top of page

Isle of Bute.

I think I was fifteen, my mate Barnsey was a smidge older and we’d made up our minds – we were going to the Clyde.

Sea angling was our thing and we’d read in the Angling Times, a sort of paper website, if you like, that you bought at the shop and took home to read later, that the Clyde was the place to go. So, duly emboldened, we announced this to our startled parents, we had no plan beyond that we were going to the Clyde. Long story short – we were packed off to a B&B called The Ashburn on the Isle of Bute. It was owned by distant relatives of my family, John and Anne Parker and we were sent there so we could be watched and kept out of mischief – now that so didn’t work at all! The very second we landed from the ferry we were like dogs let off the leash. There was beer (Drybroughs Heavy) in the Harbour Bar and pretty girls galore and the Ashburn even had a little disco out the back so we could have a last couple there then fall straight up the stairs. We did a bit of fishing too so it was just a fortnight of unbridled paradise that we repeated for several years until life and jobs and responsibility put paid to all that but what glorious memories!

Years later I would return with my diving buddies to explore the local wrecks, catch scallops in Scalpsie bay and eat ‘Sizzlers’ in the Black Bull but after that there was a long hiatus when Bute, with its fabulous adventures and wonderful community gradually fell off my radar as work and responsibility rose above those much loved trips. But a new era was in its gestation as we all became involved in the Bluebird thing and I used to say, as we all worked so hard in our cramped workshop with no thought of reward except the promised sight of a finished and resurrected machine afloat and howling through a cloud of spray, that one day we’d run out of jobs and end up looking at the finished machine. Throughout all of this we believed that the museum in Coniston was our partner and right there with us with their plans run the boat on their lake and be displayed in the museum when not being maintained, run somewhere else or conserved. But as the years rolled by and our project team ticked off task after task we seemed to be drawing ahead of them so just in case we considered a plan-B.

You see, many years earlier I’d met a lad pushing his bike down Rothesay high street with the biggest pike I’d ever seen in my life draped over the handlebars. It was a monster that he was taking to the fishmongers in the hope of selling it as a display piece for the shop window. Where on Earth had he got that from? And so I was told about Loch Fad and came to know that on the sleepy Isle of Bute there was a straight stretch of sheltered water just about big enough to blow the cobwebs out of K7 if only we could speak to the right people and get the use of it.

But there was something important to do first.

THE most frequently asked question ever on this job was always ‘when’ but we never had an answer. We were on a near parallel course with Virgin Galactic which was formed in 2004 a year before we started our rebuild and as we had some small dealings at the time with Galactic I used to joke with the big cheese that we’d have our boat in the water before he had his tourist in space because what we were both doing had never been attempted – we won that one.

Fast forward to 2017 and we could now see a time when we would be able to operate the boat safely though she’d still be a long way from her condition on the morning of the 4th January 1967 but despite this we thought getting her wet would be a good milestone and reinvigorate everyone for the final push after all our years locked away in the workshop. So we shouted up the BEWG, a somewhat unpronounceable acronym for Bluebird Events Working Group, and invited three of them over from Coniston for a natter in the summer of 2017 because at the time they were organising an event to commemorate Bluebird’s return to Coniston. We explained that we wanted to do some crew training because, although we could get the engine started and so forth, we’d never launched, recovered or had the boat run under her own power and wouldn’t it be useful if we actually knew how to do this before the big runs on Coniston Water. However, it seemed only fair to see whether they preferred to host the exercise. Our biggest concern was that they’d arrange a huge, two week festival, which was what was being talked about at the time, then we’d rock up with the star of the show and break something on day-one that was going to take three weeks to fix! But they chose not to host us so we agreed that we’d run plan-B instead and see if we could get loose on Loch Fad.

The island is administered by the Mount Stuart Trust so I made the pitch. Could we, pretty please, come and blast two and a half tons of jet-powered, 1950s anachronism through their site of special scientific interest under the watchful and excited gaze of the nation’s press? Oh, and by the way, none of us had ever done anything like this before.

I included in my pitch my first ever press clipping. Barnsey and me as mere youths showing off a fish we’d caught. We thought it might be fun to try to get our faces in the local rag (the instinct was there all along) – The Buteman. It was a source of massive pride to end up back on their pages so many years later.

