Bobby Holden writes: I have been quite surprised by the number of folks (most of a certain age, and nearly all ex-pat Ileachs!) who stop me in the street at Ardrishaig and like to talk about the Lochiel, and the old days, so much so that my own mind keeps returning to her, and her crew. It is then one appreciates one of the few advantages in the smaller, more personalised steamer, rather than ferries, was the fact that the mail-boats plied the same route all the time, and the crew were largely Ileachs, or resident there; and she didn’t come from the Argyll mainland to the Inner Hebrides, but from Islay to the mainland. Lochiel herself was an Ileach and her real soul lay in the crew who sailed her, and that ship and crew became an entity!
When I started regular crossings of the Sound of Jura in her I was just out of National Service, in which even corporals had to be treated as little tin gods and I treated anybody remotely like an officer with the utmost respect, so it took a long time before I dared to be familiar with the officers, on the bridge or below decks.
Because he had local connections I knew Archie MacVicar the Chief Engineer, and still remember my delight at being invited below to admire the engines, and marvel at the smoothness with which they ran, because they were mounted on rubber bearings, and gave the least vibration of any ship in the fleet. He was right too. After five minutes on the Loch Fyne – the steamer on the Gourock to Ardrishaig run – you were painfully aware of the difference. On her you could manage about three minutes sitting and attempting the daily crossword before your eyes crossed!
I never attempted any familiarities with the Captain, Dan MacLeod, or first mate Donald MacKinnon, but because of his office as Purser I got to know Neil Woodrow quite well. Not overly loquacious (unlike me), inscrutable in expression yet always polite, you never quite knew what he was thinking; but after one incident I had his sense of humour sussed out. I think.
I went aboard one very blowy morning to see my van hoisted aboard at Port Askaig, and found two intrepid canoeists and Neil discussing their eighteen foot canoe, and the cost of shipping same to the West Loch. They had been paddling down the west coast of Jura and Islay, but the weather had broken: and they had to get back. Neil had his table of fares open. ‘Well, it says boats are ten shillings a foot’ said Neil. Consternation on canoeist’s faces. Nine pounds! They only had three between them. Surely not? They pleaded, but poker-faced Neil had another look at his book. ‘Well, a canoe is a boat, and it says a boat is ten shillings a foot! Impasse. Until one of the crew picked up one end of it and stood it against the side of the hold, and I helped him lash it with some webbing ties. ‘What length is it now, Neily?’ we asked. ‘Och, about a foot!’ he replied. And ten shillings it was.
One gentle, quietly-spoken crewman called Mr. MacNeil I do remember. Unlike the RAF, no one below officer rank had any stripe or badge to give them away in the merchant navy, but he was noticeable because of his readiness to impart information, or knowledge, as required. We were sailing past Ardmore Island once when he paused and pointed out Port Mor, a narrow little gut on Islay just north of the island, and told me about the German u-boat that lay in there at periscope level watching the shipping pass through the Sound of Islay. Undetected until a local farmer found his flock of sheep dwindling and investigated round the coast, and came upon it. The temptation of fresh mutton was too much for the crew, and it gave them away in the end.
Maybe somebody on Islay can tell me what happened to the u-boat, but Mr MacNeil told me some -or at least one- of the crew returned on a visit after the war, and told him how they had sat submerged in Port Mor ‘many a time’ and watched Locheil ploughing her daily furrow between Islay and the West Loch, but made no attempt to touch her. Probably because they were sent to that busy sea-lane looking for bigger fish to fry!
From the point of view of Lochiel passengers, Hughie Lavery the Steward was as important as anyone aboard. Brisk, cheerful, neat as a pin and busy as a bee; and his agility was astounding. On one blustery crossing with a big swell running I had nearly convinced myself it was simply a case of mind over matter, and forced myself below to have a plate of soup. The outer wall of the saloon took the shape of the ship’s hull and lay at an appreciable angle from the vertical; Hughie had just emerged from the galley with my soup when the ship took a pretty awesome roll to starboard, and he had to run very smartly across the saloon, take three or four steps up then down the hull as she rolled and recovered, then put the soup on my table; with practically nothing spilt.
I could only take a few spoonfuls before matter told my mind it was quite mistaken, and I had to stagger out and crash on to a couch in the gents – which I couldn’t remember being there – until the occupant of a cubicle emerged and tacitly demonstrated to me that I was in the ladies. But she graciously ignored me. And when we hit Port Ellen pier I was able to answer Hughie’s solicitous enquiries by assuring him that there was nothing wrong with the soup. When he retired he kept himself just as busy as he always was at various jobs: the last time I had a crack with him was years later when I took my young family into Port Ellen to play pitch-and-putt, and he was as brisk and friendly as ever.
One crew member I always enjoyed a crack with was Alan Carmichael the ship’s carpenter, instantly recognizable by his bunnet; just a shepherd’s cap, worn at a jaunty angle; and his eye-boggling dexterity with ropes and cables. Once after a pretty lively crossing I had gone on deck to ‘recuperate’ when we reached the West Loch, and Alan came up to ready the warps for berthing. He pulled one of the heavy hawsers across his knee, bent to pick up the heaving line, and there they were, joined with a perfect bowline. I, who was then laboriously practising that knot with the help of kindergarten mnemonics, asked him to do it more slowly so that I could follow him, which he did, but the slowest he could get was about half of a second. After which he picked up both ends, put them behind his back and did an effortless encore. Eat your heart out Paul Daniels!
One man I never had the pleasure of meeting was Captain Beaton, as he was retired before I first came to Islay – though I got to know his son Donald Beaton, the banker, but everyone who told me about him clearly held him in high regard. And I’m ending this memory-trip after I relate what must be the best gentle ‘put-down’ to an ignorant passenger that I have ever heard.
Approaching the entrance to the West Loch once he was accosted by an anxious father of a family of trippers, who asked him if he knew where all the rocks were in the passage up the loch. Indeed no, I do not, he replied. Do you think it’s safe then for you to be in charge of the vessel when you can’t tell where the rocks are? ‘Perfectly safe, for I can tell you certainly where they are not! What an answer! I wish I had said that. And it leaves you with the conviction that if he had been in command the day sixty years ago when poor old Locheil hit the rocks it just wouldn’t have happened.
This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.