The History of Leith

August 20, 2004


Quite recently I read of much work being carried out to preserve various aspects of marine historical heritage, may I be permitted to my experience from hatch to dispatch, in a manner of speaking, my position at the time having been an ordinary bottom of the ladder Merchant Navy boss man, or better known within the industry as a Ship Master, sometimes referred to on board ship as the `old man`, or in Official and formal circles as the Captain, I had somewhat hastily been appointed as Master to one my Company’s elderly vessels which was presently loading a bulk cargo of Agricultural Phosphates (fertiliser) at the Belgium port of Antwerp, to be conveyed and delivered to Leith in Scotland.

The change of command had been brought about due to the unforeseen hospitalisation of the incumbent Captain who had been afflicted with the common problem of stress!!!, me being the relatively newcomer, young, capable and very keen for advancement, it did not take long to sign off my present charge as Chief Officer on a larger modern vessel and as it turned out, much more comfortable in all departments.

Having smartly gathered my belongings, travel documents and expense form, hurried to the waiting taxi, all organised by the ships agent, then off to my own first command, a sense of urgency had been expressed by the Company Marine Superintendent, normally such a transfer to being promoted as Master would have involved being summonsed to Head Office and having an interview with the Ship Owner, but under the circumstances I was quite happy to have been offered and accepted the job, the ensuing overland/flight journey to Belgium was completed without fuss or delay. As having previously docked many times in the huge port complex of Antwerpen, which is spread over many square miles, I knew my way about reasonably well, the local shipping agent who had met me at the Airport soon whisked me through the labyrinth of quays and duly arrived alongside the somewhat elderly steam ship Canntick, without too many rust streaks showing, the Chief Steward Stan was discretely standing at the top of the gangway, curious to see his new boss, arrange my luggage and show me to my cabin, a comfortable olde world highly polished Mahogany panelled Office/Day Room-Lounge complete with a brass bound sideboard quite empty of bottles, fitted table, settee and two good sized armchairs, small sleeping cabin off with bath/w.c.

The steam radiators created a pleasant warm atmosphere, already waiting on board in my cabin were the local British Vice Consul with a Customs Officer, previously organised by our agent who indicated Head Office had requested the ship must sail as soon as I had taken over, the examination of paperwork and signing on the ship as Master was completed within a couple of minutes, these officials being more interested to receive Captains hospitality, although the wine locker being bereft of any alcoholic refreshment declined my offer of tea or taking their leave on the pretext they had other ships to attend, no doubt with better stocked duty free lockers. The Agents parting words were brief and somewhat alarming, loading has been completed and the crew are battening down the hatches – your Schelde Pilot will join you at the sea lock, but what about a Pilot from here to the sea lock,- oh it is not compulsory he cheerfully replied, besides the First Mate knows the way.

Shock horror, here was I within a very short while of joining the ship being, rightly, fully expected to take it to sea almost immediately, complete with cargo and all souls who had entrusted me to conduct a safe and successful voyage, I had previously carried out the sailing bit on numerous occasions from all sorts of ports but without being solely responsible: knock at the door, Chief engineer to present his compliments and indicate everything in his department was just fine although he wished to record a protest about not being allowed to top up his coal bunkers, yes he agreed, there is enough to get us to Leith ok providing we do not encounter any bad weather, right Chief I’ll leave it up to you, give the second mate a shout for me, this third part of the deck officers transpired to be a strapping mid-twenties fellow, on the point of going back to Nautical College to sit his Master’s exam, he certainly seemed capable, which at least bestowed an element of good back up.

The Chief Officer looks in, ah Mr Mate, senior to me in age, but as I learned later had declined the offer of promotion to Master – don’t want the responsibility,- all is ready Sir, engine room on stand-by, all hands are at sailing stations , right says I, with a stomach full of butterflies, lets get underway: being a steamship of 1920`s vintage I did not have the comparative luxury of an internal stairway to the wheelhouse, so up the external ladder to the bridge, it was very subdued with only a helmsman at the steering wheel waiting to obey any orders given.

