Skip to main content

Fiona, the Fifes and the Marquis of Ailsa

Fiona, the Fifes and the Marquis of Ailsa

The cutter Fiona was launched in the early summer of 1865, from the Fairlie Yard of William Fife. With her dawned the nationalization of the sport. Hitherto Clyde yachting had been more or less parochial, and racing between yachts of the North and the South had been exceptional. Mr. Emanuel Boutcher, how­ever, sent Fiona, in charge of John Houston, to race in the South against the crack English vessels. William Jamieson would have done this with Mr. John Rowan's Cymba, but the privilege was denied to him ; and though Fiona won sufficient prizes to entitle her to an important position in Clyde yacht-building history, it was the opening of a new era in yacht-racing with which her launch is connected that gives her so prominent a position among racing yachts.

There is no more interesting phase in the history of the Fiona than that connected with her ownership. She was built for Mr. Moseley, a Liverpool merchant, on the strength of several runs which ships trading in his interest made from the fast blockaded ports of Charleston and Savannah in the grim days of the Civil War. Some reverses of fortune before she was finished made it prudent for Mr. Moseley not to take her over, and she was launched for Mr. H. Lafone, another Liverpool gentleman, who kept her for one season. She then passed into the possession of Mr. Emanuel Boutcher, a London merchant, who spared neither pains nor expense in keeping her in the forefront of racing vessels. Long after she had become outclassed, and had ceased to be remembered except as past history, she was purchased by Mr. H. M. Rait, a Clyde admirer, who placed her in the rank of active vessels. Mr. Rait had been an admirer of Fiona in his early days, and he still main­tains her in first-class condition. Under his ownership she has won a number of prizes, including one of the Emperor of Germany's North Sea cups.

All through her successful days Fiona was commanded by John Houston, of Largs, and this alone had much to do, not only with Fiona’ s success as a racer, but with the extension of yacht-racing interests from Clyde parochialism to wider national fields. Houston was the beau-ideal of a yacht skipper, and extremely popular on the Clyde. When quite a youth he secured a passage on the Cymba, of which Robert McKirdy was skipper, and on McKirdy going below, young Houston persuaded the man who was steering to let him have a short trick at the tiller. Before long McKirdy became interested in the boy. Then he said: ‘Ane o' you see wha's that steerin' the noo ?’ On being informed that it was young Johnnie Houston, he said, with unusual gravity: ‘Weel, that'll be my successor.’

The early years of Houston's life, however, were spent on board fishing smacks, with occasional racing on board Clyde cruising yachts, such as Mr. Speir's cutter Crusader and Mr. John Mills's schooner Rowena, of both of which he was skipper. When a skipper had to be found for Fiona he was recommended, and secured the position. He was then forty-one years of age.

There was nothing unusual in Fiona's appearance when launched, and her spar plan was modest for a boat of her size. Originally her leading dimensions were: Length, 75 feet 5 inches; beam 15 feet 8 inches; draft of water (aft), 11 feet 10 inches ; mast (deck to bounds), 44 feet 5 inches ; mainboom, 60 feet; gaff, 38 feet; bowsprit (outboard), 34. feet; topmast, 38 feet; and area of lower sails, 3,720 feet. Like all the boats William Fife II. built, Fiona pre­sented a pleasing appearance to the eye, and while there was nothing strikingly original about her, she stood for the very best that could be accomplished from the lessons learned in the designing of the most successful of her immediate predecessors, and this was all that her builder ever claimed for her. Fife had, as he on one occasion expressed it, embodied in Fiona all that he had learned in his pre­vious successes, and though she was far from revolutionary in design, she was fair and sweet as to model, and so well built that he had hopes of her doing well as a racer.

In 1875, when she had reached her tenth year of racing - a mature age for a racing yacht - Fiona was the chief winner of the year. Dixon Kemp wrote of her: ‘Fife's famous Fiona is still the hardest nut English builders have got to crack, although her luck this season suggests some uncanny league with the wind and the weather. A look at her prizes this season will sweeten up any old-fashioned touches she may show, and indeed the old boat looks good enough for a glass case as she faces Lapthorn's sail-loft.’

Another equally noted English yachting writer called her ‘the terrible Fiona, the wonder of all time, the boat which made the fame of Scotch yachts. For more than eight years the fastest yacht afloat, little did her builder think, as he watched her glide into the water, that she would make and maintain a name for him wherever yachts are built or sailed.’

Few boats have secured so much regard from those closely associated with them as did Fiona. Quite a fleet of not only good, but famous boats, have been launched from Fairlie since Fiona was quietly slipped into the sea, but not one of them ever deposed her in the estimation of her builder. Her present owner, Mr. Rait, like Mr. Boutcher, is a devoted admirer, and John Houston's affec­tion for her was almost pathetic.

