The Early Years and the Fifes

It is now impossible to discover who was the first Scottish yachtsman, or what manner of craft he employed. To employ a popular paradox, there was no first yacht and no first yachtsman. It may be assumed that the pastime was evolved from the pleasure which the early Scottish traders derived from sailing their own trading smacks. It would appear, however, that the centuries of war which so closely affected the Scot prevented his considering his beautiful coast and rivers with any but the strategist’s eye. Tradition has it that there was yachting of a sort in the middle reaches of the Clyde about the close of the eighteenth century, but the same uncertain source suggests that the pioneer yachts were not objects of admiration.

The first one of which there is any note seems to have been popularly known as the Auld Soo. Save her rather offensive name, nothing would appear to be known of this craft; but, from the fact that the older Clyde fishermen spoke of a boat ‘by the head’ as being like a stuck pig, it may be reasonably assumed that this early specimen of yacht architecture put her nose rather freely into the sea.

A little later we have more detailed reports of yachts built and sailed on the Clyde. There were the Lady Montgomerie, belonging to Lord Montgomerie, of Skelmorlie Castle; the Aurora, a wherry-rigged boat of some 9 tons, built for Mr. Cunninghame of Craigens; and another wherry-rigged boat, the Heroine, belonging to Mr. Hutcheson, of Fairlie. All that is known of those early yachts is that they were of short and barrel-like design; and the Heroine was planked with oak, the Aurora ended her days on Fairlie Beach, while the Lady Montgomerie went ‘into trade.’

The Heroine probably took form at Fairlie, while the likeli­hood is that the other two were built at Greenock, in the yard which has gradually grown into Scotts’ great shipbuilding and engineering works. For about a hundred years before yacht-build­ing was introduced on the Clyde the Scotts were building boats at Greenock, and it was in their yard that the first Clyde yacht of which there is any written history was built. This yacht was launched in the early summer of 1803; and, judging by the pomp and circumstance of the event, we may conclude that Colonel Campbell, an Argyleshire gentleman for whom the yacht was built, was anxious to popularize the new pastime. Strange to say, the name of this boat is not discoverable, although it was bestowed by Lady Charlotte Campbell to the music of a military band. Of about 40 tons measurement, the yacht was well designed and well built, and was certainly the finest boat launched on the Clyde up to that date.

The Scott family—now the sixth generation in succession—still carry on their work at the yard which was the cradle of Scottish yacht-building, and the family has always been more or less devoted to the pastime. During the last twenty-five years there were few better known yachtsmen than the late Mr. John Scott, C.B., of Halkshill, Largs, Commodore of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club; and the late Mr. Robert Sinclair Scott, of Burnside, Largs, Admiral of the Mudhook Yacht Club. Yet another, the late Mr. Colin W. Scott, of Eversly, Skelmorlie, was the secretary of the Mudhook Club from its foundation. Strange to say, these three members of this family who were largely instrumental in founding the Mudhook Yacht Club died within a few months of each other.

John Scott, the grandfather of these yachtsmen, was at the head of the famous yard when yachting on the Clyde took concrete shape, and he turned out some of the best remembered of the early clippers. For himself he built the Hawk and Hope, and for Mr. Robert Sinclair, a brother-in-law, and early member of the Royal Northern Yacht Club, he turned out the Clarence. Both the Hawk and Hope measured about 20 tons, and the Clarence was one or two tons less. The Hope had little racing reputation, and one wild night she broke from her moorings and drove ashore in Largs Bay. At this time ballast consisted of cobble-stones, but in the Hope Mr. Scott substituted copper ore—a small point, perhaps, but one which suggests the line of thought taken by this early designer. The Hawk would appear to have been a yacht of average merit, but the Clarence was a remarkable design of perfect balance. The latter was the first Clyde yacht to attract attention by reason of her excellent sailing. In all she won about thirty prizes for Mr. Sinclair, and in her best season she was not once defeated. Unfortunately, a bit of rigging with a heavy block at the end of it broke adrift one day and struck Mr. Sinclair, breaking his jaw. In spite of three operations (without anaesthetics), he never recovered sufficiently to race his clever yacht again.

Of the Clarence a good story remains. Racing in Dublin Bay for an Irish trophy, she was defeated by Hawk. It was somewhat characteristic of the race that the Clyde yachtsmen, anxious to get the trophy home as quickly as possible, slipped it on board the Clarence. Luck, however, was still against Mr. Sinclair’s yacht, and the winner arrived at Greenock long before the cup-bearer. The cup was set up on a specially prepared platform by its proud owner in his own yard for his workmen to see. Needless to say, the victory was enthusiastically, if intemperately, celebrated by all who had helped to construct the victor.

