The Navigation of the River Dee

The following article is first published here. The author is a well-known Kirkcudbright resident, and in this essay he records his memories of his days as a ships’ pilot, particularly in the days of the Oil Tankers which were common visitors to the port between 1956 and 1982.

© George C Davidson – 2001.

The Navigation of the River Dee.

George C. Davidson
April 2001.

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Galloway’s River Dee, – in some places sulking, deep and sullen between green banks, in others, a tumbling torrent of dark ale, brainging and boring among the black boulders, – surges in a welter of foam down to sea level.

The upper extremity of the tidal Dee is at Tongland, where the site of the old Port of Tongueland (note the spelling) is downstream, near the Telford Bridge, and a short distance away is the site of the Port of Tarf (the old spelling) downstream of and close to the Cumstoun Bridge. This latter harbour did enjoy a certain amount of trade but Tongueland was indeed at one time a thriving port with regular imports of coal and lime and exports of grain, oatmeal, potatoes, wool and general farm produce.

Downriver, Kirkcudbright had the advantage of being able to handle bigger, deeper drafted vessels. An official document of 1810 states that “The shipping places in the river are the Manxman’s Lake, Balmangan Bay (known now as Ross Bay), The Fishhouse, The Isleside (when the Earl of Selkirk’s permission can be got), the Castle-sod Bank, The Port of Kirkcudbright, Tongueland, and Tarf, and of these Tongueland and Kirkcudbright are the chief.”

There is no doubt that Kirkcudbright has for centuries been held in high esteem as a safe and useful harbour. Even Philip, King of Spain planned that the Armada would land a vast invasion force at Kirkcudbright.

In 1689, Symson in his “Description of Galloway” says, amongst other things of Kirkcudbright, “It hath an excellent natural harbour to which ships of very great burthen may at a full sea come, and ly safely from all stormes, just at the side of the Kirk wall.” Pennant, in ” Tour Through Scotland”, 1753, whilst scathing in his remarks about lack of shipping, and trade etc. did say that Kirkcudbright’s situation “is extremely convenient for carrying on a very advantageous commerce”.

In view of the evidence available for the latter part of the 18th and earlier part of the 19th century, of a healthy and regular waterborne trade on the Dee, one may well be tempted to query Pennant’s assessment of Kirkcudbright’s shipping and trade in the mid eighteenth century. It may be that in his opinion, Kirkcudbright’s harbour was working well below capacity and that of course is an opinion which has been frequently expressed by various people over the years.

The old harbour which occupied that space which is now a car park, was altered in 1910 to provide a quay wall in concrete. One of the snags obtaining in this new situation was the continuing build up of silt, and it was only as a result of persistent hard work with a high pressure hose and judicious moving and laying of sandbags to divert and use the flow from the main sewer that the berth was kept serviceable.

This new harbour handled a fair amount of coastal shipping, with imports of coal, indian corn, feeding stuffs, fertilisers, and cement. The traffic continued, albeit latterly losing momentum, up until 1941, and thereafter the harbour fell into a state of disuse. In the years immediately following World War 2, the “new” concrete quay wall was supporting a bank of mud which obscured more than half of the vertical face, and the harbour had an air of gloom and dereliction which might well have overwhelmed the enthusiasm of any prospective businessman.

However, experience has taught us that often the darkest hour is just before the dawn, and by the end of that decade the first grey streaks were lighting the sky in the east. Far-sighted people were looking with interest at the practicality of reopening the port for commercial shipping. In the spring of 1951, at a meeting of the Town Council Development Committee, it was announced that “Shell and BP” had asked for mooring facilities whereby oil products might be discharged into pipelines, permission to lay pipes up the embankment; the grant of a feu of two acres of land on the old rubbish dump for storage, and for road access to the site to be improved. The company proposed to bring two ships per month, and the depot, which would provide work for 30 to 40 men, would distribute products to all parts of Galloway and as far east as Annan.

At the same meeting it was reported that Messrs Metlox (Ardrossan) Ltd. Had written saying that they wished to use the harbour to import limestone rock and they anticipated that the cargoes of 400 – 500 tons would be weekly in winter and fortnightly in summer.

A quotation of the rates charged at comparable harbours was considered by the council and it was decided to ask the Ministry of Transport to agree to raise current charges (fixed in 1921) by 100% for Kirkcudbright. If this increase were to be sanctioned it was thought that with 40 – 50 ships per annum, there could be an annual profit of £1000.

