Walter was promoted Acting Chief Quartermaster when he joined the Squirrel, a third class sailing cutter of only 40 tons, smaller than both the Fly and Victoria. The Clyde district covered the west coast of Scotland, from Cape Wrath to Tors Point, including the Hebrides. Some popular cruising waters today. Its base was at Greenock.
Squirrel on the Clyde
In the course of a few days I bade my shipmates – good fellows all – farewell, left the Victoria at Killybegs, proceeding by road and rail to Moville to join the Squirrel, a small cutter with a senior mate in command and a chief petty officer as mate. I had not been on board very long when I heard one of the crew remark, “a young fellow for a Chief Petty Officer”. I was twenty five and as promotion went in those days attained the rating early.
The Squirrel left Moville in the middle of January returning to the headquarters at Gourock where moorings were laid for the use of this little vessel when not otherwise employed. The battleship Ajax stationed at Gourock was the parent ship. To find myself, after so many years solitude on the west of Ireland, in a busy river such as the Clyde, with headquarters at the pleasant little town of Gourock, within easy reach of Greenock and Glasgow was quite a change, much appreciated, and like the opening of a new chapter in one’s life.
There was very little work outside of the Firth of Clyde and very little exposure to hard weather. During the winter we swung around and around the moorings week after week; quite an easy and comfortable existence compared to that of knocking the tops from the Atlantic seas off Tory island. No-one could say that I had not earned this little respite.
In the spring of this year the commanding officer was promoted and his place filled by another – a rather slack disciplinarian and not in the enjoyment of the best of health or even taking usual care of himself. A few months after his taking up his first command, he was taken suddenly ill with violent haemorrhaging and immediately had to be sent to hospital for treatment. When sufficiently recovered to travel he proceeded to his home on sick leave never to go afloat again. He gradually became worse and passed away. During this time and until another officer was appointed, I was in charge altogether over four months.
One very dark and stormy night, when rounding the Mull of Galloway, while all hands were on deck reefing and shortening sails, the candle, by some means, was thrown off the table setting fire to the cabin cushions and woodwork. Fortunately I went down into the cabin before the fire had got a thorough hold. Raising the alarm, the help of willing hands very soon bundled the burning cushions on deck and the burning woodwork with a liberal dowse of water was checked and brought under control; an exciting half hour for everyone. Being in temporary charge, it was well for me that the fire did not get the upper hand so burn the craft to the water’s edge.
Senior Mate George Horner was the next commanding officer; a good shipmate, kind and considerate to all and highly respected by his crew. It was my privilege to sail under him for more than two years, during which time a lifelong friendship was formed.
The extent of our duty was the removal of a coast guard and his family now and again and a voyage down the Forth as occasion demanded carrying stores etc. to the coast guard stations.
Mr Horner made his home at Gourock having a good time while the circumstances permitted.
The opportunity of a run ashore and a visit to Glasgow now and then was much appreciated after the uninteresting existence in my last ship. And so the weeks and months passed quietly by, bringing us to the period of Xmas leave and Xmas festivities. It was my luck to remain on board and consequently had no leave for another twelve months.
The early months of 1889 drifted away with nothing of particular interest from one day to another. In the early summer the vessel was deputed for fishing duties with headquarters at Campbeltown. This was a fine weather and smooth water employment and could very fittingly be described as a pleasure cruise.
In the early days of October sailing orders were received to proceed to Stornoway with stores etc. The Commander, not having any experience of the western islands, and it being so late in the year, did not relish the idea of the intricate navigation entailed. We sailed down the Clyde under favourable conditions, in due course passing through the Crinan Canal, from thence plotting our course through the Firth of Lorne and the Sound of Mull, Sound of Sleat and through Kyle [of Lochalsh] with the tide running with a velocity of four knots. The coast scenery and the mountains – at this season of the year cloud capped – was unsurpassable in its grandeur.
After sheltering, as occasion required, in several of the splendid landlocked harbours we eventually cast anchor at Stornoway. After a delay of several days with strong winds and gales, we sailed for Lochinver, there to embark a large flagstaff to be erected on Rhu-Stoer Head.
The idea of the district captain – in order to save expense – was that we should embark this flagstaff, seek a convenient place for landing as near the headland as possible, land the flagstaff and take it to the top of Rhu-Stoer – an impossible suggestion with such a few men and lack of appliances. It would never do to report to that effect, or to suggest the incurring of any expense. Finally the Commander decided the better plan would be to take the flagstaff by road. He accordingly arranged to leave me on board alone as ship keeper, and to set out with himself and the crew to drag this heavy forty-five foot spar, a distance of fifteen miles over rough and heavy roads.
An ordinary farm cart was borrowed, the spar loaded and lashed into position, and taking two day’s provisions, away they started on a job that should have been done by three good horses. The first day a distance of ten miles was covered, the men spending the night in the schoolhouse kindly lent by the village schoolmaster. The day following, the journey to the headland was completed and the spar deposited as near the top as they could get. On the return journey, reaching the schoolhouse, by the kindness of the schoolmaster the second night was spent there, making themselves as comfortable as possible. The next day, after tramping the ten miles back to Lochinver, they were all glad to return on board very hungry and tired out. And all this in the interest of national economy?
