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  • Writer's picturePaul Whittle


As far back as 1907 the puffer owner Ross & Marshall Ltd were granted dredging rights from the Crown Commissioners to dredge sand from Lochs Etive, Sunart and Linnhe. The sand was sometimes brought back to Glasgow to improve the traction of tram car wheels in icy conditions but it was often not of a sufficiently good quality to be used for concrete. Shell sand dredged off Cockle Strand Beach on Barra was used for decorative purposes for a period.

Clyde ‘puffers’ engaged in aggregate dredging would anchor over their chosen dredging area / sand bank, sometimes also using ground tackle fore & aft to keep the vessel from yawing whilst still afloat. A patent bucket grab on a single swinging derrick was used to grab the cargo from the seabed and when swung inboard a triggered release dropped its load over a simple screening arrangement consisting of a portable angled steel mesh which caused any oversized material to roll overboard, letting the required sand to fall through into the ship’s cargo hold. Albeit as part of a much more sophisticated set up, this screening principle can be found on the screen decks of the most modern aggregate dredgers. An excellent photograph showing the G & G Hamilton’s ss Rivercloy loading as described can be found on page 76 of Len Paterson’s book “The Light of the Glens”.

Loading would continue over the low water including, as often happened, when the vessel grounded. The water in the wet sand cargo hold would “leak” into the bilges which were kept clear by the use of a “blower” or steam ejector which cleared the bilges of water. The holes left by their excavations were quickly filled by the subsequent tides. Loading rate was some 20 tons per hour and cargoes varied between 80 and 150 tons.

The puffers were manned by a crew of three or four depending upon whether the puffer was a “shorehead” or “outside” boat i.e. working in sheltered or less sheltered waters. In the early days, crew certification was not required and seldom held. Deckhands often started as cook and also relieved as enginemen whilst most Skippers started as enginemen so had a useful grounding in machinery.

The exact date of the earliest aggregate dredging in and around the Clyde is unclear with the earliest record found being Ross & Marshall Ltd’s 1907 sand dredging rights awarded to them by the Crown Commissioners for three Lochs Etive, Sunart and Linnhe. Ross & Marshall were very active in the general cargo trade in the Clyde and west Highland communities and it was not uncommon for vessels which had taken a cargo outwards from Glasgow to return with a cargo of dredged sand.

The steam puffer ss Forward, built in 1896 at Kevin Dock, Maryhill “for Holy Lock owners” is photographed off Port Glasgow loaded with a cargo of dredged sand. The Forward was sold to Rea & Company for work on the river Mersey “after the first world war” so it may be assumed that she was engaged in aggregate dredging before 1914

Dredging in the river Clyde was being carried on by Alexander Mc Neil of Greenock in 1951 as on 19th April that year whilst his 23year old son was skipper on the puffer Petrel which was dredging for sand off Cardross when there was an engine room explosion. The blast blew young Alexander about 15metres into the sea from where he was picked up by his two fellow crew members who had abandoned ship in the ship’s dingy. The three were picked up by a passing ship as they were rowing across the Clyde to Port Glasgow.

At a cost of some £2000, the 96ton Petrel was built in 1897 for a James Burrows of New City Road in Glasgow. She saw service at Scapa Flow between 1914 and 1918 after which she was sold to Warnock of Paisley sometime in the 1920s. Later she was sold on to McNeil of Greenock and employed on sand dredging.

Other companies variously engaged in aggregate dredging were G & G Hamilton and J & J Hay which companies amalgamated in 1963 to form Hay Hamilton Ltd. In 1968 Hay Hamilton merged with Ross & Marshall, forming a new company called Glenlight Shipping Ltd.

In his book ,The Clyde Puffer, Dan McDonald records that vessels “….belonging to Warnock & Sons of Paisley… besides engaging in ordinary trading practices, dredged millions of tons of sand in the Clyde estuary to bed Glasgow’s paving stones..” Warnock & Sons operated a number of vessels including the steam puffers. McDonald also reports that “…the shell sand (dredged) from the cockle strand at Barra was favoured for decorative purposes.

Anecdotally, it has been said that McNeil’s were an established puffer company who started in the aggregate dredging trade when they realised that some of the material they were dredging to keep the river Clyde’s navigation channels open was of a quality which could be sold to the building trade. Known as “Hattie”, Alexander Mc Neil started his business in Albert Harbour in Greenock before moving to Victoria Harbour when Albert Harbour was filled in the 1960’s.

Sandy McNeil was operating two steam puffers, ss Ardfern and ss Colonsay as aggregate dredgers when, in 1966, Holm Sand purchased the Alexander McNeil company and immediately scrapped the Ardfern as she was considered unsafe and beyond repair. The 1910 built 96grt Ardfern was built by McGregor at Kikintilloch and was owned by Warnock of Paisley when purchased by McNeill. There were two puffers named Colonsay by McNeil. The first was the ex VIC 63 which was purchased in 1956 and lost off Castlebay on the Isle of Barra on 9th November 1960 (where she was probably not working as a dredger???). She was replaced by the second Colonsay in 1962 which was purchased as the VIC 84 from the Admiralty and traded as an aggregate dredger until sold in 1966.

Colonsay the 1st ?

Colonsay the 2nd ?

With Michael Brown at the helm at Holm Sand, it was his intention to see Alexander McNeil Co. establish a network of aggregate depots along the west coast of Scotland. This plan never fully came to fruition but over time the Portway, Norstar and Norleader did trade in the Clyde operation where some major contracts were undertaken, including material for the A8 Greenock to Glasgow road, the power station at Inverkip and some 150,000 tons of fill for the Portavadie oil rig construction site which was destined to never see any construction ending up as the deep water Portavadie Marina we find there today.

Norleader in Roath Dock Cardiff awaiting tow to breakers



McNeil held a licence for winning sand from areas in the Lower Clyde which was transferred to T.R.Brown & Sons in 1971.

In 1968 the new company of M.M. Brown & Co. of Greenock purchased the 38gt puffer ss Glencloy, which had been upgraded to an oil burner in 1955, from A & G Hamilton Ltd. of Brodic. Operated by Alexander McNeil Co. and renamed the Glenholm, within a year, whilst en route to Dunoon with a cargo, when her boiler failed causing her to lose power and run ashore at Cove near the entrance to Loch Long. She was a total loss and the last steam puffer ever to regularly trade.

The Norstar was one of the dredgers used to dredge material in the River Kip to make an entrance for what is now the Kip Marina which opened in 1973. Much of the sand used in the construction of the Inverkip power station came from this project and included opening out the small WW2 basin at the mouth of the Kip to form the marina.

It is interesting to note that whilst the Crown Commissioners in Scotland normally own the seabed, in the case of the Kip Marina project the Argdowan Estate claimed ownership of the seabed “as far below low water as a man on horseback could throw a lance”. This being a right granted by royal charter in the time of Robert the Bruce. This ancient right was not uncommon and was taken advantage of when the Alexander McNeil Company / M.M. Brown & Co. purchased Loch Ridden Farm giving them dredging rights for the adjacent seabed. The company undertook a number of other steps to establish a sustainable business in the area, including opening a yard at Queen’s Dock in Glasgow. The move lasted less than a year and was closed after efforts to make the plant profitable were thwarted by the demands of the local trade union. This left the company with their Victoria Harbour yard in Greenock which they had moved to several years before when their Albert Harbour yard was filled in to construct the Greenock Container Terminal. Eventually Holm Sand decided that operating from Victoria Harbour was too far from their customers and ran down the business.

Sand dredging in the Clyde ended in the 1970’s?

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