Lairds Isle at Ardrossan

R.M.T.S. Lairds Isle entering Ardrossan Harbour from
Belfast. Commissioned by Tom McGrattan  and painted by
Ian G Orchardson of Saltcoats.

Contributed by Tom McGrattan ~ Ardrossan


RIVIERA, a cross-channel steamer owned by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway, was requisitioned for Naval use at the same time as ENGADINE, and underwent similar alterations.

The ship had been built as an awning-deck packet, in which the boat deck extended for a considerable length amidships. Propulsion was by three sets of Parsons turbines, each turbine driving a independent shaft and propeller and, with the bow rudder, conferring remarkable maneuverability. Steam was provided by six coal-fired water-tube boilers, with a seventh as a spare or relieving boiler. The ship's trials took place on the 7 June 1911, only three years before her requisition for the Royal Navy. On the four-hour trial, 21.99 knots was attained with only four boilers connected and a moderate steam pressure. On the measured mile the turbines were opened out and the highest mean speed achieved was 23.07 knots. Several astern runs were made and the maximum speed of 15.15 knots was attained, an unusually high figure for any ship.


With ENGADINE, RIVIERA shared the honour of being the first ship built to ferry motor cars, the vehicles being parked on the upper deck abaft the boat deck. This area formed the base of the seaplane stowage in the initial conversion to a seaplane carrier. The first class gentlemen's saloon just forward of amidships became the officer's quarters and the large airy compartment on the main deck, originally reserved for first class lady passengers, was converted into the ship's wardroom. An unusual feature of this compartment was the arrangement of the windows, which could be kept open in almost any weather.

As with the ENGADINE, the initial alterations, arranged by Chatham Dockyard, were found to be insufficiently comprehensive to enable the seaplanes to be maintained and worked to the best advantage and within six months she was taken in hand for another conversion.


The modifications carried out in the second conversion were very similar to those in ENGADINE (qv) and are clearly illustrated in the accompanying drawings. It was intended that the first three carriers converted would be equipped with the new, larger seaplanes but this was seen to be impracticable in such small ships and the flying-off deck required by the machines was never installed. Instead the ships were fitted with jib cranes with which to hoist the seaplanes on to and off from the water.

The hanger was a sturdy, steel affair, 82 feet long by 37 feet 8 inches wide, with a clear height of 20 feet 3 inches. Great thought was given to improving the conditions under which maintenance on the seaplanes was effected and to this end the after end of the hangar was fitted with two roller shutters. The hangar was heated by means of 14 steam radiators, seven on each side, one row forward end of the hangar. The hangar was ventilated by seven hinged windows in each side wall; the windows were one foot three inches by one foot 10 inches and could be clipped open to create a draught. Other equipment in the hangar included bomb racks, a charging board for accumulators, a crane weighing machine, an armament workshop space and a W/T workshop area. Spare seaplane propellers were clipped to the hangar walls.

As in ENGADINE, the hangar provided support at its forward end for two 3 pdr HA guns. Later in 1915, when RIVIERA had joined the Dover Patrol and was operating near to the French coast, a 2 pdr pom-pom was added on the roof, just forward of the twin W/T masts. Also on the hangar was a pigeon loft to house the birds which were taken up in the seaplanes and released during observation flights. How the pigeons coped with the coal-fired boiler gases emanating from the ship's funnels just a few feet forward of their loft is not known.

The principle of seaplanes being observation and reconnaissance, photography assumed major importance. Accordingly a photographic dark room was fitted out on the upper deck, immediately below and abaft the W/T Office on the shade, or awning deck.

The petrol or aviation spirit for the seaplanes and the petrol driven motor generator / air compressor forward of the hangar was stowed right forward, on a platform in the Fore Hold, above the foremost coal bunker. Twelve hundred gallons were contained in a tank and, when required, had to be transported up and aft to the hangar in two-gallon cans.