It is impossible to go into details concerning all the races of even this first of historic Clyde racers, but a summary of her racing during two of her best years may be given with advantage:

Prizes won in 1833 by Scottish-owned yachts belonging to the Royal Northern Yacht Club

  • John Scott’s Hawk, Anglesey Cup, Dublin, July 2.
  • James Smith’s Amethyst, Stewart Cup, Greenock, July 29.
  • Andrew Rankin’s Dream, Greenock Cup, Greenock, July 29.
  • Major Morris and John Allan’s Emma, 20-tonners’ Cup, Helensburgh, July 3o.
  • John Crooks’ Sylph, Portland Cup, Largs, August 1.
  • John Maclver’s Rattlesnake, 15-tonners’ Cup, Largs, August 1.
  • James H. Robertson’s Imp, 10-tonners’ Cup, Largs, August 2.
  • Andrew Rankin’s Dream, Ardrossan Cup, Ardrossan, August 5.
  • Robert Sinclair’s Clarence, Ladies’ Cup, Oban, August 21.

Prizes won in 1834 by Scottish-owned yachts belonging to the Royal Northern Yacht Club

  • James Meiklam’s Fanny, Kingstown Cup, Dublin, July 17.
  • Robert Sinclair’s Clarence, Dublin Cup, Dublin, July 17.
  • Robert Sinclair’s Clarence, Adelaide Cup and Booth Cup, Dublin, August 21.
  • John Scott’s Hawk, Helensburgh Cup, Helensburgh, July 28.
  • James Meiklam’s Fanny, Greenock Cup, Greenock, July 29.
  • Robert Sinclair’s Clarence, Stewart Cup, Greenock, July 29.
  • William Kerr’s Elf, 10-tonners’ Cup, Greenock, July 29.
  • James Meiklam’s Fanny, Dunoon Cup, Dunoon, July 3o.
  • Robert Sinclair’s Clarence, 15-tonners’ Cup, Largs, August 1.
  • John Crooks’ Sylph, Portland Cup, Largs, August 2.
  • James Smith’s Amethyst, Largs Cup, Largs, August 20.
  • William Kerr’s Elf, 10-tonners’ Challenge Cup, Largs, August 2.
  • Robert Sinclair’s Clarence, 20-tonners’ Cup, Dunoon, August 4.
  • Henry Gore-Booth’s Gleam, Inveraray Cup, Inveraray, August 21.
  • James Meiklam’s Fanny, Callander Cup, Inveraray, August 21.
  • William Kerr’s Elf, 10-tonners’ Cup, Inveraray, August 21.

Although the Clyde had only one club in those days, it will be seen from these statistics that the more popular stations were almost as well catered for in the matter of regattas as they are now.

So generously did the Royal Northern scatter its race meetings throughout the Clyde centres that yacht-racing quickly gained in popularity. It was probably this fine missionary spirit which gave yachting and yacht-racing that warm place in the hearts of Scottish men and women, to so many of whom the sea never calls in vain.

After Mr. Sinclair’s death the Clarence never shone again with her old brilliance, and, as if missing the vanished hand, gradually sank into insignificance. Having gone into the pilot service, she was ultimately run down by a sailing ship while cruising between Arran and Garroch Head on a stormy night.

Some six years ago the Hawk was in existence (perhaps is still so), a living example of sound workmanship. At that time Mr. John Scott, the grandson of her builder, discovered her with the Stornoway fishing fleet, and opened negotiations for her purchase with the intention of mooring her at Hunter’s Quay as a monument to old-time yachting—negotiations which, unfortunately, fell through.

Accurate data is not obtainable of the other Clyde clippers of this time. The Fanny was a Cowes-built yacht, and the Gleam was the first racing yacht built at Fairlie. In all probability the others were built at Greenock and Fairlie.

Certainly the Rattlesnake was a Greenock yacht. She was built on the lines and to some extent from the constructional materials of a noted French smuggler which frequented the Clyde. She was rigged as a three-masted schooner, and possessed great reaching and running qualities. It is interesting to learn that the builder of this yacht, one John McNicoll, put no bulwarks on her, merely finishing the tops of the timbers with an elm rail—truly there is nothing new under the sun. Although this interesting yacht is given (in the foregoing table) as the property of Mr. McIver, she was built for Mr. James H. Robertson, of Bagatelle, Greenock—a well-known member of the Royal Northern Yacht Club. Mr. Robertson was a most enthusiastic sportsman in the earlier half of last century. At coursing, shooting, rowing or sailing, he was always ready and anxious to make a match, and with Major Morris, of Moorburn, Largs, he sailed race after race with the greatest skill and spirit.