Houston's style of sailing was dashing and daring. He tuned Fiona up to such a pitch that she frequently carried away every­thing, and his methods came in for adverse criticism. Some ex­planation is found in the fact that the sails of forty or more years ago were full-cut and baggy, and that Fiona's skipper strained every effort and braced the gear up in order to get all the power possible from his sails, and though his eagerness lost him some races, it gained many of the most brilliant victories.

One of the strangest cases of protesting in the history of the sport is found in connection with Fiona and a cup which she won, but never received. The race took place under the flag of the Royal Mersey Club in 1866, the fleet consisting of Phryne, Astarte, Vindex, Mosquito, Banshee, Christabel, and Fiona. Luck was against the match. On the day fixed the weather was so light that in accordance with the time-limit which then prevailed it was abandoned. The wind was light on the following day, but a good light-weather race was sailed. Fiona was out of the race till the closing stages, when, in some excellent turning to windward over a strong weather-going tide, she came away handsomely in response to admirable handling on the part of Houston, and managed to give the allowances to all. So close was the finish, however, that Christabel was only beaten by 40 seconds. Christabel had an able and experienced pilot aboard, but he managed his weathering tack so badly that, although she had the prize quite safe with the flag-boat almost abeam, the helm had to be put hard up at the last moment to prevent a collision with the bow of the boat. It took Christabel a minute to recover and cross the line, thus leaving her defeated by 40 seconds. At this time Christabel was owned by Mr. A. C. Kennard, and in the height of his disappointment he sent in a double-barrelled protest against the Fiona. The objections were, first, that booming out of sails had been practised ; and, second, that her racing flag was too small. The first objection was quickly disposed of, but as the racing flag failed to stand the tape—owing to the winds having made too free with it—there was no alternative for the committee but to disqualify her, and this they reluctantly did. The Phryne was owned by Mr. Law, a Glasgow iron merchant, and commanded by A. Wilson, of Largs. Wilson and Houston were cousins, and Wilson, whose boat at one point of the race had a good chance of winning, became possessed with the idea that Christabel's own flag was somewhat scrimp. Conveying his suspicions to Houston, the pair went alongside of Christabel and asked leave to have the flag measured. Permission was readily granted, and the flag was so near being under the regulation size that a protest against it under the circumstances would have been justified. No such protest was made, but so much feeling was aroused over the matter that Mr. Kennard offered to sail the match over. Mr. Boutcher refused to consent to this, and the matter was allowed to drop.

At one period of her career Fiona's closest competitor was the 60-tonner Vanguard. Racing at Southsea on one occasion, this boat pressed the Fairlie cutter so close in a stiff breeze that, after she had carried away her topsail yards in quick succession, Houston put up a thimble header and sailed her home a winner by the narrowest of margins. On the following day Vanguard was again hard on the Fife boat. Towards the finish they were running down on the winning-line under spinnakers that were being carried uncomfort­ably. To make matters worse, a gybe on the line was almost inevitable to save the race. Houston conceived the bold idea of letting the scudding-sail fly rather than lose time gathering it in. Fortune was favourable, and the sail blew clear away and settled on the water like a balloon, and the race was won.

Although Houston was skipper to Mr. Boutcher's boat for over twenty years, owner and skipper did not always see eye to eye as to the management of the boat, and at least in one race Houston threatened to lock the offending owner in the cabin.

The whole period in which Houston was sailing-master of Fiona is filled with adventure. On one occasion, racing from Cher­bourg to Ryde, Fiona carried away her mast and gear in mid-Channel. Nothing daunted, Houston set the crew to rig up a jury-mast, and the cutter was taken safely to Gosport without assistance.

In the early days of Fiona's racing in the English Channel Houston was a complete stranger to the waters, and was more dependent upon pilotage than practically any other skipper against whom he had to sail. On one occasion, racing from Ryde to Cherbourg, the French port was not reached before dark. When nearing the coast Houston inquired of his pilot, an Itchen ferryman, which was the breakwater light. ‘Well, sir,’ said the pilot, ‘there was neither breakwater nor light here when I was here before, which was only once, and that twenty years ago.’ This awkward situation threatened the loss of the race. Houston, however, decided to take the risk. He ran the boat into the harbour on a shrewd guess, and won the cup. On many occasions, too, Fiona's skipper disregarded the advice of his pilots, and one particular race was cleverly won through his daring in this direction. In a Channel course the boats were cross-tacking in the vicinity of a reef of sub­merged rocks, of which the pilot conceived a horrible dread. Fiona's only hope of winning the race lay in negotiating a gully between the reefs, and Houston determined to run the risk against the frantic appeals of the pilot. Luck was with the adventure, and Fiona went safely through, coming out half a mile to windward of the boat which had previously held the weather gauge.

