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The Invergordon Archive

Ferries in the Cromarty Firth
The Invergordon Archive
Ferries in the Cromarty Firth

The picture shows two images of "Surf" boats similar to one of the Invergordon ferryboats.

The following is a History of the Cromarty Firth ferries in the 1940s and early 1950s and I hope it will help clear up any confusion about the ferries in the firth during this period.

Invergordon to Balblair Ferry.
This ferry was run from the mid 1940s until the early 1950s by Dougal MacIntosh. Prior to this it was run by a Mr (Willie?) Ross, using a clinker built 20ft boat having a forward and an after "cuddy".

Dougal purchased an ex RNLI Surf boat, or "pulling" boat, originally propelled by oars, in this case 10 oarsmen. This type of boat was in use with the RNLI until 1957. The "Modern Girl" as she was called, was 37 feet long and was of the self-righting type, having a whaleback deck fore and aft , enclosing watertight compartments, rendering her "unsinkable". She was fitted with a heavy ( 30 cwt.) iron false keel, which together with the watertight bow and stern chambers would have caused her to right herself in the event of a capsize. This heavy keel, together with her rounded bilge, made her very uncomfortable in a swell and produced a violent rolling motion , which frequently alarmed the passengers. She had a folding canvas pram hood forward, giving some shelter to the passengers. She was of double diagonal construction, of teak and beautifully made, using the best of materials and fittings, as were all the lifeboats. After decommissioning from the RNLI, she was fitted with a 4 cylinder 32 HP Kelvin Poppet petrol/paraffin engine, which gave her a speed of 7 knots. Dougal later bought an ex-admiralty harbour launch, which he called the "Inverblair". She was about 40 feet long and fitted with a 4 cylinder Kelvin Ricardo petrol/ paraffin engine. She was carvel planked and somewhat faster than the "Modern Girl". She was used in the summer and the "Modern" in the winter.

When Dougal gave up the ferry, the "Inverblair" was sold to the Inverness Harbour board, fitted with a deckhouse and used as a Pilot boat. The fate of the Modern Girl is unknown. Dougal also owned two smaller clinker-built 20 ft boats, the "Kirsty" and "Tina", which lay for years pulled up at the head of the ferry slip. Ted Abarrow bought one of these and used it when he took up the ferryman’s job after Dougal retired. Dougal then became skipper of the steam harbour launch shown in picture #278 which acted as the Pilot boat. David Ross (Davy Coon) was a crewman.

Dougal was an exceptionally kind and gentle man and he and the ferry acted like a magnet for many of the youngsters of Invergordon. He had no shortage of willing "crew" members who were keen to jump ashore with the ropes and generally assist him. In return they were given a thorough training in boat handling and seamanship. Hamish (Skipper) Ross and George (Geordie) Mellon were two amongst many.

The fare to cross the firth was 6d and because the Black Isle was something of a backwater, with poor public transport, the nearest town for many was Invergordon. Saturday was a busy day, with the last boat sailing at 6pm. The ladies of the Black Isle patronised Mrs Leslie’s Ladies Hairdressing Salon and risked the destruction of their coiffure on the return journey to Balblair. On occasion, when the tide was very low, there was insufficient depth of water at the Balblair slip to berth the ferry and passengers were taken ashore in a dinghy, towed behind the ferry. This caused great alarm to many of the passengers. The dinghy Dougal used latterly was a stout 15ft boat, built by Mr David (Dave) Cumming, a master boat-builder, from, I think Cornwall, who had worked in the dockyard. I was given the privilege of holding the "dolly" whilst he riveted the fastenings. There was a rock on the seabed 20 yards east of the Balblair slip which posed a hazard at low water and Hugh Ross very kindly blew it up for Dougal using gelignite.

The fleet visited Invergordon regularly and many of the ships were opened to the public, who came from far and wide to view the spectacle and for other reasons. Dougal, using his two boats, was kept busy all day ferrying the trippers to and from the ships. Dougal used to give me a shilling ( a bob or 5p) every Saturday, for helping with the ropes throughout the week. With this treasure I could get into the front stalls at the Pictures for 10d and afterwards buy a 2d bag of chips from Roddy Graham’s at the foot of King Street. Dougal often sent me on my bike up to Taylor’s garage for a gallon of Shell-Mex petrol for the engine. It cost 1s11d. The petrol was used to start the engine and once it was hot, it ran on paraffin.

Dougal was an expert boat handler and the ferry ran in all weathers. The firth can become quite rough in strong winds, with short steep seas when the wind is from the west and long seas during the ebb tide when the wind is easterly. I remember on one particularly rough crossing an elderly lady sitting under the forward shelter took to prayer and Dougal sent me forward to comfort her. I held her hand as she said her prayers and could not convince her that I went on the boat for fun and that we were in good hands. The cargo carried varied greatly, from bikes to rabbits. One lady who lived near the Balblair slip regularly asked me to buy her an ounce of snuff from George the barber.