Major Morris, who was an officer of the Renfrewshire Militia, was such another as his rival—an all-round sportsman of great accomplishments. He was the first Clyde yachtsman to make a study of match-sailing. So successful was he in the results obtained that his influence may be noted to this day among amateurs and professionals alike.

In those early regatta days yacht-racing was made the occasion of much social intercourse. Dances and dinners followed the various water-sports of the day, and the home of every local yachts­man was for the nonce a club. In the matter of hospitality Major Morris was always to the front, and Moorburn was the scene of many a bright gathering. It was at one of these gatherings that the eminent Scot and man of letters, Christopher North, made a famous speech on yachting, which deeply impressed many guests, who unfortunately died without leaving any but a traditional record of it. He was at the time the guest of his friend Mr. James Smith, of Jordanhill, on board his cutter Amethyst. Christopher North, who was one of the finest all-round sportsmen of his time, never had a yacht on the Clyde, but on Windermere he had as many as eight boats of one kind and another at one time.

It would appear that there was much appreciation of all this old-time hospitality and gaiety. Mr. Solomon Darcus, of Lame, a regular visitor with his 20-tonner Viola, was in the habit of withdrawing early from the racing in order to be the better prepared for the festivities ashore. This same Irish gentleman would appear to have been one of the social stars of the shore side of many of the Clyde regattas, and many good stories are handed down of his gallantry. Having on one occasion had his ingenuity somewhat taxed by the great beauty of a smartly-dressed dance partner, he expressed the opinion that never were the lilies of the field so arrayed. ‘No, nor Solomon in all his glory,’ retorted the witty girl.

These old Clyde yachtsmen seem to have been distinguished by an insatiable love of sport of all sorts. Not content with the racing of their yachts, many of the famous owners of those early times kept crack oarsmen in their crews, and many a rowing race was held in which the owners themselves took part. Indeed, one of the most famous gig’s crews of the time had in it Mr. James Robertson, owner of the Rattlesnake, Imp, Gazelle, and other yachts ; Mr. Scott, of Greenock; and Mr. Campbell, of Glendaruel. Against boats from as far as the Mersey this crew was victorious, and many a contest they had. At this time rowing was largely catered for by the Royal Northern Yacht Club, and in the Clyde and Belfast Lough it became extremely popular amongst yachtsmen. A crew of Clyde professional yachtsmen, consisting of Robert McKirdy, Billy Blair, Matthew Houston, and John Morris, was on one occasion backed by Mr. Robertson against a crew of English yachtsmen for a considerable sum. In spite of the fact that the visiting crew had a new boat built for the occasion, they were beaten over a six-mile course—but only by two lengths.

In 1846 Messrs. Cato, Millar and Co., of Liverpool, launched the Echo, a 34-ton iron yacht designed by Mr. John Audley. This is supposed to have been the first yacht built with a long sharp bow, and, after some Mersey trials, she appeared on the Clyde. Ever ready for a match, Mr. Robertson backed his cutter Gazelle against her, and a course was laid from Greenock round the Skelmorlie Bank Buoy and back. To give her every chance in what to her crew were foreign waters, William Clark, of Greenock, a noted yachtsman and marine painter, was allowed to sail her. The result was an easy victory for the Liverpool yacht, and she also defeated Falcon, Wave, and Meteor, three of the Clyde cracks.

Mr. Robertson lived to the good old age of ninety-one, and till he was eighty regularly shot over the moors. Throughout his lifetime he had been a celebrated shot, and when seventy-five years of age he defeated a well-known English marksman in a pigeon match.

The Fanny was the first Cowes-built and English-manned yacht to appear at a Clyde regatta. She was a yacht of 75 tons, and the property of Mr. James Meiklam, an East Coast yachts­man, who had previously owned the 52-tonner Rob Roy. Besides being a prominent member of the Royal Northern Yacht Club, Mr. Meiklam was one of the first Scottish members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, having been elected in 1829. In the thirties there were three members of this family in the Squadron. In addition to James, there was John, who owned the Amulet (the first Scottish-owned yacht to win a royal cup) and the Alarm in 1841, and Robert, who owned the Crusader and Talisman.

