Order of the Thistle

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Jaggy bunnets, Erie Basin, New York, September 1887: Thistle’s hands are decked-out in sennet hats, and suitably emblazoned ganseys. Her hirsute skipper, John Barr, is sitting, right. But is his soon to become very famous half-brother, Charlie here? And is your forbear too? Archibald McNicol, the author’s great-grandfather, from St Catherines, Loch Fyne, Argyll, is the white-faced lad sitting 2nd from left on a cushion – the only clean-shaven one. Is that Charlie Barr, and his piercing eyes, sitting to his left? Or is he standing, 4th from left?
(Image by J.S. Johnston, courtesy, Long Island Maritime Museum)

It continues to be the America’s Cup silly season: the void between the last, enthralling episode, and the next; wherever it may be; in whatever boats… And crew nationality has raised its head. Last year’s ‘American’ defender, Oracle Team USA, had only one American among her winning crew: should a clause be introduced to at least limit the number of non-nationals of the challenging or defending club’s country per boat?

As we learn time and again, apart from the technology of the boats participating, there’s nothing really new in the America’s Cup; history has a habit of repeating itself. Prior to 1895 for example, Scandinavian professionals crewed the American Cup defenders.

But there was no nationality issue surrounding the fervently patriotic, all-Scottish 1887 America’s Cup challenge by the Royal Clyde Yacht Club with the G.L. Watson-designed clipper-bowed Thistle: she was built of steel under great secrecy at Partick, Glasgow, by D. & W. Henderson; the head of her all-Scottish owning syndicate, James Bell, would later become Glasgow’s Lord Provost, and gain a knighthood – and her crew were Scots thorough-and-through.

Whatever the make-up of the defender crews, their skippers through to the mid 1890s remained home-grown. But things were soon to change: the growing success up to this time in U.S. waters by Scotland’s leading yacht designers, the friendly rivals William Fife Jr and G.L. Watson, would bring two major America’s Cup characters to the fore for the defence – both Scottish. One of them would become an America’s Cup icon.

Thistle’s racing skipper, John Barr (aged 42), from the Firth of Clyde fishing village  of Gourock (the rail-head didn’t arrive until 1889), and his half-brother Charlie (23) who shipped aboard just for the Cup races, most probably knew by this time where their future as professional yachtsmen lay: they were already intimate with the waters of the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, having delivered and raced Clyde-built yachts there. They liked what they saw and American yachtsmen took to them.

By 1889 John had emigrated, to Marblehead, Massachusetts, then arguably the most prominent of American yachting stations. And Charlie, despite a reported brief return to Scotland, never really left in his mind – finally becoming a U.S. citizen in 1893, thus clearing the way to becoming an America’s Cup defending skipper.* Both enjoyed successful careers thereafter, but Charlie’s was stellar: a story for another day.

The Barrs would become the first subjects for discussion about nationality and the America’s Cup. Maybe even nationality in international sport of any kind?

What of the other, apparently anonymous lads in the wonderful crew photo above, taken in September 1887 when Thistle was in the Erie Basin dry dock, New York, for cleaning and measuring. Who were they? Thankfully, because of the general furore the Thistle challenge generated around Glasgow, we at least know their names.

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Thistle, about to anchor (or weighing anchor?) somewhere near New York, 1887, with John Barr prominent at the tiller. The full beauty of Watson’s sheerline is clearly seen in a rare image of her almost at rest.
(Library of Congress)

Unusually in the press reporting of yachting, even now, Thistle’s full crew list for the 1887 season – including the America’s Cup races – was published.

John Barr, Master; Alex McDonald, 1st officer; Daniel McKenzie, 2nd Officer; William Wright, steward; Alex Hill, first cook; Archibald McNicol, second cook; John Graham, sailmaker; John Crawford, carpenter; John Fyfe; John Graham; Angus Kennedy; William Craig; James Wilkie; Archibald McIntyre; James Shedden; James Hughes; Daniel McKellar; William Holmes; Hugh Howat; William Griffin.
[Note added 26 March 2014: this list, taken from the book ‘Famous Clyde Yachts 1880-1887’, is missing Thistle’s trans-Atlantic Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr (see alphabetical list below).]

