The sea unites – The story of Inveraray’s ferry

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By Colin Cameron

Much of the detail in this feature comes from two booklets written by the late Donald MacKechnie, the well-known Inveraray schoolmaster and local historian.

The booklets, ‘Inveraray Notes’ and ‘Inveraray Tales and Traditions’, were published in the 1980s.

Look out for tales from these fascinating booklets in coming editions of the Argyllshire Advertiser.

As a starter, we turn to links across Loch Fyne, and the Inveraray-St Catherines ferry.

The Inveraray ferry

Based on information by Donald MacKechnie

From the Middle Ages until 1963 a ferry sailed between Inveraray and St Catherines – one of seven similar services up and down Loch Fyne linking Cowal and Mid Argyll. Before the roads were made these were important links- the sea unites and the land divides.

Arguably the most important ferry followed the Inveraray – St Catherines route, connecting with coach services to Loch Goil and the onward steamer to Greenock or Glasgow.

At one time a large sailing boat carried horses and cattle. A rowing or sailing yawl conveyed pilgrims, pedlars, travellers and soldiers. Pilgrims and blind persons were carried free.

From the 17th Century the ferry and ferryman’s house were auctioned annually by Inveraray Town Council to the highest bidder, with the burgh providing the two vessels. The ferryman kept the fares, and part of the deal was that the minister and magistrates would travel free of charge.

When Inveraray new town was built in the 18th Century the Ferry Land housed the ferrier, who supplemented his income by running a dram shop. The Ferry Inn was a popular pub until 1917, when its licence was revoked.

In 1827 David Napier, later a famous shipbuilder, introduced two steamers, the Thalia and Robert Bruce, from Inveraray to St Catherines and other ports on Loch Fyne. In 1836 the Lochgoil and Loch Long Steamboat Company became tenants of the ferry with a small paddle steamer, though the rowing/sailing boats were still available for a lower fare.

From St Catherines their horse-drawn coach conveyed passengers to Lochgoilhead, from where they joined a steamer to the central belt.

In 1856 the company introduced a new steamer, the Argyle. She was not a success, with author Alexander Smith describing her as ‘a small wash-tub of a steamer that carries you across Loch Fyne in an hour’.

In 1865 the Inveraray Ferry and Coach Company took over with their beautiful little steamer, the Fairy.

The route did not pay, however, and in 1892 the town council set up the ferry as a municipal enterprise with Fairy II, a little steel paddle steamer. When to town council gave up running the service in 1909, Mr John Dewar continued until the Fairy II was wrecked in the great storm of November 1912.

Thereafter there were a number of ferriers. James Douglas used a Loch Fyne skiff fitted with a motor and Hope MacArthur operated launches called the Happy Return and the Jean.

The car and bus rendered the sea link unnecessary and the service ended in 1963.

A winter trip across Loch Fyne is recorded in the following song, sung to the tune ‘Kitty of Lochgoil’. Here are some of the verses:

The Fairy in the Fog

‘Twas in the year of ’81

On Januar’ the fourth day

The steamer Fairy crossed Loch Fyne

To Sweet St Catherines bay.

Our Captain Bold was Duncan Bell

Our pilot Donuil Dhu

The engineer Shon Gillies

And Dugal Piobair was the crew.

The passengers were soon aboard

That Coachy Jock had brought

And then again through blinding fog

Our homeward way we sought.

The day with fog was thick and dark

You could neither hear nor see

But Donuil Dhu just kept her nose

Straight from St Catherines quay.

The pilot at his stemmy post

Stood firm as any rock

The compass true before his eyes

Just like my grandfather clock

As we came near the Newtown bay.

Our reckoning scarce could fail

Said Dougal Piobair to himself

‘I wish we saw the jail’.

The captain stood upon the deck

A few feet from the funnel

And to the pilot passed the word

‘Keep clear of Mackenzie’s tunnel’.

Already we were sheering off

Our course we knew quite well

When through the fog some lengths away

There came a dismal yell.

‘Now what was that?’ the captain cried

‘I ne’er heard the like before’

Said Dugal Piobair: ‘Sure it is a Pochkan on the shore’.