William Fife, who founded the Fairlie Yard, took his son William—then a mere lad—to see the famous Cowes yacht, and expressed the greatest admiration for her. The founder of the famous Fife dynasty was a shrewd observer, of broad mind, and the Fanny’s good points were closely noted, to be presently utilized. It is now about a hundred years since boat-building was first undertaken by the first William Fife at Fairlie, and ever since work has been continuously carried on—after his death by William (ii.), his son, and to-day by William (iii.), his grandson. No business was more heavily handicapped at its outset ; few have been more successful throughout a long career. The founder of the firm had to teach himself the art of which he subsequently became such an exponent, and in choosing the isolated village of Fairlie he selected a most unlikely spot for his enterprise. Fairlie Beach is a particularly flat one, and even to-day a yacht of any size has to be launched by means of a pontoon. In spite of all the drawbacks, however, the Fifes of Fairlie have written their name on the yachting history of our country in no uncertain manner.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, John Fife, a Kilbirnie mill- and wheel-wright, left his native parish and came to Fairlie to better his fortune. The emigrant soon found employment on the Earl of Glasgow’s estate. Employed with him in the pursuit of his calling was his son William, who bore the reputation of being an observant and deft-handed mechanic. Fairlie Roadstead was then a favourite anchorage for homeward and outward-bound ships, and the sight of them coming and going quickly fascinated the inland-bred lad. To study more closely the great ships so new to him, William Fife decided to build a small boat in which to row himself out to the visitors. So skilfully did he construct this his first venture in naval architecture that she was purchased as soon as completed. Her place was immediately taken by a second, which, however, was as quickly acquired by the appreciative seafaring people who saw her built. When a third as quickly left him, it was little wonder that the thoughtful young man seriously contemplated the situation. Fortunately for posterity he decided that the making of wheels was not his vocation, and, in spite of his father’s opposition, he commenced boat-building as a means of earning his livelihood.

For some time the beginner had an uphill task, but it was not long before his fine fishing-smacks attracted attention, and a small yacht or two appeared. So well were these first yachts constructed that William Fife soon became known to all the Clyde yachts­men of that time, and in 1812, Mr. James Hamilton, of Holmhead (near Glasgow), gave him his chance by commissioning him to build a 50-ton yacht. The Lamlash was the result, and she was made doubly historical by becoming the first flagship of the Royal Northern Yacht Club when that institution ceased to be a joint Scottish and Irish one, Mr. Hamilton, or ‘Holmhead,’ as he was often called, being the first Commodore. While only tradition credits the Lamlash with success under racing colours, her cruising feats are worthy of note. She was the first Clyde yacht to go to the Mediterranean, and no small stir was created by the daring voyage which Holmhead and a few friends undertook on the new yacht. Undoubtedly the guests provided the greatest sensation of the eventful voyage, the strange surroundings so acting on the mind of one of them that it became deranged for a time. Fortunately the seizure was but temporary, and all the ship’s company arrived in the Southern sea safe and sound, both mentally and physically.

This same ‘Holmhead’ was a man of striking personality. One of the last of the old type of Scottish laird, he was kind and hospitable to a fault. His punch—at the brewing of which he was an adept—was a feature of every regatta meeting on the Clyde, and many a convivial meeting did the open-hearted sportsman preside over. Of one of these an amusing anecdote remains. Jimmy Tait, who doubled the parts of steward and valet to Holmhead, might have been the prototype of Caleb Balderston, and if he had more regard for anything than the indulgent master he served so faith­fully, it was for the punch which that master so skilfully concocted. After a particularly enjoyable cruise the famous punch was brewed, and when not attending upon his master and his guests, Jimmy contrived to get so much of it that, when the old Commodore called upon him to undress him for the night, the luckless servant was found happy and at peace with all mankind, but quite incapable of action. By no means indifferent to the charms of his own punch, ‘Holmhead’ contemplated the slumbering valet: ‘Weel, Jimmy, I daur say it would scarcely be becoming o’ me to do anything in the way o’ flytin the noo ; but really after this we maun try no baith to get fou at the same time.’

There is reason to believe that at one time Captain Oswald, of Scotstoun, was associated with ‘Holmhead’ in the ownership of the Lamlash. Scotstoun was at that time a delightful estate on the banks of the Clyde near Glasgow ; to-day it is covered with wharves and storehouses, and on part of it stand the works of the great family of Clyde yachtsmen and shipbuilders, the Connells.

About this time the great deeds of the British Navy still rang clear in the ears of all Englishmen, and on many of the larger yachts the pattern set by that arm of the service was closely followed. On the Lamlash Captain Oswald stuck to the letter of the law. All operations on board were done according to official instructions, and at sundown the second jib was set, no matter how fine the weather. From the fact that an umbrella was sometimes handed to the man at the tiller when it rained, it is to be gathered that  Holmhead and Captain Oswald had every consideration for the welfare of their crew.