Fortunately the flat sided stone quay presented no difficulty in leaving and within a couple of minutes the Mate was up on the Bridge Wing alongside me which was most reassuring, as normally he would have been attending to all sorts of chores on deck, he assuredly said, just make for two high green lights and go straight into the sea lock, there will be several other ships but the lock-keepers will tell you where to stop, this sea-lock was huge, and by the time they shut the inner gates eight ships of varying sizes were all securely tied up , our Pilot arrived and inadvertently went passed me to speak with the Mate, because I was still in civilian clothes, he soon realised his mistake and all was well, all the ships were now ready to move, external distracting lights doused leaving only navigation lights in view, the outer gates had been opened, by an unseen pecking order they slipped out into the fast flowing River Schelde, which seemed to be a mass of moving traffic, ships and barges of every shape and size, the Pilot said he would like to hold back slightly and let some of the faster vessels go ahead, I was more than willing to bow to his superior knowledge , thank you Captain he said, off you go and have a rest, it will take several hours to reach the Pilot Cutter at the seaward end of the river, so off I went to my cabin and began tucking in to a lovely hot meal, realising I was not only quite hungry but also very tired, so decided to let the Mate, who was on watch, and the Pilot, take us down this busy fast flowing River Schelde.

On reflection I considered my position, having been thrown in at the deep end so to speak, only known to some of the crew by word of mouth, that they had accepted me blindly to ensure their safety and well being, although with a projected voyage of some thirty eight hours, they were not too concerned, being very professional with a no nonsense approach it was obvious that in the event of real danger I would soon know my place, such a problem remained only in my mind, a knock at the door by the look-out man, Pilot’s compliments Sir, fifteen minutes to the Pilot Cutter, right I’ll be up in a jiffy, wrapping a scarf round a heavy bridge coat, made my way up top-sides, by this time the second Mate was on watch and quite content to obey the Pilot’s instructions, just about there Captain, I will disembark on Port side ladder if you please, dead slow ahead, keep her 075, will be obliged if you will sign my Bill, I’m off Captain, good voyage, and with these few words the Pilot swiftly departs, down to the Jacobs (rope) ladder, duly attended by a deck-hand and overseen by the second mate. Observing from the Bridge Wing that the Pilot had disembarked safely with a friendly wave I moved the big brass engine room telegraph to full ahead, the Second Mate having now regained the Bridge was ready to resume his watch, and continue with our voyage, so far so good, not much to worry about – leave Master’s Night orders for watch keeping officers, usual things, such as remain vigilant at all times, keep a good look-out and if in any doubt give the `old man` a shout, with a variation of these instructions, which I had myself undertaken many times, quietly disappeared to the undisturbed solitude of my cabin, confidently, in the knowledge that with any problem I would soon be told.

Duly refreshed and fed I eventually found my way to the nerve centre to take stock of our position, with a familiar coast line visible on our Port side, everything was going so smoothly I mentally kept saying, so where are the problems, after passing many familiar landmarks the Mate arrived to take over the watch, just over a couple of hours and we shall arrive at our destination, will you be taking a Pilot!, yes says I, regardless of knowing Leith Docks very well, and being the first time my own responsibility I had better get it right, oh well please yourself says Mate, but it is not difficult, I’ve done it dozens of times, so on past the Bass Rock at the Firth of Forth estuary, the quaint little islands off the holiday resort of North Berwick known as Craigleith, the Lamb and Fidra:

Within the hour an Aldis signal lamp in the vicinity of Inchkeith calls up to enquire if we require a Pilot, giving an affirmative reply we steer for the north side of the Island, and before long identified the distinctive Pilot Cutter, flying a large flag at the mast head, top half white over bottom half of red, engines set at slow ahead, until Cutter expertly ranges alongside and our Pilot clambers on board, and escorted to the Bridge, the Mate attends the fo’c’sle head to organise the crew for mooring, although they all knew exactly what to do, as with the men at the aft end under the watchful eye of the second mate, Pilot says full ahead Captain and at the same time gives the helmsman a course to steer, I’ve taken this old ship in and out of the docks many times, which inwardly gave me a further feeling of confidence, another thing Captain, we have had word from the Dock Master to advise you the discharge berth has been allocated, don’t anticipate any problems, just keep the Port anchor ready to let go in case we might need it, now slow ahead if you please, straight through the locks, beyond the swing bridge and right up into the starboard corner, the old ship glided alongside with minimum of fuss, all stopped – wee touch astern, get the warps out as quick as you can, good, all fast, finished with engines: If you will just sign ma bill ah’ll be on my way. Several Customs Officers come on board in response to our `Q` flag indicating we had arrived direct from a foreign country, the Senior customs officer rapidly checked all the necessary paper work and crew declaration as to whether they had any dutiable goods, gathered up the rest of his squad who had been having a quick look through the accommodation, and disappeared to their next ship,

Our local Agent was on hand to indicate the cargo discharge would begin at eight o’clock the following morning, therefore the hatches should be left in place until then. Next on board was the Marine Superintendent, everything go alright, yes I replied, told you so MS says, nothing to worry about, by the way your next trip will be immediately after cargo is out, you will be sailing a few miles up river to Inverkeithing, here is a list of items I want you to get the Mate to arrange to be picked up by lorry, then where ! I asked almost innocently, he looked almost puzzled and continued, where, oh no Captain the old Canntick has been sold for scrap, you just have to deliver her to the breakers yard, get a receipt from the manager then depart, report to the Office for further instructions about your next ship, well I just sat there feeling quite numb in my nice comfortable cabin, no one had mentioned this twist in the tail although I did learn later that the Mate had a rough idea and also thought that was the what put the previous elderly Skipper off sick, and the reason for not taking any bunker coal, so much for my short lived first command.

De-storing the ship did not amount to very much, a few coils of wire rope together with similar such deck and engine room stores, otherwise everything on board went with the ship: With only a few miles to travel for the final voyage in a couple of days most of the crew were paid off, effectively leaving a skeleton crew.

The day came to depart for the scrap yard, almost akin to taking an old dog to be put down by a Vet, nobody had much to say as we slowly traversed the dock complex, delayed because of some problem with the sea-lock gates, it was almost a last defiant gesture of not wanting to go. The clang of the engine room telegraph echoing up through the skylight indicated the start of the reassuring clomp of the steam engine pushing the old ship up to full speed out of the dock basin down the long fairway and out into the tranquil Firth of Forth, it seemed such a pity that all this machinery running so quietly and efficiently would soon be pulled apart by the scrap yard men under their ferocious gas torches which would cut through steel like slicing butter, but in the economics of operating an old steam ship which cost much more to run than a modern diesel engine there was no contest.

The Shetland born and bred Bosun came up to the Bridge and asked if he could steer the ship up to Inverkeithing, barely an hour away, the ship had been his home for many years so with a bit sentimental nostalgia he felt it his place to carry out this final task of being the last helmsman, a job which he would normally consider beneath his station, not a lot was said apart from slight change of courses, round the Oxcar lighthouse, with a nice flood tide helping us ploughing our way up past Inch Colm, with its ancient monastery, the mighty Forth Railway Bridge now well in sight, quite a magnificent spectacle to behold, but it was not to be for us to dip under the north span as the entrance to our destination harbour opened out very soon, nice and wide with no hazard in turning in towards the quayside, slow ahead now, just take her gently alongside, the run crew did not even bother putting fenders over the side, after all the years avoiding the least bump or scrape, stop engine, slight touch astern to check the forward motion, ropes out and secured, a final signal on the engine room telegraph, Fished With Engines, in every sense of the phrase, a faint tinkle of reply indicating the engineers fully understood and would swiftly begin the task of releasing any surplus steam from the boilers: although I had not bothered to write a deck log for this final voyage my trained mind automatically made me turn to check the time of completion, I had to do a rapid double take when looking for the wheelhouse clock, a somewhat large eight day brass timepiece, almost perfect time keeper, NO CLOCK, only the neat round outline of bright varnish standing out against the duller mahogany panelling, I was convinced in my own mind it had been there when we sailed, equally when I ventured to find any of the deck crew they had vanished in a mini-bus en route to the station, win some, lose some, a quick cheerio to the Chief engineer and his helpers then off to find the Ship-breakers Manager.

