Main The Fleet Fleet Features Duchess of Montrose v Saint Columba (Part 2)

Imagine, if you can, a turbine streaker! For that was the role that befell the Duchess of Montrose during the World War II. Not for her the excitement of trips to foreign waters that her paddle wheeled consorts and rivals enjoyed; although she did perform a couple of stints on the Stranraer to Larne crossing, her lack of a bow rudder made her sister, the Duchess of Hamilton, a more sensible option for that route. The Montrose became, in essence, the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay ferry for the duration.

Back and forth. Forth and back. Day after day. Week after week. Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. For six long years.

Grey from waterline to funnel. Rust-streaked. With a big sign on her upper deck proclaiming her shame for all to see. “D of M’trose”, it read. And back and forth she sailed. Tantalising glimpses of Loch Striven, of the Kyles of Bute, of the Island of Arran in the distance and of Paddy’s milestone – haunts all of her illustrious previous decade, but mere glimpses. Her wonderful teak decks became scarred by the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the old metal-wheeled railway carts. Food? There was no time, and anyway, there was the wartime rationing to worry about.

And back and forth she went - with the odd trip to Largs and Keppel to whet the post-war appetite.

What of her great rival, MacBrayne’s Saint Columba? She lay forlornly (and grey again!) in Greenock’s East India Harbour, her wartime role as static boom defence accommodation ship – a far cry indeed from her first war heroics when, at one point, she rammed and sank a German U-boat. Her boilers remained silent and her engine unmoving. Resting perhaps for the great battles that lay in the future.

Immediate post war

The Montrose was reconditioned and re-entered service in 1946. Saint Columba followed a year later, interestingly the last of the Clyde steamers to be given back to her owners. The timetablers got to work and thus the stage was set for the famous scraps that happened from time to time in the Kyles of Bute on the run ‘twixt Rothesay and Tighnabruaich.

July 1950

Some people liked Gourock of a morning – especially in the hour or so between 9:00 and 10:00. I was going to say that there was tremendous coming and going as the long-distance turbines started their journeys to far-flung spots on the Firth; actually, and with the honourable exception of the Saint Columba, there was more going than coming and going! For myself, it would have been Dunoon for thrills!

Let us imagine ourselves back in time some 53 years - let’s say 1950 of a July morning. The sun is well up and shining out of an azure sky. The river is a picture, busier then than now, with much to-ing and fro-ing. Large ships headed out for the Atlantic, or being met by the pilot boats to be escorted further upriver. River steamers aplenty to be seen. This is a time pre - point to point car ferry, so the eagle eye can spot the Marchioness of Lorne on her Holy Loch circuit and one of the ex LNER paddle steamers crossing to Gourock.

Gourock itself is a hive of activity, but the good news is that much of the hive is heading our way in the next hour or so. The Caledonia, carrying her share of commuters, Glesca shoppers and returning holidaymakers had made her way across from Dunoon via Kirn at 08:30, berthing at Gourock at 08:55. Travelling light from her overnight berth in Greenock and berthed at the extreme west end of the pier, near the railway station entrance, is Saint Columba. She is anxiously awaiting the mails from the Glasgow train, impatient to leave on the “Royal Route” at 09:30 sharp. She alone of the steamers on the Clyde carries MacBrayne’s colours. Since nationalisation, the LNER fleet based in Craigendoran have the same funnel colours as their erstwhile Caley rivals. They still keep their black paddle boxes – indeed, the Jeanie Deans would never lose hers – but the indignity of buff and black is already there for all to see.

The two Duchesses, Montrose and Hamilton will be off on their travels soon as well. The Hamilton, already under the confident command of Captain Fergus Murdoch, will be making her usual way to Campbeltown, and the Montrose is on the Arran via the Kyles of Bute cruise. The good news is that all three turbines will be making their various ways via Dunoon and I have a decision to make! Which one to take – I have a day to kill and some money to burn!

Decisions, decisions!

