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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 The Ferry Inn was a popular pub until 1917, when its licence was revoked.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’.