At that time, and in the ensuing months there was a great deal of discussion of ways and means and probable costs of dredging the berth to specified levels and thereafter maintaining that condition. About the end of May 1951, Mr Cafferty (Operations Manager, Shell and BP) with three colleagues met Provost Kennedy and four menbers of the Town Council, and as a result of their talks, Shell and BP agreed to consider the possibility of the dredging being done at their expense in return for free use of the harbour for a period later to be agreed. On that same occasion the company had examined the proposed site and said that they now wished to take all the land available between the Drill Hall and Glendee, to allow for future expansion at the rate of feu duty previously agreed

Almost five years later the talks were still taking place, but with a greater sense of urgency now. The work apparently had to be completed by the end of April and at a full meeting of the council on 28th March 1956, apart from deciding to appoint a harbourmaster, discussing provision of Customs facilities and agreeing to advertise for pilots, the thorny question of how to clear out the berth was raised yet again. It had been estimated that with the use of pumps this task could be completed in six weeks at a cost of £300. The doubt expressed about the accuracy of that estimate was justified in the light of later events.

The Galloway News of 21st April 1956 showed a picture of a dragline excavator operating with more promising results and the hosepipe technique was by that time abandoned. The plan now was to dig out the silt, load it on lorries and dump it on low ground in the Tarff Valley. The scheme, from the viewpoint of cleaning the berth was eventually successful but one doesn’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. The vehicles, loaded with slopping liquid mud, splashed their way along Bridge Street, St Mary Street, Victoria Park and Tongland Road, day after day. And as it dried, the mud which had spilled along the route became a very fine powdery sand, airborne with the passage of vehicles and in the lightest breeze. There was talk in the local press and elsewhere of the dreadful condition of the streets and frequent reference to Sahara and sandstorms etc. The Council apologised to the ratepayers, many of whom were no doubt in the “irate” category.

By early May however, the berth had been cleared – an estimated 2000 cubic yards – and the next hurdle was the safe berthing of the first oil tanker. The local council had diligently prepared the ground and sown the seed, but the success of the harvest would depend almost entirely on the science and skills of others.

On the morning of 8th May 1956 the MV “Shell Fitter”, with 750 tons of cargo, and drawing 12 feet of water lay at the anchorage near Little Ross. The ship was boarded by John (Hubby) Poland and his brother, the pilot, George Poland, whose local knowledge would be indispensable to the ship’s master throughout the passage from the anchorage to the berth.

The distance to be covered is about four and a half nautical miles, 4 nautical miles of which is in extremely shallow water. The channel staggers drunkenly from side to side of the estuary and at low water springs, the narrow ribbon of water, whilst hiding a number of deep holes and gorges, fails to cover a great many rocks and boulders in the channel which along with the rocks and mud banks outside the channel are known as “drying heights”. None of these in the channel is marked, and some are not shown at all on the Admiralty chart of Kirkcudbright Bay.

One drying height which one might consider to be of consequence is the “Mussel Rock” lying in the channel, a very short distance upstream of the lifeboat slipway. When HMS Shackleton carried out the survey for the chart of Kirkcudbright Bay, the tide pole at the foot of the lifeboat slip had three wire stays, one of which was secured to the “Mussel Rock”. Someone presumably lost his notebook; the “mussel rock” is still not shown on the Admiralty chart.

Some of the turns are very tight, so much so that the Marine Superintendents department had advised Masters to have their anchors started clear of the hawse pipes ready to let go immediately if required, to assist in swinging round the more awkward marks. Steering would be more difficult on account of the fact that the ship was scheduled to berth within the last hour of the flood so that she might swing and lie portside to, and consequently the passage would be made on the flood, for the greater part at little more than steerage way.

Between the “Point” and the berth the atmosphere on the ship’s bridge would be more tense than ever, The speed of approach would be critical; too much and she wouldn’t stop; too little and she wouldn’t steer. Would her starboard anchor hold her head while she was across the tide? If her heel were to catch the far bank in mid turn the anchor would almost certainly drag and the proximity of the bridge would leave little room for manoeuvre.

If anyone among the crowd was sharing the worries of the ship handlers, the shadow of doubt was soon dispelled. The vessel was swung on her anchor and warped alongside, port side to, in a manner which would not have broken an egg.