In February 1918, RIVIERA underwent a short refit at Avonmouth. Up to this time the seaplanes after a flight, of necessity, had been manhandled from the quarterdeck into the hangar, the process being reversed when the machines were ready for a patrol. In this two month refit two sets of rails were secured to the hangar deck, arranged to come together just abaft of the hangar shutters. Each set consisted of four rails, in two pairs, the spacing between being five feet nine inches between the pairs. On each set was placed two trolleys 11 feet 6 inches across, 4 feet 3 inches long and 1 foot 9 inches high. The trolleys were of sufficient size to accommodate the floats of a seaplane and thud four seaplanes could be stowed on the trolleys. To facilitate moving the loaded trolleys in a seaway a steam capstan and rope drum was installed both abaft and forward of the termination of the sets of rails. Various snatch blocks, sheaves and eyebolts were secured to the deck inside and outside the hangar, for steadying the trolley guide ropes. In between the sets of rails were stowed two different trolleys, for use when the seaplanes were landed on shore or a slipway.

Following her second conversion, RIVIERA spent a brief period with the Harwick Forces, during which time some attempts were made to damage the German W/T station at Norddeich. These raids were plainly beyond the contemporary capabilities of the seaplanes and late in may 1915 the ship was sent to the Dover Patrol, to spend a fruitful two years supporting various bombarding, raiding and patrolling forces. When the are became less active RIVIERA moved to the South-western Approaches for an uneventful nine months before proceeding to the Med to join her sister ENGADINE third refit followed, on completion of which the ship went back to the Med to join, eventually, the forces intervening in the Russian Revolution, and remained there until early 1919, when she returned to the UK to pay off.

Lairds IsleHMS RIVIERA in 1914, after the initial alterations had been effected. The unsatisfactory canvas shelters are rigged fore and aft, indicating that seaplanes have probably been embarked. The complete absence of AA fire power is obvious, for it was not until the steel hangar had been erected that there was a suitable area upon which to mount the guns. As far as is known, this is the only photograph in existence of any of the first three seaplane carriers with canvas shelters.

Second conversion WW1Riviera WW1

HMS RIVIERA Technical Particulars

Displacement     :     1850 tons normal--2550 tons full load.
(1675 tons gross, 649 tons net.)

Dimensions        :     304' pp; 316' oa X 41' 14' mean; 16' max.

Machinery          :     6 Babcock & Wilcox water-tube, coal fired boiler
for propulsion, plus one for auxiliary use.
3 sets of Parsons direct-drive turbines, 3 shafts
11 000 shp = 20.5 knots (8100 ihp)
(850 rhp = 22.5 knots as a packet boat.)

Fuel &                 :     Coal : 400 tons normal, 436.3 tons max capacity.
Endurance          :     860 miles at 10 knots.

Armament 1914 :     4---12 pdr QF (positions as before).
3 seaplanes.

                    1915 :     4---12 pdr QF (positions as before)
2---3 pdr HA (on for'd end of hangar roof)
1---2 pdr AA (on aft end of roof, added late in 1915).
4 seaplanes.

Equipment         :     2 searchlights
1 Marconi W/T set.
2 jib cranes aft.

Compliment      :     250 war, 197 peace (including, after Apr 1918
53 RAF).

Pendant No.      :     N.85.

Builder               :     Wm Denny & Bros, Dumbarton (for South Eastern
And Chatham Railway Co cross-Channel services).
Engine by builder.
Laid down 1910
Launched 1. 4.11 by the daughter of the owner's
Completed 7. 6.11 (date of trials on the Clyde).

Ship's Name     :      Of mercantile origin: a holiday district served by the
SE &  CR.
First of the name in the RN, none since.

Battle Honours :     Belgian Coast 1915

Aircraft               :     12.14 - Short S.74 & 2 Short S.135 (for the Cuxhaven Raid).
7.15 - 4 Short S.184 (for the Ems Recce).
1917 - … Sopwith Babies.


