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Early Steamship Voyages in the North
George Watson

One of the first indications that the Industrial Revolution was creeping northwards was the arrival of steamships. As is well known, steam navigation began in this country in 1812 when Henry Bell launched his Comet on the Clyde. Within a year he had competition from the Elizabeth and the Clyde and others quickly followed. These early boats normally operated within the sheltered Firths of the Clyde and Forth. In October1817, John Wood of Port Glasgow, completed a steamer named the Tug , which although fitted with two large cabins for passengers was to be used primarily for towing sailing ships and barges on the Firth of Forth. By modern standards she was quite small, just 73 feet long with a displacement of 100 tons but still too large to traverse the Forth and Clyde canal. Fortunately, because of her intended duty she was fitted with two 16 HP engines and was powerful enough to make the journey round the north coast. She thus became the first steamship to pass through the Pentland Firth, and had the more widespread fame of giving her name to all subsequent towing vessels which became known as ‘Tugs’.

David Napier designed and built the Rob Roy in 1818 as the first sea-going steamer and set her to work between Greenock and Belfast. Another of David Napier’s vessels negotiated the Pentland Firth in 1826.. She was the SS United Kingdom one of the largest steamboats of her day, being 160 feet long with a beam of 26½ feet and her engines generated a tremendous 200 nominal horse power. When she left the Clyde on 29th July 1826 she carried a full load of 150 passengers. One anonymous passenger wrote a lively account of the voyage:-

Voyage Round the North of Scotland

First Trip Of The United Kingdom Steam Vessel.

(By a Passenger)

"At seven o’clock P M the United Kingdom commenced her adventurous career. All the way along the banks of the river from Greenock to Gourock, mutual cheering took place between the people on shore and those on deck, and various salutes were fired from guns placed at different stations on land. We passed over the the precise spot where the Comet was run down by the Ayr. The wreck of the unfortunate little vessel, the first steam boat on the Clyde, was observed on the beach. We were told that parts of several bodies had recently been washed ashore, but in a state which rendered recognition totally impossible. The steam boats and pleasure yachts which had accompanied us so far now gave us a farewell cheer and took their leave. After passing the Cloch lighthouse, a smart breeze sprung up from the S W accompanied by light showers, and the hopes we had formed of our delightful evening all along the shores of Bute and Arran were threatened with disappointment.

At half past eight tea was announced, and the grand saloon presented a sight seldom or never witnessed before at sea. Upwards of 120 passengers were seated at the different tables in the room, and all were equally well and comfortably accommodated. The tea service is of beautiful China, with plates &c to correspond. There was no scrambling nor bawling; but every thing went on in the most smooth and quiet manner. Besides coffee, tea, toast, butter and plenty of excellent cream, the usual symptoms of good living, such as cold beef, ham, &c were in abundance. The party was in excellent humour, and a considerable portion of the stiffness which usually pervades a promiscuous assembly convened for the first time, had already worn off.

After a few short visits to the deck, which the wind and rain had rendered rather uncomfortable, preparations for bed commenced, and in the course of an hour the hum and bustle of the ship had sunk into stillness and repose. I had before remarked the uncommon "sweetness" of the movements of the powerful engines, and when in bed I was more fully satisfied of their admirable construction. The unpleasant tremor and periodical stroke, which shakes most steam vessels were scarcely perceptible when the ear was close upon the pillow, and this being the position when the noise is most easily heard and most annoying. It is almost unnecessary to remark that good sound sleep was generally enjoyed.

In spite of the wind being directly ahead, and the tide during the great part of the night adverse, we found ourselves about four on Sunday morning close under the precipitous promontory of the Mull of Cantyre. We encountered a very heavy swell off this, the most southerly point of our voyage, but the United Kingdom here proved itself a most excellent sea boat, and went steadily onward at a rate not short of ten knots an hour. The wind and swell, as we neared Islay moderated, but the rain, unfortunately, poured in torrents. Those who ventured, towards the forenoon, on deck were gratified with a sight of the celebrated "Paps of Jura", and it was expected by some, had the weather been more favourable, that we might have ventured nearer the northern point of Islay, and obtained a glimpse of the famous whirlpool of Corryvrechan. - As it was, this could not be accomplished, and we now stood straight for the Sound of Mull.

You no doubt remember Washington Irvine’s description of a wet Sunday in the country inn - but that picture, deplorable though it be, is nothing to a wet day at sea. In our spacious saloon we were not "cabined, cribbed, confined," - but still it was "monotonously dull, & desperately disagreeable." This tedium, however, was relieved in a most unexpected and appropriate manner - the Rev Dr Stewart of Erskine - a gentleman universally respected among his brethren, and celebrated for his skill in pulmonary complaints - was asked to perform divine worship in the course of the day. The Rev. Gentleman immediately assented, and the bell having been rung at one o’clock, the whole passengers assembled in the principal cabin: after an appropriate prayer, he delivered a most energetic and interesting discourse, from the text, "Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts." I know not whether it was the impressive nature of the sermon, or the novelty of the situation, but sure am I, the truths of the gospel seldom were more devoutly listened to, or devotional feeling more keenly awakened.