That‘s me on the left, by the way.

Now then, because Scotland is a last bastion of common sense and ought to be accorded world heritage status for that reason alone everyone immediately saw that this had to be a good thing and we were told that of course we could so long as we all worked together to manage the event safely. Next we had to speak to the Scottish environment people who were equally pragmatic – don’t kill any ospreys or otters and don’t bring invasive species (we had to check on the status of Geordies in this regard) to our ten thousand year old stretch of pristine water. As things turned out the ospreys seemed as prolific as the pigeons in Newcastle city centre, couldn’t care a crap about us anyway and stole fish from right under our noses no matter what we did and we never saw an otter yet. Keeping our side of that deal was dealt with by the local fauna without us having to lift a finger.

So from that moment on life became a whirlwind!

First we had to build a boat and this time it was for real. We spannered and fettled like never before. Jobs like fitting the front spar became an epic that soaked up days we didn’t have. Previously if a bolt wouldn’t start or felt a little stiff we’d just leave it out but the time finally came when we just couldn’t do that with the result that the spar was on and off like the proverbial undergarments of a lady of the night while the fasteners were fine-tuned then pulled down with lashings and lashings of chromate jointing paste.

Having the front spar in place then meant we could get the nose clothed – something we’d wanted to do for the longest time…

Bettablast put an etch prime and polyester powder coat on in in the standard RAL5009 just to protect the bare metal before we messed with the heights where the screws go through to achieve the appropriate button-back-sofa look then it all went together with a lot of choccie, the spar fairings were added then on went the high-build primer.

There then followed a world of rubbing down, spotting putty and a final finish down to 1000 grit ahead of three coats of Perfection Pro.

Do it right and the blue goes on like glass. Do it wrong and it will expose every fingerprint and scratch. We spent way more time than we could really afford on the pointy end because we knew it would be photographed to death but it was a good investment. It’s not perfect but it was certainly good enough – we got away with that.

She just needed her nose art on after that.

Apologies (well, not really because we live in 1967) for calling K7 ‘she’. In the modern world this is interpreted as promoting gender stereotypes or some such nonsense but the reality is that she’s a cantankerous old bitch.

Anyways… we included a Scottish Saltire as a nod to our hosts as Donald did on his foreign exploits but it wasn’t going on as some new fangled vinyl graphic. It’s all hand painted and original artwork.

With the nose pretty much finished for the moment it was time for the sponsons and sponson tops to go on with a full complement of screws and this had never been done before, again, because if a screw wouldn’t start easily we just left it out but there was no escape this time so many of the holes had to be carefully dressed with choccie-soaked needle files to get them starting smoothly in the captives nuts or helicoils. You have no idea how long it takes to assemble this many screws and choccie in this way or how messy it is. We would also later discover that we’d not choccied anywhere nearly enough and water subsequently blasted through joints we’d confidently imagined were sealed and even when fully unscrewed we had to use a heat gun extremely carefully to release the inadequate amount of choccie we’d used in the first place. Building it was a bloody nightmare then we had another one taking it all apart again!

Notice also in the pic below that you can see every last rivet head and imperfection and that is because the sponsons were never painted. Yes, they’re blue but that’s only the powder coat that Bettablast so kindly applied to protect the bare metal. Much of K7 was either not painted at all or, in the case of the engine and tail covers, splashed with just enough paint to hide the filler. It all has to be done again to the proper standard. By the time we made it to Scotland many didn’t notice that at this point we’d not got to putting the K7-infinity artwork on the sponsons either. It was suggested that we get some hurried graphics clashed on in time for Bute but that just felt wrong. In the end we chose to run with what we had.

But never mind the paint – that is but a detail because the engineering was by far the most important. We are long since experts at loading and unloading the engine but this time it was for real so everything was checked and re-checked as the mule went in – the number of times we’ve got almost there then realised a wire or pipe could be better positioned so out it comes again. We’re very fond of this little engine. It’s almost one of the team so we took extra care this time.

