For generations of Scots, it was the ultimate summer break. After months of eager anticipation, factory workers and their families would gleefully flee the city and swarm aboard the boats lined up to take them ‘doon the watter’ from Glasgow to the resort towns of the Firth of Clyde.
The annual summer jaunt to towns such as Dunoon and Rothesay was the main event of the year, until the arrival of cheap flights in the 1960s, which all but killed off the tradition. With one glorious exception. Welcome aboard the Waverley, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.
These days, this grand old lady still ferries holidaymakers every summer from the centre of Glasgow. The journey to Rothesay, just one of the voyages on the Waverley’s timetable, still makes for a fantastic day-trip or family outing.
A thing of beauty
With polished brass and noisy engineering, the boat herself doesn’t fail to impress. Once the sharp cry of the steam-whistle has announced the journey is under way, you can explore the boat, strolling along the polished teak deck and admiring the bright stripes of the funnels. Below deck, the saloons, bars and dining rooms evoke the elegance of a bygone age.
The crowning glory, however, is the engine room at the very heart of the ship. Completely open to view, the gigantic pistons and cranks whirr and clatter hypnotically in an atmosphere rich with steam and hot oil. Once you sail out past Greenock and Gourock, you enter a jaw-dropping Highland landscape of rugged hills, dark forests and long fjord-like sea-lochs. Here, you can lean on the brass rails that surround the deck and set your face to the salt-breeze, while listening to the shrill cry of gulls above the rhythmic beat of the Waverley’s churning paddles.
The main town on the Isle of Bute, Rothesay, rose to fame as a resort in the late 19th century, and echoes of its former glory are everywhere.
One of the most curious attractions remains the toilets beside the pier. The men’s room is entirely clad in its original decorative ceramic tiles from 1899, ornately patterned in mosaic rows from floor to ceiling.
Other attractions include Rothesay Castle, the Winter Gardens musical hall and, of course, a pitch and putt golf course. Boarding the Waverley for the return journey, you can’t help but wonder why such cruises fell out of favour. Why head to the Costa Brava when you can just head ‘doon the watter’?