Glen Rosa launch is a reminder of the historic magic and mystery of sea travel – Laura Waddell

Laura Waddell finds herself wishing she’d joined the crowds who braved the weather – thankfully in suitable clothing – to witness the new ferry’s launch

Watching a livestream of the Glen Rosa launch at Port Glasgow on Tuesday afternoon, it was really quite moving to see how many people packed the decks and pavements, wrapped up against the blustery tail end of Storm Kathleen, to wave off the hulking vessel like generations of shipbuilders’ families and onlookers before them.

The wind was ferocious. Earlier that morning, walking into the wind to post parcels a couple of miles away from the Clyde, it whipped my cheeks until they stung. The crowd on screen waiting for the boat to slip off the gangway looked like birds in their waterproof blue, black, and greys, huddled into themselves and each other steeling against the fresh weather that would cut the music and politicians’ speeches short. Befitting the climate, this is a nation of coat-wearers casting the silhouettes of waterfowl, hooded and zipped in sleek fabrics on the coldest, dampest days.

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The scene brought to mind a passage I recently found in the book, The Scotswoman at Home and Abroad, an anthology of non-fiction from 1700-1900 edited by Dorothy McMillan just before the millennium. In her introduction to the following excerpts by author Catherine Simpson, McMillan describes “this kind of travel writing [as] part of that project of coming to understand one’s own country”.

Steam-boat costume

Taken from her book Shetland and the Shetlanders or the Northern Circuit – an account of her mid-1800s journey from Leith to Lerwick, stopping off at Wick, with the steamboat "in full boil” – here is Simpson bluntly assessing the appearance of passengers on the dock. “Travellers are not seen to much advantage in steam-boat costume, and it is certainly odd that, wherever a crowd is assembled in a morning, they all look vulgar: therefore we glanced round at the mob of miscellaneous beings assembled on deck, all shivering, in cloaks of every shape, size, and colour, little hoping to meet with the very agreeable society which we soon afterwards discovered on board, or indeed with anything that could be called society at all.”

Simpson provides another sketch of Scots in wet weather, this time observing Highland games near Blair Atholl, in a final jaunt through the Central Highlands following her time on the Islands, meeting hospitable and occasionally “very eccentric” people. “At one moment, when the rain poured down with peculiar vehemence, a crowd of dripping-wet clansmen, to save their gay tartans, put up a multitude of umbrellas, and cowered so near our carriage for shelter, that we saw nothing of the dancing,” she writes.

Hundreds watched the launch of Glen Rosa at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow on Tuesday (Picture: John Devlin/The Scotsman)Hundreds watched the launch of Glen Rosa at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow on Tuesday (Picture: John Devlin/The Scotsman)
Hundreds watched the launch of Glen Rosa at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow on Tuesday (Picture: John Devlin/The Scotsman)

"My teasing dilemma being observed by one of the judges who happened to pass, he obligingly resolved to befriend me, and called out to the men in a tone of indignant astonishment, ‘Put down those umbrellas!! Whoever heard before of a HIGHLANDER WITH AN UMBRELLA!!!’. Down dropped every umbrella on the spot, and the poor men looked like convicted criminals, quite humbled at the very idea of being called effeminate, while I really sympathised in their mortification, aware that, to a Celt, no accusation could have been more unwelcome.”

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Ocean’s power and unpredictability

Today proper deference to weather has won. Scotsmen may now carry umbrellas without fear of being barked at by a more authoritative man who believes being cold and wet is more acceptable than warm like the womenfolk with their parasols. Now puffer jackets are in vogue all round, contemporary uniform of the cold northern hemisphere.

To see boats as somewhat miraculous takes only a good, hard look at the ocean. Its power, might, and unpredictability. Certainly, it wasn’t so long ago in Scotland's industrial history that travelling any distance was a significant undertaking. Passages in Simpson’s writing capture the romance of a voyage north west.

Ahead of her own trip, she wrote: “At one time I expected quite as much to visit the moon as the Shetland Islands, but I have lately indulged a sort of hopeless wish to venture on a voyage of discovery towards the extreme verge of her Majesty's dominions, that I might pass the longest day of my life in that country where two days are turned into one, by having no intervening night... Nearly every gentleman before whom I have happened to mention Shetland during the last year or two, has long intended to take a glimpse of those stormy isles… Pray, bring your telescope here one day and try, as we are doing, to get a distant peep of Iceland.”

Ends of the Earth

The long distances and daylight hours inspire mythic reverence. When she saw the Fair Isle, she described it as "a bright green spot, like an emerald on the wide ocean”. Travel, as well as being adventurous, could also be dreamy and captivating.

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To a lowlander like Simpson, a long voyage north by boat was especially exotic. A journey of that length, mid-19th century, might well have felt like going to the ends of the earth or as she called it, the “extreme verge”. Today’s island communities would be justified in asking how much that has changed, and whether national perspective dominated by the Central Belt has really grasped and reacted strongly enough to the seriousness of disruption caused by delays to ferries used for essential and routine travel rather than pleasure trips.

Glimpsing crowds at the waterside for the launch, I wished I was there too in the rain. No wonder people are so proud to see the results of local craft and graft, the tangible, skilled work of many hands, proving itself upright in the water. Voyages by sea lost the spotlight in the era of cheap flights, but there is a unique mystery and magic to the embarkment of a vessel that for thousands of years has opened up the world, and connected Scotland to itself.

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