In the mid-1800s, the Highland potato crop had failed, as in Ireland. The condition of the poor was also exacerbated by the rapacity of landlords with the result that emigration accelerated.
During this period, the interests of the company were bought out by Messrs Burns. They then transferred their Highland operation to a new company formed by two former Burns heads of department, David and Alexander Hutcheson, and a nephew of the Burns brothers, David MacBrayne.
The new company was called David Hutcheson & Co. and the firm inherited eight steamers and two Crinan Canal track boats. Of the steamer fleet, Edinburgh Castle and Curlew (formerly Ainslie's Glencoe) provided the daily summer passenger service in each direction on the Caledonian Canal, with Cygnet and Lapwing providing a twice weekly Inverness–Glasgow passenger/cargo service.
The smart livery colours of the Hutcheson ships are worthy of note for they were to last for well over a century. The scheme was black hulls and paddle boxes with much gold leaf decoration, white upper works and funnels of a distinctive orangey-red with black tops and on some vessels a black ring-stay or hoop.
This scheme originated with Robert Napier, who, besides his ship-owning interests, was a marine engineer of note. As an engineer, he supplied engines, boilers and his characteristic funnels to his own vessels and those of others including the Burns brothers, the Cunard Line in which he and Messrs Burns had interests, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co. and Messrs Thomson & McConnell.
These colours may be seen to this day on ships of the Cunard Line and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co. although sadly no longer on any Scottish vessel. The house flag flown on Hutcheson ships was a blue triangular pennant with a red saltire (diagonal cross) superimposed on, but offset to, a white saltire. This was an adaptation of Thomson & McConnell's former twin pennants.
In the poor trading conditions the Hutchesons disposed of Curlew in 1853 and did not, at that time, replace her, reducing the passenger service provided by Edinburgh Castle on her own to thrice weekly in each direction.
Lapwing was sunk as the result of a collision in 1859 and she was replaced as consort vessel on the Glasgow route by purchasing Ainslie's Maid of Lorne, subsequently renamed Plover. By the early 1860s, with sound management, tourist traffic had developed well throughout the Hutcheson empire and it was decided at last to provide a consort to Edinburgh Castle in the form, firstly, of a chartered twin-hulled vessel Alliance and then a new steamer Fairy.
Fairy was, in the event, deemed excessive for the traffic and was switched to other duties. Edinburgh Castle finally did get a permanent running mate with the building of the Gondolier, one of three new ships launched for the company in 1866, and so reinstating the daily summer passenger service on the canal.
Gondolier introduced a major advance in passenger comfort in the form of deck saloons. Thus, for the first time on the waterway, passengers could enjoy the passing scene in inclement weather from behind glass – a feature that in due course became a standard fitment on other "swift steamers" of the fleet.
Like Edinburgh Castle, Gondolier was to have a very long and successful life on the Caledonian Canal – seventy-three years all told, performing the journey southwards one day and northwards the next between Muirtown Wharf in Inverness and Banavie at the head of a series of locks known as Neptune's Staircase.
Banavie was a short distance from Corpach on Loch Linnhe where connection was made with Chevalier, also built in 1866, for the service to and from Oban and Crinan. At Crinan the tiny steamer Linnet (the third of the 1866 trio) transferred passengers to and from Ardrishaig where a connection was made with the Hutchesons' flagship Iona (later Columba) and the Broomielaw in the heart of Glasgow.
This journey, between the Clyde and Inverness, Hutchesons' premier route through some of Scotland's grandest scenery, was cleverly promoted as the "Royal Route" in commemoration of a journey made in 1847 by Queen Victoria and Albert Prince Consort through the Crinan Canal and onward to several of the Hebrides.
Prince Albert's trip through the Caledonian Canal the same year has already been mentioned. Queen Victoria made a subsequent journey along the Caledonian Canal on Gondolier in 1873. As a marketing ploy in the days of Empire the Royal Route designation was a winner.
The company's ships were well maintained and many lasted well beyond their allotted span. One such was Edinburgh Castle which was thoroughly modernised in 1875 and renamed Glengarry, a particularly happy choice. More mundane aspects of the business were also developed. Up to this point all the ships listed were paddle steamers, but in 1877 a small screw steamer, Fingal, was delivered to operate the year-round Fort Augustus–Inverness mail run.
As economic conditions improved, the company prospered and grew and when the Hutcheson brothers retired, the younger partner at 62 years of age, David MacBrayne, took over the business in his own name from 1879.
The fleet had grown to a dozen steamers and the pattern of services was well established. Although a reserved man who rarely appeared in public, MacBrayne was a hard working and shrewd operator with a flair for publicity and what would nowadays be termed corporate identity.
The "Royal Route" appellation was almost certainly his idea. The business continued to grow in traffic and prestige, not least on the Caledonian Canal.
Loch Ness with Jacobite
A history of cruising on Loch Ness
By Roy Pedersen
First published in Scotland in 2007
Second revised edition 2015
available in these languages