Children released from school to witness this historic occasion joined with the townspeople in their applause, and the Provost of Kirkcudbright, Dr W N Chalmers, wearing his chain of office and accompanied by members of the Town Council, welcomed the ship’s Master, Captain Bambro.

There was an air of elation and optimism in the Royal Burgh and the members of the Council and officials were justifiably pleased with the successful conclusion of the first phase and the promising start of a new era.

At one time, almost all petroleum products for consumption in the UK were imported from abroad already refined, but since World War 2 this state of affairs had undergone considerable change. The policy now was to import crude oil from the Middle East in big ocean going tankers and process it in Britain. Shell and BP each had three major refineries which had played the greater part in raising Britain’s refining capacity from three million tons in 1946 to about 28 million tons in 1956. The distribution system, based on these refineries was undergoing reorganisation to improve economy and efficiency, and thus the use of waterborne transport was a factor of prime importance. Outmoded depots were being modernised or replaced by bigger and more efficient plant and the depot at Kirkcudbright, to be fed entirely from the big Shell and BP refineries in Britain was an example of the new distribution technique.

This depot, built on a 5-acre site had 12 large vertical tanks, 6 horizontal tanks and a small settling tank with an electrically operated Mowbrey alarm system. There was a covered filling gantry which could load four road tankers simultaneously and a building with two bays for washing and maintenance of vehicles and one bay to be used as a store for automotive lubricants.

The office, customs office, staff accommodation and facilities were under one roof in the modern administration block and there was an elaborate system of loudspeaker intercom. Between the installation; the tank compound, the office and the tanker berth were linked by telephone.

The official opening of this establishment at Dee Walk took place on 25th May 1956. The manager, Mr Fraser, welcomed the Earl of Galloway, Lord Lieutenant of the Stewartry, who performed the ceremony, which was well attended by representatives of the company, the Provost, and members of Kirkcudbright Town Council. Prior to this function, at a meeting of the Council on 25th April, it had been announced that the cost of cleaning out the berth, after the estimated £300 had been spent, would be met by Shell and BP, who would debit same to the cost of the site. This appeared to be a very reasonable arrangement, but at the opening ceremony, the Company announced that “as a gesture of goodwill to the town” they would foot the bill of £2895 and in addition would make a gift of a powerful circulating force-pump (at that time worth £500) to help with the cleaning of the berth.

Now with the ceremony and celebrations behind them, the members of the Town Council settled down to the daily problems involved in the administration of a working harbour, and very well they managed it indeed. The yardstick of their success was the steadily improving health of the harbour account.

Small coastal tankers became regular visitors and the business of oil import and distribution went on apace. By far the greater part of the product was loaded at the giant refinery in Stanlow but some cargoes came from Heysham, and on one occasion, during a strike by the National Union of Seamen, The “Onward Progress”, whose crew belonged to the Transport and General Workers’ Union, loaded products for Kirkcudbright at an Esso installation on the Clyde.

The larger tankers plying to Kirkcudbright in the early years, carried up to 750 tons, but other small vessels carried as little as 400 tons.

Although the business of piloting and maneuvering in the narrow, twisting channel of the Dee could never be mundane, it it did appear to settle down into some kind of regular pattern; safe arrival, a 24hr turn around and a safe departure became the rule, but like many other rules it was proved by exception. That occurred in December 1956. The coastal tanker BP Marketer, having discharged her 750 tons of cargo sailed from Kirkcudbright about 0900 on the 28th. She may have been ballasting as she made her way down river, but it is unlikely that she had completed this operation by the time she reached the “Shouldry Craig”. From this point she should have been heading due south. The pilot had been landed immediately prior to this alteration of course, on the grounds that it would have been very dangerous, if not impossible to land him farther down river in the Southerly gale.

Shortly after passing the “Shouldry Craig”, the head paid off to starboard and the vessel appearing to have lost full power and manouevrability, ran aground with her head in towards the Clinking Haven, and her stern up to the weather. The lifeboat and the L.S.A.(Coastguard) were asked to stand by which they did, but there was no request for anyone to be taken off. Whilst she was half afloat, caught by the heel with her bows floating, she pounded very heavily, but eventually the ebbing tide left her fast from stem to stern and at that time the lifeboat and the L.S.A. were recalled.