In due course orders were received to return to the headquarters at Gourock. With the first opportunity of weather permitting we set sail from Lochinver, only to meet with strong head winds and gales, through which we were compelled to seek shelter in the many landlocked harbours, prolonging the voyage for several weeks and we eventually arrived back in the River Clyde a few days before Xmas.
Sixteen days leave was granted to each watch, and seeing that I had not had long leave for two years, or leave of the ship except for a day now and then, no time was lost in getting my travelling kit ready and starting on my homeward journey. The proposal of a brief period of two weeks only was quite thrilling to me after the long spell of ship routine. I arrived home in time for the Xmas dinner and enjoyed my all too short holiday in the company of my friends. At the expiration of my leave the train was boarded at St Austell for my return journey to Gourock, my father now getting old coming to see me off.
Speeding along at the usual rate, pulling up at the various stations, with passengers embarking and disembarking, all went well, and so the hours passed bringing us to midnight and into the middle watch, during which period the traveller is apt to become drowsy and to succumb to the embraces of Morpheus. This being the condition of myself and my travelling companions, about three a.m. we experienced a somewhat rude awakening, by those of us facing the engine being shot violently forward, onto those passengers sitting opposite, the baggage from the racks falling on us. Looking through the window and seeing the line strewn with the wreckage of the front carriages we realised that it was the result of a collision.
The train was due to stop at Carlisle but for some reason the brakes failed to act, the train passing through the station and colliding with a shunting engine, telescoping the three front carriages, killing four passengers and injuring several others. Fortunately my carriage was in the middle of the train and escaped without injury. A squad of men was soon on the scene clearing the wreckage and getting out the injured and those killed. A few of the passengers including myself rendered all the assistance possible in this work. After a delay of several hours the journey was resumed, eventually finding myself at my journey’s end and on board my ship once again, none the worse for the unusual disturbance from my middle watch slumber.
For the first four months of the year 1890 the most of the time was spent swinging at the moorings with nothing more exciting than an odd run down the River Clyde distributing stores at the coast guard stations.
During the summer the vessel was employed on fishing duties in Loch Fyne; nothing very exciting about that. Duty in this small cutter was of a very sheltered nature, what might well be termed a soft job. I was becoming soft myself and desirous of a change to a larger vessel where there would be better chance of promotion.
It happened one afternoon when cruising down the Firth of Clyde just having passed Ailsa Craig, without much warning the wind commenced to freshen, increasing rapidly to gale force. It was necessary to shorten sail as quickly as possible and while in the act of reefing the main sail one of the able seamen, a very indifferent swimmer, fell overboard. Fortunately one of the reef casings was hanging over the stern, which the man grasped, holding on, until we got a bowling over him and so pulled him on board.
On returning to our moorings in Gourock Bay a Glasgow constable came on board with a deserter from another ship, for whose arrest a reward had been offered, following the custom of handing the man over to the nearest naval authority. After a few days orders were received that he was to be sent to the naval barracks at Devonport where he would be dealt with.
As a general rule two marines – one a non-commissioned officer – would be sent as an escort for a prisoner about to be transferred from one place to another. In this case I was ordered to escort this deserter to Devonport single handed, a job that I did not very well like. As I did not wish to treat the man as a common felon and put him into handcuffs, I told him that if he gave me his word that he would give me no trouble the handcuffs would not be used, although I should take them in my pocket. No doubt but that he was well aware that ninety days imprisonment awaited him and that any further trouble would add something more to his punishment. I was rather glad to arrive at Devonport and hand my charge over to the naval police at the barracks without any trouble. After handing over the prisoner, instead of returning immediately I decided to take a few hours and go home for a night. It was a pleasant surprise for my people to see me if only for a brief period.
On my return journey a most annoying thing occurred. Getting out of the train to give a begging guard a tip – the fellow had done nothing for me – the train departed leaving me behind, taking my coat and other things. These I recovered at the next station, costing me the price of a telegram and a further tip. A lesson to one, in tipping those deserving only and at all times to ignore spongers.
On the eighteenth of November, my twenty eighth birthday, my first period of ten years from the age of eighteen for which I had joined having now expired, I was at liberty if I so desired to sever my connection with the service. But having taken this up as my life’s work, I signed on for another ten years or to complete time for pension. It was now my aim to secure my future by obtaining promotion to officer rank as soon as possible and so consolidate my position.
Xmas drawing near, sixteen days leave was granted, and I had my Xmas dinner at home. With the coming of the New Year, eighteen hundred and ninety one, at the expiration of my leave and my returning to duty, orders came that I was to be discharged from the cutter Squirrel. This was a pleasant surprise for me. Three years in this small craft was quite sufficient.