Western Isles Review 1999

Paddle Steamer Waverley re-entered service on 30 April 1999 just hours after leaving dry dock. She was due to sail to Scotland's Western Isles to operate a series of cruises from Fort William and Oban. Here Stuart Cameron traces the dramatic last minutes efforts to sail on time and Ashley Gill reviews the sailings.


The Herculean effort by Waverley's crew paid off in the end. The ship finally left the Garvel dock late on Thursday night and went on trials and compass adjustments. She finally arrived back at her Anderston Quay base just after 0200 - only 5 hours before sailings were due to begin. She had no stores aboard. Fortunately, the West of Scotland  was in the third day of a mini heatwave and the catering staff had lined the stores along the berth ready for loading. The combined good fortune of a level tide and a crew with very few new members was crucial to the amazing effort that went on through Thursday night. The determination of the crew to get the ship ready was special and all who enjoyed a sailing last weekend owe a great deal of thanks to Capt Graeme Gellatly, Chief Engineer Ken Henderson, Catering Manager Craig Peacock and Chief Purser Jim MacFadzean and their respective staff. How Jim managed to be his normal cheerful, welcoming , enthusing self in the face of a lack of sleep and a lot of hard work past and to come we'll never know. Graeme was justifiably proud of what they had achieved in the last few days, Kenny was satisfied that the massive amount of refitting done over the past 5 weeks had finally come together so well and Craig and the catering staff had the ultimate reward for many hours hard labour - to cook full breakfasts for a band of far travelled and hungry travellers that started to amass on Anderston Quay at 0630- just minutes after the last stores were loaded. Perhaps one of the most impressive things was the cleanliness of the ship - only hours out of refit - and credit for that must go to Chief Officer Ian Jamieson, bosun Malky MacGuire and all of the 'deckies'. Only two words are sufficient to sum up Waverley's passengers and enthusiast's feelings on these efforts of last week - Thank you.

Stuart Cameron


There could have been no better reward for the hard work of the Waverley's crew than what turned out to be one of the most successful and enjoyable Oban weekends. The Oban weekend is one of the highlights for enthusiasts but it was by no means certain that we were to sail, right up to the last minute. As Stuart Cameron points out just a few hours delay at the shipyard and there would have been many disappointed passengers. However all credit to the crew having against all the odds made the Waverley fully operational and ready to receive a good load of passengers at 7am. Again, passengers had travelled from far and wide for the weekend, from the south of England, Germany, Switzerland and Holland. As Waverley pulled away from its winter berth at Anderston Quay a weary engineering superintendent Ian MacMillan looked on.

Like last year the Waverley paddled down a Clyde bathed in sunlight, but in a short time much has changed. The sailing ship Glenlee berthed at Yorkhill undergoing restoration received its masts and rigging over the winter and should make a fine exhibit at the forthcoming Tall Ships festival in Greenock. The tide was exceptionally low and with few ships using the river depth is restricted and Waverley proceeded at reduced speed past the sites of former shipyards. Just a few weeks before it was announced that the Clyde's last major commercial shipbuilder is up for sale and possible under threat of closure. Kvaerner Govan appeared to have become a success story over recent years built out of the former Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. However a strategic repositioning by the Norwegian owners means they have no requirement for this noble yard. Their last ship, an icebreaker is now under construction and their penultimate ship lies at the fitting out berth.

Waverley is more alone than ever on the river with the demise of the sludge vessels Dalmarnock and Garroch Head. They were regular consorts in the river but were withdrawn at the end of last year following the introduction of new environmental pollution regulations. Their berths now lie empty and another link with the past, gone. The changing face of Glasgow's river can be no more starkly seen at Braehead where a multi-million pound shopping and leisure complex is nearing completion. Opposite is the yard of GEC Marconi YSL formerly know as Yarrow's still building ships for navies throughout the world. The former yard of John Brown shipbuilders appears inactive with the Blue Water production platform having been completed last year.

As the river opens out at Erskine the keen breeze begins to send passengers below in search of a hearty breakfast. They were not disappointed as Craig Peacock and his team pulled out all the stops. Large quantities of black pudding, sausage, egg and beans were soon being consumed. Regulars had their first opportunity to view the catering innovations with the introduction of a new range of teas and coffees, small bottles of wine in the new chiller cabinet and a new range of fattening sweets.

As the Waverley passed the Garvel shipyard we were reminded that less than 9 hours before the mighty paddler was only just leaving after substantial work. The scenery began to open up as we moved from the cityscape to rolling hills and mountains. The clean fresh air cleansing the passenger's lungs and the Waverley began to work its magic. Old friends were reacquainted and new ones made as the "floating social club" made its way to Largs.

