2002;
Geoffrey Grimshaw, Eight Day Season, Article in CRSC Magazine, Clyde Steamers, Number 17, Autumn 1981;
John T A Brown, The Roaring Forties, Article in CRSC Magazine, Clyde Steamers, Number 18, Jubilee Year 1982;
Ian Ramsay, Big Bob and the Royal Route, Article in CRSC Magazine Number 19, Winter 1983;
Robert Cleary, Royal Mail Turbine Steamer Saint Columba, published by CRSC.

(PART 2)

Text Thanks To Robin Copland.

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