Why not? These were national and local heroes. Had there been any previous sporting event where a Scottish team had travelled to take on America?

That my great-grandfather was one of them was passed down in family lore by word of mouth, but without proof. When I began to dig out the facts, finding Archibald McNicol listed as one of Thistle’s crew was a major moment. Apart from the blood ties, I had learned to sail at the Royal Clyde Yacht Club in the mid-1970s, in a Loch Long One Design sloop named Thistle.

As Captain Para Handy’s Mate, Dougie, once said,

“I sometimes wish, mysel’, I had taken to the yats… it’s a suit or two o’ clothes in the year, and a pleasant occupaation. Most o’ the time in canvas sluppers.”

As yachting on the Firth of Clyde and west coast of Scotland gained popularity apace through the Victorian years – the almost unique result of Glasgow’s immense industrial power and wealth generation happening within a short train ride from an aquatic paradise – so too did the industry surrounding it. The labour-intensive yachts of those days required big crews; racing yachts even bigger.

These yacht hands were mainly drawn from the coastal fishing communities; men used to handling sail powered boats and a bit of dusty weather. The large families of the time meant that some sons could be available even during the summer fishing and sailing season. They took up positions on yachts in numbers.

Loch Fyne Fishermen 1883Perhaps Archibald McNicol’s family was typical. We might now refer to them as maritime crofters. The McNicol croft lay at St Catherines, opposite Inverary, on the east shore of Loch Fyne; one of two fjord-like stretches of deep, easily navigable and sheltered water that reach north from the Firth of Clyde’s interface with the lowlands, long into the mountainous highlands of Argyll. They were fish catchers and smokers, and self-sufficient, with enough land to feed themselves from what they grew there, and the loch full of herring.

It’s a beautiful location that has barely changed (if you forget about the main road driven through the middle of the croft in the 1950s). A little part remains in my family, its beach the playground and daydreaming place of childhood holidays for three McAllister boys, wondering why stones were piled into strange formations and realising much later that these were the remnants of the jetties and the bases for net drying stakes employed by our forebears. It’s hard to imagine that life here was as tough as it would have been for many in the 1880s.

Being in the ‘house’ side of things (‘2nd cook’ on Thistle) – although he wouldn’t have got away without lending his muscles to sheets and halyards during a race – Archie’s career path eventually led to him becoming a steward from 1891 aboard James A. Allan’s G.L. Watson designed steam yacht, Hermione: lucrative work at a pay rate equal to the Captain’s. One of his brothers is said to have worked for Kaiser Wilhelm II aboard the German Imperial yacht Hohenzollern II.

I’m constantly amazed that my forebears worked on such iconic yachts, and that, by chance really, so have I: the brother with the middle name, McNicol.

Presently I know a little about one more of Thistle’s crew, James Shedden, a fisherman from the tiny north Ayrshire hamlet of Portencross, its picturesque harbour dominated by a 14th Century castle with Scottish royal connections. I was lucky enough to meet his son in the 1980s, the last of the Sheddens to fish from there. He told me that in James Shedden’s days the fishermen of Portencross were line fishing from spritsail rigged clinker-built skiffs – not a rig associated with the Clyde, but one they believed was easy to ‘scandalise’ in order to slow down when fishing.

Perhaps Thistle’s carpenter, John Crawford, was connected to the family of Crawfords that worked as carpenters for William Fife & Son? Maybe John Fyfe was one of the Ardmaleish Fyfes, a family of Isle of Bute boatbuilders related to the Fife’s of Fairlie; or from a branch of that family in the Ayrshire port of Ardrossan?

Who are the others? At present all we have are names. Where did they come from? Are there other genealogically interested descendants out there who were told that their great-grandfather or great uncle sailed aboard Thistle in the America’s Cup, back in the day.

