The Fife dynasty – first family of yacht design

Ayrshire Lass, designed William Fife Sr,1887, dressed overall in the Kyles of Bute during The Fife Regatta, July 2013. (CNN Mainsail)

Ayrshire Lass, designed William Fife Sr, 1887, dressed overall in the Kyles of Bute, Fife Regatta, July 2013.
(CNN Mainsail)

It was our pleasure last year to assist CNN Mainsail’s Richard Simmonds and double Olympic gold medalist, Shirley Robertson, with their superb coverage of The Fife Regatta 2013, now up at YouTube. Their desire for accuracy and attention to detail in honouring beautiful Scottish yachts, and their makers, was right up our street.

In Part One, Shirley sets the scene with the help of Fife family descendant and biographer, May Kohn – who writes as May Fife McCallum – and members of the Peggy Bawn Press team, Iain McAllister and Theo Rye, who took part in the regatta aboard the unique gaff cutter, Ayrshire Lass, designed by William Fife Sr (or “II”), built originally at Fairlie in 1887 as a “24-foot sailing boate” and rebuilt by Peggy Bawn’s restorer, Michael Kennedy, at Dunmore East, County Waterford, Ireland in time for 2008 Fife Regatta.

Part Two follows the superb 1908 cutter, Viola, and her Breton crew on the stormy passage race from Largs to Rothesay.

And the sun came out for Part Three’s scenic cruise up the Kyles of Bute aboard Ross Ryan’s elegant and fast, gaff-rigged 1910 8-Metre, The Truant.

The William Fifes, Sr and Jr, were great friends and rivals of Glasgow yacht designer George Lennox Watson, the subject of Martin Black’s beautifully illustrated biography, G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, available to purchase online at our website, from Amazon UK and Amazon USA, and from the bookstores listed here.

~ Iain McAllister ~



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The schooner Rainbow: “Design, copyright and exhibition”

Rainbow Dots Turkey Red

Turkey Red rainbow dots design, Archibald Orr Ewing and Co., Vale of Leven, Scotland, c late 1870s.
(National Museum of Scotland)

An inherited fortune from the Turkey Red textile dyeing and printing industry of the Vale of Leven, Scotland, paid for 37-year-old Charles Orr Ewing’s magnificent G.L. Watson-designed schooner Rainbow, launched at Partick, Glasgow in 1898 – and now being replicated in Holland.

Archibald Orr Ewing & Co. was just one of a number of 19th Century textile enterprises to take advantage of the plentiful, clean (at east upriver) waters of the River Leven on their meandering way from Loch Lomond to a brackish merging with the River Clyde via the shipyards and castle rock of Dumbarton. They employed thousands of workers to produce brightly coloured, well-designed and exotic fabrics catering for worldwide demand, and they fiercely backed their intellectual property rights by copyright and litigation.

Hamburg (ex Rainbow) slipping down Kiel Fjord c1910. (© Jorma Rautapää)

Hamburg (ex Rainbow) slipping down Kiel Fjord c1910.
(© Jorma Rautapää)

Read more about the personalities and companies of the Vale of Leven’s textile industry here and here, about the Turkey Red dyeing process and its beautiful products here, about Rainbow’s lively life as Hamburg after Charles Orr Ewing’s death aged 43 in 1903 here and, of course, all about her designer G.L. Watson’s fascinating career and output in Martin Black’s beautifully illustrated and written biography, G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, available to purchase online at our website, from Amazon UK and Amazon USA, and from the bookstores listed here.

[Thanks to Dr Stana Nenadic with Dr Sally Tuckett of the University of Edinburgh, the good folk behind, and Jorma Rautapää]

~ Iain McAllister ~

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The launch of the ‘Queen Mary’: ship 534

Nothing to do with G.L. Watson. Everything to do with the River Clyde, which made him. A worthy first ever “re-blog”, and reminder of the fabulous collections and work of University of Glasgow Archive Services (GUAS).

To see the larger photo of Queen Mary at anchor at “The Tail o’ the Bank”, click or tap “View original”.

