It was in 1967 that one Andrew Lindsay led a group of fellow steamer enthusiasts to meet regularly in his house and further their interest in the ships and services of David MacBrayne Ltd. The group became known, appropriately, as the West Highland Steamer Club. The membership gradually expanded – Lawrence Macduff and Ian Somerville were prominent at this time – and, in 1970, after a very successful exhibition in the Dolan Baths, East Kilbride they decided to meet first in Glasgow’s Christian Institute, then in the Transport Museum in Albert Drive and finally in the premises now known as the Renfield St Stephen’s Church Centre in Bath Street. Andrew decided that this was not the sort of club he had intended and handed over the reins to P Morris Reid as Secretary and Treasurer. Two years later, in 1972, a very prominent steamer photographer and enthusiast par excellence, Edinburgh lawyer Jim Aikman Smith, took over as Secretary and Robin Love became Treasurer. Prominent staff in MacBrayne’s were also very much involved in the affairs of the Club.
This could be thought of as the start of the Club we know today. Jim Aikman Smith carried on as the doyen of the Club until his untimely death in 1996. Apart from acting as Secretary, he inaugurated the biannual Newsletter which gave in great detail the goings on of the West Highland steamers, supplying the photographs from his own extensive coverage. Since 1973, of course, David MacBrayne Ltd in the West Highlands had amalgamated with The Caledonian Steam Packet Co. on the Clyde to form Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. As certain ships moved from one area to the other the Newsletter had to expand its coverage to a certain extent but the emphasis always remained the West Coast and the Hebrides. Jim Aikman also shared the results of his extensive research into the past and produced Reviews of each year back to the late-thirties. At the same time the Club started to produce a calendar illustrated with photographs of old and new ships, the emphasis being on anniversaries.
Derek Crawford, himself an historian, took over the reins of writing the Newsletter on Jim Aikman’s death and he has dedicated himself to the task ever since. His service is greatly appreciated by the members. Recently the name has been changed from Newsletter to Journal and is produced as a little booklet with the MacBrayne red and black funnel colours adorning the cover. Photographs were provided by another ace photographer Hamish Stewart until his death in 2006. Since then Treasurer Robin Love has taken on board the task of eliciting illustrations from various sources. The photographs in the Journal are available for general sale to members.
The Journal is posted out to all members: those who live in the Glasgow area, or who care to visit, can also attend the meetings usually held on the last Friday of the month from October to April. Speakers, some of whom are quite eminent in their own right, are chosen to reflect the variety of the West Highland steamers, ferries and services from Victorian times to the present. They normally illustrate their talks extensively. In addition the Committee sometimes organises nominated excursions on board CalMac vessels and occasionally a ferry can be visited while in dock, usually on the Clyde.
The Club is fortunate to have as its Honorary President N John D Whittle, a former Chief Executive of CalMac. The President is elected from the membership at the AGM and there are four committee members other than the Secretary, at present Duncan Wilson, and Treasurer, still the indefatigable Robin Love. The membership, in 2013/14 around 230, is drawn ever closer to the Clyde River Steamer Club, not least because of the difficulty in separating interest in the Clyde and West Highlands. For the last two years, the two Clubs have produced a joint calendar, to great acclaim. Inevitably the members are growing older and there is a crying need to try to recruit younger folk if the Club has to flourish past its Jubilee in 2017. The standard of speakers and the images they bring along each month is quite staggering, as is the quality of the Club’s publications. If you are reading this and have not yet joined the West Highland Steamer Club I would very strongly urge you to take the plunge.