THE long-running campaign to bring of the UK’s last remaining paddle steamers back into operation is inching closer to its objective, with the charity set up to revive the Maid of the Loch just £150,000 short of its multi-million-pound fund-raising target.

The Loch Lomond Steamship Company (LLSC), a charity whose volunteers have maintained the ship since acquiring it in 1996, has all but raised the £5.5 million it has been aiming for under a capital appeal project launched to get the steamer back on the waves and to repair Balloch Pier.

By the time the project comes to completion, it will be one of only three operational paddle steamers in the UK, joining the famous Waverley and the Kingswear Castle on the River Dart.

LLSC expects to create 30 jobs when the vessel is up and running again and hopes the Maid will become an important tourist attraction for the Balloch area. It will sail from Easter to October and be used to host events and functions all-year round.

Chief executive John Beveridge, who was part of the team which brought the Waverley paddle steamer back into operation in 1974, said: “It’s a £5.5m project, and it is going to bring 30-odd jobs to the area,” Mr Beveridge said. “It’s going to be a super tourist attraction. We’re going to have training places for kids which is badly needed in the Balloch and Alexandra area.

“Hopefully the ship will be an icon for Scotland – a beautiful paddle steamer sailing up one of the most famous lochs.

“We are just raring to go, and the good news is we have almost all the funding in place – that was the big stumbling block for us. We knew the ship was capable of being able to sail again, but raising the money was our biggest issue. We’re a very small charity and it is a very big project.”

Currently berthed by Loch Lomond Shores in Balloch, the Maid of the Loch was built in 1953 and has not sailed for nearly 40 years.

Along with the Waverley, she was built by the one-time Glasgow shipbuilder A&J Inglis, whose former yard is now occupied by Glasgow’s Riverside Museum on the Clyde. By the time of her last voyage in 1981, the Maid of the Loch was in a poor state of repair. Ownership passed then to Alloa Breweries and eventually to the local, which sold the vessel to the trust for free.

Mr Beveridge said: “She was a bit of a wreck when we bought her, almost sinking at the pier and had been stripped of everything.

“In the past 20-odd years we have managed to open her as a visitor attraction. We have restored it to a reasonable level, but it is a quantum leap, going from something sitting at the pier welcoming people to actually getting a licence to sail and carry passengers.”

LLSC’s fund-raising efforts received a massive boost in 2016, when it received a £3.8m Heritage Lottery fund, on condition of meeting certain conditions.

Some funding has come from other trusts and public subscriptions. But Mr Beveridge said the “game changer” came when the charity secured a Scottish Government regeneration grant of £950,000.

“We’re about £150,000 short at the moment, but we are so close to it,” he said. “We’re pretty confident. If we don’t quite get there it is not going to be a deal-breaker.”

Heritage Lottery Fund has so far released part of the £3.8m, which has allowed the trust to consult technical specialists on the project. A second application to unlock the final tranche of the funds, covering matters such as health and safety engineering, education, and a business plan, has been submitted, with a decision on whether the project can ultimately go ahead due in September.

Should it get the green light from Heritage Lotter Fund, the charity will appoint a naval architect for the task of installing a new boiler on the ship. Funding for that project, which will require the funnel and midship section of the vessel to be removed, has been secured in the shape of a European LEADER grant, but it can only go ahead when the full grant is in place.

“It’s a really critical bit of the whole puzzle, because we don’t want the funnel collapsing,” Mr Beveridge said. “We don’t want to lose it over the side of the ship. The funnel and the midship section have got to be lifted off the ship, so we have access to the boiler room. It is in the only way a new boiler can go in.”

In the meantime, café business on board the Maid has been becoming this summer as Scotland has basked in hot weather.

Café on board had been taking record numbers. Mr Beveridge said visitor numbers to the Maid are well up on previous years.