Doon the Watter

Published

by Tommy Gore

It’s quite often the case that only when something is under threat that people sit up, take notice, and do something about it. I’d always meant to go on a cruise on the Waverley, being a good way of combining two of my favourite things, boats and the west coast of Scotland. But it had taken my Dad pointing out that this might be the last summer she sails for me to get my act together to go for a trip.

The Waverley’s claim to fame is that she is the last seagoing paddle steamer anywhere in the world. Plenty ply their trade on lakes or rivers (think Lake Lucerne or the Mississippi River), but the ‘Waverley’ is the only one venturing further out. Built in 1947 by A&J Inglis, on what is now the site of the brand new Riverside Museum, she is keeping up a proud Glaswegian tradition of running cruises ‘Doon the Watter’, something that is as much in the lifeblood of Glasgow as Tennents or Old Firm matches. Next August it will the bicentenary of the first cruise on the Clyde of Henry Bell’s Comet, a ship that is the direct ancestor not only of the Waverley but also of the many Caledonian MacBrayne car ferries sailing on the west coast of Scotland. Built in 1947 by the London & North Eastern Railway as a direct replacement for her namesake, who had been sunk by the Germans in 1940 during the evacuation of Dunkirk.

But the ‘Waverley’ is facing serious cashflow problems, with the Preservation Society that originally purchased her for the princely sum of £1 in 1974 estimating they need to raise £350,000 to keep the ‘Waverley’ afloat. A combination of wet summers, keeping people indoors, as well as fuel prices continuing to escalate, have seriously made a dent in the cash reserves of the Preservation Society that runs the ‘Waverley’. And as my dad pointed out, as I’m the only one in the family who hasn’t been on it yet I’m the one interested in ferries, this was a slightly anomalous situation to be in.

And so it was that I found myself at the Science Centre at Glasgow on a cloudy Sunday morning, a stone’s throw from where she was originally built, waiting to board the ‘Waverley’ on a cruise to Arran. It’s often said that Arran is Scotland in miniature; this cruise certainly was trying to be Scotland in miniature as well. The majority of passengers were definitely the other side of 50, making the trip at times feel like I’d stumbled onto the set of Still Game, made only the more apt with a stop at Finport (a.k.a. Largs); I was expecting Jack and Victor to appear around the corner any minute. That said, it was not just pensioners making up the passengers of the ‘Waverley’ – there was families from Greenock out for a day trip to Largs, a large contingent from Ardrossan sailing across to Rothesay for a (drunken) 30th birthday as well as the obligatory annoying English couple. My two favourite individuals were the two men who sat on the top deck the whole journey, save for trips below deck to the bar, using the opportunity to get ‘steamin’ (cruises like this being where the phrase ‘steamin’ to mean drunk originally comes from – four years at University has taught me something). They stayed relatively (for two drunks) quiet until the ‘Waverley’ arrived back at the Science Centre, whereupon they started to discuss loudly how once off the boat they were going to go and look for a donkey to… well, I’m sure you can use your imagination. You can see what I mean about it being Scotland in miniature.

But it is not just the passengers and crew which made the cruise Scotland in miniature – the cruise itself shows every side of Scotland. From the redevelopment of Pacific Quay on the Clyde, past the Braehead Shopping Centre on the one side and the BAe Systems shipyards at Scotstoun on the other, out into the Firth of Clyde with the high rise blocks of flats at Greenock, before on to the rolling hills of Cowal, Bute, Ayrshire and Kintyre and finally the mountains of Arran. The bad weather meant we were unable to dock at Lochranza, but I didn’t really care – it meant more time to stay on the ‘Waverley’ listening to gentle slap of the paddles against the water, spotting the porpoises gently breaching the surface. I also nearly froze to death, and got soaked when the ‘Waverley’ hit a large wave – giving me the truly authentic experience. With the pistons open to be viewed by passengers, the best way onboard to warm up is to watch the impressive machinery powering the paddles that drive the ‘Waverley’ to a very respectable 18 knots.

So it may have been a little bit cold, and a little bit wet, but a cruise on the ‘Waverley’ was definitely worth it. And for those of you who have just arrived in Glasgow, or even if you’ve been here a while, I’d encourage you to go for a cruise ‘Doon the Watter’ – as good a way as any to understand what Glasgow is all about.