"From Comet to Cal Mac: Two Centuries of Hebridean & Clyde Shipping" by Donald E Meek & Bruce Peter is an absolutely magnificent book that should be considered essential reading by anyone with any interest in the pivotal role that shipping has played, and continues to play, in the development of the settlements of the Clyde Estuary, of the western seaboard, and of the Hebrides. A superbly researched text is accompanied by excellent images, all with helpful and informative captions, and the overall result is as near a definitive account as it seems possible to achieve.
In August 1812, Europe's first commercial seagoing steamship, The Comet, began service between Port Glasgow and the Broomielaw, the quay on the River Clyde in the centre of Glasgow. In June 2011, Scotland's newest ferry, the Finlaggan, began service on the route linking Islay with the mainland. The intervening 199 years saw dramatic changes sweep across Scotland, and the story of the many ships serving Scottish communities between the Comet and the Finlaggan is at the heart of many of those changes.
The story which is so beautifully presented and lovingly told in this book is a complex one, as it covers two very distinct parts of the country, and because it is intimately connected with two revolutions which took place in land based transport during the same period. The authors have arranged their material in a chronological sequence, but they also alternate between chapters covering the rather different paths of development in the Clyde Estuary on the one hand and in the Hebrides on the other.
Much of the early pace was set, literally at times, in the Clyde Estuary and the authors do not hold back with their descriptions of some of the social problems caused by the mass descent of Glasgow's working class on the genteel settlements of Argyll: the "ordinary rabble" to quote an advert for a temperance ship. The pattern was changed with the arrival of the railways, first along the Clyde, linking with shorter sailings, and its later arrival in places like Oban and Mallaig, opening up the steamer crossings to the Hebrides to an unprecedented degree. The story of the 20th Century is one of halted progress in two world wars, followed by underinvestment during the early years of car ferries: and, finally, by a proper recognition of the pivotal role of modern and effective vehicle ferries in truly connecting Scotland's islands with the rest of the country. Travellers' tales recounted here of journeys intimately shared with drunks or cattle, or both, on small ships sometimes ill-suited to the services they operated, lead the reader pretty inevitably to the conclusion that we really have "never had it so good" as we do today.