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Saltcoats Old and New

Ships and Stirring Shopping Days: "Neptunes" "Sea-dogs" and "Captain Courageous"

Chapter 08

At the point where the old pier runs from the sea wall there is a hollowed groove the intention of which, an old salt explains, was to admit a great gate of wooden booms whereby, in times of violent storm, the guardians of the ancient port could shut out the angry force of the waters. The old men who sat by the quayside, looking like so many Neptunes without their tridents and who made it their duty to do service on the visiting ships - James MacDonald, an old man-o'war's man; Tam Kennedy and others - have vanished from their yarn-spinning perch under the shelter of the old storehouse. And what yarns they loved to tell, great gales and great shipwrecks, of nautical manoevres unprescribed in any rule of navigation, of things they had seen that were never paralleled in the history of the sea. How those seadogs barked delightedly in all the secure consciousness of the exclusive character of their yarning and their incontrovertible nautical knowledge, which ll accepted as unreservedly as Holy Writ. And of wrecks and storms theirs was an inexhaustible budget. As concerning the "Lady Montgomerie", whose crew were drowned eighty years ago just out there under the quay wall; also as to the "Semiramis", which, in the year following the Corn Law agitation, after her crew were dragged over the wall, settled down on the rocks and left not a trace behind. The "Trelawney"! who is there within a radius of a hundred miles of Saltcoats who cannot tell of this famous wreck? "It was the year in which the late Queen Victoria was born", begins the narrator of the familiar story. "She was a fine ship - four fifty tons - belonging to Glasgow, bound for Jamaica. She went ashore out there. You can see the spot along the Eastern Shore, between the Stevenston Burn and the Irvine Bar. Four men, three of them shipmasters of Saltcoats, lost ribs of the "Trelawney" cast their weird shadows on the wet sand. These unofficial pilots - most of them old man-o'war men - had often to load her with big stones lest during the night she might be driven from the mooring posts. In the day when no royal mail steamship majestically ploughed the way to Arran, the sloop did all the work, and was the bearer of the packets.

The history of the ships of Saltcoats would require a volume as long as Deuteronomy : if the number of its captains was three hundred, what man shall atempt an account of their vessels? The first vessel of any size to ever built in Saltcoats was the boat of that name, the "Saltcoats", sacred to the memory of Captain Dunlop and launched in 1710. It was the "Stevenston", the captain of which, well on in that century, was Alexander Cuthebertson.

There were also the "Big Industry" and the "Wee Industry", the "Wee Industry", captained by John Craig and the big boat, as was natural, by his brother, James. The "Big Industry" ran on behalf of the Auchenharvie Coal Company. Then there was "The Three Brothers", running from Saltcoats to Dublin with Captain MacFee in charge, afterwards Captain Robert Waters, Daniel Coleman and others. Then there were also "The Friend", which belonged to James Miller, who lived in Manse Street; the "Farnham" at the head of which, was Captain Archibald Stirling and latterly Captain Walter Little; the "Nancy" , which had the supervision of Captain Colin Shearer; and the "Eliza" guided by Captain Kennedy; and the "James", under the gallant Captain Cowie, who afterwards sailed in the "Madjestic". The "Jean and Grace" is memorable as built for one of the most famous of Saltcoats merchants, Robert Stevenson of Coalhill. Her captain was James Bolton and she had this special interest, that she was the last to come into Saltcoats. All the captains belonged to Saltcoats except Daniel Coleman and Robert Walters, who were natives of Waterford and came as runners in one of the ships deserted by its crew. They became enamoured of the ladies of Saltcoats, married and settled down. Of course that is more than eighty years ago. One must not forget the wee schooner which used to came skimming over the waves, bringing propwood for the pit and known as the "Lark". The two packets remained a lively memory to most of the old inhabitants. The captains were deservedly popular. One was named John MacDonald and he sailed with letters from Saltcoats to Lamlash; the other was Charles Gray, running from Saltcoats to Brodick. Captain Gray, who was a great favourite of his time, lived many a day, after his memorable runs, in one of the little houses, under the shadow of King's Bridge, in Ardrossan Road. When under Plimsoll's order the old ships were condemned, the most interestin feature of the sailing life of Saltcoats departed and the sea was bereft of a whole host of singular sailing craft which has never been equalled since. Their purpose, at all events, was over. They existed for the coal trade and on the coal they thrived.