The Master, Captain John Cain, requested that the lifeboat stand by on the night tide, when he hoped to refloat the ship; the request was met but the effort to refloat was in vain. The weather by that time had moderated considerably. The attempt by the Workington tug “Solway” to haul her off on the next tide, after the tow parted twice, was foiled, partly by very dense fog, and eventually, on the night tide of the 29th, after the lifeboat had passed the tow line, she was hauled off by the tug and towed out to Ross Roads.

My involvement in that incident was with the lifeboat but as luck would have it I was thrown in at the deep end of the piloting business. At that time the channel was marked but not lit. The pilot for Shell and BP was on board the tanker and the master of the “Solway” asked me to go with him as pilot on the tug. I had made arrangements for a fire to be lit at a specified point in the Lake Wood and this proved to be a useful point of reference.

This incident helped no doubt to highlight some of the pitfalls which beset the job. Ideally the ships would navigate the channel in daylight, in fine weather with good visibility, with tides that gave safe clearances under the keel. And the pilot would board and land without difficulty outside the bar. Needless to say voyages in which all these conditions obtained were in the minority, and not infrequently, sailings had to be delayed on account of weather. The decision to sail or not to sail was taken by the Master, usually after having consulted the pilot. In very bad weather conditions the decision was easy, but inevitably there were times when opinions differed about the wisdom of sailing or delaying. One might think that in cases of doubt it would have been prudent to postpone sailing for 24 hours, that is until the next day tide. After the introduction of night passages the delay might have been only 12 hours, but time is money, and Masters know that shipowners are not favourably impressed by vessels which don’t earn their keep, and so another element was involved in the decision making. On the other hand, as so many of the Masters observed, had they sailed in adverse conditions and run into trouble, the owners would have been first to tell them they ought to have known better. Life is never easy.

When a voyage was nominated, the agent notified the installation, the harbour authority and the pilot, giving the datee, the cargo, the name of the ship, the draft, and if appropriate, the length. There and then the pilot would check the predicted time and height of the tide, and say whether or not it was feasible to get the ship alongside on the berth. It might seem that if the vessel is drawing 4 metres and the tide tables indicate 4.1 metres on the berth, there should be no difficulty, and it sometimes appeared that the minds of those responsible for ship movements worked in this way.

Predicted tide heights are based on a mean barometer, but a variation of 1 inch of mercury (34 millibars approx.) causes a variation of about 12 inches in the height of sea level. When the glass falls, the sea level rises and vice versa; it’s the vice versa that causes the problems. The wind is another factor governing the height of a tide; here in Kirkcudbright, southerlies and westerlies tend to raise the level and northerlies and easterlies to lower it. As a result of these variables it was from time to time necessary to make last minute alterations to planned voyages.

George Poland, a well known and respected local boatman and fisherman, who had been Shell and BP’s pilot since the inception of the company’s trading in Kirkcudbright, retired in March of 1965 and I was asked (some weeks prior to that date) whether or not I would take on the job. The company’s marine superintendent who interviewed me was Captain Bambro who had been Master of the first tanker to berth here. Part of the agreement was that the pilot would be responsible for all arrangements to board and land; i.e. he would supply his own boat and boatman. I was extremely fortunate in acquiring the services of Mr E. Parker of Auchencairn, (“Hestan Ferry” to his friends) who had a suitable motor boat and together we commenced work on 21st March 1965.

Our first ship was the “Onward Progress” and since she was already a regular visitor there was little for me to do except to be present. She was a charter vessel belonging to the Boston Deep Sea Company, homeport Fleetwood, with a ship’s company of six, most if not all, ex-trawlermen from the Fleetwood area. After overcoming the language difficulty I found them all to be fascinating characters, reminiscent in many ways of the crew of the “Vital Spark”. There was always a mug, pint size, of tea or soup for the pilot and another for the boatman, the transfer of which to the pilot boat was at times something of a circus act and might have seemed to have priority over the safety of the vessels. Throughout the years, inevitably, there were changes in the ship’s company, but it frequently happened those there four seamen, each with a skipper’s ticket, and two engineers. The “Onward Progress” was not designed to carry spirit and her cargoes of oil were by and large loaded in Heysham. With a draft little over ten feet, she could work on neap tides and thus was extremely useful, as the larger vessels were restricted by draft to spring tides.

On a number of occasions on passage inwards, when it was thought that we might arrive too early to get on to the berth, I would ask the Master to reduce speed. He would ring “half” or “slow” and the engine telegraph in reply would move to the appropriate mark but the engine speed never slackened. It was some time before I observed that these incidents were prone to happen in the hour or so before closing time of the pubs.

