Keeping Scotland’s Maritime Heritage Afloat
With the west coast having been at the heart of Scotland’s shipbuilding industry, it’s appropriate that the Scottish Maritime Museum should be situated on the Clyde.
The museum is split over two sites, one in Irvine and the other in Dumbarton. And although our visit concentrates on the Irvine site, where the museum’s main collection of boats and maritime artefacts is housed, the Dumbarton site, based at the Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank, offers equally fascinating insights into the design and building of ships.
The Irvine site lies close to the town’s harbour, with the museum’s main collection being housed at the imposing Linthouse Building – a structure which, like most grand old buildings, has a story to tell.
Originally the engine shop of the Alexander Stephen & Sons shipbuilding company of Glasgow, with whom a young Billy Connolly served his apprenticeship as a welder, it became derelict in the early 1980s and was at risk of being demolished. Few could have imagined that it would end up being dismantled, transported and re-erected 30 miles away, but that’s pretty much what happened, with its iron framework and roof being transported to Irvine for reassembly within a new brick exterior. It opened its doors at its new location in 1991 and is now home to most of the museum’s collection of boats and artefacts.
The earliest boat on display at the Linthouse Building is the Lady Guildford, an oak and birch sailing galley which dates from 1819 and was built for the Marquess of Bute. At the other end of the age and technology spectrum is Bolt, an electrically powered aluminium yacht tender designed by Fife-based Mylne Yacht Design. Although somewhat limited in terms of her range (around 10 miles is as far as she’ll travel between charges), Bolt set a British speed record for boats in her category in 2012.
The building also houses two elegant yachts, Vagrant and Powerful, designed and built in Fairlie by the firm of William Fife & Son. The firm spanned three generations of the Fife family and its boats earned a reputation for their beauty, speed and quality. Indeed, such was their reputation that tea magnate Thomas Lipton contested the America’s Cup in two Fife-designed boats, Shamrock and Shamrock III, neither of which has survived to the present day.
Another Scot who designed America’s Cup contenders, George Watson, is represented in the museum by TGB, a 47-foot wooden lifeboat operated by the RNLI from 1962 to 1985 and which used the final evolution of a hull designed by Watson at the end of the 19th century.
TGB was initially stationed at Longhope in the Orkney islands, where from 1962 until March 1969, she and her crew effected many rescues and saved a number of lives. On 13th March 1969, TGB and her crew of eight, five of whom came from two families, put to sea to go to the aid of a cargo vessel which was being driven towards the coast of Caithness in a force 9, building to force 10, gale.
The last radio contact with TGB occurred about 90 minutes after launch, all subsequent attempts to contact her being met with an ominous silence. A full-scale search was launched the next morning, the storm having abated, and her upturned hull was sighted early that afternoon. All eight of her crew were dead, seven of the bodies being found inside her hull but the eighth was never recovered.
TGB’s loss was attributable to two things: the ferocity of the sea and her inability to right herself after being capsized. Her loss led to the other sixteen boats of her class being modified to provide them with a degree of self-righting ability. As for TGB herself, she was repaired and, duly modified, served as a lifeboat at Arranhope in Ireland for a number of years.
Most of TGB’s sister boats were retired from RNLI service in the 1980s, with five serving into the very early 1990s. One of her sisters, the Solomon Browne, which operated from Penlee in Cornwall, was not so fortunate – she and her crew of eight were lost in 1981 whilst attempting to rescue the crew and passengers of a coaster that had lost power and was being driven into the rocky Cornish coast in appalling conditions.
It speaks volumes for the communities of Longhope and Mousehole, where the Penlee lifeboat’s crew came from, that in the midst of tragedy they rallied together and formed new crews so that the Longhope and Penlee lifeboats could continue, which they do to this day.
Still proudly bearing her RNLI livery, TGB stands not only as a memorial to the courage of the Longhope and Penlee lifeboat crews but also as a vivid reminder of the perils of the sea.
Other boats within the building include the hull of Rifle, an early Clyde-built iron steamboat on which Queen Victoria once travelled, Bass Conqueror, a 13-foot rowing boat in which Kenneth Kerr made an ill-fated attempt to row the Atlantic, and an aluminium lifeboat from the last British-built paddle steamer, the Maid of the Loch.
More vessels can be found immediately outside the building, including Spartan, one of the last of the famous Clyde puffers, perhaps best known to modern audiences from the ‘Vital Spark’ and ‘Para Handy’ TV series. Indeed, Spartan herself appeared in an episode of the latter. Also outside is ASR 10, a British air-rescue rescue craft from World War 2. Neither ASR 10 nor her sister craft had engines. Instead, they were moored at a variety of locations along the bomber routes from England to continental Europe. Equipped with food, drink, and sleeping facilities, the ASRs provided safe, dry refuge for downed aircrew as well as a radio with which to summon help.
The museum is also home to an interesting and eclectic collection of artefacts, including a turbine originally fitted to the TS Queen Mary (the one that’s moored at the Science Park in Glasgow, rather than the former Cunard liner), wooden engineering patterns of the turbines fitted to the QE2, a boiler from the paddle steamer Waverley, various steam-powered engines, wooden bowsprits, and some exceptionally well detailed models. There are also lots of period photographs, reproduction posters, and films to be viewed.
For those in need of sustenance, there’s a small café within the museum, with more substantial meals and snacks being available from Puffer’s café just a short walk away.
Two more of the museum’s attractions can be found near to Puffer’s: a recreation of a shipworker’s flat from the 1920s, to which tours are run from the museum, and the MV Kyles, the oldest Clyde-built vessel still afloat in the UK, having celebrated her 150th birthday in 2022.
In addition to the boats and items on permanent display, the museum regularly hosts special events and exhibitions, details about which are posted on the museum’s website.
It all adds up to a suitably impressive record of Scotland’s maritime history, and one that’s ideal for visitors of all ages.
Scottish Maritime Museum, Harbour Road, Irvine, Ayrshire KA12 8BT
01294 277 177