Off Gourock we passed the Kenilworth its days apparently numbered, perhaps to be replaced by a vessel we were to see later in the weekend. At Largs more passengers joined adding to the pile of suitcases in the aft deck shelter, for the day a left luggage area. After rounding the south end of the Wee Cumbrae we headed for Arran. The high mountains and ridges Arran were bathed in sunlight and the sleeping warrior could be clearly seen. We had a brief glimpse of the Paps of Jura some miles away which we would see much more closely later. At Campbeltown no time was wasted and the Waverley was soon dipping its bows into a gentle swell off the Mull of Kintyre. The air was clear enough for us to see the coast of Northern Ireland including Rathlin Island. The call at Port Ellen was slightly abbreviated but gave sufficient time for passengers to obtain an ice cream. We were soon passing the Paps of Jura, and Scarba before entering the Sound of Kerrera where we met the Isle of Mull outward bound for Colonsay. At Oban the weekend package passengers headed for their hotels whilst Glasgow passengers boarded their bus for the long journey home.

Saturday morning continued as before with warm sunshine, although a keen breeze was to keep it cool on deck. A queue of Waverley passengers was quickly formed in Boots as many stocked up on supplies of sun tan lotion. At just after 10am Waverley pulled away from the North Pier at Oban with over 500 on board on what was to be a busy day for the still fatigued catering staff. The Isle of Mull was allowed to berth before Waverley swung in Oban bay to point its bows in the direction of Dunollie Castle. The Firth of Lorne was flat calm and there were views from Colonsay in the south to the mountains of Glencoe in the north. Since last year Tobermory has lost its ferry links to Oban, Coll and Tiree ending an association going back to the earliest days of steamer operations in the Western Isles. Fortunately Caledonian MacBrayne still operate a ferry service from the slipway there to Kilchoan and their staff were on hand to enable a call at the pier. The pier buildings now house a café from which there were many onlookers. Shortly after leaving Tobermory we encountered the CalMac ferry Bruernish on its way to Muck with a bull. Needless to say there was much hilarity made from the bull and Muck combination. Unusually Waverley was also bound for Muck to make an unadvertised call. Having passed the Rubha nan gall lighthouse we took a course for Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the British mainland. The new CalMac ferry for Coll, Tiree and the Barra'Boisdale run was heading inward bound for Oban. Waverley altered course to intercept and one of the oldest surviving vessels to operate for CalMac gave the newest a whistle salute.

A newly repainted Waverley lies at Oban's North Pier on 1 May 1999 (Picture by Stuart Cameron)

Rounding Ardnamurchan is generally regarded by enthusiasts as a challenging sail as there are often big seas that have caused Waverley to turn back on a number of occasions. Not to be this time as we were met by flat calm conditions. As we passed the lighthouse we could see the small isles opening up, with the Rum Cuillin, the Sgurr of Eigg and the mountains of Skye clearly visible. To the south a good view of the low lying Coll and the top of the Dutchman's cap, one of the Treshnish islands. We set a course direct for Muck where the launch Wave awaited to take a private party ashore. The Wave slid up to the starboard sponson and the passengers transferred the whole operation looking as if it was carried out every day of the week. Another historical first for the Waverley and nobody quite knows the last time a paddler landed passengers there. Such landings by boat may soon be a thing of the past as there are apparently new regulations outlawing them. Perhaps in anticipation of this the Small Isles vessel Lochmor will be replaced next season and piers will be constructed at Rum, Eigg and Muck. The Lochmor has already carried out berthing trials at Helensburgh and Kilcreggan with the possibility of replacing Clyde Marine's Kenilworth which current operates this contracted out route. The landing at Muck meant we sailed much closer than usual to the Small Isles and a particularly good view of the Sgurr of Eigg was obtained, which always fascinates with its changing shape when seen from different perspectives.

We were soon entering the Sound of Sleat for the first time in 4 years for a call at Armadale. Passengers streamed ashore to overwhelm yet another ice cream shop whilst others headed for the Clan MacDonald centre or just along the coast for photographs. Much to the chagrin of the amassed photographers the Waverley was not required to leave the pier for the Mallaig-Armadale car ferry. The Waverley moved back along the berth and the bow was pulled in so as not to impede the arriving Lord of the Isles. Incredibly after just 10 years in service one of CalMac's finest ferries has been relegated to this less glamorous route. Replaced by the Clansman, the Lord of the Isles was worked hard on its previous routes but still returns to the outer isles twice a week. Armadale could not be regarded as the most interesting destination but the sail round Ardnamurchan to Skye had been a big draw and nobody was disappointed. After 90 minutes ashore passengers embarked for the long journey home. The Muck passengers were collected without incident and we were soon Oban bound in the Sound of Mull.