Although, generally speaking, the Scottish aristocracy took but a comparatively small amount of interest in the racing side of yachting, the Marquis of Ailsa was a keen patron of the sport, and owned a large fleet of famous racing boats. Moreover, he opened up a yacht-building yard near his own seat in the south of Ayr­shire, and he was intimately connected with the ship and yacht building establishment at Troon on the Ayrshire coast, which was founded by the Duke of Bedford, the then Commodore of the Royal Northern Yacht Club, and which still bears the name of the Marquis of Ailsa. The Marquis was, in fact, a tower of strength to Scottish yachting in those halcyon days when he was owner of the Foxhound, Bloodhound, and Sleuthhound, for, like Mr. Boutcher with Fiona, he raced these boats all round the coast, and in thirteen years won 113 prizes.

The Marquis of Ailsa has always been devoted to yachting. From Culzean Castle a fine view is obtained of the Clyde and Ailsa Craig, the grim milestone of the sea from which the title is taken. The coast around the castle has produced a fine and hardy type of fishermen, and it was among the fishing ‘nabbies’ owned by these men that the Marquis of Ailsa gained his earliest experiences. At the same time he sailed in his father's 25-tonner Tammie Norie, named after a bird which haunts Ailsa Craig, and before he had succeeded to the estates he was owner of the 15-tonnner Snowdrop. Neither of these yachts were in any way remarkable, and have long since been forgotten.

The success of the Scotch yachts of the latter sixties had not been lost upon the young Ayrshire nobleman, and in 1870, when he succeeded to the title, he commissioned Fife to build what was afterwards the famous 35-ton cutter, Foxhound. This yacht was manned by a crew drawn from the local fishermen, and a couple of Largs weavers, and the skipper, Sloan, was also a local fisherman; and though it soon became apparent that in Foxhound Fife had produced an excellent and fast craft, the crew was unable to successfully play the racing game against the experienced crews of the South Coast boats, and in the first thirteen races she secured only two prizes. A change was decided upon, and Ben Harris, of Itchen Ferry, who had successfully sailed the 60-tonner Vanguard, was engaged at the opening of the season of 1871 to sail the Foxhound. The change was at once apparent, and the Marquis had the satis­faction of seeing his vessel take the lead among the racing yachts of the period. The success of Harris and his southern crew opened up a regular invasion of the Clyde by southern skippers and hands  - an invasion which continued for nearly twenty years.

In 1871 Foxhound sailed twenty-one races and won twelve prizes, including a Queen's Cup presented to the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Marquis of Ailsa having been elected to the Squadron in that year. Foxhound was the smallest vessel that had won a Queen's Cup within eighteen years, and the fleet against which she com­peted included the Flying Cloud, Egeria, Guinivere, Hirondelle, Rose­bud, and Harlequin.

At this time the nucleus of the afterwards famous ‘forty class’ was in existence, being represented by Niobe, Myosotis, and Muriel, and when in 1872 that trio was joined by the Norman, which had been built for Major Ewing, the owner of Foxhound recognised that his yacht was too small to compete successfully in the class. In 1873 he determined to build another boat. Fife had at this time on the stocks a half-completed 60-tonner, which had been laid down for a Glasgow gentleman who died while she was in the framing stage. This craft gave excellent promise, and the Marquis of Ailsa requested Fife not to part with her. At a certain stage of the negotiations, however, Fife was summoned to Cowes, and there received an order for a 40-tonner, the idea of racing the 60-tonner having been abandoned by the Marquis.

Mr. Fife was not slow to appreciate the great opportunity which had come to him in these busy days of 1874, when he had the 110-ton cutter Cythera to complete for Mr. David Richardson, of Greenock, the 60-ton cutter Neva for Mr. R. K. Holmes-Kerr, of Largs, and at least one smaller cutter, the Blenda, in addition to the Bloodhound for the Marquis of Ailsa.

The ‘Hound, as the new boat came to be spoken of, was scantily fitted inside, but she gave every appearance of speed. Ben Harris was placed in charge, and though she did not create such a record as either Cymba, Fiona, or Torch had done, she nevertheless opened and maintained a brilliant career, and won for her owner sixty prizes in six seasons.

For sustained excellence the ‘forty’ class has never been sur­passed, and after some years Bloodhound passed to the hands of Mr. Thomas Dunlop, a Glasgow shipowner, for whom in the seasons from 1902 to 1906 she won twenty-eight prizes.

Bloodhound's record during the period in which she carried the flag of the Marquis of Ailsa is given below, as well as the racing records of her two greatest rivals in the class—Major Ewing's Norman and Mr. Dunbar McMaster's Myosotis. The former was built by Mr. Dan Hatcher and the latter by Mr. Michael Ratsey. Tom Diaper, of Itchen, sailed the Norman, and William O'Neill, of Kingstown, the Myosotis. The Norman is still in commission on the Clyde. The Myosotis was destroyed by fire in a French port. The following is a record of these yachts (shown on the accompanying pdf).

With the record of Bloodhound we have already travelled beyond the limit set by the title of this chapter, and it must suffice to conclude this portion of our work with the satisfactory reflection that the talent of the early builders and yachtsmen of Scotland has been emulated worthily by their successors, and that the past thirty years have only served to add fresh laurels to those already won in these early days of yacht-racing.