Bonnie Boat to Skye

Words and pictures by Stuart Cameron

Waverley's restored wooden 'fanboards' (destination boards) confirmed to the sizeable queue that had formed in the sunshine on the North Pier at Oban that this 'bonnie boat' was indeed bound for the legendary Isle of Skye but in this case Glasgow's 'mighty paddler' would be sailing via the Sound of Mull to the southern tip of the Sleat peninsula and would not, as far as we knew, be carrying any Pretenders to the throne - young or old.  So it was a happy crowd of over 400 that were aboard as Waverley swept under the twin sentinels of the monument to David Hutchison, a pioneer of the highland steamboat trade, on Kerrera's northern tip and the ancient castle ramparts of Dunollie on the Lorn shore. We were sad to hear, however, that many more intending passengers from Glasgow had been very disappointed when a problem related to the special coaches that had been hired to convey them north from the city had prevented them from joining the ship at Oban. We could well imagine their disappointment and hoped that Waverley would get the opportunity to redress that in future.
Waverley passed close under the ramparts of Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull, closer than I have seen it from the see before and received a welcoming whistle from one of the little steam locomotives on the light railway that runs from Mull's main ferry port at Craignure to the nearby Torosay Castle. The paddler's own steam whistle was exercise in a traditional reply. Passing up the Sound of Mull the bright sunshine of Oban disappeared under a cloud bank but it was to reappear later in the day. However, the photos of Waverley passing the old steamer calling places at Lochaline, Salen and Drimnin were probably not as bright as the photographers would have wished.

Despite a delay in leaving Oban, Waverley turned into the deep sheltered bay of the Well of Mary (Tobermory) a little ahead of schedule. Tobermory has always had a soft spot for Waverley, ever since her first call one glorious sunny day in April 1983. Perhaps its because Waverley made that first visit at a time when the future of Tobermory pier was under threat of closure and the local people appreciated the support. Sadly, although Tobermory has subsequently gained a fine replacement pier, it is little used by large passenger ships. Calmac's modern fleet are apparently too large to fit the pier and have abandoned sailings from the traditional pier - surely one of the more regrettable consequences of the unstoppable march of progress in West Scotland shipping services.

Waverley, and Balmoral for the first time in 2000, are the only large coastal passenger ships preserve Tobermory's proud steamer tradition. Hopefully that will continue for many years and Tobermory might regain its influence. A loyal and sizable crowd joined the only remaining seagoing paddle steamer in the world at Tobermory so that the total loading was in excess of 600 when the paddler went on a long astern run out into Mull's Sound.

Picture by Tom Dunlop

As Waverley came ahead, she passed the distinctive lighthouse of Rubh nan Gall, and Calmac's large passenger and car ferry Clansman, off the village of Kilchoan...
... and the famous lighthouse at the great Point in the Ocean, Ardnamurchan, the most westerly of all of Great Britain's promontories.
Round Ardnamurchan the vessel headed north to the Small Isles - Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna. On her last passenger voyage in the area Waverley had made the first passenger landing at any of these isles by a paddle steamer since the 1940s, stopping off Muck to disembark a wedding party into the island flit boat Wave. On this occasion Waverley did not call at any of the isles.

She did, however, break with her tradition of passing up or down to the Sound of Sleat to the east of the islands group by threading a course through the Sound of Eigg and the Sound of Rum, the first time these waters had echoes to the paddle beat since David MacBrayne's paddlers Pioneer and Mountaineer in the 1930s; both of these ships being products of the same Glasgow shipyard as Waverley, A & J Inglis of Pointhouse. This course gave Waverley's passengers a fine view of the distinctive Sgurr of Eigg peak and the breathtaking peaks of Askival, Trolvall, Orvall and Hellival, the Cuillin of Rum.

Rum from Waverley

Waverley off Eigg

Waverley's fleetmate the motorship Balmoral had negotiated these waters for the first time a year earlier when she was en route to the farthest flung island of the group - Canna. Waverley has never visited Canna and that was not her destination on this occasion. Instead she headed east along the southern shore of the misty isle of Skye. The mist was clearing from the top of the awesome Black Cuillin ridge and the sun that deserted us in the Sound of Mull returned. Below the Skye mountains a little isle named Soay hid under the cliffs of her larger neighbour.

It was on this lonely little isle that Waverley's first master, Captain John Cameron, was born almost a century ago. John Cameron had commanded Waverley's predecessor, the 1899 paddle steamer Waverley on the Firth of Clyde in the 1930s and took the veteran vessel into her second period of National Service under the White Ensign of the Royal Navy in 1939. John Cameron was on the bridge of HMS Waverley when she rescued hundreds of hapless Allied troops from the Nazi onslaught of Dunkirk in 1940. Sadly the old Waverley was bombed and sunk as she returned across the English Channel and many lives were lost. Fortunately, John Cameron survived and seven years later he proudly brought the new Waverley out to the Clyde. After a lifetime of service on the Clyde steamers, John retired to the west end of Glasgow but maintained his links our Waverley, supporting her preservation and her predecessor, as President of the Dunkirk Veterans' Association in Scotland. John passed away just after Waverley's 40th anniversary but his contribution to this famous ship is commemorated by a plaque erected to his memory at the stairs to the bridge. In the modern parlance, the lad from lonely Soay had 'done good'.

Waverley arrived at Armadale pier just as the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry Lord of the Isles was departing to cross over to the railhead at Mallaig and Waverley's 600+ passengers (surely a record landing from a single sailing ) streamed ashore for 90 minutes.
Some went to the beach to photograph Waverley and the Lord of the Isles, a vessel whose name revives memories of two magnificent paddle steamers, built by the Glasgow shipyard of D & W Henderson in 1877 and 1892 for service on the Clyde. Other passengers visited the Clan Donald centre and the unique Gaelic college Sabhal Mór Ostaig.
Just after 4.30 pm Waverley pulled away from Armadale pier and headed across the Sound of Sleat towards Mallaig where the local lifeboat came out for a 'sail past'. To the north east the view into Loch Nevis, dominated by the towering mountain Ladhar Bheinn (Larven) was breathtaking - Loch Nevis - loch of Heaven, indeed.
Just short of the harbour mouth at Mallaigvaig Waverley turned south and headed for Ardnamurchan, giving a close view of the famous  White Sands of Morar.

Back at Tobermory a large number of locals waited by the pier to bid Waverley farewell. She responded with three long blasts on her steam whistle as she left to paddle down the Sound of Mull 'in the gloaming'. At dusk she arrived back at Oban North Pier. Even then the long days was not over for Waverley's dedicated engineroom crew. After a long days cruising they had the task of bunkering the vessel between 10pm and 11pm in preparation for her departure at 7 am next morning. No chance of a late start for Sunday morning in this job!

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