Steamer to the Highlands

Glasgow newspaper readers in August 1819 would have been interested, and perhaps surprised, to see an advertisement for a new steamer service linking their city and Fort William.  Steamers had been running on the River Clyde and on the Firth for seven years since Henry Bell’s Comet had first sailed by “the power of air, wind and steam” between Glasgow and Greenock.  Steamers had made their way on to other rivers and estuaries, and regular services were running between Glasgow and Belfast and Glasgow and Liverpool but a steamer connection up Scotland’s West Coast had never been attempted.  A weekly sailing to Fort William promised to bring a new level of service to the West Highlands – no longer would passengers and freight be tied to winds and tides; regular and reliable services would be extended from the Clyde to the rougher and more demanding Highland waters and the West Highlands could be opened up to tourism and commerce.

In fact the pioneering ship and the driving force behind the new service was the same Comet and the same Henry Bell.  Bell, despite his adventurous spirit, had found little lasting commercial success with his new ship. His bold new venture had quickly been followed on to the Clyde by other, better-financed, owners who could provide bigger, faster and better ships.  He had transferred the Comet to the Firth of Forth and had found some temporary success there, but again, competitors swiftly gathered where Bell had pioneered and he soon saw his market decline.


Bell, who had been born in Torphichen in West Lothian in 1767 and trained as a millwright before going into business in Glasgow and establishing a sea-bathing hotel at Helensburgh, had always had a great vision of the potential of steam navigation.  Contemporaries might have thought of the steamship as a vessel for rivers and estuaries, for calm seas and short voyages – but Henry Bell had realised the potential of the steamship and foresaw, long before most of his contemporaries, that it would one day dominate the world’s oceans and he also predicted the application of steam to land transport.  One Helensburgh worthy said to him:

Man, Mr Bell ye’re a desperate clever chiel, that boat o’ yours is just a perfect world’s wonder.

Bell replied:

…This is only the beginning of the uses that steam engines will be put to in the way o’ conveyin’ passengers; if ye leeve lang ye’ll see them fleein’ and bizzin’ about on land, wi’ croods o’ passengers at their tail…



As an imaginative and ingenious, if not very successful, businessman, Bell realised that there was a gap in the market for a more reliable service to the West Highlands than could be provided by sailing ships. However, there was a problem.  The Comet was too small, and too underpowered, to be used with any safety on this route.  Bell’s chronic financial problems meant that he had not enough money to build a new steamship – a project that would have cost perhaps £2500 – £3000.  Re-building was an option but he was unable to return the Comet to her builder, John Wood at Port Glasgow for this to be done, the fact that he owed Wood money may have had something to do with this!  Bell’s solution was to improve the engine of the Comet and have her beached at Helensburgh, cut in half and substantially lengthened by James Nicol – who is not otherwise known as a shipbuilder.  In fact she was stretched very considerably from her original 42 feet to a new registered length of 73 feet 10 inches.

At 9 o’clock on Thursday 2nd September 1819, the Comet left Glasgow bound for Greenock, Gourock, Rothesay, Tarbert, Loch Gilp, Crinan, Easdale, Oban, Port Appin and Fort William.  A cabin class ticket between Glasgow and Fort William cost £1.2.0, while steerage accommodation was available at fifteen shillings.  These were not cheap prices – a modern equivalent cost would be £45 for a cabin class ticket.  The Comet would reach Fort William on Friday spend the weekend there and start her southbound journey on the Monday morning.  This weekly service was reduced to a fortnightly service during the worst winter months.

Bell’s initiative was highly successful. Although not all that many people seem to have travelled all the way to Fort William, the uptake of the service on shorter stages was very encouraging and, despite the advertised list of ports served, the Comet’s calling points seem to have included “request stops”. For example on 20th April 1820 29 passengers boarded at Glasgow, 5 for ports on the Clyde including Erskine and Bowling, 15 for Loch Gilp, 4 for Luing, 1 for Easdale – and other passengers were picked up along the way – Crinan to Oban, Easdale to Corran, Easdale to Fort William are just some of the account book entries for this voyage which had in all 61 passengers and drew £22.10.6 – reasonably good business for an “off-peak” sailing.  Between March 31st and December 4th the Comet had earned £1988.4.0 against costs of only £739.2.11.  Henry Bell could fairly claim to have made a success of his new venture.

Always a man to look at the bigger picture, Bell’s active mind was soon considering other possibilities for steamships in Highland waters.  While running his service to Fort William in 1819 and 1820 he was also busily engaged in forming a company to be known as “The Comet Steam Boat Company”to own and run the Comet and other steamers. Bell sold shares to various investors, mostly in Argyllshire and Inverness-shire, and by October 1820 he had in fact disposed of all his shares in the Comet, although he continued to act as her managing agent or “ship’s husband”. 

The funds raised in this way would go towards building another steamer (and probably to paying off some of Bell’s debts.) He wrote enthusiastically to one investor “I plainly see Doctor we must have another steam boat as two will pay better than one.”  The Company was duly formed at a public meeting held in Fort William on 30th September 1820, with Henry Bell as Superintendent and a committee representing local business and landed interests.