Most picturesque of all the memories of the Port in its palmy days are those which bring back visions of the much-burdened and important little coaler as she staggered out of Saltcoats under her black load. The story tellers may be very particular as to the cut of her "jib"; they may rend themselves in controversy over her stump top-gallant mast, or boom foresail, but they all agree as to the impression she created and the overpowering devotion of "the children of the sea". Their close domestic attachment to their floating craft cannot be understood by any on not born in the breezy latitude of the land of the salter. Pleasant it was in those days to watch the heavily charged wagons as they crawled along the curve at the pier end, were then urged over the hurries and their contents "coupit" into the darksome hold. The little vessel, loaded up to the "coomins", was safely guided out past the pierhead and then set off with as affectionate a farewell as if she were bound for the West Indies. With what solicitude the people of the port looked for her return : they could tell by the most wonderful calculation when she was due and, reckoning the chances of a breeze, the time when she would appear gliding up the Firth in a drenching sea.

Little wonder that the collier became a nursery for the Clyde captains. Her crews had the instinct of seamanship and the spirit of marvelous endurance. Strong work required strong men; they had to shovel the coal. The business of the coaler was to get to her destination the best way she could and take all the chances. She had to keep riding through the billows whether in a calm sea or weathering a fierce squall. Weather beaten were her crews actually and metaphorically. The coal trade made sailors "worth their salt" and the skippers no mere "catpet captain". "Our was the best of schools", says a survivor, "and don't forget that Captain Cook first went to sea aboard a coal boat". Not a few of the great ones of our own day commenced their careet behind the apple-shaped bows of a Saltcoats coaler, whether it was a handy brigantine or a trig schooner is no matter.

Of the "Clitus", the ship which will ever be associated with the name of the redoubtable Betsy Miller, one who sailed with her says that it carried 200 tons. Her chief mission was to take coal to the Irish ports and bring back limestone to Ardrossan. "As every square inch of room was wanted to stow cargo, life in the fo'castle", he says, "made you feel like a giant in Lilliput". There was room enough when you got there; 'twas like sleeping in a travelling mine, sometime in a bunk, sometimes in hammock, but always with all pervading consciousness of being in a world of coal, in coal black depths, with coal sometimes forcing its gritty powder into your hair or choicest articles of food, eaten sometimes by the light of a candle. The glare of day was only admitted by a hatch like the lid of a box, which was lifted to let the water off. As a rule, when you got out of your bunk you had to dress on the scuttle. Betsy's house on deck was really a house, for it was a poop, the only poop of the time in that class of brig. A little window to the right enabled her to sight the operations on the deck level. At night or at early morn you were never sure as to what orifice she would shoot the becapped head out of, with the regulation question : "Hoo's she dae'n noo lads"?

"She was a sonsy woman, weel favor't, neither wee nor tall, an'wi' as much sense o'humour as made life aboard gang pleasantly". "Captain" Betsy was by no means inconsiderate of the creature comforts of men who had worked wheir way amongst the ironbound coasts in temptuous weather and had faced dangers which would have made the crew of a big merchantman of today tremble. A hint given to her that a drop of grog would restore the faded animation of the men, was ever promptly acted upon. A royal grant right royally appreciated. This queen of the water highways never misjudged her crew. She needed no pilot to acquaint her with her way about. She knew the run of the tides and was familiar with the ways of men, money and boats. She was purser more ways than one. When "Captain" Betsy Miller withdrew from the sevice of the sea, there passed out of the maritime life of old Saltcoats the most striking of its unique personalities. For a time her sister Hannah guided the responsibilities of the ship, but eventually the "Clitus" was left on the rocks near the North Pans to be torn to pieces by the angry sea. Some parts of its battered timbers are still visible under the water just outside the bathing basin.

Around the Braes, on the onetime fashionable crescent of the bay of Saltcoats, rest the gardens of the early settlers; here and there a deserted courtyards, with a blighted tree forming the only mark of an earlier civilisation, cleft by backways and closes, into which a man might readily dive and emerge from some far off hole. Even yet after nightfall, when black beams of shadow shoot across these alleys and impart an inky gloom to the corners of the Braes, a stranger hesitates to pass through; but the days when they were dangerous have long since passed. No townsman today pays his shilling to "The Protection Society of Saltcoats", as he had to do in 1793 when foreign vessels brought strange visitors. No longer does the swinging lantern of a friendly seaman illumine those eerie passages, crying the state of the wind for anxious mariners and waking skippers from their airy dreams. The long dyke at the rear of Orr's is a reminder of the sailorman who, two hundred years ago, set up his little kingdom behind it, little dreaming that a busy thoroughfare would rise beside his place of habitation and that in front of that boundary wall the restless sea would bring to Saltcoats shore all the glory of a busy port, destined to flourish for a time; then to fall for ever into a condition of decline from which it would never rise. Truly the tide of that older life have ebbed.