In 1965 Keith McGinn left a secure, but dead end job with Ayr Burgh Water Department to serve as a deck hand on the ‘Lady Isle,’ a diesel puffer owned by Irvine Shipping and Trading Company, a subsidiary of the well known puffer owning firm Ross and Marshall. His subsequent career, which culminated in his skippering the ‘Lady Isle’ and the ‘Dawnlight,’ is set out in racy style in the ‘Last of the Puffermen.’
Alex. Johnston of Port Ellen can remember Keith McGinn’s first trip to Islay as a green deckhand when the ‘Lady Isle,’ skippered by John Darroch of Carnlough, arrived at Ardbeg pier to discharge a cargo of coal. Keith McGinn vividly describes the back breaking work involved in discharging 130 tons of coal by hand using pointed ‘digger’ shovel to get down to the floor of the hold when square shovels could then be used to fill the large steel tubs which were winched ashore and tipped into the waiting lorries. The larger lumps of coal had to be manhandled into the tubs by two of the stevedores unless, as Alex. Johnston remembers, you were lucky enough to have Donnie Stevenson in the hold who was capable of scooping up all but the biggest lumps on his shovel and heaving them into the waiting tubs.
The puffer trade attracted its own share of characters both ashore and afloat and legendary skippers such as The Monster, John McNiven skipper of the ‘Moonlight’, and the Port Ellen stevedores Wee Bruce, Philco, the Twins and Paramore all get a mention in Keith McGinn’s book as does the legendary Great Port Ellen Coal Robbery when several enterprising patrons of the Islay Bar on learning that the coal in the puffer tied alongside at Port Ellen with its hatches open wasn’t for the Port Ellen coal merchant and, in the true spirit of inter-village rivalry, liberated substantial quantities of coal using a pickup truck in the wee small hours of the morning.
By 1968 Ross and Marshall and Hay Hamilton, the two major puffer owning companies, had joined forces to form The Glenlight Shipping Company and in 1975 the Company acquired a new breed of 400-tonne deadweight coasters, renamed ‘Raylight’, ‘Polarlight’, ‘Sealight’, ‘Glenetive’ and ‘Glenrosa’ which could carry half as much cargo again as the old ‘Dawnlight.’ Keith McGinn opted to stay with the ‘Dawnlight,’ carrying such diverse cargos as pews to Lochboisdale, a grand piano from Red Bay to Port Ellen and meeting up along the way with a banjo playing Billy Connolly in Ullapool, until the fatefull day the ‘Dawnlight’ was hogged on a reef at Broadford.
The earlier arrival of the ro-ro ferry Sound of Islay and the amalgamation of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company and MacBraynes sounded the death knell of bulk cargo handling on the West coast and, when the Conservative Government of the day refused to renew the Tariff Rebate Subsidy in 1995 for bulk shipping to the Highlands and Islands, the Board of Glenlight Shipping withdrew their vessels and the day of the Puffer was finally over. As Keith McGinn puts it ‘one hundred and fifty years of giving a service to the West Coast and Islands had come to an end, never to return. It was very sad.’
This bookreview was written by George Rhind and was published with kind permission from the Ileach local newspaper.