At 21 years old, Keith McGinn's tea breaks at Ayr Burgh Water Plant were spent discussing "Coronation Street" with older workmates. Surely he wasn't growing old before his time?
He'd always fancied a life at sea, so when someone told him about the boats that sailed out of Troon and Ayr he decided to give them a try. Arriving to start work as a deckhand on the Lady Isle early one Monday morning, the "dirty wee coal boat" he found didn't quite match the fine ships in the Irvine Shipping and Trading Company photographs he'd seen at his interview. Still, what had he to lose? He'd give it a go - for a week or two.
If Keith McGinn didn't get the lifestyle he expected, what he did achieve was a career spanning almost 30 years. Full of character and colour, his Last Of The Puffermen tells the story of the latter days of the puffers, those small cargo vessels - Dawnlight, Sealight, Glencoy, Glenfyne and the Kaffir, to name just a few - that shuttled up and down the West Coast. This book charts his career from 1965 to 1994, as he learns the ropes on the Lady Isle, a "modern puffer" and one of the 66-foot "classics" that had been converted from steam to diesel, until he eventually became Master of a 600-tonne coaster.
It's impossible to write about puffermen without reference to Para Handy, but if all you know of these wee boats and the men who sailed them are Neil Munro's stories, then you're in for a treat, an education and a reality check.
An odd kind of glamour surrounds the puffers, but the job meant hard physical labour, dangerous seas, cramped living conditions and 18-hour days. Keith's first cargo was coal: "Everywhere was covered
in coal dust: decks, wheelhouse, ropes, bollards. It was in my hair, on my face, in my clothes . . . And it was only half past eight in the morning."
Journeys round "the pufferman's Cape Horn", the treacherous waters by the Mull of Kintyre, could be followed by manually unloading 130 tonnes of coal. Cargoes were challenging - from church pews to cattle kept loose in the hold - not so hard to load, but try catching them, and lifting them out again! One of the most memorable stories concerns the grand piano, perched atop a cargo of lime that McGinn transported from Northern Ireland to Islay.
This account is liberally laced with humour. The puffer trade was packed with legendary characters and the social life was good, with friends in every port, and occasional onboard parties, including one in Ullapool where a young Billy Connolly, banjo in hand, performed.
This reviewer loved this book. Several family members were puffermen; indeed my father is one of those to whom Keith McGinn dedicates this work, and my Great-Uncle Donald was the man responsible for the demise of the original Lady Isle, among others! Personal interest aside, this is a thoroughly entertaining read about a way of life that ended in the mid-1990s. If Last Of The Puffermen had never been written, Scottish maritime history would have lost something very special indeed.
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