I have decided to base my decision on the timing of Saint Columba. You see, if everything is as it should be, then the MacBrayne’s ship clears Rothesay before the Duchess of Montrose arrives at the pier – in other words, there is no race! It is a well-known fact in “dreamer” circles around this time that, whilst the Hamilton might give the three-funnelled Saint Columba a run for her money, the Montrose stands no chance. The real fun will happen if Saint Columba is held up by ten minutes or so; then you can bet every one of your silver dollars that Bob McLean and his chief engineer will stretch every rivet in her hull to reach Tighnabruaich first! To be honest, the Montrose’s cruise is probably the most interesting of the three, because she returns to Dunoon from Arran via Garroch Head, rather than retracing her steps and as for the trip down Kilbrannan Sound – well, the Hamilton may be my personal favourite of the three ships, but you can keep the trip to Campbeltown!

You may wonder why the Saint Columba would be held up; interestingly, for the same reason that typically gives her the advantage over the two railway ships at this time – the poor quality coal that her connecting trains sometimes suffer from. In her 1937 off-season, MacBrayne’s took the far-sighted decision to change her fuel from coal to oil; she is the only Clyde steamer to be oil fired in 1950.

The two Duchesses leave Gourock in line astern and make across the water to Dunoon. As an aside, I wonder how many passengers have caught the wrong one! As the Montrose comes gracefully alongside, I note with interest that the Captain is none other than John MacLeod, at this point one of the relief masters but a man noted for his racing instincts! I check my watch and look for a plume of smoke from Gourock; there is none – the Saint has been held up and my mind is made up! I let the Montrose go (she is heading across towards Wemyss Bay) and await the tardy arrival of Saint Columba.

And the good news is that she is only 10 minutes late – which sets things up nicely for what should be a marvellous race in around an hour or so’s time. She is being driven hard across the firth. As she approaches the pier, I can see Captain McLean standing purposefully on the bridge wing.

She is an interesting ship to look at. When MacBrayne’s altered her from her original two-funnelled guise in 1935 – presumably in homage to the newly launched Queen Mary, feelings were mixed. Interestingly, she is very definitely not the Captain’s favourite ship; he has always maintained that the third (dummy) funnel acts as a windbreak and much prefers the King George V. There is a different feel to the Saint Columba compared to the railway steamers, mind you. One writer wrote that, if she could speak, it would be in the Gaelic, where the Duchesses might speak in English!

As she slides towards the pier, I notice that the hull is of an older design than either of the Duchesses. Where they have a series of windows on the main deck level, she has portholes. Her stern especially speaks of Edwardian origins (she was built in 1912, mind you, just after the King’s death in 1910), where the Duchesses have an altogether more modern feel about them. She takes the pier handily enough, mind you, and I am looking forward to my day on her. Boarding is by the aft of her two gaping entry ways on the promenade deck and, no sooner have all the passengers embarked than we are on our way towards Innellan.

The Duchess of Hamilton has, by this time, disappeared into Rothesay Bay and the Montrose is well on her way back across the Firth from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. We leave Innellan in no time at all – hardly a passenger to embark or disembark and no mails to speak of – and make our way towards Toward Point and Rothesay Bay.

And it is now that things become interesting! The Hamilton is leaving Rothesay and making her way over to Largs. She is a magnificent sight and is being driven at cloudy steam! Her bow waves feathers into the sky before falling into the glistening water. She makes hardly a sound as she passes us on our port side and swings on course for Largs and onward to Campbeltown. The two Captains acknowledge each other.

The race is on

But where is the Montrose? She is taking the pier and looks to have about 5 or 6 minutes advantage on us – an advantage compounded by the fact that she has no mail or cargo to load and unload, just people. On closer inspection, she seems to be straddling both the middle and east berths, thus blocking us from the pier until she is good and ready to leave. I look up to the bridge. Although standing impassively, our Captain looks displeased! I decide that the upper deck, just abaft the bridge on the port side is the place for me, there to study our man and see how he handles the pressure of the situation!

The Montrose clears the pier in a cloud of smoke and it is obvious that Captain MacLeod is not going to give up his rights to Tighnabruaich pier without something of a fight! Saint Columba takes Rothesay pier in a flurry of propellor wash and oaths! The seamen hustling the passengers on to the ship know better than to be anything but efficient and I only hope that there was nothing breakable in the mailbags, given the way they were thrown onto the pier. In less than five minutes, we are on our way and it is obvious that a word has been exchanged ‘twixt bridge and engine room. Where before the turbines purred, now they are rattling! I swear that we are on the Lochfyne rather than the Saint Columba, the way the ship is vibrating!