How we came to have this delightful piece of machinery is that since the dawn of time I wanted a jet engine so when I got interested in the whole Bluebird thing it was time for this dream to come to fruition so I swapped a couple of old aircrew seats I’d scrounged up from somewhere for a dead Orph’ I’d discovered with weeds growing through it around the back of the local ATC shed. Much later I swapped my old scrapper, from which I had learned much and upon which I had lavished hours of effort cleaning it up so it was a hell of a lot better than when I’d first clapped eyes on it, for a much better engine that could be made to work and this eventually became the one you see here. It’s an old friend to us all.

It’s a very snug fit in there too. I really wouldn’t have liked to begin with the Beryl-ready hull and an Orph’ on a stand and been told, get that in there and make it work. Those boys who re-engined K7 in 1966 did a very impressive job by any standards, it’s a wonderful demonstration of the old truism that it fits where it touches.

The original onboard air start was carried just in case weight and balance turned out to be critical and also because elements of it are used even when connected to the offboard system. Besides, it looks the part too. Notice the circular hole in the side of the boat where the offboard air connector will be installed. We didn’t make that hole, by the way – it was there all along.

We were really steaming along by now and the boat went together in big lumps once the donkey was installed and plumbed into its life support.

The fin and tail cover were next.

When we took this apart many years ago it was absolutely covered in filler so when we rebuilt it we tried to iron out some of the hills and hollows such that it wouldn’t need as much next time around and that worked quite well though, like everything else, nothing was ever straight from the day it was first built so we spent a lot of time getting it all smooth-ish.

One thing we were determined to do, however, was save the original flags. The old paint on the fin was shot to pieces but we left it in place and painted over the top of it. You never know – as long as it’s still there it can always be dug out a hundred years from now so we left Bluebird’s fin in such a condition that this is always an option whilst the original flags remain on display.

Once the filler went in we put a couple of coats of high build primer over the top.

Then flatted it back and started with the Perfection Pro whilst adding the details, the cover for the top, the repaired parachute doors and that small leading edge fairing down at the front of the fin.

Because we were seriously restricted time-wise the tail cover and engine cover were basically clashed together and still need a fair amount of work to get them to a properly finished standard but the outrageous properties of our Perfection Pro paint let us get away with all manner of fakery.

On we worked – the canopy was one of those jobs that we both looked forward to and dreaded at the same time. Something so far out of our long-evolved skill set yet something we had to face up to and get right. The first thing we did was cast about for someone to look at the 3D CAD modelling that would be needed and soon we discovered the guys at Cube3 and what a cracking team they are!

They’re as bonkers as we are and absolutely brilliant at what they do. We asked if they would help us just for the fun of it and so they did. I know I’ve said this many times already but, thanks guys.

But the job went back much further. You see, having studied many hundreds of photos and a couple of Ken’s sketches we concluded that the canopy had an acrylic frame into which the curved surface was bonded and, as we were going to have to reverse-engineer all of this the first job was to recreate the frame and make it fit the boat. One of Ken’s drawings suggested that the cockpit opening was 20 inches wide but having reclaimed enough of the original material to prove conclusively that it was only ever 19.5 inches wide we then had to make the canopy to suit. As it happens, that half an inch made loading the seat really difficult because that was built to the drawings. We built the canopy frame in wood and MDF first of all.

Then we routed, band-sawed and dressed it out of solid acrylic…

We’d never worked with such materials before and had to learn on the job. We made up our own processes and tooling as we went along – ever resourceful and determined to get this part absolutely spot on.

We built a pile of parts until we’d learned just how to do this and that was to prove a life-saver when our canopy failed at speed, but more of that in a mo, suffice to say that the failure was entirely down to us and not anything our sponsor did as some in the trade suggested at the time.

By now we had also gained the support of a local company called Bay Plastics. They supported us about a million years ago when we made a display cabinet for the old engine so it could go into the museum without being a razor sharp danger to visitors. The estimated cost had it been done by the usual method of going looking for grants etc. was about £6000 so we circumvented a pile of bureaucracy and just made one and Bay Plastics donated the acrylic sheet to enclose it so they are old allies. Once we had all the bits of frame good to go they sent a couple of their lads over to glue it all together for us.