We were up, showered, breakfasted and at the workshop bright and early on the Friday morning ahead of our trip to Bute, the first day of our big adventure. We’d worked important parts of our bodies to mere stumps and given blood, sweat and tears to get to this point so to say we were buzzing on that grey and slightly drizzly morning would be an understatement.
Duncan swiftly extricated his wagon from where we’d stored it and its precious cargo overnight – it’d been a hell of a job to get it in there amongst all the other clutter and vehicles but it was the only building on the street with a tall enough door. (Thanks, Colin.)
With wishes of good luck and handshakes exchanged all round it wasn’t long before we were on our way to the accompaniment of a gaggle of news cameras as we sallied forth for Scotland. The convoy comprised three vehicles. Duncan, leading with the big blue boat aboard, one chase car to keep an eye in case anything went wrong or to dash off for emergency spares should the need arise, then followed our support van laden with spares and equipment. The latter was a big box van loaned to us by Thrifty with ‘Living the Dream’ emblazoned on the sides – we certainly were!
(All good quality pictures by kind permission of Phil Evans, all the rest by kind permission of one of us with a camera phone.)
The plan was we’d leave BBP HQ then drive west through Newcastle and over to the far side of the country before turning north for our run up to Glasgow and then round the top of that great city to the ferry terminal at Wemyss Bay.
Quick lesson in Scottish pronunciation here – Wemyss is pronounced ‘Weems’ and not ‘Wemyiss’ so now you know.
That trip would take us about five hours or so and as we’d been warned by Cal-Mac that they couldn’t make space for us on any particular ferry we were advised to get to the terminal a couple of hours early and sit it out to be sure that we arrived in Rothesay – the biggest town on Bute and where the ferry docks – in time for our pipers.
Cal-Mac is owned by the Scottish government and the occasional cynic had suggested that their procedures could be a little, how shall we say, cumbersome but from start to finish their people took the most excellent care of us and they couldn’t have been more helpful.
Once on the road we made steady progress but soon it began to rain quite heavily. This was a concern because our vision of our arrival involved brilliantly bright weather but what could we do? There’s no beating the weather, as our diving and exploring days had taught us many times.
Bluebird’s cover inflated like a huge blue parachute as Duncan forged northwards and the lines holding it strained taut but it never showed a sign of coming loose as the miles rolled under our little convoy. Then the BBC announced over the radio that we were heading north and soon after we saw lay-bys with cars stopped and folks out with their cameras, waving and cheering us on. There were people on bridges doing likewise or overtaking and tooting their horns in approval, kids in the windows filming us with tablets and phones. It was tremendously exciting.
Even at our comfort breaks, total strangers who’d found out what a strange thing we were hauling would come over to stand in the shelter of the covers staring upwards in amazement at Bluebird’s sponsons and dragon’s teeth.
We’d sip a cup of tea, eat a sandwich then get back on the road until later in the afternoon when we finally pulled into the carpark at Wemyss and told the Cal-Mac people we’d arrived – they’d already worked that out.
It's easy to get to Bute by train. You go to Glasgow Central then hop on the little commuter line to Wemyss where a perfectly preserved little station from when steam trains puffed up there to deposit passengers wanting to board a paddle steamer to continue their journey to the highlands awaits. It’s gorgeously preserved piece of living history from which you literally step onto the ferry.
The only slight fly in the ointment is that because of one of those cumbersome rules, the ferry timetable is decided by one department whilst the running of the trains is decided by another so it’s not uncommon to get off the train only to watch the ferry backing away from the jetty.
But that didn’t bother us because we’d already pre-arranged our lengthy wait and because by now the whole world knew what we were doing it wasn’t long before the crowds and the cameras arrived. We also took the covers off so we’d not turn up on Bute with the star of the show all wrapped up.
Next to arrive was the TV news so Duncan let them climb up on his wagon to get the best shot. If this was what was happening on the mainland side we guessed we’d get a similar response from the folk on Bute – little did we know!
Eventually the time came and we watched the ferry return and dock bow first against the landing ramp. The idea was that Duncan’s wagon would go on first and drive all the way to the back to be sure that we were off first but there was a ballet to enact because another rule had to be obeyed, that being the sacrosanct nature the ferry timetable and therefore its loading and unloading times. It all runs with metronomic efficiency and we weren’t going to be the ones to mess it up at any cost so we obeyed the crew without hesitation and got aboard double-quick when ordered.
Despite the fact that we’d been aboard both ferries when they were finished work for the day and tied up and had the chance to measure everything under the supervision of their skippers and engineers and therefore knew without question that everything would fit it was still a bit of a heart in the mouth moment as K7 squeezed between the sides of the loading ramp and onto the car deck. Duncan drove steadily to the other end and parked up.
To the right you can see our other vehicle loaned and liveried by Thrifty. This one was a BMW X5 that we provided as a taxi for those who needed transport. Many of those who wanted to see what was going on were of an age so Thrifty made sure we had what we needed to look after them.