Hopefully this article might start something? If you think or know that you are descended from one of the men in the crew list, we’d love to hear from you, and hope you might be able to identify him in the photo. Please “leave a comment” below.

The crew list in alphabetical order this time is below (the list above was as published in 1887)

My dream is that we all meet up for a Thistle crew descendants gathering at the Royal Marine Hotel, Hunter’s Quay, Dunoon (below), the magnificent former clubhouse of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club, designed by G.L. Watson’s architect cousin, T.L. Watson, who was also the designer of many interiors for G.L.’s larger sailing and steam yachts – but, once again, that’s another story.

The alphabetical Thistle crew list:

John Barr, Master; William Craig; John Crawford (carpenter); John Fyfe; John Graham, (sailmaker); John Graham; William Griffin; Alex Hill (1st cook); William Holmes; Hugh Howat; James Hughes; Angus Kennedy; (Captain) Donald Kerr (Navigating Master); Alex McDonald (1st officer); Archibald McIntyre; Daniel McKellar; Daniel McKenzie (2nd Officer); Archibald McNicol (2nd cook); James Shedden; James Wilkie; William Wright (steward).

[Note added 26 March 2014: this list, from a 17 August 1887 New York Times article describing Thistle’s arrival from the Atlantic at Tompkinsville, NY, the day before, shows the addition of Thistle’s trans-Atlantic Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr, then a veteran of more than 30 crossings.]

There are 21 names here for what should be considered her core crew, but 22 souls in the photo. Could the 22nd man be the young Charlie Barr in his first America’s Cup appearance. He did not appear on the list, but newspaper reports place him on board for the Cup races?

Her full complement for the 1887 Cup races was 32. Unfortunately at present we have no information on who the extra hands were. Or where they came from…**

[* The dates for John and Charlie Barr’s U.S. citizenship taken from Len Paterson’s excellent book. The Auld Mug – The Scots and the America’s Cup, Glasgow, Neil Wilson, 2007. Other sources give varying dates.]
[** Note 26 March 2014: The final two paragraphs above have been slightly reworked reflecting the fact that after the original post we discovered the name of one more member of Thistle’s crew, Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr.]
 [Note 1 April 2014: John Barr’s age above changed to 42, based on original birth certificate and census records. Published source originally consulted added 6 years to him (1845-1909).]


PBP_daisyG.L. Watson designed  four America’s Cup challengers: Thistle (1887), Valkyrie II (1893), Valkyrie III (1895) and Shamrock II (1901). Martin Black’s  beautifully illustrated biography, G.L. WATSON – THE ART AND SCIENCE OF YACHT DESIGN, takes a fresh look at these challenges, using primary sources to reveal that the British challengers more often than not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It can be ordered online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

PBP_daisyA special note about the crew photo: Long Island Maritime Museum kindly allowed us to use their image in the knowledge that it would be shared via blog, Facebook, Twitter etc in order to help find the descendants. We ask that, if sharing, you please include the credit “courtesy, Long Island Maritime Museum“, and wherever possible the link to their web site: http://www.limaritime.org/. Thanks.


by ~ Iain McNicol McAllister ~

Further reading:

Scotia’s Thistle

All mod cons: the steam yacht Hermione, 1891

Strachur’s first international sporting hero

7 Comments/ Leave a comment

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Royal Clyde Yacht Club/ Royal Marine Hotel, Hunter’s Quay, 1890s.
(Library of Congress)


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 Order of the Thistle

  1. Ewan Kennedy says:

    I am fascinated by ancestral research and have found it a humbling experience discovering how my own lot managed to survive. Of course logic says that if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be around to be researching them. Interesting to find an Angus Kennedy among them, Kennedy preferred forenames were Angus and John, which makes for problems researching. I can’t claim any connection to this fellow, as my family’s route from the Great Glen to the West coast was via Edinburgh, see here: http://www.kennedystory.blogspot.co.uk.

