On a Scottish puffer in Connemara

IN the hard world of small farming little goes to waste. Nothing is discarded until it has yielded its full economic potential. Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the rocky, largely barren lands of Connemara where in the valleys and on the coast there are fertile patches of hayfields and pasture where cattle graze in drowsy ignorance of falling beef prices.

The hay has been mown; some of the old-timers still laboriously cut reeds which they use to give the stacks a waterproof crown. But most people find it handier to cover them with impermeable plastic coalbags, which they secure with stones suspended on twine. Cars are run in to the ground.

As in the Hebrides, their rotting remains crouch in the fields and provide shelter for sheep against the chill winds. A van that once sold cakes around the working-class suburbs of Dublin is a familiar site on the narrow roads. The cake company is now defunct and the van has acquired a bump or two since its more elegant days. But its sign, gaily painted in the French fashion, still advertises fresh gateau. What it sells now, in fact, are the services of a bull. Sultan, as we call him, peers out imperiously from the trailer in which the van tows him to his next assignment. Rheumy-eyed, mournful, he looks like a powdered and bewigged grandis of pre-revolutionary France. It costs #20 to send for him and his offspring now sprinkle the landscape.

It is always dangerous for journalists to use the superlative. But down below, in the shining waters of the inlet, what may be the last of the old Clyde puffers is sailing off on the full tide to go about its business of flying between the little harbour here on the mainland and the dreaming islands off the coast. Like the gateau van, the Pibroch is a bit battered now. At low ebb in the tidal harbour she rests on the bottom and lists rustily against the pier. Her scars are the honourable badge of long service. She is known locally as the fine, reliable vessel. She fetches sand for the building trade and carries various cargoes from the mainland. The other day we watched the skipper and his mate open the hatches in preparation for a consignment of tar for Clare Island, the diesel powering the derrick throbbed heartily; the covers screeched as they slid along their grooves and were winched up to be stacked. There was much shouting of instructions and hammering of securing pins.

But, rust or not, everything seemed to work. According to the locals the Pibroch was once a whisky boat. Thanks to a colleague in Glasgow I was able to confirm that the Pibroch’s 157 gross tonnes had been built in 1957 by Scott & Son as a general cargo boat and had been used by White Horse, then part of the Distillers Group, to carry coal and barley to their distilleries in Islay and bring back the finished product to Glasgow. Indeed, I am pretty sure that during a press trip to the Islay distilleries many years ago I saw the Pibroch set off from Port Askaig, disappearing swiftly from view on a riptide through the Sound of Islay. The skipper calmly smoked a dirty old pipe in the best Para Handy fashion.

In 1974 the Pibroch was bought by the Glenlight Shipping Company which operated her as a puffer round the Clyde and the west coast. Between 1982 and 1987 she was chartered, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the US Navy at the Holy Loch. New quay facilities were eventually built that made her redundant, and she was sold to John Alexander Hawco of Beauly. His family owns Hawco & Sons of Inverness and Elgin, but Mr Hawco bought the Pibroch in his own right. His hopes of using her in the Scottish coastal trade came to nothing and after a year he sold her to an Irish company. She was brought down the Caledonian Canal and an Irish crew sailed her, one stormy night, to Donegal and then down the west coast of Ireland.

The Pibroch’s endurance is a tribute to those who built her. How sad that this tradition has been allowed to die. But at least it’s good to know that she is playing a key role here in the rural island economy. Ireland has been more successful than Scotland in keeping people in farming. She still has about 15% of her workforce in agriculture, compared with less than 3% in Scotland. But life on the land is tough. As in our crofting counties, farming cannot by itself support life.

There has also to be a bit of this and that — of tourism, fish farming, or whatever. Without the farmers’ dole of about #40 a week, existence would not be tenable at all. In this economic culture of making the best of whatever comes to hand, the Pibroch and the gateau van have an honoured place.