It is the Monday 26th of October 1896 and we are observing a vessel preparing to go to sea from the harbour at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. She’s a yard or so under 60 feet in length and her twin masts, the larger in front of the smaller, identifies her as a ketch rather than a schooner. It is 34 years since she first felt the salty kiss of the sea around her Manx-formed curves and, having been laid up for several months since the death of her previous owner and watching the hustle and bustle at Thomas Telford’s ‘Fisherman’s’ pier not knowing when or indeed, if, she would feel the wind in her neatly stored sails again.
The three men who were now busy readying those sails to once again harness the power of the wind to drive her forward through the waters of the West coast of Britain were all older than she was and knew their roles inside out. The two younger men, in their early forties, were both Stornowegians who had spent their previous voyages on a pair of steamships, the ‘Alice’ of Stornoway and the ‘Clydesdale’ of Glasgow for as the end of the 19thC loomed, so did the end of the era of sail. King coal, that had powered the industrial revolution in Britain, was now extending its empire to include the waters of the ocean that had previously been the province of sail and oar alone.
The old man, who was already as old as his companions at the time of the birth of the ‘Crest’, had joined her from the small sailing sloop ‘Jessie’ of Stornoway. This Hearach, now in his 70s, was the Mate or Bosun on board but, as father of her Master and Owner, he was in all respects the senior member of the crew. The ‘Jessie’ had been in the family for at least 20 years and this little 30 ton Fraserbugh-built ship had been well into her forties by the time that they had looked to replace her. The old man had heard of the ‘Crest’ on the Gaelic grapevine and they needed a larger, faster vessel if they were to remain competitive in the coastal trade. Her Master needed rid of her (he had already had to write to the Burgh of Tobermory apologising for not having completed the required documentation for the first six months of the year) and so she was to be had for a very good price.
Having found her, the old man sent word back to Stornoway that when his son and their friend John Macleod had finished their steamship duties, they should hasten to Mull to collect the new prize. This duly happened and thus it was that on that Monday morn the final rope was let slip and, gently, slowly, and carefully the ‘Crest’ set forth on the remaining years of her life.
This first voyage was in fact a swift one to Larne for lime. They covered the 130 Nautical miles (150 land miles) within a day, arriving in Ireland on Tuesday. Whether it was 13 hours at 10 knots, 26 hours at 5 knots or some other average speed we cannot know, but we do know that they remained in Larne until Saturday 14th of November, perhaps delayed by loading, perhaps by the weather, when the ‘Crest’ left for Gairloch on the Scottish mainland. She didn’t reach Gairloch, a distance of perhaps 220 Nautical miles, until Tuesday 24th November which is a clear indication that the journey took place over several ‘legs’ with shelter being taken along the coast along the way. This reminds us that these small coastal vessels were able to explore the remote regions quite ably and provided a valuable service to the inhabitants of these isolated communities. A few hundredweight of coal could be loaded into the ship’s boat and delivered to a coastal cottage, news given and received and who knows what other small trades took place! The news could spread in this way at surprising speed and, whilst there was the postal service, an enormous amount must have been delivered in this manner amongst the oral Gaelic landscape at a time when the reading and writing of English was far from ubiquitous, especially amongst the more mature residents?
Whatever occurred during those 11 days at sea, most of the lime appears to have been unloaded at Gairloch and by Monday 30th November the men were rested and ready to make the short hop of 30 Nautical miles across the Minch to Tarbert on Harris which they reached the following day.
There followed a week on Harris, plenty of time for the old man and his son to reacquaint themselves with their relatives on the island including the old man’s eldest son at An-t-Ob, his nephew at Rodel and his sister-in-law at Direcleit to mention just three of the families still there. It is altogether likely that the new vessel was welcomed into the family with due celebration!
On Tuesday 8th December 1896 they said their farewells and made the journey up the East coast of Harris to the new home of the ‘Crest’, Stornoway. All three men returned to their homes in the town more than six weeks after having slept in their own beds.
The old man and his son were looking forward to 1897 and what it would bring them and their new travelling companion, the ‘Crest’…
Note: This is my interpretation of the known facts which I have embellished in parts to create a (hopefully!) more coherent narrative.