Writing of the sail plan of this old yacht, a chronicler states: ‘The old Lamlash, for instance, carried besides mainsail, gaff top­sail, foresail and jib, a ringtail on her mainsail, squaresail on a “cro ” jack yard, with “stin” sails and jib topsail.’ First, second, and third jibs were used in her day, as were reaching jibs. The spinnaker does not seem to have been in use at this time, but fishermen on their smacks boomed out a big jib somewhat on the lines of the modern spinnaker.

The building of the Lamlash synchronized with Henry Bell’s successful application of the steam-engine to marine work. This event, which was to revolutionize the Clyde, Scotland, and indeed the world, attracted the attention of the Clyde population. Fife was soon approached by some speculators, and, joining issues with them, he set about the building of a small steamer in 1813. In the following year the Industry was launched, and was among the first half-dozen steamers. So carefully built of native oak was this ship that she lived to be the oldest steamer in the world, and so durable was her structure that at eighty years of age she had to be broken up owing to the obsolete design of her sound hull. The first engine of the Industry was built by Thomson of Tradeston, and the second, which Caird of Greenock made, now stands as a monument in Kelvin Grove Park, Glasgow. The Industry was 68 feet long by 17 feet beam, and was 8 feet deep, with a gross tonnage of 69 tons. Her first boiler was of copper, but was soon superseded by an iron one. Owing to a peculiar grating noise caused by the spur-wheel gearing, the Industry was long known as ‘The Old Coffee Mill’. So successful was this first steamer of Fife’s that his supporters in the enterprise strongly urged upon him the necessity of giving up what they were pleased to term his crazy notion of becoming a yacht-builder, and with their help devote himself to the construction of commercial craft.

It was not, however, towards the mercantile marine that Fife’s ambition lay, and, with the true artistic instinct, he sacrificed gold for the art he already loved with the passion of the enthusiast. Yachts ‘fast and bonny’ he would build, and nothing else. To attain his end much had to be sacrificed. Men who were with him at the starting-point of the great shipbuilding industry of the Clyde founded colossal works and amassed great fortunes ; Fife stuck to Fairlie and his ideal. In spite of his innate genius and wonderful industry, the first Fife had a long and uphill struggle. Orders came slowly, but every one which he received Fife treated with the loving care of the artist. He studied his art, and consulted the best obtainable opinions on every point; and, at a time when the rule-of-thumb method was practically the only one in vogue, Fife spent his evenings in studying the laws of Nature which he had to com­bat or call to his aid. In this latter occupation Mr. Smith, of Jordanhill, long one of the foremost men of the Royal Northern, and the first Commodore of the Royal Clyde Club, was of great assistance to the designer. Being both a yachtsman and scientist, Mr. Smith was a man well able to discuss and investigate the laws which governed Fife’s art, and the two enthusiasts thrashed out many a problem.


Meanwhile yachts were being turned out of the little Fairlie yard. The most famous of those early Fife yachts was the 30-ton cutter Gleam, built for Mr. Gore-Booth, an Irish yachtsman. Although defeated on her first appearance by Mr. John Crooke’s Sylph, the Gleam was gradually improved until she became the crack boat of the Clyde, and, more especially to windward, was a fast yacht. She was subsequently purchased by Mr. Cross Buchanan, and, raced by a Cardross skipper named Barr, she made a wonderful reputation for herself.

On August 6, 1865, at the age of eighty, the founder of the Fairlie business died. He left a large family, and his eldest son, William, carried on the business, which was now a most promising concern. Fortunately, its founder lived to see it so. He last crossed his own threshold to see the launch of his son’s famous 75-ton cutter, Fiona. When that son has also passed away, and this fine ship still watches for the gun, one is tempted to become the moralist rather than

Onda, Ex Tutty. Designed by Mr. A. E. Payne in 1898. Owener, Mr. J. Inglis, LL.D.

the historian.

The second William Fife inherited all the genius of his father, and combined with it considerable business ability. From his earliest years his father’s yard was the centre of his world, and at the age of thirteen he was formally apprenticed to the craft. For years he laboured with his father, designing and working with his tools, and in 1848, when the famous Stella was built, the business rewarded their efforts, and entered on its prosperous career.

Prominent among the yachts which made the reputation of the second William Fife were the cutters StellaCymba, CynthiaOith­ona, Surge, Surf, Kilmeny, Torch, Fairlie, Fairy Queen, Onda, Nep­tune, Fiona, Cythera, Cuckoo, Foxhound, Moina, Neva, and Blood­hound ; the schooners Fiery Cross, Any, Amadine, and Melita ; and the yawls Condor, Neptune, Saxon, and Latona.

Read on … Personalities and Clyde Racing.