Editor at Large
Steamships & Nautical Tales
At the tender age of 16, a young Leither graduated from Leith Nautical College and joined the Cairn Line the name on ship’s articles said Gilbert Thomson Wallace – it was 1950. He took passage on the Cairnesk III, at Imperial Dock, Leith) on 20th September 1950, bound for the Canadian eastern seaboard with a cargo of engineering equipment, iron goods and bottled whisky.
They sailed on the evening tide and Gil completed his first duties under the watchful eye of bo’sun Andrew Guild from Leith, who sailed with the Cairn Line most of his adult life, until he fell from the door of a railway carriage into the path of an oncoming train, too soon after the time of which I write.
Gil notes the boat was also licensed to carry 12 fare paying passengers, what pressing business took them to dangerous waters? On the return journey there, the young cadet as Cairnesk III passed the wreck site of the Empress of Ireland, the Glasgow built passenger steamer that sank with the loss of 1,012 lives on 1st May 1914.
The liner’s loss ranks second only to the Titanic – out there on the Grand Banks, south of Newfoundland and east of Nova Scotia – as the worst disaster in North American maritime history. Gil would later sail over the coordinates of that most famous of wrecks.
Twenty-two transatlantic trips later the now seasoned cadet asked for a transfer from the only ship he had known to the Cairngowan IV. ‘Like chalk and cheese’, recalls Gil, ‘the Cairnesk with all the dents, scrapes and maladies associated with twenty-eight years of crisscrossing the North Atlantic and the Cairngowan with all of her mod-cons’.
Handily, although the new boat was still a turbine steamer, it was oil fired, so no more taking on coal and the dirt, dust, and backbreaking toil that entailed. In a year he would be going ashore to take his 2nd Mate’s ticket, he couldn’t know he would never go to sea again, except as a cruise passenger.
The second half of Gil’s book – erm, I did mention the book didn’t I? – concerns itself with the people who made the Cairn Line, ‘a correlation of seafarer’s tales from those who, at some time in their careers, served on a Cairn ship’.
John Oliver Band, Master Mariner, whose hometown newspaper The Belper News recorded thus: ‘Captain Band of the Cairnisla, who gallantly saved a crew of 13 lives, 2nd March 1904, from the barque Mary A. Troop. 25 days a wreck, for 9 days the crew had neither food nor water. They ate wood and chewed lead to appease hunger and thirst’. He ‘retired’ from his post in the early 1920s, having foresworn ‘never to use – the much cheaper – lascar crews’.
Ernest Cairns. Joined on 27th December 1916 on an ordinary apprentice’s indenture, being allowed £40 as follows: 1st year £5, 2nd year £8, 3rd year £12, 4TH year £15, with an allowance of 60p per annum for washing and a gratuity of £5 should he complete the indenture satisfactorily.
Edwin Needham, Master Mariner, on his first day, saw a seaman fall from the shifting boards to the bottom of the hold and die. An auction of his effects raised 38p. Later Needham secured a position as a Thames River Pilot in 1955. During this tenure he witnessed the demise of the British Merchant Marine, by the time of his retirement piloting a British ship was a rare event.
The curious, and poignant, thing about Wallace’s book is that you feel the pull of the sea, the salt flecked spray, as much through the stories of the ships as the human histories, take The Braeside, a regular visitor to Leith:
A coaster/collier built by John Crown & Co, Sunderland, 1909. Renamed the Ville de Tennes for Charles Schiaffino of Algiers, 1929. Renamed Auxiliary Minesweeper AD245, 1939. Returned to Charles Schiaffino and converted to a wine carrier, 1945. Lost off Sardinia, after fire and grounding, 1951.
Gil can’t answer the big questions, but I thank him for taking the time to curate this lovingly put together book, in order that future generations can ‘go down to the sea in ships, do business in great waters’.
Info: The Cairn Line of Steamships and Nautical Tales Beyond Leith by Gilbert T. Wallace