The Boston Deep Sea Company had three other vessels, The “Onward Enterprise”, “Onward Venture”, and “Onward Mariner” which at one time or another supplied Kirkcudbright.

Another little ship that I have cause to remember was the M.V. “Rudderman”, a charter vessel owned by Rowbothams. She carried about 400tons of gas oil or spirit and on her first voyage here she was due to arrive on a neap tide. High water was about 5 o’clock in the morning and the pilot boat left the harbour to pick her up. At that time of course it was dark but it would be light enough by the time we came in. It was a fine morning in the middle of May and as we approached the anchorage between Torrs Point and Little Ross there was no sign of a ship. Eventually we found her anchored a mile south and west of the Ross and when I boarded her I learned that they hadn’t expected a pilot to come out during the darkness. However, after a discussion of the pros and cons of sailing then or twelve hours later, we got under way at full ahead. Time by now was of the essence; so much of it had been frittered away – not least on the social niceties of taking early morning tea before weighing anchor. With her draft of ten feet there wasn’t much to worry us at that stage of the tide, and of course by that time we had God’s daylight. As we approached the Gibbhill I asked the Master to reduce to half speed. “Aye aye” said he, but didn’t do anything. Shortly thereafter I asked him again – I thought perhaps he hadn’t understood me – and I went on to explain that we had a very tight turn just ahead. We negotiated the “Point” at full ahead. Another attempt to get him to slow down met with no success and in desperation, after we had passed Clingan’s Creek, I pointed and said “That’s the berth”. To say that the next few moments were dramatic is something of an understatement. The reaction was immediate – stop her, slow astern, half astern, full astern. The little ship which had been charging in with a bone in her teeth, watched anxiously by the harbour and Shell and B.P. staff, began to lose way, but she stopped only after making hard contact with the quay wall and scraped along, steel on concrete for 100 feet or so. It was a most undignified arrival and had it not been for the fact that the tide by that time was ebbing, it would have been even more so.

By now the harbour and Shell employees were grinning broadly, but the ship’s Master was not amused. He was most apologetic, but he asked me to look at a sheet of orders which had been supplied to him for this voyage. Amongst other things, it stated that “Vessels with cargoes for Kirkcudbright discharged into storage tanks at such and such a distance above the bridge”. He hadn’t slowed down because he assumed that he had time to do so after he had passed under the bridge or through a swing bridge. No-one can deny that his information was most ambiguous.

Another incident involving small ships occurred in July 1969, when through a slip-up in administration, three vessels were nominated for the same tide in Kirkcudbright. The local agent managed to make a link call to one of them to divert. The other two, however, arrived at the anchorage and appeared to be unable to hear the attempts to raise them on the air; the Nelson’s blind eye syndrome no doubt. I sought advice from the agent, Harold Jack of George Wilson and Sons Ltd., Dalbeattie, and he said that the vessel handling spirit should be handled first; that was the M.V.” Ronland”, a Danish ship. The other ship was the “Onward Progress” with a cargo of gas oil.

The prospect of passing the “Progress” and boarding the Dane didn’t appeal to me very much, but I needn’t have worried. As the pilot boat passed the last mark at the Lifeboat station, the “Progress” was underway, bustling in to meet us, and “Deil tak’ the hinmaist”. I went aboard and after we had rounded the first buoy I caught sight of the Dane on our quarter, attempting to follow us in. Fortunately we were able to raise him on V.H.F. and tell him that he would have to wait at the anchorage for 24 hours, but I have sometimes wondered what would have happened had we not seen him in time.

Working with foreign vessels had some very interesting facets. Despite the fairly good English spoken by most of the captains, inevitably there were a number of amusing incidents; regrettably, the ones worthy of mention are unmentionable. The greatest difference perhaps in handling these ships, as opposed to handling British ships was that several of them were left-handed.

The majority of ships were right handed; that is to say the screw when viewed from astern rotated clockwise to go ahead. Such a vessel, when the engine is driving astern tends to cant to starboard. This effect was most useful when swinging on the last of the flood, with or without the anchor. When berthing without swinging, that is starboard side to, which was occasionally necessary on account of the ebb having started, or because of a heavy fresh, one had to be very aware of what would happen when the engine was put astern. If insufficient allowance had been made, the ship’s head would be liable to strike the quay wall violently enough to cause damage.

