William Fife of Fairlie

The Lady Anne, a 15 metre (95') Gaff Cutter built in 1912 under the peaks of Arran.
Copyright © Marc Turner
At the end of September each year, for one week only, the picturesque harbour at St Tropez on the Côte d'Azur is emptied of the flashy plastic and chrome gin palaces whose owners are the only people who can afford a berth in the world's most glamorous ports. In their place come the 100 or so classic wooden yachts participating in les Voiles de St Tropez, the final race in the series for the Prada Trophy.

These yachts are amongst the most beautiful objects mankind has ever made and crowds come from all over Europe to admire them, even when they are tied up to the quayside. To be Scottish in St Tropez in September is to feel a swelling of pride, because the unquestioned star in the world of classic yachts is one William Fife III of Fairlie.

From the late 1880s to the Second World War, William Fife designed and built many of the fastest and most exquisite yachts in the world. Many were ordered by wealthy merchants from Glasgow and Paisley and other towns in the West of Scotland who were also building splendid villas on the island of Bute. Fife yachts ranged in size from little 17ft skiffs to the 23metre J class yacht Cambria which regularly takes part in the Prada Challenge races.

The Lady Anne, here fully powered up on her way to Rothesay.
Copyright © Marc Turner
"Fast and Bonny" was Fife's mantra, his mission statement; a yacht that looked good would sail well. And for over 50 years Fife's yachts won races all over the world. His only serious failures were the two yachts he designed as challengers for the America's Cup. Both were called Shamrock and both were built for Sir Thomas Lipton and—because of their size—neither could be built at Fife's yard at Fairlie.

The fact is, Fairlie was a daft place to build big yachts. Any weekend sailor on the Firth of Clyde knows that there's really only one place where you can be well out from the shore and still run aground—off the town of Fairlie. The beach shelves gradually and it took all Fife's ingenuity to devise a way of launching large yachts from his yard. He had to build a floating dock which would take them out into deeper water.

No one knows exactly how many of nearly 1000 yachts designed and built by Fife still survive, but a number of his most famous yachts have been lovingly restored, several of them at Fairlie Restorations on the River Hamble near Southampton. The company has managed to gather together a nucleus of craftsmen capable of reproducing the skills of the men of Fairlie. And it is a testament to those original skills that so many Fife yachts do survive.

Clio, Moonbeam and Belle Adventure sailing before the start of the final race off Tighnabruich.
Copyright © Marc Turner
Take Moonbeam, for example. When she was launched in 1920, the Field magazine described Fife's new cutter as "the most beautiful boat in the world". And it is hard to disagree. Now restored to her full glory—64ft along the waterline, 95ft long overall—she is normally resident in New Zealand. But in 2003 she paid a return visit to her home waters as part of the fleet of yachts taking part in a Fife regatta. She was the biggest of four big Fife yachts in the regatta. But in the first race of the regatta, Moonbeam and all the others were beaten by the smallest—and oldest—yacht in the fleet: Hatasoo, 17ft long and built in 1894 and based at McGrouther's yard in Kilcreggan.

Fife went on designing and building yachts well into his seventies. In 1935, aged 78, he designed one of his most admired ocean racing yachts, Latifa. She was one of his all-time favourites and, when he died in 1944, his sisters had a gilded model made of her. The real Latifa is still sailing in the Mediterranean, and the model is still on top of the spire of Fairlie Parish Church. Fife's grave is in the Largs cemetery, overlooking the waters where his beautiful designs made their mark.

Nothing much remains of the Fife boatyard, although it continued in operation until the 1980s. A few rusting bollards, a plaque on a pub wall and the model on top of the spire are the only memorials to a great man of the Clyde. And several dozen of the world's most beautiful boats, of course.

Article by Brian Barr
Photographs courtesy of Marc Turner, marc@pfmpictures.co.uk
Please do not publish without permission.

Copyright © 2001-, Bute Sons & Daughters