Who was very comfortably installed in a good sized structure, we would now refer to as a port-a-cabin, come in and make yourself at home, cup of tea etc; I could not help remarking with, by jove you do alright here in the midst of all this scrap metal, and why not he says he, it is dreary enough to demolish all these fine ships, we usually find some perks, as long as they never leave the yard, this Office come rest room came off the old German s.s. Homeric, was originally the Pursers suite, lifted off in one piece back in the thirties for a prospective buyer – the sale fell through and it just evolved into the managers office to prevent anything being pilfered, upon which sentiment reminded me of the missing wheelhouse clock, do you have much bother with such happenings then, good heavens yes says Manager, all the time, usually small items, we have good security but they go just the same, apart from some very valuable artefact, such as a ships bell or a builders name plate we are only interested in cutting up the metal as quickly as possible and selling on to the smelters, oh there are the regular buyers, usually on behalf of a commissioned piece, typical being a Teak Binnacle, Steering Wheel, Copper Navigation Lamps are always in great demand, together with many bits and pieces, sometimes personal curiosities, you name it we can find it, still I must not bore you with our mundane problems, you will be looking for a receipt for the Canntick, not a great catch in our book, but it keeps the lads in work, we benefit as much from the coal recovered from the bunkers – which we use to drive our yard steam cranes – (I mentally thought, not in this case), as from the actual steel:

Don’t you want to check and inspect what I am asking for a signature, no way says manager, between you and me anything we are not going to get will have long since disappeared, officially or otherwise, so I’m quite happy to receive delivery of the s.s. Canntick such as seen and approved, all neatly typed on my piece of paper which allowed me to depart to waiting yard courtesy car for a short trip to the rail station, and home.

A small rider ought, nay, must, be added to this story in the sense that I duly telephoned the Office to confirm my task completed, about which they already well knew, also I enquire, to whom should I personally deliver up the all important receipt for Canntick, oh not to worry, first time you are in the office give it to the filing clerk, it will only be put with the others, by the way the Marine Superintendent would like a word with you about another ship.

The saga of a new ship is totally irrelevant to this tale but a small after event did occur, which has no answer, some time later. after having been here there and everywhere on behalf of the owners, I duly returned home to enjoy some well earned leave, was pleasantly surprised to find a parcel awaiting my attention, clearly addressed but with no indication of sender, beautifully wrapped and carefully packed, the further I stripped the tightly bound layers of thick brown paper, canvas and red velvet cloth, the more curious I became, finally made it apparent that the contents were to be of a round shaped object, quite heavy but without rattle, ultimate packing, as it proved to be a tight wound Red Duster, a Merchant Navy Red Ensign, not new but by no means tatty, the excitement of unravelling that final covering revealed a shiny brass ships clock, complete with key stuck to the back, and a small hand written, unsigned, note, ‘we thought you ought to have this memento Sir, as you treated the old Canntick with great respect, may you have as many happy times as we did with the old ship’.

At the time writing, many years after the old ship had been broken up and re-cycled into who knows what, that clock, suitably mounted on a heavy teak plinth, adorns a place on my lounge wall, wound regularly every week, as it had been all these years, and keeps good time, not perhaps the most wildly exciting event in a sea-going career spanning several decades, but a constant reminder of my first charge in command, and happy times.

Isle of Wight


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