In addition to left handed ships, we had a number with variable pitch propellers and those too have peculiar handling characteristics.

Prior to the advent of channel lights, Kirkcudbright was a very popular destination for the crews of coastal tankers since they were almost certain to enjoy an overnight stay. Only in very exceptional circumstances were they able to affect a twelve-hour turnaround with daylight both tides. That aspect apart, many of the men were genuinely impressed by the scenery as they entered the estuary and not infrequently, new hands in particular, came up on to the wings of the bridge to spectate as we proceeded up river.

From the anchorage we would steam towards the “Point of the Bar”, until we could see the beacon (the white stone pillar on Little Ross) and the lighthouse tower almost in transit, then turn to starboard bringing them in transit astern. This course keeps well clear of “Lang Robin”, a nasty scar that lies just north of Flint Bay. A slight alteration to starboard, two and a half cables from the lifeboat station leads to the first port hand buoy and the cutters pool. An easy turn to port through 80 degrees into the next pair of buoys and the ship’s head is on the Doon with “Manxman’s Lake” and the “Queen of Sardinia” on one hand and “Milton Sands” with the “Devil’s Threshing Floor” on the other. Cairnsmore of Fleet, blue in the distance up ahead, and Bengairn away to the east are part of the magnificent backdrop.

With the “Inch of the Isle” abeam, the channel shoals dramatically for a short distance and it was often necessary to reduce speed considerably at this position to prevent the vessel squatting and touching. That very shallow part of the Isle Scar, is rock and boulder shingle covered in mussels. It is said that in days gone by one could ford the channel at that point. The fact that there was a Nunnery at the Nun Mill and a Priory on the Isle peninsula may have had nothing at all to do with the existence of a ford, but nevertheless it provided a talking point and some amusement – but not for long. The proximity of the “Shouldry Craig” and the apparently tight turn into and through the Fish Pool tended to concentrate the mind on matters more urgent. From that point the next pair of buoys was visible, but the “Big Kirk ” steeple (which had been used long before the channel was buoyed for Shell and B.P.) was an excellent mark and away on the starboard hand, the old mooring post off the ” Slate Harbour” was a useful tide gauge.

The dog-leg through the marks at the Gibbhill, at one time slightly tighter on account of the yair nets on either side, led to the tightest turn of them all at “The Point”. And from here the berth and the town were visible. It used to be said that to negotiate that turn, a vessel had to maintain its course on the “Gibbhill – Point ” stretch until the “Steam Packet ” door was open of “Shore House”, but the edge of the channel is at present more to the North than that.

The Company was always very economy conscious and the question of a twelve hour turn around for their ships was the subject of much thought and discussion. Inevitably the lighting of the channel became a matter of some urgency.

The most suitable equipment appeared to be small electric lights with photoelectric switches and gas filled bulbs with neon or Xenon to show red or white as was appropriate at that time. Later with the introduction of the IALA system of buoyage, the white lights on the starboard marks were changed to green and the green shorelights – one on the Lifeboat station and one in front of the Fishhouse Cottage – were made white.

One major problem was the design of the existing buoys and the fact that many of them dried out at low water. With a lamp and batteries added to their top hamper there was a tendency for them to lie upside down with consequent damage to the electrics. Throughout the years several designs were tried – some apparently straight from the drawing board of Heath Robinson – but eventually after much expense of material, money, time, talents and temper a reasonable system had evolved. However, in the initial stages there were all kinds of problems, not least with the supply of replacements, but despite the apparent unreliability of the system at that time, the decision to commence night passages was taken.

Captain “Paddy” Lane of Shell and B.P. who had visited Kirkcudbright many times as ship’s master, and a delegation of town councillors made a trip down the channel aboard a fishing boat one fine moonlit summer night in 1971 and everything appeared to be in order. Frankie Vaughan it was who said “Give me the Moonlight”; well given the moonlight and the good weather, there wasn’t a great deal required of the little lights, but these ideal conditions were not likely to occur very often. Several of the masters with whom I spoke subsequently agreed that night passages at Kirkcudbright were feasible but only in ideal conditions.

The first vessel to make a night passage was the Norwegian M.V “.Fostraum” on the 4th October 1971. Prior to that she had already been to Kirkcudbright on eight occasions since December 1970. In fact, the first two night passages were made by “Fostraum”.