    • Beautifully presented research, Ewan. Great to have the wider picture around one’s forebears. Raldoph, Elder & Co. entered my research a few years ago into Hal Sisk’s iron yacht ‘The Nita’, built in Dublin in 1868 by Bewley, Webb. When scraping around the internet trying to find out who might have been her designer from a time when designers weren’t really mentioned, I picked up a strong lead on English naval architect, Thomas Smith, most probably working for Bewley, Webb at the time, who had previously been employed by Randolph, Elder and claimed the credit for the design of those amazing looking blockade runners, which he described as “Swift Dispatch Paddle Packets”. I like that.

  2. Doug Patience says:

    Very interesting post Iain, ..a little question on genealogical matters if i may: My Grandfather was from Fairlie and i’ve always wondered if any of the forebears worked for the fifes ( the Crawford surname has come down to me as a middle name)..was any note kept of the yard staff over the years? Perhaps there’s something in May Fife’s book ,which i don’t have (only one 2nd hand copy on amazon at £150!…time for a new edition?….perhaps from Peggy Bawn publishing?)

    Also do i just imagine a similarity between the fine young axe-man sitting extreme right in this photo:
    The Fife workforce pose with the tools of their trade.  William Fife (II) stands in the back row wearing a bowler hat.

    and the hirsute chap sitting behind your great grandfather’s left shoulder? I’m not sure if the dates match up …Fife 2 might be in his 60’s?..and is that a model of Fiona or perhaps Bloodhound?.(.Although the new Bloodhound on the US west coast certainly has a more rounded forefoot..)

    Anyway all good stuff and thanks for the blogging..

    Doug Patience

    • Thanks for your comment and nice words Doug.

      If you haven’t already, it’s well worth tracing your Crawford ancestry back – checking census returns for occupation… It’s a strong name in the Fife story, and, as I guess you know, especially slightly inland at Kilbirnie from where the Fairlie Fife family hailed. Suitably armed with as much prior info as possible (to prevent costly dead ends), the http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/‎ site is a good place to go.

      Interesting about the, more correctly, ADZE-man you have identified in that wonderful photo. Could very well be him. Could he be John Crawford, THISTLE’s carpenter?

      If we guess c1880 for the Fife workers group photo, the models would seem to predate the era. The Californian BLOODHOUND replica ended up a bit of a hybrid I believe between the original’s 1874 built form, and that of her later years after major alterations.

      Please keep us posted with news from the Crawford trail!

      Iain McAllister, PBP

  3. Stuart Smerdon says:

    Forgive an ancient Cornishman’s comments, but whilst researching my great uncle’s silver lifeboat medal from the rescue of ss Suevic suvivors in Cornwall at the turn of the 20th century, I discovered that the lifeboat was a GL Watson design. Researching GL Watson led me the Thistle. Now my wife’s grandfather (she’s Scottish) is Hugh Galt Howat who appears in your photo of the Thistle crew. We have other photos of him in his Thistle jumper. My main point is that in all the hype surrounding the Thistle challenge as being all Scottish, some elements are lost. One. The Thistle on trials sailed down to Cowes Isle of Wight for the racing sails to be fitted. The sailmaker was local to that island. Two family folklore says that two English brothers from Hamble, well known professional racing seamen who crewed yachts at Cowes were amongst others recruited to supplement the 20 Scots in the races. I believe that they steamed to Canada on Dunraven’s yacht to join the Thistle. Now if I’m right they joined the yacht at Parry Sound Georgian Bay Ontario whilst the Thistle was on work up before the races. A check with Parry Sound Public Library will show you the Thistle working up there in the summer of 1887. Now I’m trying to find the Hamble brothers’ surnames but I do believe that they went on to carve a successful boat building business. John Crawford we have always believed to be the son of James Crawford who married Janet Miller, my wife’s grandmother’s sister in Rothesay. Hugh Howat died off Limerick in 1896 having fell off the s.s. Fastnet in mysterious circumstances. I have his death certificate. He left a young wife with 3 sons and a daughter yet to be born. She was named Hughina after him and is my wife’s mother.Stuart Smerdon

    • A lot of fascinating stuff there Stuart – thanks!

