Book Review The Caledonian Steam Packet Company

The recent spate of storms battering Islay's coasts and the subsequent disruption or cancellation of our ferry services, was perhaps a timely reminder of just how fragile an existence is experienced by the islands off Scotland's west coast. This relative isolation from the mainland (daily air service notwithstanding) can be considered either a plus or a negative depending on your point of view. Several days without ferries often means a lack of essentials such as bread, milk, newspapers (apparently) and no letters on the doormat. To an extent this underlines CalMac's definition as a lifeline service, even though the advent of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) for visitors as well as residents may be seen as a slight undermining of that status.

But the islands and coastal ports of the Clyde are also served by this Scottish national ferry service, ultimately an amalgamation of several competing ferry groups over the past hundred or so years. One of these component parts is the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSPC), founded in 1889 and subsequently merged with the David MacBrayne fleet in 1973. This itself was an outgrowth of Caledonian Railways, a company keen to provide steamers to complement the trains serving its new terminal at Gourock and from Wemyss Bay.

The growth of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company eventually encompassed many Clyde ports that some may have nostalgic memories of visiting. Rothesay, Ayr, Ardrossan, Ardrishaig and Arrochar were all visited by a fleet of paddle steamers that had no need of 'fitting the pier' in the manner that MV Finlaggan didn't. For in those days, any cargo that might have been carried, including motor vehicles, were lifted aboard by crane or driven across two strategically placed planks of wood. Presumably devices such as 'linkspans' were either not thought of or unwarranted in those halcyon days of yore, when large crowds of passengers and would-be passengers could be seen thronging decks and piers. Continue reading....

It is also notable that, while the number of destinations served has proportionally reduced as the motor car has become ever more ubiquitous, there are many ship names that will be familar to modern day travellers. It appears that the name 'Glen Sannox' has been used on about three separate occasions, along with 'Juno', 'Pioneer', and 'Jupiter' to name but a few. There is also the not insignificant factor of there having been a 'Queen Mary' on the CSPC fleet, a boat which was subsequently renamed 'Queen Mary II' when Cunard requested the former name for its own trans-Atlantic liner.

Author Alistair Deayton has certainly not skimped on his research. Virtually every boat that ever sailed in the CSPC colours is not only mentioned in the narrative, but often fleshed out with specific details about engines, modifications and subsequent history on leaving the fleet. Unfortunately, this attention to detail could also be levelled as a criticism. The book is entitled 'The Caledonian Steam Packet Company. An Illustrated History' but in point of fact, it is an (excellently) illustrated history of the fleet and not really of the company itself. Ports visited and routes operated exist almost exclusively as a supporting cast to the ships themselves, and though I earlier referred to the text as 'narrative', that is perhaps a tenous description at best.

Disappointingly too, particularly in such a scholarly work, though each and every ship is listed at the back of the book, there is no index and thus no easy means of finding either specific illustrations or details of people, places or boats mentioned. The typesetting too could be a tad more spacious in presentation. It's a shame that the publishers did not see fit to emulate the typography utilised for quoted passages. And finally, that title on the front page. It is, I'm sure we'd all agree, The Caledonian Steam Packet Company, given its subjugation from Caledonian Railways, however the layout has it reading as The Caledonian Steam Packet Company. Art lies in the details.

But all criticism aside, £19.99 is a small price to pay for the copious number of well-reproduced and annotated illustrations. Images such as the 'Duchess of Hamilton' berthed at Arrochar, the 'Glen Sannox' at Greenock and the 'Juno' at Ayr' are easily worth the price of admission alone. And I'll never tire of looking at hand-coloured monochrome postcards, an art that has long since disappeared.

The Caledonian Steam Packet Company. An Illustrated History by Alistair Deayton. Amberley Press Softback. 128pp illus. £19.99. Available to order online

written by brian palmer and published with kind permission of the Ileach