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The Clyde Puffers

Their colourful history, and indeed their name, came from an event in 1856 when the canal lighter Thomas was converted to steam propulsion. This proved so economical that it set a pattern for the powering of cargo barges with simple engines, which drew their water from the canals before exhausting it as steam direct to the atmosphere. These new craft became known as 'puffers', a name that was to stick even into the days of silent and more sophisticated machinery.

The limits in length of the Forth and Clyde Canal locks (around 67ft) restricted the dimensions of puffers, and the small shipyards around Glasgow showed considerable ingenuity in building ships to carry the maximum cargo and yet remain able to use all the local water ways. As the years passed three distinct puffer types were developed, the simplest being the 'inside' boat, which was for use on canals or the Glasgow dock system, and which could be be identified by the lack of masts, bulwarks and superstructure. The other two designs were the shorehead boats, which operated within the confines of the upper Clyde estuary, and the 'outside' boats, which were certificated to operate in most parts of the west coast.

The outside boats are immortalised by Neil Munro in his classic Para Handy tales, in which he described the life and adventures of the skipper and crew of the fictitious puffer The Vital Spark. Most puffers had a crew of four, made up of skipper, engineer, mate and deck hand, all sleeping in the two tiny triangular cabins under the fo'c's'le and just aft of the engine room. The toil was arduous, especially when loading or discharging coal or other minerals and using only the derrick with the small steam windlass on the fore deck. Cargoes included timber imported at Leith for transportation to Glasgow, coal moved from the Monklands to the isolated parts of the mainland and the islands, and of course the whisky trade to and from Islay. Flat bottoms ensured that puffers could beach themselves in the remotest communities for delivery of goods to horse-drawn carts brought down the beach at low tide.

Apart from one or two motor vessels, almost all puffers had compound steam engines supplied with steam from a vertical boiler, and all had condensers to enable them to work on the sea. The last steam driven vessel, the SS Chindit, was built in 1945 at Kirkintilloch on the canal.

Throughout the Second World War the puffers served ceaselessly, but strange to say their greatest contribution to the war effort may have come through the choice, in 1940, of the design of the puffer Anzac for the prototype for the great fleet of wartime lighters or VIC vessels, which were built throughout the United Kingdom and which gave sterling service to the Allied cause on a worldwide basis.

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