Cromarty Ferry
The Cromarty ferry was run by Albert Watson, using one or other of his two boats, the "Enterprise" and the "Endeavour". Albert also ran a coal merchant’s business in Cromarty. His brother John (Johnny) Watson sometimes did the ferry run as did Clemont, Albert’s son. John Watson was the Cromarty lifeboat mechanic and the only full-time paid member of the lifeboat crew. Albert was the lifeboat’s coxwain and had a distinguished career in that role.

Nigg Ferry
There was a ferry running between Nigg and Cromarty at this time. It was run by a Mr Willie Ross, from Cromarty. The ferryboat was an ex-Admiralty launch, similar to the "Inverblair" but clinker-built. She was painted black and was called the "Menace".
Picture added on 03 February 2009
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Invergordon Ferries
A very interesting piece! It brought back many memories. My Dad used to take me to all the Invergordon FC football matches and on one occasion we took the Cromarty ferry for a match being held there. It was extremely rough that day and I can remember feeling more than a little frightened. The boat was pitching all over the place and taking in a lot of water. In the end the ferryman gave up and we returned home. I wasn’t sorry to miss the match. This would have been in the early ’50s.
The Barblair ferry was still operating in the early ’70s as I can remember going over with a bike for a run to Cromarty.
Added by Bill Geddes on 04 February 2009
Bill, that must have been the one and only time that Albert Watson turned back, as he used to go in all weather.
Re the Balblair ferry, I think every lad took a turn at manning the ropes on this ferry and jumping off onto the slippery ferry slip. I know that I did.
It seems hard to believe now that the ferry slip at Invergordon is buried under fill.
Added by Harry O'neill on 05 February 2009
Ted Abarrow bought the Kirsty - I helped him to get her seaworthy.
Added by Gordon Will on 25 February 2010
I miss my grandfather Albert Watson, a braver, quieter, most humble man a person could ever wish to have been touched by. I used to help(?) clean the Cromarty Lighthouse with him, and yes many voyages on the Enterprise and the Endeavour.
Added by Leon Watson on 06 June 2010
Being an Invergordon Academy 'Old Boy', having travelled across the Firth with my Dad's Ferry to attend school, I was expected to help load the boat with the Mails, flour, beer barrels (full) and general cargo, prior to setting out for the classroom. In the mid to late '50s I ran the Ferry alone on Saturdays, using the Admiralty pontoon, or the RAF berth depending on the tide. The fare for one passenger, one way, was 1/3d - about 6p today. (ie Cromarty to Invergordon)
Added by Clement Watson on 06 June 2010
I remember sitting in the post van as my dad Hamish collected and delivered the mail to the ferry at the pier in Invergordon. Dad used to talk about Albert and comment on the life boat but I didn't realise until many years later what a courageous man Albert was.
Added by Liz Taylor nee Askew on 08 June 2010
Does anyone remember a Watson who lived in Saltburn? - probably a relative of the Cromarty Watsons. This one was always fishing the Firth for skate and I believe he had the record for largest one.
Added by Harry O'Neill on 08 June 2010
Robert Watson lived in Saltburn and I am not sure if he worked in the dockyard or not but he certainly fished in the Firth. He used to come around with a straw basket full of sea trout and sell them door to door.
Added by Liz Taylor nee Askew on 09 June 2010
Robert Watson was married to my grandmother in the 1960s. I recall that basket and a picture of him with a big fish !!! He did work in the dockyard at somepoint - I have a hazy childhood memory of going to meet him from work.
Added by Alexandra Chantry on 21 February 2012
Robert Watson ("Roberty") I recall from days visting my grandparents at Saltburn - I remember him kindly appearing with oil lamps etc during powercuts - I don't think his own house ever actually had electricity then, though this must have been in the 1960s. He had a "punt" (boat) for duck shooting and rollers down the beach for launching it. It had old "blunderbus" type guns I think, though strangely I was never alarmed! His weather forecasting was much superior to that we get today!
Added by Dave Fleming on 22 June 2012
I remember working with Harry Gordon on his milk cart and seeing the skate propped up the side of a shed for photos to be taken.
Added by Gordon Will on 22 June 2012
That's him "Roberty", you are right, there was no power to the house, just a cold tap to the scullery sink where we all washed!! I had forgotten that!! And I remember the milk cart and skate, goodness knows what they would think of today's technology! Maybe we could do with some of Roberty's weather forcasting!!!

