Location: Bute
ships and boats, travel by sea

Commuting by steamship in the 1950s

"In the early 1950s while attending the James Watt College preparatory to going to sea I commuted daily, leaving in the morning by the 7.45am ferry and returning on the 6.20pm from Wemyss Bay. One morning when the Duchess of Fife was in service we sailed out into a howling southwest gale. It was a rough crossing from Craigmore Point to Wemyss Bay where the possibility of berthing was abandoned after a couple of attempts. The wee Duchess of Fife then struggled up the Firth, losing part of her starboard sponson on the way. Berthing at Gourock with a paddlewheel partly exposed, it was clear that the ship would be out of service for a while.

"All went off to their various occupations then in late afternoon word came round that the Waverley would be sailing from Gourock at 5pm for Dunoon and Rothesay. There was a scurry to get to Gourock, with a surprising number of the regular travellers on board when we sailed. The run across to Dunoon was rough but then it was head to wind and sea down the Firth before swinging into the lee of Bute, finally sliding into the smoother waters of Rothesay Bay. I remember those of us unaffected by the smell of steam and oil standing round the engine keeping warm- it had been a wild day but we were home again not much after our usual time.

"It’s good to know that the enthusiasm for Clyde steamers continues. I wouldn’t be alone in remembering the Duchess of Fife most fondly, partly because my father sailed in her as a seaman in the 1920s but mainly because she was a fine little ship. My father had a few pages of a hand-written poem reputedly the work of the ship’s cook from about 1926. The following are the first few lines; perhaps the remainder exist elsewhere."

'The Fife she is an able bodied toiler But oh dear me wi’ sic’ a boiler
Wi’ pipes and tubes an’ stays amissin’
And steam all o’er the engine hissin’
‘Tis time that she was put to rest And left it to the Queen Empress ... '

As told by Robert McMillan, former residence of Bute In fond and respectful memory of Captain Robert McMillan, who sadly passed away in September 2021.

Captain Robert McMillan was born and raised in Rothesay on the Island of Bute. He developed his love of the sea enjoying the beaches and coast of Bute and sailing boats around the Clyde. Robert’s father was lost at sea during WWII when Robert was only nine, though this did not diminish his desire for a maritime career. He was trained at the James Watt College in Greenock and spent the following years pursuing his maritime craft in British shipping around the globe. On Hogmanay 1963 in Rothesay, he met his Australian wife, Elizabeth. They were quickly engaged and agreed to establish a life together in faraway New Zealand. Robert sought employment with the New Zealand Union Steamship Company and was asked to stand by the building of the TEV Wahine in the Clyde shipyards. Once the ship was completed, he sailed to New Zealand as the Chief Officer on the delivery voyage. In the early years after his arrival in New Zealand Robert and Elizabeth set about creating their life together and Robert was sent on to other seagoing roles around the New Zealand coast and across the Tasman Sea to Australia. On 10 April 1968 during one of these voyages Robert was riding out a severe storm in the Cook Strait when only a few miles away the TEV Wahine foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour, becoming New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster. Throughout the remainder of his life Robert referred to the Wahine disaster as the loss of his other wife.

Robert was given his first command as a master mariner in 1969 and began his career as the captain of many large container ships. He sailed with the New Zealand Shipping Corporation for many years eventually captaining the New Zealand Pacific, the largest container ship to visit the New Zealand coast at that time. Robert was a true Scotsman and never lost his love for his homeland. He established a Highland Cattle Fold on a small farm in rural Levin, was an avid follower of Robbie Burns and imbued Scottish traditions and history into his two boys and grandchildren. Robert struggled to retire from the sea and in the sunset of his career he captained ships throughout Asia and West Africa. Eventually he settled down on the family farm with Elizabeth, Robert focussed on recording his many exciting adventures over his years at sea in his memoirs.

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