Balmoral becomes a MacBrayne 'Steamer'

Words by Stuart Cameron and W A V Castle

On her way back from Carrick Castle to Glasgow on Sunday 23rd September 2001, Alistair Black caught these two fine pictures of Balmoral off Greenock, showing her temporary MacBrayne livery to full advantage.

Following her last advertised public sailing of year (Mon 24th September Glasgow to Tighnabruaich and return), Balmoral spent the night at Glasgow Anderston Quay, leaving early next morning to return to her home port of Bristol, with an unique diversion to Tarbert, Loch Fyne, en route to play the role of the MacBrayne steamer Clydesdale in a new BBC TV Gaelic drama.

Clydesdale was the last vessel owned by the legendary West Highland steamship operator David MacBrayne before his death in 1907. Clydesdale was the second ship of the name in the MacBrayne fleet, the first being a handsome clipper bowed vessel built for MacBrayne's predecessor, David Hutcheson, at J & G Thomson's Clyde Bank shipyard in the Burgh of Govan on the south bank of the Clyde. She served the company well for 43 years, principally on the Glasgow - Stornoway route with occasional sojourns out to far flung St Kilda. Her career was brought to a sudden end when she piled up onto Lady Rock at 7am on 6th January 1905, a dark winter morning of blinding sleet and gales whilst sailing from Oban to Barra.

Just over 4 months later, on 18th May 1905, Miss Evelyn MacBrayne bestowed her name on a new, but much less imposing, member of the MacBrayne fleet, when she slipped down the ways at the Littlemill shipyard of Scott & Sons at Bowling, the Clyde terminus of the Forth & Clyde Canal. The new Clydesdale was only 151 feet long with a beam of 26 feet and an initial gross tonnage of 394. She was fitted with a 3 cylinder, triple expansion 'up and downer' reciprocating steam engine which was built by Ross & Duncan. The cylinder diameters were 15, 25.1/2 and 41 inches and the engine stroke was 30 inches. The engine was capable of developing 85 registered horsepower. The vessel was built with a restricted length as she was intended to serve on the Glasgow - Inverness run which entailed passage through the locks of the Caledonian Canal from Banavie near Fort William to Muirtown Wharf at Inverness. However, fate intervened and in her 48 years service with MacBraynes it is doubtful if the Clydesdale visited Inverness on more than 2 or 3 occasions.

On 20th July 1905, the paddle steamer Glendale, operating on MacBrayne's Glasgow - Islay service was lost when she stranded at Deas Point on Kintyre, due to an uncharacteristic error of navigation, the officer in charge mistaking the lighthouse on Sanda for the one at the Mull of Kintyre. The MacBrayne fleet was stretched by that second loss of a major unit within six months and the new Clydesdale found herself re-assigned to the Islay service, the older Ethel taking her place on the Inverness run. Clydesdale remained on the Islay run for 15 years but later, in spite of her modest dimensions she roamed widely through MacBrayne's empire and, following the loss of Sheila in 1927, Clydesdale filled in on the exposed Stornoway service until replaced by Lochness in 1929. She proved to be a splendid sea boat and gave sterling service throughout her career finishing up on the Glasgow - Stornoway service. In the 1950's the new cargo vessels Lochdunvegan and Loch Carron replaced her and the venerable Clydesdale was broken up at Smith & Houston's shipbreaking yard in Port Glasgow in the spring of 1953. So Balmoral was to play the part of an illustrious, if unpretentious MacBrayne vessel.

Note : curiously Balmoral's white fronted bridge was painted brown to simulate a wooden structure when (as can be seen in the picture) Clydesdale actually had a white fronted bridge!

W A V Castle wrote to Scotships on 25th September -

"I went to Tarbert this afternoon to photograph the ''Balmoral''.

I was told that she left Glasgow this morning at 08.00 and arrived at Tarbert East Pier at 12.10.

Much of the afternoon was spent getting ready for the filming which was to have been done later in the day. Indeed, well into the night. At Tarbert, the ''Welcome to Tarbert'' sign had been removed from the pier building. The entire pier was transformed to resemble, as far as possible, the style of the pier at another Tarbert - that on the Island of Harris - in the late 1930's. The modern lifeboats on ''Balmoral'' were temporarily removed and replaced by old wooden type boats. Modern signs like 'no litter overboard' were covered over. A period gangway was positioned and, best of all, a' true' MacBrayne funnel was painted. Thankfully, the narrow white band between the red and the black, which had been on the funnel since it was repainted last Thursday, was removed today in mid afternoon. Several other enthusiasts, I gather, had photographed ''Balmoral'' at Tarbert earlier in the afternoon. As far as I could see, all others had gone away before the 'true' MacBrayne funnel appeared. I managed to get a couple of shots of the latest version, just before the actors arrived.

The film, for BBC Scotland, is a climatic scene in episode 5 of Finlay J. MacDonald's popular classic ''The Corncrake and the Lysander''. In the book, he describes Territorial Army volunteers embarking at Tarbert, Harris on 5th September 1939.

I look forward to seeing the television film. Only thing is, I doubt if I will make much of it. For, as far as I know, the programme is in Gaelic!

Once ''Balmoral'' is finished with the filming job, the plan is for her to sail right away to her 'home waters' where she has a charter booked out of Penarth on Saturday. Thereafter, she will be laid up, as usual, in Bristol for the winter. It is sad to see the end of the season, but nice that she is going out in a bit of glory.. (I do wish she could retain a red funnel, and as a fleetmate of ''Waverley'', with a 'proper size' of white band)."

Later W A V Castle reported to Scotships that

"David MacBrayne's ''Clydesdale'' became WavEx's ''Bamoral'' again at 03.00 on Wednesday. She sailed from Tarbert, Loch Fyne,  (it pretending to have been Tarbert, Harris) at 03.07 via Kilbrannan Sound and, obviously, the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channe. She dropped anchor off Portishead at 07.45 on Thursday morning. In the middle of the day, she set sail once again and tied up in Avonmouth Dock at 14.00."

Alistair Black took the unique pictures of Balmoral at Tarbert from the Tarbert - Portavadie ferry, Alistair having cycled (with the assistance of a couple of ferries!) all the way from Greenock. At the time of his visit to Tarbert the white band was still on Balmoral's funnel but it disappeared before filming commenced.

Chris Jones took this picture of the Bal at her winter lay up berth at Princes Wharf, Bristol, on 1st October 2001.

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