Meanwhile, seeing K7 from above was something new – we’d never seen her from this angle before and most of us spent the journey on the upper deck gazing down on the strange spectacle of all our hard work on a car ferry whilst also trying to catch a glimpse of what was awaiting us at the other end.
Now then – there is one thing that must be explained before we proceed. You see, only a few weeks before our arrival, Bute had suffered its first murder in something like 150 years. A terrible business involving a young girl called Alesha McPhail who went missing from her bed and was found later that same morning.
We were all stunned, an atrocious crime visited upon such a close-knit community was awful and during our last couple of trips up there to organise things the anger and hurt and pain was palpable. Many quietly and almost guiltily confided that Bute needed the Bluebird thing to lift the mood and how they were looking forward to it but we, as strangers, were very aware that we were about to arrive from out of town with a carnival and we absolutely had to ensure that the isle and Elisha’s family knew that we were both aware and respectful.
I’d read in the paper that her family had asked her funeral goers to dress in pink so a kindly reporter friend was tasked with finding an email address for the liaison officer and we mailed to say that we would like to pay our respects equally and would it be appropriate to arrive on-island wearing pink? Soon the answer came back that our idea had been met with approval so that’s what we did.
From the upper deck we could see that the town was beginning to tip out onto the street.
The crowds gathered as we watched…
There then followed another round of ferry ballet during which the wagon had to get off the ferry onto a hard standing then stay there until all the arriving cars and passengers were offloaded then it was loaded up for the return trip and departed with the timetable impeccably adhered to. The Cal-Mac crew operated like a Swiss watch until the ferry cast off again and then all Hell broke loose!
They weren’t kidding about piping us ashore! This will sound really stupid but if you’ve never been piped ashore, and surely most of you haven’t, there’s no way to describe the chill and thrill up your spine. Bagpipes are loud and visceral up close and when you’re it it’s mind blowing!
Literally, the whole town came out to greet us, it was controlled bedlam.
Can you begin to imagine how this felt? We, as a team, gathered a few times each week to do this Bluebird thing as great pals, to decompress after the stress of our daily lives and work but only as mates in the sanctity of our workshop – our little speakeasy. And then we walk into this lot.
Then our old mate Andy ‘Kersh’ Kershaw turned up having followed us up for the BBC One Show and did a live from the sea front at Rothesay.
We had kids bringing us gifts, folks pushing bottles of whiskey into our hands and extolling the virtues of a ‘wee dram’ (something we soon caught onto) and the most humbling outpouring of welcome you could imagine. It was a far cry from a tea break in the workshop!
This mayhem on the promenade went on for quite a while too and it was great fun meeting and greeting but time was getting on and we had a job to finish before we could go to bed for the evening – or even the pub!
We had to get Bluebird to the shore of Loch Fad and into her boat house for the night. Duncan soon took the helm of his wagon once again and off we went on the final leg of our journey.
The road to Fad is very narrow and twisting and we’d had concerns about overhanging trees but we’d been assured that if this was a problem tree surgeons would be send post-haste to clear a safe passage but in the end all it took was a couple of volunteers up on the wagon to fend or snap off any offending twigs and we soon arrived with intact paintwork.
It was a beautiful, still evening and we still had plenty of daylight so it wasn’t long before Duncan had the legs down on his wagon and the unloading began.
Our old mates from Sky News came with us too to make a short film, which you would imagine is great fun but it’s actually a real pest when you’re trying to do stuff and there’s some producer type asking you to just do that one more time while the cameraman gets some tight shots of your hand doing up a shackle – the price of notoriety...
And then that damned Campbell luck caught us yet again when Duncan’s crane, having never missed a beat the whole time he’d owned it, decided to pack up just then with Bluebird hanging in mid-air but despite this setback our Thrifty van still had it right.
By the way – the bloke in the pink shirt who looks for all the world like he’s having a wee against the inside of the sponson is the absolute legend that is ‘Jersey Mike’ who you’ll soon get to meet.
The problem with the crane was later traced to some minor damage inflicted weeks earlier that finally developed into a complete refusal to work on our shift but after much puzzling and phone calling, Duncan came up with a workaround and got us safely onto the ground.
All that remained was to get Bluebird safely into her new home but we’d used up a lot of daylight with the crane glitch so it was all hands on deck, literally.
Bluebird on that launching dolly is quite simply the most cumbersome, unmaneuverable lump of ironmongery you could ever do battle with and even getting her through a few degrees to line up with the boat shed involved a forty six point turn but eventually we managed it and she was rolled back into what was to be her lair for the next fortnight as well as our workshop, canteen, meeting room and press office.
A few of the crew stayed on to fasten the front of the tent shut as singly and in small groups we gradually slipped away to get showered and fed then rested for the following day. We couldn’t wait.