At the same time Bell was engaged in other steamship schemes, even more ambitious than his Fort William service.  He corresponded with Sir Hugh Innes of Lochalsh and J A Fraser Mackenzie of Seaforth about a plan to provide a steamer link to Wester Ross, Skye and Lewis. Bell, whose restless imagination was not matched by the ability to spell (today he would probably be diagnosed as dyslexic), advised Innes in December 1819 that:

… if you and any of the west hillans gentlemen wold join me I could put a steam boat to the Iland of Skay and Lewes by the first of April if not shooner

he went on to suggest that if the:

… county gentlemen wold take 1500 pounds into her I would reatain 1000 in my own hands so as it might convence you that I not only had my contrays interest at hart but that I am sertent it will pay well…

he also pointed out the advantages to their district that such a steamer would produce:

… in bringen as it wer thos Ilands with two or three days journee of Glasgow …

Bell, in talking-up his plans for a Hebridean steamship to these potential investors, was able to point to the benefits that the Comet had brought to Fort William and he could boast that:

… she hast always ceap her time of sailing and never missed one day which no other steam boat in the river Clyde can tell the same storrie…

Despite this record Bell was unable to get Seaforth and Innes to commit to his plan and was still writing enthusiastically to Seaforth in August 1820 and telling him, ungrammatically but fearlessly:

… you landed Gentlemen ought to dow a grate deal more than you dow in forming improvements in your Ilands and coast of the Highlands … the most pairt of the land gentlemen is so much taken up with politicks, gambling and other trifling amusements that they both neglect their own Intrest and the Intrest of their countray.

Unfortunately when the “landed Gentlemen” got their act together, set aside their “politicks, gambling and other trifling amusements” and arranged for a steamer to the Hebrides in April 1821 Bell was not involved in their project.  By this time too, sadly, the first Highland steamer had been lost off Crinan in December 1820.

The Comet had sailed from Glasgow for Fort William on her winter schedule, on Monday 4th December 1820 and had a collision with a half-submerged rock on the voyage north.  A further incident occurred on the return voyage from Fort William, when the Comet reached Oban on the 14th (after some running repairs on the beach at Sallachan in Loch Linnhe) she was taking-in water and men had to be hired to pump her all night.  The next day she pressed on down the Firth of Lorne in a violent snowstorm. Entering the Sound of Jura and making for Crinan she ran onto rocks at Craignish Point.

No lives were lost but the Comet, lengthened on the beach at Helensburgh just over a year before, split apart and the stern section drifted off.  Possibly the wood used for the extension was unseasoned and the major lengthening had resulted in an area of weakness in the Comet.  Strenuous salvage attempts were attempted – men and boats were hired and the Comet’s account book (which survives in a private collection) shows entries for such costs as “Two large boats 3 days, trying to get up engine etc  £6.0.0.” and “Hire of a boat from Craignish to Luing to look after wreck £0.5.0″ and the equally essential “Whisky from 15th to 25th December to people employed at Craignish £5.18.6.”  The last item probably accounts for about 13 gallons of whisky – a large amount but possibly not an excessive one for a prolonged salvage operation in the dead of winter in wild seas and rough country.

The Comet was lost, but her name lived on in a new Comet, built for the Comet Steam Boat Company, and launched at James Lang’s yard at Dumbarton in April 1821.

But Comet I and Comet II were not Bell’s only attempts to open up the Highlands to steam.  He operated the Stirling steamship on Loch Ness, plying between Inverness and Fort Augustus, even before the Caledonian Canal was opened from sea to sea in 1822.  Once the final section of the Canal was in service the Stirling was able to connect with the Fort William to Glasgow sailings operated by Comet II – enabling a direct steamer connection between Glasgow and Inverness.  Bell also held shares in another steamship the Highland Chieftain.

Bell was a bold pioneer – but an unlucky one.  The Stirling was to share the same fate as the Comet.  She ran aground in bad weather in Inverscaddle Bay on the Ardgour shore of Loch Linnhe in January 1828.  On this occasion there were two deaths – a butler in service with Macdonald of Clanranald and the colourful Highland chief, Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry (see Scots Magazine November 2001).  Macdonell died from injuries he sustained while leaping overboard in his anxiety to ensure the safety of his two daughters. The site of this accident is still marked on large-scale Ordnance Survey maps as Sgeir Mhic ic’ Alasdair or Glengarry’s Rock.

As in so many of his enterprises Bell failed to find long-term financial success in his Highland steamer ventures. Other operators, with bigger and better ships, came on the scene and won trade away from Bell. Nevertheless to Bell must go the credit not only for introducing the first commercially successful steamship service in Europe when he brought his Comet into service on the Clyde in 1812 but also the credit for the vision to see that a new, and more demanding, area of service could be developed in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

An article appearing in The Scotsman in August 1822 suggests exactly how far Bell was ahead of his time:

Hitherto it has been supposed that the advantages of steam navigation must be solely or chiefly confined to rivers, bays, and sea-coasts, and that it could be employed only in calm weather, and for short voyages.

Three years before this article was written, and apparently un-noticed by The Scotsman Henry Bell had sent one steamship from Glasgow to Fort William in winter and summer and planned to send others out across the notoriously stormy waters of the Minch to serve the Island of Lewis.

Bell’s achievement was to launch year-round, reliable, steamer services on the rough and treacherous West Coast of Scotland. In so doing, he created both a new tourist industry and significantly opened up the Highlands to trade and outside influences.

This article first appeared in The Scots Magazine in 2002.

Click here to link to the page about my biography of Bell.

(c) Brian D Osborne

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