The weather on Sunday for the sail to Fort William and the Four Lochs was dull but nobody complained and in fact many saw it as a welcome relief from the burning sun. For the hardy enthusiasts there was the possibility of a sail to Fort William leaving at 07:30. Despite it being a Sunday morning a number turned out and many took advantage of breakfast on board. Fort William was reached in good time enabling brief time ashore for photographers. Despite the competing motorcycle trials a good load joined for the sail. After Oban, Waverley took the traditional route outside Kerrera and the cruise was completed without incident. The Corrievreckan whirlpool enduced the Waverley to pitch a couple of times but that was all. After a short delay at Oban, Waverley set off for Fort William for the night.


The sun returned for the Monday sail to the sacred island of Iona. Conditions were still and hazy but surprisingly warm for the time of year. Shortly after 11am the Waverley made a spectacular entrance into Oban bay, with the fresh paint glinting in the sunlight and a large bow wave. Just over 400 passengers were aboard as Waverley headed north around Kerrera where the Isle of Mull was encountered. After an exchange of salutes Waverley turned south to take the shortest sea route to Iona. We were reminded of the legendary turbine steamer King George V which made the cruise to Iona its trademark until withdrawn some 25 years ago. Conditions could not have been better as we rounded into the Sound of Iona. Favourable wind and tide conditions in this sometimes treacherous channel enabled the Waverley to anchor very close to the landing jetty. The water was so calm and clear that the characteristic white sands could be seen below the Waverley. The Fingal and Ossian of Staffa were kindly made available by Grant's to act as tenders. With the Waverley berthing so close to the landing slip 2 hours were given ashore. Photographers scrambled up hills, across rocks and even onto the Calmac ferry to obtain the best vantage points. Whilst others visited the famous Abbey or lazed in the sun with an ice cream. Even with 400 Waverley passengers on the island tranquillity was maintained of this special island. Loading from the launches was again straight forward and the anchor was soon being raised. As the Waverley paddled away from Iona three long sonorous blasts were given on the whistle.

The following morning was sunny again, giving entirely the wrong impression of Scottish weather to many visitors. However before we left Jim the Purser announced that conditions may be unfavourable at Port Ellen to allow a call. The channel from the pier is narrow and a wind from the South East makes the departure more difficult. Waverley paddled out of Oban bay for the last time in this Millennium and headed south. A favourable tide meant we had plenty of time in hand by the time we were off Jura so a brief diversion in the direction of Port Askaig was given. We eventually arrived at Port Ellen some 30 minutes early and the search began for a passenger with a bike who was intending to board after nearly 5 days ashore. Having arrived earlier than usual the sun was in a favourable position for photographs and keen photographers made the long and very warm walk around the bay and were not disappointed. The cyclist was found and Waverley was able to leave about 30 minutes early which given unfavourable tidal conditions would be important. The departure from Port Ellen was flawless, the wind not as strong as anticipated. As we approached the Mull of Kintyre the weather began to close in with menacing looking clouds. By the time we left Campbeltown we had lost the half hour advantage. Unusually a course was set to take us up the west side of Arran through the Kilbrannen Sound, a welcome change as the route gives a good view of the Arran mountains. In order to maintain the schedule the Chief Engineer Ken Henderson opened up the regulator to boost the power of the mighty triple expansion steam engines. As the engines reached 48rpm the Waverley picked itself up to slice effortlessly through the water in majestic style. The shining cranks whisked round with passengers transfixed by their rhythmic motion. We rounded the north end of Arran and crossed to Garroch head on the south end of the Island of Bute before steaming into the Largs channel. As we approached a group of racing yachts the engines were suddenly stopped and Waverley demonstrated its short braking distance. Those in the bows were surprised to see the anchor made ready in what looked like an over cautious move. However, those at the stern saw it differently as some adjustment to the steering engine was required before attempting to berth at Largs. Those with long train journeys disembarked at Largs whilst some stayed aboard to complete the whole trip to Glasgow which was reached around 23.40.

With the rebuild taking place next winter Waverley may not return to the Western Isles until 2001 and this enthusiasts treat will be missed. There are few, if any better ways to see the Western Isles than aboard the Waverley. We have to thank the officers and crew of the Waverley and the shore based staff for the tremendous efforts that continue to be made to keep the Waverley steaming. The proof of success was a weekend to remember…. for ever.

Ashley Gill

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