Ten Years of Maritime Memories, from 1936

Rothesay harbour and the Bay have always been veritable magnets for young boys, had the added attraction in that my grandfather, Archibald Meikle, was the local steamboat agent for the Williamson Buchanan Steamship Company. I was well known about the pier because before her marriage my mother had worked in the office of the family business of Meikle and McKellar the Contractors.

As a ten year old there was always something to keep my interest and my teenage years happened to coincide with a very interesting decade in the Island of Bute' history.

Pre-war, the number of steamer arrivals and departures was high, what with the normal Wemyss Bay service plus others from Dunoon and Gourock most with their connecting trains to Glasgow. There were also the MacBrayne steamers on the "Royal Route" to Tarbert and Ardrishaig leaving at 10.30am and returning to Rothesay at 3.30pm before carrying on up the piers to Gourock.

During the season there were also cruise steamers like the "Duchess of Hamilton" and the "Duchess of Montrose" which sailed to such places as Arran, Ayr, and Campbeltown. They were like miniature liners and being steam turbine screw steamers there was no vibration to be felt while underway. Their dinning saloons were very impressive complete with starched linen table cloths, crested crockery and silver plated cutlery and tea services. To pier boat spotters however, eating meals was merely time wasted.

Frequent visitors to the pier were the cargo vessels "Arran" and "Ardyne" which brought the hundred and one things necessary to keep Rothesay supplied with essentials. These were unloaded by Rothesay's own squad of dockers and manhandled into the shed which is now the ladies section of the now famous Victorian toilets.

In the inner harbour there was usually a puffer or two to be seen discharging coal or other bulk cargoes. There too could also be seen the "Jess-ian" belonging to the Hogarth family. It was a sailing craft mainly but it had an engine for occasional use. In these days all bulk cargoes were unloaded by hand, men filling the cargo hoist buckets which were then hoisted by the ship's derrick, swung shorewards and tipped into waiting horse drawn carts. It meant long hours of dirty, backbreaking and exhausting work for the crew and shore workers. There were also lots of fishing boats, both local and from other port discharging catches and revictualing.

In pre-war days ships of the Royal Navy occasionally visited the Bay. One I well remember was the battle-cruiser H.M.S. Hood. The local boat hirers were kept very busy when visitors were allowed on board. All naval personnel who came ashore were ferried by their own ship's very smart steam driven liberty boats with their polished brass funnels, they and their stylish berthing drills were a joy for a pier habitué.

Then came the war and all that changed, with the sailing ship "Lawhill" laid up on a mooring in the Bay, then he arrival of the Third Submarine Flotilla with its depot ship "Cyclops". Frequent visitors to the pier were the "Rona" and the "Lochaline" both were requisitioned, the former a Fishery Protection Cruiser whilst the latter was a private steam yacht with a lovely fiddle bow. With the fall of France came the Dutch tugs with names like "Zeehound" and "Zeelewe" and the French tug "Rene le Besnarais" The Frenchie was manned by local crew. The skipper was from Kilchattan Bay, the mate Dugald Gillies (ex Prudential Assurance) and the cook was Bob Crawford then owner of the Grand Marine Hotel which had been taken over by the Royal Navy. The latter was the tug that tried to bring in the tanker "San Demetrio" but he crew remaining aboard the ravaged tanker refused a tow and brought the ship into Port Bannatyne themselves, with no bridge and only half an emergency wheel.
Their exploits were later made into the film "San Demetrio, London". Working with these tugs was the salvage vessel "Ranger" of the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Company. She was an old vessel by the time she came to work on the Clyde.

The Kyles of Bute Hydropathic Hotel which sat on the slopes above Port Bannatyne was requisitioned by the navy and renamed H.M.S. Varbel. I served as the shore base of the midget submarines. Their Pen stretched from the Steamer Pier in Kames Bay to where the War Memorial now stands.

The arrival of the Royal Army Service Corps, with their boatyard at the childrens corner and trots of moorings for L.C.A's (Landing Craft Assault), L.C.V's (Landing Craft Vehicles) and the bigger L.C.T.'s (Landing Craft Tanks) from West Bay towards Ardbeg fairly filled that shore. The remains of their slipa can still be seen protruding from the sand.

Port Bannatyne was a boy's dream and a seaman's nightmare as this was one of the anchorages which was chosen to receive ships which had been damaged by torpedoes or mines in the Battle of the Atlantic. During the years 1941-2-3 very large numbers of men and allied ships were lost in the Atlantic. The wounded vessels waited for space in the Clyde repair yards. In some cased only a bow or stern section was brought in.
I particularly remember rowing into a bow section of a ship which was only afloat because its cargo was of timber. Another was the Dutch liner "Volendam" which was beached nearly up to the main road near the Ettrick Bay turn-off up the hill. How they
got it so high up I do not know. It was frightening to see all the mess a torpedo could make of an engine-room or a boiler-room what with burst steam pipes twisted walkways and ladders. In some cases we could row in one side of the ship and out through the other. Somehow or other the gallant crews managed to bring them to the Clyde. Beached at Kilchattan Bay for a time was the tanker "Imperial Transport"
I also had a memorable adventures with Herbert McIvor who eventually became my brother-in-law. I was aboard the tug "Rene le Besnarais", Herbert was the Mate , when I got a close up of the damage a Mine caused to the bow of a destroyer.
Once Herbert and I were towed back to Rothesay from the Toward coast where we were investigating a sailing ship which was breaking up on the shore.
On another occasion I was with Herbert when we pulled the body of a submariner ashore behind our rowing boat after finding it drifting near our moorings. The Police took charge of the body. It was thought that he had slipped into the space between two submarines alongside the "Cyclops".
I still have fond memories of the sounds of the sea and the ships, the shrill calls of the Bo' suns pipes, the swish of the bow-wave of that old paddler the Columba" and the slow turning of the paddles of the early morning steamer as she warmed through her steam cylinders prior to a hard day's work. There was also the tradition of the ringing of ships bells and the blowing of steam whistles and sirens which welcomed in the New Year in Rothesay Harbour.

Kenneth Meikle MacKay C.Eng., F.I.Mar.E.
Born Bute on the 9 Jun 1926, now resides New Galloway, Kirkcudbrightshire.
Kenneth first met his wife, Mabel McIver in 1931 while they were pupils at Rothesay Primary School. They were married in 1954. Mabel's father ran a local boat hirers business on the island and skippered the May Queen which sailed regularly each day during the summer season from Rothesay to Tighnabruich, carrying the summer holidaymakers. Kenneth, like many young Brandanes, took up a career at sea and obtained his chief's ticket before he returned to work onshore and settle down on the mainland.

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