At two o’clock we entered the Sound of Mull, a narrow passage between that island and the mainland. As the clouds passed away we caught occasional glimpses of the bright green glades of Mull on the one side, and the more classical and romantic hills of Morvern on the other. Nor did the latter lose much of their interest or sublimity, because, "the mists were on the hills of Morvern; and the winds sighed o’er the grassy mound where slumber the ashes of our fathers:" The Castle of Ardtornish, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles, and the spot where the Poets of that name is (sic) laid, is situated on a romantic promontory on the Morvern side of the Sound. The castle is in ruins, but at one time it must have been a place of prodigious strength.

We anchored off the village of Tobermory at four o’clock, having run about 210 miles in 21 hours with the wind unfavourable the whole way, The dinner was a most plentiful one, but owing to to the cooks being imperfectly acquainted with steam apparatus fitted up in the kitchen, the salmon, and several of the joints were sent to the table under-done. Much regret was expressed at this circumstance, but it was remedied on the following days, when the dinners, if they were plain, were always sufficiently abundant.

The liquors provided were excellent in their kind. Champagne, Claret, Madeira, Port and Sherry, not to omit some beautiful old rum, which with the aid of good lemons, limes and iced water, was converted by the skilful hands of the Glasgow connoiseurs, into equally beautiful rum punch. Some gentlemen, who went ashore after dinner, preferred Tobermory whisky, and returned quite loquacious in its praise.

The crops in Mull are far advanced and generally excellent. There is indeed throughout the whole of the western isles every prospect of an abundant harvest. I never saw more luxurious crops of potatoes, which are here extensively cultivated. The only cutter in the service of the Excise establishment of Scotland, is in the bay. The crew belonging to it are chiefly employed on land, under the direction of the district collectors, in suppressing smuggling, which, notwithstanding, is carried on in the most bold and daring manner.

We left Tobermory on Monday morning at five o’clock, having remained at anchor for thirteen hours, and proceeded round the western point of the island, towards Staffa. The wind, however, had been blowing so strong from the west during the night, that on nearing the island, a heavy surf was found beating, and the pilot declared it unsafe to take the vessel close, and quite impracticable to land passengers on it. The ship was accordingly put about, and we proceeded on our course. A number of passengers expressed themselves much disappointed at not visiting Staffa - such of them as had come from Liverpool and London for that purpose, I think with much reason: - but when the vessel is in charge of a pilot, it is his business to determine what is safe or unsafe, and we were obliged to submit, though not with the best possible grace. Some insinuations were made as to the intentions of the proprietors, not to visit Staffa, of which, however I know nothing - but certain I am that Captain Oman - whose obliging disposition and attentive conduct to every person on board have rendered him a great favourite - declared distinctly, that, if it had not been his intention to visit Staffa, he would have gone forward on the voyage, in place of remaining at Tobermory waiting for favourable weather and day-light to proceed to it. This declaration reconciled the greatest number of the passengers, though there were several gentlemen who afterwards expressed themselves by no means satisfied with the conduct of the proprietors on this point.

After passing the island of Rum, the weather began to clear up, and our progress along the bold and picturesque head-lands of Skye was rapid and delightful. From Dunvegan Head, we stretched across the Minch to Harris, and kept pretty close in shore along that isle and Lewis. The afternoon was now beautifully clear and serene, and the numerous isles around Uist, &c, were distinctly seen from the ship. Numerous parties promenaded the spacious decks - several gentlemen amused themselves in shooting the various sea fowl, of which there were considerable numbers - while chess, backgammon, whist, and picquet engaged the attention of those less interested in the romantic scenery of this wild country.

At seven o’clock pm we anchored in Stornoway, having run from Tobermory, a distance of 147 miles in 14 hours. In a few minutes the village seemed to have emptied itself of inhabitants for every boat that could float bore groups of men, women, and children, to behold what the greatest number had never seen before, namely a steam vessel.

Captain Oman gave orders that their curiousity should be gratified to the fullest extent and it was with difficulty the ship could get clear of them, when the signal for sailing was made at eleven o’clock.

At five o’clock on Tuesday morning we found ourselves passing that most appropriately named promontory Cape Wrath, the sea running tremendously high, with a light breeze in our favour from the south-west. A ceremony similar to that observed in crossing the line is often undergone here; but in consequence of the earliness of the hour, it was not gone through. We stood across the western entrance of the Pentland Firth, and the best test of the United Kingdom being a good sea boat, is that, even in that deep water and heavy swell from the west, she rolled in a very trifling degree, and kept, without any pressure of steam her rate steadily at more than ten knots an hour. We passed under the stupendous cliffs of Hoy, and on entering Stromness Bay, discovered the beach lined with spectators, whom the novelty of a steam vessel had attracted to the shore. As at Tobermory, and Stornoway, the United Kingdom was in a few minutes crowded with visitors, - and besides the common people of the town, several parties of ladies and gentlemen came on board, and expressed themselves very highly delighted with the splendour of the ship and the extent of accommodation it afforded.