The business of night navigation was not generally popular with the ships but the company obviously was pleased to have improved its economy. After all, a ship costs money whether she is working or simply lying alongside – wages, stores, insurance, harbour dues etc.

In the first twelve months after the inception of night navigation, 63 vessels were handled, involving 39 night passages and by this time the cautious, suspicious attitude of the ships’ officers had dissipated somewhat. Whereas at first, the slightest hint of fog, or less than perfect weather, or the absence of one or two channel lights was sufficient excuse to postpone a night sailing, now it appeared that they could and would sail in some very poor weather conditions.

Radar made life a little easier. Sometimes in poor visibility with no background, it was difficult to identify a light by its character and on such occasions radar solved the problem. One might be tempted to think that with such equipment there was no need for lights but that is a dangerous premise. Radar picks up a number of spurious echoes from waves, flotsam generally, oil drums in particular and even from seabirds, and that when sailing blind can be most misleading.

On a number of occasions, after having entered the channel, we were caught in fog both in daylight and darkness, and resort to the radar set was “Hobson’s Choice”. I found it difficult, watching the display, to estimate the margin by which we would pass a buoy or perch. The tendency was to give it plenty of room, but that sometimes led to an error on the other hand.

On one memorable occasion, in darkness and thick fog, as we came in past Gibbhill, I took a 1000 tonner too far to Starboard, and tidied up the remains of the old yair net. On account of the lack of visibility, the pilot boat was close on the quarter and Eddie Parker told me there was so much shattered timber washing around that he thought we were in Bishopton Wood. However, we hadn’t touched the ground and the ship was berthed safely.

With regard to the lights, when the night was clear it was often the case that one could see too many at any one time. When for example, the nearest light had a failing battery, one further off would look much brighter and apparently nearer; it could all be very misleading.

Outward bound in the dark, one of the most dependable and welcome lights was that which shone from the window of McKinnel’s house at the Stell. Though the matter was occasionally discussed in a lighthearted way with Mary and Watson McKinnel, there was no arrangement for a light to be shown. Nevertheless, the light never failed, and was a big contributory factor in the safe navigation of that very awkward corner.

Most of the passages were fairly straightforward but inevitably there were a number of exciting incidents. One of these concerned the M.V. “Kis Skou”. On 28th February 1975 the “Galloway News” published a letter which the town council had received from Mr P. Thomson, formerly Chief Pilot of the Clyde Navigation Trust. The gist of this letter was that the proximity of the bridge, the very limited swinging room, and the need to manoeuvre on the starboard anchor whilst there was still flood so as to berth port side to, made this a very dangerous operation. Two days later, on Sunday 2nd March, “Kis Skou” failed to swing and finished up with her port quarter against the bridge.

Invariably, when the intention was to swing, I advised the master to have the starboard anchor ready to let go, which he declined to do, having berthed successfully without it on his last visit. On this occasion however, before she had turned through 90 degrees, it was obvious that we would hit the bridge. I advised him to drive her into the mud bank to hold her head, knowing that her quarter would come up against the bridge. This it did with minimal damage to the ship and none to the bridge. As the flood slackened and the ebb started the ship was berthed. Subsequently the master accepted full responsibility for the incident.

As time went on, larger vessels with larger cargoes reduced the number of passages. To begin with cargoes ranged from 400 to 700 tons but later many of them were in the order of 1400 tons plus. Ships carrying these larger cargoes could usually be trimmed level to draw about fourteen feet and were only handled on spring tides. The smaller ships with 400 tons could be accepted on some neap tides.

Whilst the tanker traffic had priority on the berth, apart from fishing boats there were other users. Glenlight Shipping Company imported road salt for the Regional Council and on several occasions their ships were used to export timber from Galloway forests.

In the spring of 1982 there were rumours of Shell UK’s intention to close down its oil depot in Kirkcudbright and this was confirmed in May 1982. The last ship, “Shell Engineer” berthed on 20th July around midday and departed just after midnight twelve hours later.


List of tankers piloted by me to the port of Kirkcudbright between 21st March 1965 and 20th July 1982 –

Onward Progress
BP Distributor
Oil Tank
Eileen M
Onward Enterprise
Stella Polaris
Ben Bates
Dingle Bank
Onward Mariner
Kis Skou
Shell Engineer
Frank M
Shell Director
Shell Trader