Riviera returned to the cross-channel run with her former owners, the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, and served with them until the company was absorbed by the Southern Railway in 1923. She maintained regular sailings for the SR until 1932 when she was purchased by J B Couper of Glasgow on behalf of H M S Catherwood. They resold her immediately to Burns & Laird of Glasgow who renamed her LAIRDS ISLE, converted her to oil firing and began running her on the Ardrossan - Belfast route.

Lairds Isle - BelfastLairds IsleCrew Lairds Isle 1936Lairds Isle

  World War II Service

On 28 August 1939, Lairds Isle was requisitioned (hired) by the Admiralty and, after a very brief conversion in which one 4-inch and two 20mm guns were fitted, again entered RN service, this time as an Armed Boarding Vessel based at Dover. Her tonnage was recorded as 1784 gross and the pendant number allocated was 4.21.

After only a few months as an ABV, Lairds Isle was taken in hand at Blackwall for alterations to suit her for service as a Paravane Ranging Vessel at Dover. Fitting out occupied most of December 1939 and early in 1940 she began her new role.

In February 1940 the ship was listed as PV Ranging at Portsmouth but later that month she returned to Blackwall for two month's repairs.

In May 1940, Lairds Isle was back at Portsmouth, as a PV Ranging tender to HMS VERNON, the Torpedo and Mining Establishment, and remained there while the Battle of Britain raged overhead. In late October, when the "Blitz" began, the ship round to Milford Haven, to be based there until late May 1941.

June and July 1941 saw the ship at Port ZA and in August she was transferred to the Rosyth Command as a PV Ranging vessel at the Forth Submarine School. After two and a half years there, Lairds Isle left Leith on 30 December 1943, having been selected for Combined Operations work with the growing fleet of specialist invasion and assault ships.

Lairds Isle began conversion to a Landing Ship, Infantry, Headquarters (LSI(H)), at West Hartepool early in 1944 and was completed early in March. At this point her armament was two 2 pdr and two 20mm AA. With addition of fittings her length was now 328 ft 1 in.

By April 1944 the ship had commissioned as HMS Lairds Isle and was in the Portsmouth Area, exercising and rehearsing for the invasion of France. She took part in Operation "Neptune", the naval part of "Overlord", in June 1944 and afterwards returned to Portsmouth. By December 1945 the ship had reverted to the Red Ensign and, in February 1946 was repaired and reconverted for mercantile use.

Probably written for an article in the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald, announcing the resumption of services between Ardrossan and Belfast by the "Lairds Isle" after WW2.

The 22 knot triple Turbine Steamer "Lairds Isle" of Burns Laird Lines resumes the popular daylight route to Belfast via Ardrossan on Mon. 29th July, 1946, after a most eventful second world war experience. This vessel's striking career during the first World War is well remembered by the distinction of being one of the vessels to act as auxiliary aircraft carrier.

During the second phase of this vessel's career under the White Ensign her War experiences have been even more remarkable; being taken over by the Admiralty immediately War commenced, the "Lairds Isle left Ardrossan for special duties after a brief re-fit from commercial service and was soon engaged in the protection of convoys, having numerous encounters with enemy aircraft and under-water craft, not to mention "E" boats in and around the North Sea.

Shortly before "D" Day the "Lairds Isle" was fitted with special apparatus for carrying tanks and landing craft, and was among the very first vessels to arrive at the Normandy Beaches. After our foothold was established on the Continent the vessel was quickly re-fitted as a fast troop carrier, and ferried thousands of American troops to and from the battle areas. And earned the praise of the Commander for the regularity of the voyages, and timing, while so engaged.

In January the vessel was released from her War time duties for the purpose of re-conditioning, and this has been a considerable task, the vessel having been completely stripped in order to accommodate the maximum number of troops. Entirely new public rooms have been installed of the most up-to-date order, the original polished oak panelling removed during hostilities has been replaced by the more pleasing colour schemes of present day appeal, and the entire vessel presents a most attractive sight.

The tea lounges which were always a popular feature are now decorated in delightful sea green with furnishings of light oak and upholstery to match. The First Class Dining Room and Verandah cafes have received special attention, and the colour schemes are such that they cannot fail to please the most fastidious passenger.

