A Slice of Scotland: (2) Doon the watter

From my window the Clyde very much looks like a broad and lazy river. The Vale of Leven and Helensburgh across the water seem within easy reach. Even if the truth is they can be a bit of a slog to get to. Following the river a bit further though not only does it widen, as you might expect, it does a peculiar dogleg bend. Around the outside edge of the bend three lochs branch off like watery sun rays, creating several peninsulas that make getting around by land quite a chore. This is where the Inverclyde region becomes a true water world and getting around by ferry is a necessity rather than a novelty. Yet long before now this quirk of geography made boats a desirable form of transport for a whole different class of people for largely different reasons. During the height of the first Industrial Revolution the Firth of Clyde became synonymous with luxury paddle steamers.

Inside the bend of the Firth of Clyde, on it’s own peninsula vantage point, is the tiny town of Gourock. For it’s diminutive size Gourock holds and out sized importance in the area. This is where the riverside rail line to Glasgow terminates and is the hub for the majority of the cross Clyde ferries. Directly from outside the train station two foot ferry routes leave. The first and most used, is going to Dunoon. This route has two vessels both fast boats but one is a more modern, svelte and elegant ship whilst the other is a thick armed, high catamaran with more of a wallowy nature. The second route is a little more direct over to the wee village of Kilcreggan. Unlike the higher demand Dunoon ferries the Kilcreggan ferry is a dumpy tub of a little ship that chugs its way across the wide water like a glorified pedalo. I have often joked it gets faster the more people are aboard due to the increase of people available to peddle. Truth be told though this is a delightful journey across to a fabulous and incredibly overlooked place.

Gourock may be at the centre of this transport infrastructure but it is far from a pass through place. It could be easily missed but to miss it would be something of a travesty. The stop just before Gourock on the train is Fort Matilda but is still, more or less, in Gourock. Getting off at Fort Matilda is a great option providing a walk down to the waterfront Battery Park. Following the waterside footpath towards Gourock takes you round Cardwell Bay and one of the best cafes in the area, ‘The Cove,’ right on the corner of Cove Road with wrap around windows providing customers with some great views. The cake’s worth the trip too. Following the coastal path further takes you to the ferry terminal and train station. It’s worth pausing to take note of the significance of this place though, because it is significant, especially if you’re a fan of kippers, but that’s another story.

Yes kippers possibly pale in comparison to what happened on the Clyde in 1812. Before getting there you should know about one of the famous sons of the Clyde. Born in Greenock on 30th January 1736, James Watt would make his name by perfecting the steam engine, taking it from a large, heavy and unwieldy thing delivering it’s power in a sporadic fashion to a lighter, more powerful and continuous power provider. This allowed a Watt Engine to be placed in a boat built by engineer William Symington in 1788. That first boat ferried members of his family and friends around a lake in Dumfries, a bit of bettering the neighbours for the well to do. His later commercial vessel Charlotte Dundas worked on the Forth and Clyde canal from 1803. Then, using a Watt Engine transported from the UK under a pseudonym, Robert Fulton built the North River later known as the Cleremont to ferry passengers between New York and Albany allowing him to claim the steam passenger ship was an American invention. Yet it was back on the Clyde that the first truly commercial and profitable steam boat was built. Commissioned by Henry Bell after he corresponded with Robert Fulton about his venture this hotel and baths owner saw a way of getting more people to his facilities in Helensburgh. In 1812 John Wood and Co. Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow launched Comet. Henry Bell took a few of his chosen mates on a maiden voyage before running an ad in the Greenock Advertiser:

The Steamboat Comet Between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh for Passengers Only

The subscriber, having at much expense, fitted up a handsome vessel to ply upon the River Clyde from Glasgow, to sail by the power of air, wind, and steam, intends that the vessel shall leave the Broomielaw on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays about mid-day, or such hour thereafter as may answer from the state of the tide, and to leave Greenock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the morning to suit the tide.

The Comet was so successful that it outstripped his hotel business and by 1816 there were steam boats on almost every river in Britain and that same year saw the Margery begin her service across the channel and up the Seine to Paris. The paddle steamers on the Clyde revolutionised the entire Firth. After having Comet re-engined and lengthened Henry Bell began running her through the Crinan Canal to Oban, a journey of four days at the time and a wonderful experience today with stunning scenery and manual lock gates. This luxurious tourist trip saw the turn in the perceptions of the entire Clyde. Unfortunately it also saw the wrecking and sinking of Comet. Luckily nobody died and so, with Hollywood levels of originality, a Comet 2 was swiftly commissioned and the reputation of steam ships wasn’t damaged. As Glasgow became more a centre of industry and the wealth of merchant shipping grew the number of people seeking luxury getaways began to grow. The Clyde ship builders saw increased demand too with some even being commissioned to build blockade runners based on the Clyde Paddle Steamers for the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War.

Yet it was the wealthy city folk seeking their respites that have left a lasting mark, especially on the outside lochs and villages of the river bend. Areas of grand houses and grander views sprang up. Holiday homes for the filthy rich of Glasgow something that sound like an oxymoron today. As rail replaced some of the need for steamboats Gourock became a bustling hub, retaining the status, if not the bustle, today. The steamers of the Clyde continued into the 1970’s running their regular services “Doon the watter,” to Gourock and Dunoon. Today there is one surviving sea going paddle steamer on the Clyde: The Waverley. Originally launched in 1946 the Waverley has been having a tough go of things in recent years, requiring some extensive repairs with no spare parts available, yet she is due to resume services with the opportunity to cruise on board her all the way around the Mull of Kintyre and on to Oban. A spectacular trip into the heart of Argyll and the West Coast Highlands.

Perhaps one day you’ll join me heading “doon the watter” on board Waverley.

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I’m a writer, photographer and documentarian based in Scotland.

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A J Merron

A J Merron

I’m a writer, photographer and documentarian based in Scotland.

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