Puffing through the Highlands

Anthony Burton takes a romantic voyage along the Scottish coast aboard an ancient steamboat 

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It was love at first sight. My wife and I had booked a holiday on the Clyde puffer VIC32 and were not quite sure what to expect. But the moment we saw her tied up at the quay, a thin wisp of smoke trailing away from her red and black funnel, we knew we had made the right choice.
In fact, by the end of the week we had booked to come back the next year, and we’ve since had many more puffer holidays.
But what exactly is a puffer? The story begins in 1856 when the Forth and Clyde Canal Company decided that instead of using horses to pull its boats, it might try one of these new steam engines, a boat called Thomas. The trials were a success so the company began building small cargo steamers, specially designed for canal work. The boats had to be able to get through the canal locks, so they were built to the maximum possible size – 20m (66ft 4in) long by 5.5m (18ft) beam – with bluff bows and a rounded stern, and soon the arrangement of the different components was standardised. In the stern are the captain’s cabin, the wheelhouse and the engine room, with the funnel somewhat inconveniently sticking up right in front of the steering position. In the bows is a forecastle for the crew, a mast with a derrick and a steam winch. All the space in between is just one big cargo hold.

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Huff and puff
The puffers were among the first vessels to be fitted with a compound steam engine – one in which the steam goes to a cylinder, then because there is still pressure available to do more work, passes to a second cylinder. In the early days, the exhaust steam from the low-pressure cylinder went straight up the funnel, so that for every stroke of the engine there was a puff of smoke and steam, hence the name ‘puffer’.
In time, these sturdy craft left the confines of the canals to carry cargo up and down the sea lochs of Scotland’s west coast and across to the islands. The puffers were ideal for the job: being flat-bottomed they could settle on to a beach at low tide and float off again at high tide. They could carry anything from coal for the gasworks on Great Cumbrae to a piano for Mrs McTavish’s parlour on Arran.

Losing puff
There was a problem, however, with going to sea – finding water for the boiler. Saltwater is very far from ideal. So, the engine was modified. The exhaust steam was condensed and recycled instead of going up the funnel and the puffers stopped puffing.
During the Second World War, the admiralty realised that puffers were just the thing to bring supplies to the big ships of the fleet, so it started building its own puffers. But the name was much too informal, so they were called Victualling Inshore Coasters and, as they didn’t consider it necessary to give such modest craft names, they became VIC1, VIC2 and so on. Our holiday craft is VIC32.
The story now moves on to 1975. Nick Walker had been around boats all his life, mainly with canal boats on the Grand Union, but his great love was sailing. What he really wanted was to find an old sailing vessel that he could convert to carry passengers. He and his wife Rachel had been told of one in Newcastle said to be in good condition, but as Nick said: “You could drill a hole through the planks with a finger”. On their way home, they stopped off at Whitby and there they found the VIC32, a filthy, neglected old steamer and not what they had in mind at all. But, after talking things over in the pub that night, the VIC started to seem rather more attractive. The Walkers went back next day, and discovered that the neglected appearance was misleading: the hull seemed sound and the engine was well oiled and smothered in grease to preserve it. They had come looking for a sailing ship and finished up buying a steamer.
Externally, she seems unchanged today, but below decks the hold has been divided in two, with a saloon on the upper level and six cabins down below. No one would pretend that the VIC is offering luxury cruising facilities, but that’s not why you come. For a start you enjoy a slow and leisurely progress around some of Britain’s finest scenery, the sea lochs and islands of Scotland’s west coast.

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Exploring the islands
There is always time to explore. In the early years, a stop on Arran involved tying up at the pier, but one year the pier was moving more than the ship, so on our voyage, we anchored and then rowed ashore. It was well worth the effort. A short walk inland brought us to a glen, complete with a herd of deer and a golden eagle riding the air currents overhead.
Islay offers a very different experience; it is, after all, the place that makes some of the finest malt whisky in the world. Neighbouring Jura provides the chance to steam out for a close (but not too close) look at the famous Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Each stop has its own delights, but for many it is the ship itself that is the greatest attraction.
Nick Walker must be the most laid-back skipper in the world, perfectly happy to let the passengers have a go at anything. Being a steam nut myself, I spent a lot of time down in the engine room, shovelling coal into the boiler. My wife, Pip, does not shovel coal, but she loves steering. One day near Holy Loch, she found herself with unexpected company: right astern was a sinister black shape, a nuclear submarine returning from a long, secret mission in the deeps.
Other encounters can be less menacing. Nick is never one to stick closely to schedules. When he heard that the QE2 was making her final visit to Glasgow where she was launched, he steamed over so that his passengers could see her. They arrived at the mouth of the Clyde, and Nick got a call on the ship’s radio: “Captain of the QE2 here. Thought I’d call to say how wonderful it is to see a puffer in steam”. Everyone, it seems, loves a puffer.
What is it exactly that makes a puffer holiday so memorable? In part it’s the magnificent scenery enjoyed in peace and quiet: steam engines are virtually silent and there’s none of the unpleasant judder you can get from a motor. But mostly it’s the character of the ship itself, and although the accommodation may be basic, the food is excellent and the drink plentiful.
And then there’s the sheer quirkiness of everything, epitomised by the only onboard entertainment on offer – the 78-rpm record player and such recorded masterpieces as “He played his ukulele while the ship went down”. The puffer is not only a wonderful steamer, but the only one in the world with a steam-powered gramophone.