Provision has also been made for additional catering on modern lines. This, together with other amenities, will undoubtedly to those who prefer the short sea daylight journey, and when the "Lairds Isle" resumes the service it is certain her past popularity will be enhanced.

R.M.T.S. "Lairds Isle"
Article written by Tom McGrattan of Ardrossan for the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald 25 years after the "Lairds Isle" was scrapped.

"Lairds Isle" was purchased as "Riviera" from the Southern Railway Company in November 1932. The buyer, Mr. J. B. Couper of Glasgow, paid about £5000 and a few weeks later she was resold to Burns & Laird Lines who had general renovation and the conversion of the boilers from coal to oil firing carried out by Ardrossan Dockyard.

"Riviera" was built by Wm. Denny & Brothers at Dumbarton as Yard No. 937 and launched on 1 April 1911. Her owners were the South Eastern & Chatham Railway Company and she was employed on the Dover - Calais & Folkstone - Boulogne routes.

The machinery consisted of three Parsons direct drive turbines each driving a three bladed propeller, the outer shafts rotated at 706 R.P.M. and the centre shaft at 657.5 R.P.M. Power output was 8100 I.H.P. Steam was derived from six Babcock & Wilcox water tube boilers at 172 pounds per square inch pressure. Two rudders were fitted, one aft and one in the bow to assist when going astern. Overall length was 316 feet, beam 41 feet 1 inch and the draught was 15 feet 9 1/2 inches. Gross tonnage was 1783 tons and she was capable of 23 knots. Wireless telegraphy equipment was fitted. The total cost of construction was £85106.

On 16 June 1933 she sailed from Mongomerie Pier, Ardrossan to Belfast for the first time as "Lairds Isle" and continued the "Daylight" service, Monday to Saturday, until September, the crossing time being four hours. On Sundays she did trips to Larne or Bangor or cruises to Rathlin Island and the Giants Causeway, calling at Rothesay and Ayr en route. This service was maintained in the summer months until the outbreak of was in 1939 when she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy for the second time.

During 1914 - 18 she was one of the first ships to act as an auxiliary aircraft carrier being temporarily converted, at Chatham, to carry three seaplanes in 1914, and in 1915 at Liverpool to carry four seaplanes. In the second world war, after re-fitting, she was initially, engaged in the protection of North Sea convoys and was utilised at the D-day Normandy beach landings. Again re-fitted as a troopship she carried thousands of men to and from the battle areas and was praised for the regularity of her voyages.

In January 1946 she was released by the Admiralty and returned for a further re-fit. Entirely new public rooms were installed and the forward part of the promenade deck was covered and fitted with large windows. A new, larger, varnished wooden wheelhouse with magnetic compass on top was fitted and the eight 23 feet lifeboats on new davits were re-distributed with two each side being placed on the extended upper deck abaft the mainmast. The gross tonnage was increased to 1929 tons.

The Ardrossan - Belfast service was resumed on 29 July 1946. Radar was fitted in 1954. The summer service continued until 6 August 1957 when "Lairds Isle" made her final voyage, under the command of Captain Harry F. Jackson, from Belfast arriving at Ardrossan at eight o'clock that night, her 46 year career over. On 9 October 1957 "Lairds Isle", after being laid up in the Albert Harbour at Greenock arrived at the West of Scotland Shipbreaking Company's yard at Troon to be broken up.

"Lairds Isle" will be remembered for the distinctive sound of the Navy whistle which she retained and used after war service and particularly for the volumes of black smoke which emerged from her funnels while maneuvering.

"Lairds Isle" was replaced by "Irish Coast", 1958 - 1964, "Scottish Coast", 1965 - 1967, and by Lion which started a year round service in January 1968 from the newly constructed roll-on, roll-off berth and terminal at Winton Pier and continued until her withdrawal in February 1976 and was the last passenger ship to have the distinctive red blue and black funnels of the Burns & Laird Lines.

Tom McGrattan
July 1982