~ IMcA ~

University of Glasgow Library Blog

80 years ago today ship number 534, the Cunard White Star Liner built on the river Clyde by John Brown’s shipyard, was launched and given the name RMS Queen Mary.

(DC101/1481/Q/4/Y7) (DC101/1481/Q/4/Y7)

The Queen Mary was one of the most celebrated, and largest, ships of its generation and is one of the best known liners to have sailed the seas. The contract for the building of ‘ship number 534’ was signed on 1st December 1930 and the first keel plates were laid on the 27th of that month. Work halted, however, in December 1931 due to the economic depression and did not begin again until April 1934. The structure was finished within six months and she was ready for launch on 26th September 1934.

A ticket to attend the launch (UCS1/107/116) A ticket to attend the launch (UCS1/107/116)

Here at the University of Glasgow Archive Services we hold many records relating to the Queen Mary in our

View original post 733 more words

Posted in archives, Clydebuilt, Firth of Clyde, G.L. Watson, gift, Glasgow, object of desire, River Clyde, ship launch, shipbuilding, shipyards, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Return to the Hebrides

Hard to believe it’s over a year since we last met the long lived G.L. Watson-designed west highlands and islands of Scotland cargo vessel S.S. Hebrides (1898). And incomprehensible that we’ve been watching the “Ealing Comedy” The Maggie (USA: High and Dry) for many more years than that without recognising Hebrides as one of its unsung stars.

In reality, and in model form, Hebrides makes a cameo appearance at Kingston Dock, Glasgow in this clip from the early scenes of an enchanting film, alongside much loved actors of the past, Hubert Gregg (Pusey), Alex Mackenzie (Captain MacTaggart), Geoffrey Keen (Mr Campbell, the shipping agent), James Copeland (the Mate) and Paul Douglas (Calvin B. Marshall – voice only here); not forgetting a real Clyde puffer, either Boer or Inca – they shared the title role. Later in the film, Roddy McMillan makes a brief appearance; he would eventually play Neil Munro’s puffer skipper “Para Handy” in the popular 1960s BBC TV series.

The real S.S. Hebrides appears from 2:28. The site of Kingston dock was immediately to the east of the Kingston motorway bridge, almost in the centre of Glasgow, which rather overshadows the only survivor from the “set” depicted below – the magnificent but nowadays rather lonely Cooperative Wholesale Society Building.


~ Iain McAllister ~

Hebrides in the Maggie

Posted in Captains, film, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson & Co., gift, Glasgow, humour, River Clyde | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Macintosh of yacht design”


The October 2014 issue of Scottish Field magazine (out now) features Scottish sports journalist Roddy Forsyth’s entertaining take on the G.L. Watson story and Martin Black’s biography G.L. WATSON – THE ART and SCIENCE of YACHT DESIGN, likening Watson’s career to that of the renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh.

Glasgow men of the world.

~ Iain McAllister ~

GLW c1897

G.L. Watson c1897
(Yachting News)


Charles Rennie Macintosh c1895
(Anne McTaggart MSP)

Posted in America's Cup, art, book, Clydebuilt, Firth of Clyde, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson & Co., gift, Glasgow, Martin Black, naval architect, object of desire, River Clyde, shipbuilding, shipyards, yacht design, yacht designer, yachting history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Float your boat

Martin Black’s biography of Scottish yacht designer G.L. Watson pays homage to the side of his work that, reading between the lines, he found most worthwhile: improving the design of rescue lifeboats.*

Both the design of lifeboats and their deployment method are geographically informed. In many locations it is not possible to house the vessel near to its launching place; before the march of the internal combustion engine, horse power was required to get it there.

On the Dutch Frisian Island of Ameland, that tradition well outlived the normally considered practical use of the horse as a beast of burden. The memorial at the start of the video is to the 8 horses that drowned on 14 August 1979 while launching Reddingsboot Ameland into the North Sea.