      SS SUEVIC:
      I checked out the rescue story at Wikipedia. Remarkable on all counts: a White Star Line calamity that only had a good ending – for all souls, and the ship! Which lifeboat was your great uncle on?

      I’ve also heard from other Hugh Howat descendants. I’ll draw your post to their attention. Interesting and intriguing to read more about him: not a nice way to go. And the Crawford link is fascinating; it would be typical of those days that crew recruitment was by personal recommendation/ family connections. There seems to be a strong Ayrshire thread to the makeup of the THISTLE crew, and Rothesay/ Bute is in a sense an extension of Ayrshire. Looking forward to hopefully hearing more about the Howat-Crawford family connection.

      Were made by the still existing loft, Ratsey & Lapthorn. In THISTLE’s time they had lofts at Cowes and Gosport, and at Gourock on the Clyde. I believe that her sails were a mixture of Scottish and English made. The English, Scottish and Irish “Big Class” regatta circuit of that time began on the south east coast of England and it returned to the south coast in time for Cowes Week via the Clyde, Belfast Lough, and Dublin. So THISTLE made her way south in May 1887 to join that circuit (more on that soon). It would make sense that visits to her sailmakers would be part of her “working up”. More work to be done on the minute detail of her equipment and preparations prior to setting sail for New York.

      I believe stories are getting mixed up here in your comment. THISTLE arrived at New York on 16 August 1887 and she departed for the return voyage to the Clyde on 14 October. Between conversion from ocean passage-making to racing rig, training, drydocking and measuring, the Cup races and conversion back to ocean passage mode, she wouldn’t have had time to enter Lake Ontario and there is no record of it. I wonder if the THISTLE you are referring to is this steam yacht, built in 1887:


      Fascinated to hear the family lore about the Hamble brothers who may have been part of THISTLE’s additional race crew: hope you find their names. I’m not aware of Lord Dunraven owning an oceangoing steam yacht and I hadn’t heard of him possibly attending the 1887 match… must investigate… I wonder if they might actually have shipped aboard the G.L. Watson designed steam yacht MOHICAN? She set off across the Atlantic afterwards with the racing spars on board and acted as THISTLE’s “mothership” in New York…


      • Theo Rye says:

        I’m pretty sure Dunraven himself wasn’t at the America’s Cup races in 1887; he was reported as speaking in the House of Lords on September 8th (The Times). Mohican, John Clark’s steam yacht which brought members of the syndicate out, arrived in New York on 1st September, according to Lawson’s History of the America’s Cup. The last race for the Cup was on October 1st, and Thistle departed New York on October 14th, and again Dunraven was reported as giving a speech in Cardiff on October 12th. Not to say that he couldn’t have chartered a steam yacht, but there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it in contemporary sources, whereas the Mohican’s trip is very well documented, including her rescue of the crew of a Canadian barque, the Lilian, which foundered during a storm which had kept the Mohican hove to for 24 hours.


  4. tomlivingstone says:

    Just a bit from Gourock….right next to the Barr’s house ….the Gourock race pack had a regular season which began in the Mediterranean before Easter and back to the Clyde for refitting to race rig and then to the regatta circuit along England’s South Coast to The Thames to Cork and back to The Clyde for The Fortnight. In summer they raced every day and made mending on passage. Thistle joined the racing pack before her Atlantic crossing. The sailmakers mentioned above had homes in Albert Road Gourock as well as a factory on Chapel Street.

  5. Karen Ottoson says:

    I am the great granddaughter of John Graham who sailed on the Thistle and am fascinated by the information provided in your article. After looking closely at the Thistle crew, I believe my great grandfather John Graham is sitting next to your great grandfather Archibald McNichol…3rd from left on cushion or what might be a sail.

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