Monday, September 10, 2018

St Catherine's Ferry

As a child in the late 60s, we always went on our Easter holidays to Kishorn in Wester Ross. The drive up from Edinburgh involved crossing the Ballachulish and Strome Ferries and in some respects this was my favourite part of the holiday! I used to pore over Ordnance Survey one inch maps looking at the routes of similar ferries and was always curious about the ferry across Loch Fyne between St Catherine's and Inveraray which, at about a mile and a half, was so much longer than the normal ferry crossing of about a quarter-half a mile.

I was also intrigued by this being a "Ferry F" - a foot ferry with a single pecked line on the OS map as opposed to the more familiar vehicular ferry ("Ferry V") marked by a double pecked line. I knew fine what a vehicular ferry looked like ...

Strome Ferry - picture credit foundin_a_attic

... but wasn't very sure what this foot ferry must look like considering the only foot ferry I'd ever seen was the one sculled across the 40 yard wide River Almond at Cramond which would obviously not be very suitable for crossing Loch Fyne.

Cramond Ferry - picture credit National Museums of Scotland

In 1973, we decided to go to Inveraray for our Easter holidays. Disappointment at going to a destination which did not involve a car having to be driven on to a boat was countered by the knowledge that at least my curiosity about this enigmatic foot ferry would be requited and a trip across it would likely be on the cards.

Alas, despite still being marked on the then latest edition of the OS 1 inch map (pictured above), the St Catherine's Ferry had been discontinued some years earlier. Presumably, everybody was now travelling by car or bus and it was quicker to go by road round the head of Loch Fyne. But in the pre-internal combustion engine era, when travel by water could, in the right weather, be a perfectly viable alternative to travel on foot or horseback, the St Catherine's ferry had been a vital link in the communication network between Glasgow and the Clyde and Inveraray and the parts of Argyll beyond. Look at the map below:-

In the second half of the 18th century, as now, the land route to Inveraray was the military road (built 1743-49 by Major Caulfeild, not General Wade) from Dumbarton up Loch Lomond, through Arrochar and across the Rest & Be Thankful then round the head of Loch Fyne - red route on the map. But an alternative in these days was the green route using the ferry across Loch Long at Portincaple (I'm not exactly sure where the west terminus of that ferry was, whether it was on the opposite shore of Loch Long or went up to Lochgoilhead but I better save that for another blog) and the St Catherine's Ferry across Loch Fyne.

The Rest & Be Thankful before it was realigned to today's route in (I think - another blog topic?) the late 1930s

The alternative "sea routes" to Inveraray via the St Catherine's Ferry were given a boost by the construction of new roads from Lochgoilhead to Ardno on the east side of Loch Fyne (green) and from Ardentinny to Strachur (yellow) by the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission in 1809 and 1810.  The Memorial to the HR&BC petitioning their assistance for the Lochgoilhead road is instructive:-

And supposing the traveller to start at Inveraray to ferry over at St. Catherine's, the distance from St. Catherine's to Loch-Goil-Head is not eight miles. The advantages of this road are obvious; travellers may reach Loch-Goil-Head from Inveraray in less than three hours. Foot travellers are generally encumbered with heavy burthens, but by having a hired cart at St Catherine's and another at Loch-Goil-Head, they will be enabled to proceed with ease and expedition.

In the following decade, steam navigation began on the Clyde and, in 1825, The Lochgoil & Lochlong Steamboat Company was formed to sail from Greenock to Lochgoilhead via calls at Ardentinny and Portincaple amongst other places - there's much more about these steamers on the wonderful Dalmadan website. Another alternative was by coach from Dunoon and then steamer up Loch Eck and a sail on any of these steamers followed by a coach trip along relatively new roads to St Catherine's must have held considerable attractions compared with struggling up the old military road over "the Rest". Another factor which would have generated traffic for the St Catherine's Ferry in times gone by was that Inveraray was then more of an "entry point" to north Argyll than nowadays with more travellers going north via the Port Sonachan ferry across Loch Awe (brown route on the map).

"Lochgoilhead from the Steamer" - an 1848 sketch by J F Campbell showing the coach preparing to depart for St Catherine's - picture credit Wikipedia

So much for its connections, what of the infrastructure of the ferry? On the St Catherine's side (go for a virtual walk round in Google Streetview here), the pier was built by the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission in 1818-20 to a design by Thomas Telford. The note in the Commissioners' 1821 Report speaks for itself:-

ST. CATHERINE'S FERRY PIER - Opposite to Inverary on Loch Fine [sic.], a Ferry Pier, Ninety Yards in extent, has been built at St.Catherine's, equidistant from the Northern Terminations of the Strachur and Ardnoe Roads [from Ardentinny and Lochgoilhead respectively], and is an example of great convenience obtained at the moderate expense of £166, one half of which was paid by Captain Campbell of St. Catherine's, the Proprietor. Many such Piers would be highly serviceable in the County of Argyll, indented and intersected as it is by the sea, and by fresh water Lakes, in all directions.

From the HR&BC's 9th Report, 1821

Opposite the pier was that other essential requisite of a ferry in centuries gone by, an inn. It had a sign above the door claiming to have been granted a charter in 1460 as a "wayfarer's tavern": no doubt there had been a hostelry on the site since before 1756 when the main block of the present building was built but I'm not sure how credible the 15th century claim is. In 1864, the poet Alexander Smith wrote in "A Summer in Skye":-

The only thing likely to interest the stranger at the little hostelry of St Catherine's is John Campbell, the proprietor of the same, and driver of the coach from the inn to the steamboat wharf at Loch Goil. ... He has not started on his journey a hundred yards when, from something or another, he finds you occasion for a story, in which he is sure to proiduce a roar of laughter from those alongside of, and behind, him. ... Every one who tarries at St. Catherine's should get himself driven across to Loch Goil by John Campbell, and should take pains to procure a seat on the box beside him. When he returns to the south, he can relate over again the stories he hears, and make himself the hero of them.

The St. Catherine's to Lochgoilhead coach in Hell's Glen - picture credit

Today, sadly, the inn at St Catherine's is empty and deteriorating having been closed for about ten years and on the Buildings at Risk Register.

The St Catherine's Hotel in happier times - picture credit Tour Scotland Photographs & Videos

On the Inveraray side, there's still a house called "Ferry Land" ("land" used there as the old Scottish word for a tenement or multi-storey building). Dating to 1777, this was previously the Ferry Inn and also the ferryman's house.

Ferryland, Inveraray via Google Streetview

The St Catherine's Ferry belonged to Inveraray Burgh Council. What I mean by that is not that the boats belonged to the Council but that Inveraray owned the exclusive right to operate a ferry across Loch Fyne at this location which nobody else could set up in competition with. Under Scottish law, ferry rights usually belonged to the landowner(s) on one or both sides of ferry but could belong to a third party in the same way that the right to fish for salmon in Scotland does not necessarily belong to the owner of the banks of the river or loch concerned. I tried to explain this esoteric point of law in the context of the Kyleakin Ferry to Skye (which belonged jointly to the owners on either side before being sold to the Highland Railway when they were building their railway to Kyle) in this post. Anyway, as was the common practice, Inveraray Council didn't operate the ferry itself but leased the right to a tenant. A Report on the assets of Scottish burghs compiled in 1835 noted:-

[St Catherine's] ferry for many years was of no consequence as an object of revenue; it being granted rent-free, on condition merely that the tenant should provide sufficient boats and hands for the accommodation of the public. The rent presently paid is £40; the first rent charged was £9.

Since I started writing this post, I've discovered an article published just last month [August 2018] about the ferry in the Argyllshire Advertiser. Aptly titled "The sea unites - the story of Inveraray's ferry", you can read it here. In case that link goes dead, there's a screen grab below:-

Amongst other interesting snippets, the article tells us that St Catherine's ferry had been equipped with steam vessels as early as 1827 and that the tenant of the ferry from 1836 to 1865 was the Lochgoil and Loch Long Steamboat Company. In 1865, the ferry was taken over by the Inveraray Ferry & Coach Company who introduced a new 60 foot iron paddle steamer called the Fairy. This link contains a very small picture of her and also hints that the ferry passed through the hands of other companies such as Inveraray & St Catherine's Ferry Co. Ltd and Inveraray Steam Ferry Co. before being taken back in hand by Inveraray Burgh Council in 1892 with a new steamer called the Fairy II. Below is a rather grainy picture of the Fairy I - there's a clearer version of it on the Dalmadan website here

Picture credit Argyllshire Advertiser

It seems that rowing boats continued to operate alongside the steamboats, the operation of St Catherine's Ferry in 1875 being described in Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Scotland thus:-

At St. Catherine's (small Inn), is a Ferry to Inveraray. 2 m. [miles] by rowing boat in 1/2 hour; and by steamer (fare 1s.) twice a day in 10 minutes. Coach to Lochgoilhead.

One of the steam ferries - possibly the Fairy II at St Catherine's Pier - photo credit Graham Thomas

The article in the Argyllshire Advertiser tells us that the Fairy II was wrecked in a storm in 1912 (not while on passage we assume) following which the St Catherine's Ferry was operated by a succession of motor launches (see the article for more detail) before it ceased in 1963. In retrospect it seems odd it lasted so long - the railway to Oban opened in 1880 must have taken away some of the the traffic passing through Inveraray for points further north and the improvement of the A83 at the Rest and be Thankful (which I think was in 1937) makes it curious that the ferry resumed after the War.

As ever, if anyone can add any detail or memories of the St Catherine's Ferry, then do leave a comment but I leave you with a picture of a Loch Fyne skiff, a type of herring fishing boat a motorised example of which the AA article tells us operated the ferry during the 20th century - maybe my mental picture of the Cramond ferry was not so wide of the mark after all!

Two skiffs at Tarbert - picture credit ThistleDhu1

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