puffers & vics



the history of the puffer - page 1

The Forth and Clyde Canal, stretching 35 miles from the port of Grangemouth on the Forth to Bowling on the Clyde estuary was completed in 1790 to serve the transport needs of the burgeoning industry of Central Scotland. Integral to that was the design and construction of suitable cargo carrying vessels, or scows as they were known. With shipyards established at Kirkintilloch and Bowling, large numbers of these iron-built and horse drawn scows were built to a more or less standard design of 60 foot long with a beam of 13 ft 6 inches and draught of up to six feet, all to allow them to navigate the canal's locks. Each was capable of carrying some 70 to 80 tons of cargo and was operated by two boatmen, a horse and horseman. (It should be noted that the Union Canal which linked the Forth and Clyde on to the heart of Edinburgh was considerably narrower than the Forth and Clyde and so had its own narrower design of vessel.)
 The scow on the right is lying rusting away on some waste ground next to the old docks on the Monklands Canal at Port Dundas in Glasgow. It does look as if somebody cares though as the grass around her is neatly cut and grafiti has been removed from her hull. (photograph taken 15 September 2010)

With the arrival of the railways in the early 1800's, the canal's monopoly of freight work was soon challenged and surpassed. The scows however continued to operate, particularly for bulk cargoes of stone, coal and grain and efforts to improve their economy and performance were ongoing. On January 4th 1803 the stern-paddle wheeler “Charlotte Dundas” commenced trials on the canal but despite showing the feasibility of a steam-powered vessel towing scows, the canal owners, fearful of the damage she might cause to the canal banks, refused further trials. .Nevertheless, the Charlotte Dundas has gone down in history as the world's first practical steam powered ship.

Drawing of Charlotte Dundas by Robert Bowie dated 1883 


It was to be more than fifty years later, in 1856, that the next real step forward happened, when a canal engineer called James Milne acquired the iron-built scow “Thomas” and fitted her with a two-cylinder steam engine. The “Thomas” whose progress along the canal was distinguished by the “puffing”sound it made as its engine exhausted its used steam direct to atmosphere, was to give its name to a whole genre of small cargo carrying ships which were to be the backbone of cargo transport on the canals, Clyde and west coast of Scotland.

A year later, in 1857, brothers John, Robert and David Swan launched the first purpose built steam scow at Kelvin Dock. It was named the “Glasgow”. The same year, one James Hay set up in business at Port Dundas on the Monklands Canal as a ship's agent and ten years later in company with his brothers John and Robert he took over the shipbuilding yard of Crawford & Co in Kirkintilloch to build puffers for their own fleet. Thus was born the J & J Hay dynasty which was to be dominant in the puffer business for many years thereafter.

Meanwhile, in the Clyde and waters of the Western Isles, cargoes were carried by small sailing vessels known as Gabbarts. Some were schooners whilst other were ketch-rigged. They were typically around 60 feet long with a 15 foot beam and could carry some 50 tons of cargo. Flat-bottomed and with a shallow draught they were ideal for grounding on sandy beaches where their cargoes could be worked, a practice which was to be continued by the puffers virtually right up until their demise in the 1990s.

With the freedom of navigation conferred by steam power it wasn't long before the canal puffer owners saw the opportunities of trade into the Clyde estuary and beyond. No longer would transhipment onto gabbarts at ports like Bowling be necessary; they could go all the way themselves. However, unlike in the canals where the unlimited supply of fresh water made the non-condensing engine practical, the mineral content of sea water would quickly clog up the steam tubes in their boilers leading to the real risk of explosion. A “quick fix” was to clean out the tubes with freshwater on a frequent basis but, with the puffers making longer and longer voyages to the islands, this was not a practical solution longer term. The answer was found in the compound engine in which the used steam was returned to the boiler by way of a condenser. This may well have been the end of the “puffing” engine, but in reality it was the birth of the puffer as she was to exist for almost another hundred and forty years.

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