Today, the term "PUFFER" is something of a misnomer for it is many years since this characteristic breed of small coaster actually puffed it's way around Scotland's western seaboard. The name originated from the steam-powered vessels which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, took over the work of the smacks and gabbarts that plied between the mainland and the Western Isles. Some were converted sailing craft, others were purpose built vessels whose design descended from the horse-drawn scows of the Forth & Clyde Canal. It was the dimensions of the locks on this canal which determined the size of the puffer.
A non-condensing, coal-fired, steam engine was the puffer's motive power although sails were also carried for extra speed in favourable winds. Steam from the boiler, once it had expanded against the piston in the engine cylinder, was exhausted directly up the funnel, after the fashion of railway locomotives, and this, along with the black smoke from the coal, gave the characteristic regular white 'puffs' from which the name 'PUFFER" originated.
This loss of steam led to a large quantity of water being required to keep the boiler topped up, and whilst this was no problem when running on fresh water such as the Crinan-Caledonian or Forth & Clyde Canals, in salt water the boiler would have to be topped up either from tanks within the boat, which would obviously reduce cargo carrying capacity, or by using salt water. This latter practice was often employed, but the boiler had to be regularly flushed out to avoid dangerous scaling of the pipes, which, once blocked, could have caused an explosion. The inconvenience of descaling, combined with the rapid advance design of steam engines, led to the introduction of the condensing engine, which no longer 'puffed'. More recently, advances in technology have again changed the character of these homely little coasters, for now most of those faithful steam engines have been replaced by the modern, more convenient, diesel. In fact, only one vessel remained in operation in Scotland under steam power in the seventies. The last of the steam puffers, the AULD REEKIE.
The sketch shows an early puffer putting a man ashore on the cargo derrick to open a lift-bridge on the Forth & Clyde Canal (an artist's impression by Edward-Paget Tomlinson).
BUILT SOUTH OF THE BORDER:
Ironically, although built on the lines of these traditional Scottish craft. AULD REEKIE was not built to serve in Scottish waters, nor was she built at one of the yards famous for its puffers, such as Scott & Sons of Bowling, but by Pimblott of Northwich. AULD REEKIE was built South of the border on the river Weaver in Cheshire in 1942 for the Admiralty and unromatically christened VIC27. She was one of a class of sixty or so victualling boats and was equipped as a fresh water tanker, servicing vessels in the Liverpool area. The use of steam power so late into the twentieth century was due to the availability of engineering firms capable of manufacturing such a plant when those engaged in the production of internal combustion engines were already fully occupied in the war effort, and to the availability of home-mined coal rather than imported oil.
Built in the style of the puffers of Messrs J & J Hay, which used to be a part of the Glenlight Shipping Company of Glasgow, she was 66 feet in length, 18 feet in beam and had a draught of 8 feet unladen. This increases by only one foot with a cargo of 100 tons since the excessive weight of the steam plant resulted in the boat always lying deep in the water at the stern. Her registered tonnage was 41 and her gross tonnage 96.
The engine, which was the original, was a compound two-cylinder type, the steam from the first high pressure cylinder being exhausted to the second low pressure cylinder, after which it was condensed and returned to the boiler.
Above, a busy scene at Greenock in the mid-60s when Cunard and Canadian Pacific liners were regular callers. The coal-burning
Clyde puffer MOONLIGHT (1952) will shortly transfer mail sacks out to the Empress of England in the distance. The Clyde ferry
berthed ahead of the puffer is acting as a passenger tender. Bright rather than strong sunlight seems to suit the sombre
paint scheme of this workaday vessel. Purists might be upset at the cropped mast!
The AULD REEKIE's history after the war has yet to be completely discovered but it seems that she was retained by the Admiralty
until being laid up in 1962. In 1968 she was lying at Ardrossan, still simply called VIC27, when Sir James Miller purchased
her from the Glenburn Shipping of Glasgow who, it is believed, had bought her from the Admiralty intending to convert her
to a private yacht. Sir James Miller, a former Lord Provost of Edinburgh and Lord Mayor of London, had a slightly different
idea. He wanted to preserve such a vessel, and he also wanted young people to benefit from her preservation and to learn
about puffers and also the area in which they operated.
Through the generosity of Sir James Miller she was hired out in the seventies from Oban at nominal rates by the Land, Sea and Air Youth Club. Their aim was to educate young people in the handling of such vessels, along with two smaller dinghies that she carried, and in the lore of the areas visited. Preference in bookings was naturally given to youth groups but private parties could occasionally be accommodated if any weeks during the season (April-October) remained unbooked.
Externally, AULD REEKIE was a little different from trading puffers such as the VITAL SPARK immortalised by Neal Munro in his "Para Handy Tales". She was traditionally painted, the hull being black above with red boot topping and the superstructure buff. The tall wheelhouse was mounted above the engine-room immediately aft of the funnel and the wheel operated the external rudder via a simple, exposed, chain mechanism. All the later puffers had wheelhouses but earlier ones had a poorly protected raised platform aft of the wheel and one or two had just an open tiller. Up forward was the mast with a single derrick by which the trading puffers loaded or unloaded at their remote destinations but which on AULD REEKIE was used to lift the sailing dinghies over the side.
Internally, the AULD REEKIE was a different ship altogether from her working days. A hatchway led down to a large eating/living saloon equipped with a solid fuel stove which also fired the central heating. Off this main saloon were two and four berth cabins, ample washing facilities including hot and cold running water and a large galley with two Arga-type cooking ranges. The crew, however, still lived in their traditional quarters in the bows of the boat.
When trading, puffers had a crew of 4 - captain, mate, engineer and cook-cum-odd-job-man, but AULD REEKIE carried a permanent
crew of only two - Tom, the captain, and Frank, the mate both of whom had more experience of the sea than they care to
think of, but were quite at home in the confined waters around Oban. The small crew meant that the holiday-hirers were meant
to pull their weight, not only in cooking and cleaning but also in stoking when under way.
AULD REEKIE was not kept permanently in steam owing to the high cost of coal so that advance notice had to be given to the crew if steaming was intended. "This had been given on the first night but the next morning few of us realized that Frank had been stoking the fire to get up steam and it was a tribute to the silence of the engine that none of us below knew that we had cast off and were actually travelling at 5 knots. The only perception of motion from inside the boat was a faint 'thud, thud' if one listened for it and , towards the stern, a vague palpitation of the whole boat as the pistons turned the huge crank and the four foot propellor. The phenomen of emerging on deck first thing in the morning to find the boat under way when one still sleepily thought that she was tied up never ceased to be a wonder".
Above, the SAXON is seen in Kingston Dock, Glasgow and was probably the last 'puffer' in commercial use. Built in Kirkintilloch on the Forth & Clyde Canal in 1903, she was owned in Millport, Cumbrae, 1925 to '65. She was then used in the 'ParaHandy' TV series before being broken up in 1967. (Photo by Dan McDonald)
The AULD REEKIE had no engine-room telegraph and none was needed, for the flailing, steaming pistons, valve gear and associated oily gubbins, which converted the steam into the rotation of the propeller and were collectively referred to as the engine, carried out their conversion in almost complete silence so that instructions from the wheel house, directly overhead, could be clearly heard.
The former 'VIC' coaster ADVANCE is seen above lying in Husband's Shipyard, Southampton. In the mid seventies she had been there for over ten years but, apparently, her engine and boiler were still intact at that time. (Photo by Jon Bennett).
Up until the 1950s it was a common sight to see the red and black hull of a puffer high and dry, like a huge stranded whale, in an almost inaccessible creek discharging to the many horse-drawn carts which stood around her. All manner of goods were carried in these boats which formed a vital transport link between the islands and the mainland. Coal, bricks, gravel, cement, farm implements, animal feed, household requirements and, in more recent years, road making materials were unloaded on the islands in exchange for return cargoes of whisky, corn, potatoes, livestock and sand.
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