PBP_daisy*In his beautifully illustrated biography G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, Martin Black quotes Watson from the minutes of Royal National Lifeboat Institution investigating UK Parliamentary Select Committee meeting of 27 April 1897:

“I think it is such good work. I am busy making toys for millionaires all the rest of my time, and [my work for the RNLI] is the only work that I really do.”

Although best known for his work with the RNLI, which the company he founded continued through to the design for the relatively recent Arun Class, G.L. Watson also designed lifeboats for other countries, including the sistership steam-hydraulic lifeboats President van Heel (1895) and Prins van Nederlanden (1909) for Zuid-Hollandsche Maatschappij tot Redding van Schipbreukelingen. Both capsized when on duty in extreme coastal conditions, with heavy loss of life. President van Heel went back into service and, as far as we can tell, still exists as a private yacht, perhaps with her original steam engine. Prins van Nederlanden was decommissioned after her tragic misfortune in 1929; it has recently been discovered that she also was converted to a yacht.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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Gordon Bennett!

The striking Lysistrata's styling was unconventional. (Hal Sisk)

The striking Lysistrata’s styling was unconventional.
(Hal Sisk)

The G.L. Watson designed and tank-tested twin-screw turbine steam yacht Lysistrata was launched by William Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton, Scotland, on this day in 1900. Such was the attention to detail demanded by her remarkable interior – festooned with evidence of her owner, New York Herald newspaper proprietor James Gordon Bennett Jr’s obsession with the owl – that completion would take until May 1901 at a final cost of over $600,000.

We’ll let the more sober New York press take up the story, without prejudice:


“Mr. Bennett’s Hansome Yacht Gives Entire Satisfaction to Owner, Designer, and Builders.

“LONDON, March 16. – James Gordon Bennett’s new steam yacht Lysistrata, designed by George L. Watson and built by W. Denny & Brothers, has just completed her trials, and is said to have given the greatest satisfaction to her owner, designer and builders. Over an eighty-five-knots course the Lysistrata showed a mean speed of 19½ knots, and without forced draught 16½ knots. The yacht handles admirably, has twin screws, and 6,500 horse power. During her high-speed trial the machinery acted faultlessly. There was no heating or complications of any kind, and so cool were the bearings at the end of the trial that the Chief Engineer said he was prepared to drive her another 300 miles without fear of the results.

“The Lysistrata is destined to excite much comment when she appears completed in May. She is of 2800 tons, has a perfectly straight stem, has a storm deck fore and aft, a single huge funnel, with one mast abaft it, and one square yard for signalling purposes. The interior arrangements are quite unique, and generally speaking, she is unlike any yacht ever built. She has no bowsprit, but a feature at the stern and bow are large owls with electric eyes, amid a scrollwork of mistletoe. More striking than all else in the yacht are the anchors, which are stockless, like those used on board warships, the shaft being drawn into the side of the ship. The hull has the appearance of being made out of a solid piece of metal, so highly is it polished and beautifully finished.”

New York Times

March 17, 1901

Lysistrata during her trials on the Firth of Clyde, spring 1901. (

Lysistrata during her Firth of Clyde sea trials, spring 1901.

Lysistrata at Cannes (

Lysistrata at Cannes with her crew uniform hanging out to dry in the morning sun. It is said that at times she had up to 100 crew, including a masseur and, presumably, a cow hand…

Lysistrata at Villefranche. (

The owl figurehead is clearly seen in this photo of Lysistrata at Villefranche. Gordon Bennett died at nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer in May 1918.

Lysistrata was sold in c1916 to the Imperial Russian Navy, apparently requisitioned by the Royal Navy during the first world war, then returned to Russia and perhaps not broken up until as relatively recently as 1966. She is a very special representative of the G.L. Watson steam yacht designs of the 1890s and early 1900s that may be considered the true predecessors of today’s “megayachts”. Doesn’t every self-respecting megayacht berth a milk cow in a padded stall, and stow a De Dion Bouton car at the ready?

~ Iain McAllister ~


Posted in Clydebuilt, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson & Co., G.L. Watson clients, object of desire, shipbuilding, shipyards, Steam Yacht, tank testing, yacht design, yacht designer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments