Coal smoke spiralling its lazy way above the shining inverted keel of Glasgow’s Science Museum guided us to the puffer VIC32, our home for a week’s cruise around the Firth of Clyde.
Puffers were once the lifeline for communities throughout Scotland’s west coast, and beyond, carrying everything from coal to livestock. Their curious design was based on canal ‘gabberts’, horse-drawn barges carrying coal between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Short and stubby they had to be less than sixty feet long in order to fit into locks along the way. Around 1870 someone had the bright idea of installing steam engines and doing away with horses, opening the way to working beyond the canal, trade which in any case was declining with the advent of railways. As puffers were flat-bottomed, they could find their way into places lacking conventional harbours. They simply ran into sandy bays, waited for the tide to go out, sat down and unloaded their cargos into whatever wheeled vehicles were available.
The result of this change to mechanical power was a curious hybrid of canal barge-cum-sea-going vessel. A blunt bow held the crew’s quarters below a steam-driven winch to operate the simple crane used for unloading cargo out of the cavernous hold. All the important works, from skipper’s cabin to coal-fired boiler were crammed into the tiny space offered by the stern. Steering the boat was hampered by the helmsman having to peer round a funnel directly in front of the wheel-house. This curious arrangement was linked to the reason why the boats were called puffers.
As the first engine-powered vessels had unlimited canal water for their boilers, there was no need to economise. Exhaust steam was simply blown directly up the funnel, making a puffing sound which gave the boats their name. Condensers fitted to sea-going puffers in order to avoid using sea-water, removed the need to exhaust waste steam up the funnel, but the name stuck.
Anyone who remembers the BBC TV comedy/drama The Vital Spark, will recall the mis-adventures of the motley crew of an aging puffer plying its way around the Western Isles. There was also a full-length Ealing Comedy The Maggie, in which an American tycoon Calvin B Marshall, played by the late Paul Douglas is tricked by the Maggie’s devious skipper into hiring the puffer to deliver expensive furniture to a remote Hebridean island. Suffice to say the furniture never reaches its destination, but along the way the tycoon learns a lot about life from the ‘wee boy’, the Maggie’s cabin boy as well as local people frequently played by local inhabitants of the west coast.
Both the BBC series and the Ealing Comedy were based on stories written in the early 1900s by the late Hugh Munro, a Glasgow Evening News journalist. He immortalised the likes of Para Handy or Hurricane Jack and the scallywag crews of the puffer trade around Scotland’s west coast. Never out of print for long his stories brought to life the exploits of characters such as those imprisoned for poaching game, or in one reported case, stealing their boat’s petty cash. It wasn’t just the crews that were characters, puffers also had a life of their own – there was once a puffer tied to Arran’s Lamlash harbour wall for months, waiting for a replacement to its propeller which had lost a blade.
Cruising with the Vic 32
While there are several puffers awaiting restoration in harbours up and down the country, the VIC32 is the only one currently sea-worthy and able to carry passengers.
Although built to the design of a traditional Clyde puffer, VIC32 started life working for the Royal Navy during WW2. The initials VIC are a naval acronym for Victualling Inshore Craft, one of 100 made during the war to carry supplies ranging from food to high explosives. Built by R Dunston’s of Thorne on Humberside, VIC32 spent the war victualling warships and naval bases around the North Sea. Although these little ships had a mundane existence, they served their country well in time of war. Regrettably only a handful survived into more peaceful times – some ended their days as tramp steamers in the Far East; a few still languish in naval museums or were scrapped, but only the VIC32 carries out its original work, albeit for pleasure not commerce.
Enthusiasts Nick and Rachael Walker found VIC32 languishing in a Whitby dock. In 1975 they were on their way home from Northumbria after an abortive attempt to buy a small yacht. Quite by chance they spotted the puffer when they were about to leave Whitby. Even though it looked rather grubby, nevertheless it was in reasonable condition, basically needing only a bit of TLC. Enquiries led the Walkers to the VIC’s owner, Keith Schellenberg one-time owner of the Island of Eigg who proved willing to sell. The boat was sufficiently sea worthy to sail down to St Katherine’s Yacht Haven in London where with the help of volunteers, it spent the next three years undergoing considerably more than simple TLC. The result was an almost unique example of a coal fired steam boat ready to find its way back to the traditional home of the puffers around Scotland’s west coast. In 1978 crewed mainly by teams of volunteers, VIC32 made its way home. Since then it has carried well over 5,000 passengers including narrow boat enthusiasts Timothy West and Prunella Scales featured in their canal series on TV.
Passenger accommodation might be a bit cramped on two levels in the converted hold, but it is adequate and cosy, complete with its steam operated 78 rpm gramophone, or the series of steam whistles on the funnel called a calliope. Everyone pitches in, from helping wash dishes, to steering the puffer, or shovelling coal to feed the insatiable engine.
We joined the VIC32 at its berth behind Glasgow Science Centre. To one side was the Paddle Steamer Waverley making ready for trips ‘doon the watter’. To our front and under restoration was the Queen Mary – not the trans-Atlantic liner, but the original boat to carry that illustrious name, (for years it had to be known as Queen Mary 2 after HRH King George V asked that the newly built liner was named after his wife). Sailing down the Clyde made us realise how narrow the river is and the difficulties launching new builds. Most of the yards are no more – John Brown’s where RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was built is now the site of a college of technology.
Our first night afloat was at anchor opposite Faslane Nuclear Submarine base at the head of Loch Long. We seemed to attract the attention of the police, but hopefully it was simply the novelty of a puffer in this area of almost science fiction.
Sailing south down the Firth of Clyde we went past Dunoon to call at Rothesay on Bute. Here we cosied up for the night to one of CalMac’s ferries preparing itself for the holiday season. For generations of Glaswegians, Rothesay was popular port of call for Clyde trippers, many of whom take full advantage of the magnificent public toilets that have stood on the quay since Victorian times. Fairly recently the harbour authority wanted to demolish it, but HRH Prince Charles in his capacity as Duke of Rothesay, designated the structure as the only Grade 2 listed Victorian toilets in Britain!
With the advantage of an offshoot of the Gulf Stream, Bute has two magnificent gardens. Both are a short drive south from Rothesay and we were able to visit them quite easily. Mount Stuart is part of the Victorian stately home of the Marquess of Bute whose family fortunes were based on south Wales’s collieries. The small hillside garden set within woodland is a pleasant contrast to the castle’s heavy interior. A mile or so closer to Rothesay, Ascog Hall is home of the oldest fern in Britain, a 1000 year old King Fern, remarkably the sole survivor of the Victorian collection.
A short hop took us to Great Cumbrae and a visit to its Episcopalian Cathedral, then onwards to Tarbert at the mouth of Loch Fyne to pick up 10 tons of coal whilst watched over by a picnicking family of four sheltering under a convenient lorry’s tailboard.
Despite the pouring rain, Nick had been advised that the Crinan canal was about to be closed and so a hurried dash up to Ardrishaig and working VIC32 through fourteen locks ended a memorable holiday more suddenly than expected.