Added by Alexandra Chantry on 23 June 2012
I remember the Inverblair as the pilot boat. My grandfather was one of the Craigton pilots. The Inverblair was moored to the east of the Craigton point lighthouse and the pilots rowed out to her. I used to spend a lot of time out with the pilots, my Granda, William Paterson and his brother, Jim Paterson. Happy days!
Added by Marjorie Paterson on 23 August 2016
Dougal Macintosh, wonderful man, rode a bicycle and whistled through his teeth. I recall sailing back from Inverness on the Harbour Masters launch after undergoing a fitting. I got a bit sea-sick and Dougal had the cure. Salted crackers.
Added by Harry O'Neill on 25 August 2016
Hi Harry, agree wholeheartedly. Dougal was a great person to have as a friend. He taught me a lot of things including how to be "patient". Served me well both at sea and latterly ashore.
Added by Eddie Trotter on 30 August 2016
I was in Invergordon a few days ago and I would like to say it was an enjoyable experience. Sadly I have to say the state of the town shocked me. Its like no-one cares about the place, lots of empty spaces, empty shops and the places that are open did not look too enticing. Contrast with Alness was astonishing. The "little" town looked glorious & bustling, flowers everywhere and quite a buz about the place. What do these cruise passengers think when they come ashore? I would imagine its "why the hell have we stopped here". If there is a Town Council in Invergordon they should be ashamed of themselves & de-selected as soon as possible. The town is sad, weary, unattractive and untidy. I would be ashamed for anyone to know this is my hometown.
Added by Bill Geddes on 30 August 2016
Sorry to hear that Billy. It was a tidy place back in the '50s. One of my son's will be visiting there in September and will let me know.
Added by Harry O'Neill on 30 August 2016
Hi Eddie, Dougal took the time to know every lad that hopped on and off his ferry. Happy times never a cross word. It was the same when Teddy took over.
Added by Harry O'Neill on 30 August 2016
No it's not the same as it was when we were growing up. A lot of contributory factors, the smelter closing, No more rig building at Nigg. bad decisions regarding the High Street and shore area. Buildings like the Royal Hotel not being rebuilt, loss of the Naval Base and empty shops as people go to out of town retail parks. Alness has the support of a local businesswoman who has worked hard to give a varied selection of quality shops, Invergordon doesn't have this. People do try but without support and money it is difficult to make a difference.
Added by Liz Taylor nee Askew on 30 August 2016
Thanks Liz for your remarks. I fully understand but retain a certain sadness for the town where I spent my formative years. During my visit last week I had a good walk around...from the war memorial down the High Street, along Joss Street, down King Street, along the Shore Road. I had a look at the old school, the station, visited the Museum, the Marine Hotel!, The Playhouse (kind lady showed me the remains of the cinema). The tiny house I was born in is still standing but abandonded & forlorn. What shocks me is the failure to capitalise on the visit of the cruise ships. What an opportunity they offer not only commercially but culturaly too. I dont know how you kick start the regeneration of a depressed town but I am sure there are no end of experts ready to advise. If there is still a Town Council in Invergordon they need only to look at Alness to get some idea as to how to enliven and wake up a community. If I was there myself I would be eager to get stuck in. Come on Invergordon! You have an interesting & noble past there must be people there prepared to get together and make a start on turning things around?
Added by Bill Geddes on 31 August 2016
I know what you mean Bill the town where people used to come on holiday is long since gone. This too was the first year there was no Highland Games having moved from the House of Rosskeen to the Rec and then to another field, another loss for the town. I take it the house you were born is the cottage on Munro Street? It is a disgrace there isn't some sort of enforcement order on both houses to sort them up. The Orkney Ferry used to come in to the harbour too but lost their subsidy so finished. The port is busy but tourists are generally bussed away to Loch Ness etc. although there is entertainment and dancing displays on days cruise ships visit. There is a lot that could be done but where to start?
Added by Liz Taylor nee Askew on 01 September 2016
Hi Bill did you take any new photographs of the town?
Added by Eddie Trotter on 03 September 2016
Was in Invergordon few weeks ago with my brother Steward was twenty five years since he was there last we had to phone museum and Mr Clark kindly opened it for us Stewart said the town looks dead, had great meal in the Marine hotel he has now goe back to Australia.
Added by Gordon Will on 17 September 2016
Well my son Robert was in Invergordon today Sept 19 and he says he found the town to be neat and tidy and in fact spotless. He is visiting from Canada. His only complaint was that most places were closed at 4pm.
Added by Harry O'Neill on 19 September 2016
There ferries ran well into the 1960s I remember taking bicycles from Invergordon to Balblair and then cycling to Cromarty and then taking the ferry back to Invergordon after tea in Cromarty. As I didn't get a bike until I was 12 this must be 1963 at the earliest. The bike was a second hand Hercules from the bike shop down by the harbour. No gears in those days. I can also remember watching the Cromarty ferry in the 1950's from QHM house one of the Admiralty houses. I was told it also took the mail
Added by Jamie Elwin on 23 September 2018
Yes the Cromarty boat did take the mail over as my Father was a postman at the time in Invergordon and I sometimes got to go in the van to the harbour with him. Albert was the man in charge of the boat & I didn't realise until years later how brave he was awarded medals for rescues made with the Cromarty Lifeboat .
Added by Liz Taylor nee Askew on 23 September 2018
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Invergordon Ferries

Invergordon/Cromarty Ferry - The EndeavourAt the Ferry, InvergordonWest HarbourInvergordon FerryInvergordon HarbourInvergordon FerryInvergordon HarbourInvergordon - Balblair Ferry