When I was at school, summer term was a time of exam panic, fevered swotting and a school trip. With an almost mystical ability the school would, months in advance, pick a wet and windy, dreich and cold early summers’s day to send hundreds of school children “doon the watter” on the Waverley under the supervision of the bare minimum of teachers (those who had earned the rector’s displeasure during the year or had been dozing in the staff room and not concentrating when volunteers were being sought). To most children it was a welcome break from studying and a day off school. To a secret few it was a thrill. I was one of the secret few, actually I was probably not part of a few it was more likely that I was the only one.
I loved the Waverley. I had been brought up in a family who had worked on and enjoyed travelling in the Clyde steamers. Consequently, I knew all that needed knowing and a lot more about the Waverley and her kind. This was dangerous information to share with teenagers. Your peers then were the sort of people who would have you damned for reading the wrong music paper or watching the wrong TV programme. Admitting to an interest in Clyde estuary seaborn transport had you lumped in for life with the weird folk that hung around at the far end of the platforms of Central Station collecting train numbers.
I knew all about the Waverley – built 1947 by A J Ingles (on the site of the new Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow) for the Caledonian Steam Packet Company. She had once had a sister ship called the Jeanie Deans. The Waverley had ploughed her way up and down the Clyde until 1973 when she had been due to be scrapped. Outrage ensued and a crew of hardy and determined souls called the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society bought her for £1 and proceeded to rejuvenate her.
Now the Waverley was our last link to the halcyon days of Clyde steamers. The era when Glasgow went “Doon the Watter” on its holidays during the Glasgow Fair for two weeks in July. There were once many ships that connected the islands and peninsulas of the west coast with the rest of the world via the Broomielaw in Glasgow. Now our excuse for a skive off school was the very last one. She was and still is the last sea going paddle steamer in the world. Of course all this information was social death if I let it slip out. I kept my awe and wonder to myself and tried (and failed abysmally) to look cool.
30 years later it was my chance to have a trip on the Waverley when I could finally let all my pent up geekery loose and maybe pass it on to another generation. The Waverley was coming to Skye. I couldn’t wait. What was more the ship was departing from Kyle of Lochalsh on a journey via Portree to Gairloch the day before we were due to spend the weekend at Sands near Gairloch! This was too good an opportunity. I made plans to go on holiday by steamer. Just like my grandparents did many years ago. My parents met in Millport during the Glasgow fair. If it hadn’t been for the Waverley and her kind I wouldn’t be here. Rosie’s father and grandparents returned each summer to their native Skye from Edinburgh by MacBraynes ship from Glasgow. This was a family tradition that needed continuing. I booked the wigwam we were staying in at Sands for an extra night and told our son he was going on holiday by ship. He didn’t care, all he was interested in was that he was getting two days off school. I was bubbling over with excitement.
Come the day of the cruise we rose early. Me because it was Waverley day and our son because it was a day off school and he didn’t want to waste a minute of it. He also wanted to make sure he could gloat as our daughter got on the school bus. I should point out that I wasn’t being sexist by only taking our son. Our daughter had a dance show she was performing in that prevented her coming with us. I would have happily taken them both. This was a huge opportunity for me to impart all the knowledge that had been suppressed for so long. It would be not only educational for them it would be fun! Our son wasn’t so sure, he had packed his tablet, Nintendo DS and iPod.
We joined a throng of people aboard the ship while Rosie nervously waved us off. She doesn’t like the sea and the fact that the ships rails are only chest high to our son. She would prefer them to be much higher. The passengers were a mix of paddle steamer enthusiasts who are recognised by their wearing of various Waverley branded items of clothing and tourists set to enjoy a novel way of seeing Skye.
We cast off with the Waverly’s huge paddles thrashing the water and we were away. She was up to her cruising speed before we even reached the Skye bridge. The almost constant splash of the paddle blades entering and leaving the water sounds like a waterfall and leaves a wide and vivid wake of traumatised sea behind the ship. I liked that.
After leaving the bridge behind we passed our village and then went round the north side of Paabay, the island that we look out at from our house. This is like seeing the dark side of the moon to us. We had a close up of Longay, an island normally on the horizon. We sailed between Scalpay and Raasay then entered Portree harbour. It was an adventure of familiar objects from unfamiliar angles.
Our son had been polite about the engines. I couldn’t understand how he wasn’t as incontinently excited as I was about seeing a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine in action and close up.
After Portree we steamed towards Gairloch. I can’t say much about what the view or scenery was like because we were in the dining room having fish and chips. After that I was asked if I was me and I said yes I was. Our son disappeared to eat sweets at that point because I had been recognised by Roy, a long time twitter friend and a geeky conversation about photography, Skye and Kintyre developed. Suddenly we were in Gairloch and it was time to disembark. Four hours had passed in the blink of an eye. For someone whose boredom threshold and attention span is so short as to barely register this had been a blur. But it was time to leave the ship and cadge our lift to Sands on the other side of the bay. It was five miles away and I had the world’s heaviest rucksack with all the stuff we needed for the next day and a half till Rosie and our daughter arrived. It was heavier than it had been when Rosie used it to backpack her way round central and South America for 4 weeks. Our son had a rucksack too. It had his DS and Jenga in it…
We climbed the really steep gangplank and wandered up the pier. This was the first paddle steamer to make the crossing from Portree to Gairloch in a hundred years and the local pipe band was there to greet us. We stood and watched them while we waited for our lift to arrive. They finished and began to pack up. Our lift was still not there. We waited a little longer. We looked at my mobile phone with no bars beside the signal strength and waited a wee while longer. We gave up, hitched our rucksacks tightly and set off. 5 miles isn’t that far.