I wish I could see the ship from ashore! What a sight we must make as we head towards Colintraive in hot pursuit of the Montrose. And as we follow, I wonder if I have made the right choice; all I can see ahead is a cloud of dense smoke hiding the Montrose from view and, as I look astern towards our own funnels, I note that, oil burner we may be, but we are laying as much stour down as she is!

Things were so bad last year with the Montrose, that they took her out the water to clean her bottom! It seems to have worked because, so far, she remains stubbornly ahead of us. Perhaps her coal is as good as the Hamilton’s obviously was when I saw her leave Rothesay Bay heading towards Largs about 40 minutes or so ago. We are gaining though, but as the smoke occasionally clears, the Montrose’s propellor wash speaks of a ship being driven hard. Realistically, we have to be almost right behind her going through the Narrows to stand any chance of gaining Tighnabruaich pier before her. Gradually we creep up on her stern, just outside her propellor wash; the race is most definitely on!

Colintraive looms on our starboard side. Captain McLean almost dares the small ferry to come out from Rhubodach before he passes. The Montrose is at the buoys that mark the path that is normally taken; we in the meantime have swung to port and are obviously having one last throw of the dice by taking the South “Dog Leg” Channel. As we stream through the channel at twenty odd knots, the Montrose has already turned to port and is holding the inside path on the run to the pier. Steam belches from her two funnels and her bow wave arcs gracefully. The red of her underbody is as clear as day about halfway down her slender hull. She is being driven remorselessly.

I swear that our ship accelerates at this point! Heaven knows what has happened; perhaps some high pressure steam has been fed into low pressure turbines, but whatever it is, the ship leaps forward like a destroyer. The masts and their stays shake; the funnels positively rattle; it is like being in an earth tremor. We are reeling in the Montrose almost as if she is standing still – and she must be travelling at twenty knots herself, mind you, when suddenly, bells ring and our speed slackens. Looking ahead to the pier, the race has been decided by the piermaster and new owner of the pier, one George Olding who is signalling the Montrose in. We have by this time drawn alongside our rival and – a nice touch this – both Masters doff their caps to one another in recognition of a race well run.

Homeward bound

The rest of the day passes in more sedate fashion, it has to be said! The Montrose’s schedule allowed a rather quiet 40 minutes for her passage through the Kyles; she had left Rothesay almost to time at 10:35 and was in fact ahead of schedule at Tighnabruaich. She did not dally at the pier (though I suppose it may have been tempting!) and let us take the pier a mere 6 minutes behind schedule at 11:16. In truth, the rest of our day passes rather uneventfully and although we arrive at our final destination, Ardrishaig, about five or so minutes behind schedule, we leave on our return journey bang on time at 13:10 and arrive back in Gourock at 16:25 – again on schedule.

Some final thoughts

If truth be told, the post war “Royal Route” was a lot less taxing for the by now somewhat aged Saint Columba than had been the case from 1935 – 1939. Then, she had maintained the original timings and route, leaving Glasgow at 7:11 and not returning until 18:55. As well as that, she was perhaps well served by her relative lack of exertion during World War II. She remained in service until September 1958, when diminishing receipts and Old Father Time necessitated her withdrawal. She was towed to Smith and Houston’s yard at Port Glasgow on 23 December that same year, there to be unceremoniously broken up. She remains the only three-funnelled steamer ever to serve on the river and she gave 48 years unstinting service.

Bob McLean retired in 1954. Sadly his proud record had been somewhat blighted the year before he retired when the Saint Columba found herself high and dry at Kildavannan Point near Ettrick Bay on Loch Fyne in a thick fog. Nonetheless he had a proud record as a seaman of fifty years experience, twenty-five as a master.

The Duchess of Montrose was withdrawn in 1964 and left the river for the final time on 19 August 1965. Ironically, her first trip firth of the waters of her birth was to a scrapyard in Belgium – so finally, she achieved her ambition to visit foreign waters!

The Duchess of Hamilton soldiered on in partnership with the Queen Mary II (latterly Queen Mary) until 1970. After an abortive attempt to turn her into a floating restaurant, she was towed to Troon in April 1974, there to be scrapped.

But they were great days to be on the river, right enough!

Text Thanks To Robin Copland.
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.

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