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Clyde puffer

The Clyde puffer is essentially a type of small steamboat which provided a vital supply link around the west coast and Hebrides islands of Scotland, stumpy little cargo ships that have achieved almost mythical status thanks largely to the short stories Neil Munro wrote about the Vital Spark and her captain Para Handy.


Characteristically these boats had bluff bows, crew's quarters with table and cooking stove in the focsle, and a single mast with derrick in front of the large hold, aft of which the funnel and ships wheel stood above the engine room while the captain had a small cabin in the stern. When publication of the Vital Spark stories began in 1905 the ships wheel was still in the open, but later a wheelhouse was added aft of the funnel giving the puffers their distinctive image. Their flat bottom allowed them to beach and unload at low tide, essential to supply remote settlements without suitable piers. Typical cargoes could include coal and furniture, with farm produce and gravel sometimes being brought back.


The puffers developed from the gabbert, small single masted sailing barges which took most of the coasting trade. The original puffer was the Thomas, an iron canal boat of 1856, less than 66 ft (20 m) long to fit in the Forth and Clyde Canal locks, powered by a simple steam engine without a condenser so that it "puffed" with every stroke. As it drew fresh water from the canal there was no need to economise on water use. By the 1870s similar boats were being adapted for use beyond the canal and fitted with condensers so that they no longer puffed, but the name stuck. A derrick was added to the single mast to lift cargo. From this basic type of puffer three varieties developed: inside boats continued in use on the Forth and Clyde canal, while shorehead boats extended their range eastwards into the Firth of Forth and westwards as far as the Isle of Bute and from there up the length of Loch Fyne, their length kept at 66 ft (20 m) to use the canal locks. Both these types had a crew of three. Puffers of a third type, the outside boats, were built for the rougher sea routes to the Hebrides islands with a crew of four and the length increased to 88 ft (27 m) still allowing use of the larger locks on the Crinan Canal which cuts across the Kintyre peninsula. There were more than 20 builders in Scotland, mainly on the Forth and Clyde canal at Kirkintilloch and Maryhill, Glasgow. During World War I these handy little ships showed their worth in servicing warships, and were used at Scapa Flow, and for World War II the Admiralty placed an order in 1939 for steamships on the same design, mostly built in England, with the class name of VIC, standing for "victualing". After the war a number of VICs came into the coasting trade. MV Kyles, a diesel powered "puffer", on the River Clyde at Braehead shopping centre near Glasgow. MV Kyles, a diesel powered "puffer", on the River Clyde at Braehead shopping centre near Glasgow. The Innisgara was fitted with an internal combustion engine in 1912, and while puffers generally were steam powered, after World War II new ships began to be diesel engined, and a number of VICs were converted to diesel. The coasting trade to serve the islands was kept up by the Glenlight Shipping Company of Greenock until in 1993 the government withdrew subsidies and, unable to compete with road transport using subsidised ferries, the service ended.