The Weekend Watson – S.S. Hebrides

S.S. Hebrides in her 50s Dan McDonald / Ballast Trust

S.S. Hebrides in her 50s
Dan McDonald / Ballast Trust

The world’s first hybrid roll-on-roll-off ferry, Hallaig, built by Ferguson Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow for Caledonian MacBrayne’s Sconser (Skye) / Raasay route, began trials last week on the Firth of Clyde.

When launched last December, she was billed as the first merchant vessel to be built on the Clyde for five years. However, perusal of her motorman’s entertaining blog suggests otherwise. Two small shipbuilding locations with a proud history, including yacht building, have been busy fulfilling a rising demand for inshore workboats: presently for the fish farming industry; perhaps soon for offshore windfarm servicing.

Hallaig trying out the Cumbrae run hebrides-hebridesships-blogspot

Hallaig trying out the Cumbrae run.

Hallaig is scheduled to enter service in the autumn, with her sistership, Lochinvar, due to take on the Tarbert / Portavadie route across Loch Fyne around the turn of the year.

[UPDATE 13 October 2013: this evening, Hallaig completed her  maiden voyage delivery cruise from Port Glasgow to the Isle of Raasay via Campbeltown and Oban.]

[UPDATE 4 July 2014: Lochinvar entered service on the Tarbert / Portavadie route in time for the 2014 summer season.]

Meanwhile, not very far to the east, a ro-ro car ferry of a different generation, Glenachuilish, last week celebrated 45 years of West Highlands service: firstly across the strong currents of the former Ballachulish crossing, and for the past 31 years on the privately run Glenelg / Skye route across Kylerhea, where spring tides can run at 8 knots. It’s the maritime equivalent of a “cross-wind landing”.

Built in 1969 by Ailsa Shipbuilding at Troon – a yard very well-known to yacht designer G.L. WatsonGlenachuilish is believed to be the last manually operated turntable ferry in service… in Scotland… in the UK… in the world; nobody seems to have the definitive answer. What’s for sure is that she was well “Clydebuilt”, and worth a major birthday party bash at Glenelg Village Hall.

Glenachulish at Kylerhea John Bointon

Glenachulish at Kylerhea
John Bointon

These tales of the most utilitarian of vessels must be miles from the finery of the G.L. Watson story one might think… But from the same drawing boards that witnessed fast and fabulous racing and cruising cutters, schooners and yawls, and sumptuous steam yachts, G.L. Watson would occasionally take on contracts for the design of quite substantial commercial vessels, and we’ve already mentioned his valuable contribution to the development of life saving craft.

Watson’s 1897 design for the John McCallum & Co. West Highlands steamer, Hebrides (design no. 370), repeated an early improvement in “cargo” handling employed on her earlier sister, Hebridean (design no. 43, 1881): large doors within the topsides to allow ease of livestock loading and unloading. One hesitates to imagine what such operations might have been like before that.

Hebrides features strongly in this remarkable c.1928 footage of a voyage to remote and then still populated St. Kilda. She was well named and had a long life.

Did you see the beautiful skylight incorporating seating on the aft deck? Ewen McGee’s drawing reveals that it lit her dining saloon; it must have done so wonderfully. Designers of those days were deft at the projection of natural light – but that’s another story.

Sitting comfortably for Part 2?

[Thanks to bloggers Paul and Isle Ornsay for heads up on the vintage footage.]


Martin Black’s beautifully illustrated and produced biography G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design is available to purchase direct from Peggy Bawn Press here.

PBP_daisyJust before posting, we found the evocative and beautifully captured image above of the happy looking Hallaig trying out the Cumbrae Slip / Largs route by the blogger hebrides-hebridesships.  Who are we to argue with that bold sub-title – the images there are stunning – and we wont argue if we are requested to take it down; we failed to find any method of contact, and, as many will testify, we don’t normally run without permission. The Clyde is nothing less than awesome. [Did we just use that word?]

~ Iain McAllister ~

Comments/ leave a comment


About Peggy Bawn Press

496pg biography of Scottish yacht designer, George Lennox Watson (1851-1904). Significant book on the history of yacht design & the development of modern yachting. Beautifully illustrated. Many photographs previously unpublished.
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10 Responses to The Weekend Watson – S.S. Hebrides

  1. Oh my goodness what a fantastic bit of archive film thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

    • Great intit? On my list as a future cruising destination should the wind’s highway allow… Nice to see it as a living place here though.

      PS I can’t help thinking that the sailors in the group “shot” have their jerseys on inside-out, as if hiding another ship’s name embroidered on the chest…

  2. gr2msary says:

    From my ancestry (Grandfather captained the ss Hebrides for over 20 years) I know a bit about the ship. I have also seen the G L Watson trials book data about the old Heb’. Been struggling to get good info about the earlier ss Hebridean. I have a few photos, ‘rough’ plans which don’t all match the photos. Any Hebridean info that you have would be welcome.

  3. Great fun to have a forbear like that; I know from discovering that my great grandfather was crew aboard the Royal Clyde Yacht Club’s 1887 G.L. Watson designed America’s Cup challenger, THISTLE (

    Regarding the earlier G.L. Watson & Co. designed commercial steamer, HEBRIDEAN, our only sources would be the Watson archive and the Mitchell Library, Glasgow’s Wotherspoon Collection image taken on the River Avon that can be seen at various place on the internet, including . However, despite the blasphemy of doubting Wotherspoon, I have often wondered if that image is actually of HEBRIDES in an earlier configuration… Would she have had reason to be on the Avon?

    I’ll point out your comment to Martin Black to see if he knows more.

    Iain, PBP

    • gr2msary says:

      Hebridean on the Avon? Oh, yes. When the Hebrides arrived in 1898 the Hebridean was surplus at times, and she was to be seen at Bideford (for Lundy I), Isle of Man, Liverpool, Plymouth, St Helier, St Brieux (Brieuc) in Brittany. Got quite a few records of these jaunts south.

      • Martin Black has advised that apart from a rather fuzzy photo in one of the standard west highands steamer books, he found nothing else on S.S. Hebridean.

      • gr2msary says:

        I note the comment from Martin Black. Only because my grandfather was captain for some years, I have collected ss Hebridean info over past few years. Mainly press cuttings about her movements, occasional minor incidents at sea, etc. Plus, one very clear photo of the wheelhouse front, the ‘flying’ bridge above it. And, a fuzzy photo taken at the Isle of Coll – not a previously published photo. Easier, if you’re interested, to e-mail them – probably in one or two batches. Ewen McGee

  4. Thanks for your kind offer, Ewen. Email: reaches me. Fair winds, Iain, PBP.

  5. Iain's MacInnes says:

    Fantastic footage my grandfather I have been told was a mate on the Hebrides when the St Kildans were evacuated His name was Dugald MacInnes

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