The passengers went on shore, and the whole stock of gloves of a manufacture peculiar to the place, was soon purchased. A most extensive manufactory of straw bonnets is established here, and the specimens I saw was much more beautiful than any Leghorn. They are in great demand, and sell as high as four pounds on the spot. Rye, when sown very thick, and on rather mere soil, produces the straw most valued for this manufacture. Throughout the Islands, several thousand women are kept constantly employed, and I should think that its introduction to the Highlands of Scotland would tend greatly to benefit those districts. One of the passengers took occasion to dilate on the advantages of this manufacture, the introduction of which he attributed to the notorious mountebank Cobbett. An old gentleman asserted that it had been a manufacture of the Orkney Isles before the name of Cobbett was known. I hope it will continue long after he is forgotten.

Captain Oman, who never allowed an opportunity to escape of increasing the comfort, and adding to the gratification of his passengers, had been employing himself during our stay at Stromness in getting in a supply of fresh beef, water, eggs, milk, fish, poultry, &c. I suppose he found it no easy matter to supply a hundred and twenty unsick people, whose appetites were not diminished by sea air, with a sufficiency of food. He had now however plenty.

I must not forget to mention the fisherman of Stromness, who you will recollect was, along with his wife and a boy, driven out to sea in a small skiff and almost miraculously preserved. We brought them with us from Greenock, and their story made a deep impression on all of us. Nearly £6 was collected and given to them, for which they appeared most grateful. It will enable them to buy a new boat, and clothes for their children. The woman had been in bad health before the accident, but is now quite well - the fright has cured her.

We left Stromness at 5 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, and saw the tide in the Pentland Firth in great perfection. A small sloop, under all its canvas, with a light breeze from the west, was carried round and round, and even the United Kingdom did not steer with that precision which she did in higher seas.

When off Wick, we encountered the herring fleet, consisting, as we calculated, of nearly 2000 boats. It presented by far the most animated and interesting picture of British enterprise and industry I ever saw. The boats stretched from the bay at Wick to where we were, a distance of nearly six miles, that space being completely covered with them. The number of seamen engaged in the fishing at this station is supposed to be 12,000, and it gives employment for several months in the year to upwards of 20,000 men, women, and children at Wick and the neighbourhood. We hailed a boat, and were told that the fishing last week had been tolerably successful, but that on Monday night very little was done.

The same gentleman who praised Cobbett took occasion to remark that "steam boats had done much to destroy the character and usefulness of English seamen." "Ay, and so they have" said a jolly faced gentleman who I understood to be a wealthy Liverpool merchant, " they have indeed, Sir, just as glass lamps have destroyed the character and usefulness of lamplighters."

This morning when off Peterhead, we exchanged three or four passengers for several hundred fresh herrings, the production of which at breakfast forced us to forget the companions we had lost. I need not detail our voyage further. What I have already written is sufficiently dull and uninteresting, and you will be as glad as I am when I close this long letter by telling you that, after travelling 730 miles in 73 hours, excluding stoppages, I landed at Newhaven at 7 PM delighted with my trip, and greatly pleased with the many intelligent and agreeable companions the voyage had made me acquainted with.

(Inverness Courier, August 9 1826)

The ship mentioned in this account was not, as stated, the original Comet, but a second vessel of that name which was lost after a collision off Greenock in October 1825.

Following a successful trial run in 1828, the wooden paddle steamer Velocity began a regular summer service from Aberdeen to Wick in 1833. The newly built Sovereign, took over in 1836, and ran the summer service from Leith, via Aberdeen, Wick and Kirkwall to Lerwick. Later between 1850 and 1861 she also made winter trips to Wick.

An un-named steamer which arrived in Thurso bay in 1829 to pull a grounded vessel from Dunnet sands caused a sensation as it was rumoured that the ship was on fire. The crowd of onlookers on the Braehead that day was estimated at 1000.

In 1832 the steamer Fowett visited Shetland. Of 206 gross tonnage with 60 HP engines, she had been built by Caleb Smith of Liverpool for the P & O line.

By the late 1840s steamships were no longer a novelty and on 1 April 1856 the first steam ferry appropriately named the Royal Mail began operating between Stromness and Scrabster. The following year the John O’Groat Journal (16/10/1857) reported on the arrival of a new steamer at Wick, the Earl of Caithness owned by Mr James Bremner and noted that it was the first steamer to belong to the port. The owner was the son of the well-known engineer who had died the previous August. The Earl of Caithness at this time was the same one who later drove his steam carriage from Inverness to Mey in 1860

References Old Thurso. Donald Grant 1966.

Northwards by Sea. Gordon Donaldson 1978

Days of Orkney Steam. A & A Cormack 1971

Pictures from Shetland’s Past Fred Irvine. 1969.

Inverness Courier 9 August 1826.