John Whittle

Born; June 20, 1933;

Died: December 19, 2023

The death of John Whittle, a former general manager of Caledonian MacBrayne at the age of 90, marks the end of an era in west coast shipping. He was born Norman John Derek Whittle in 1933 to Agnes and William in London and in his formative years, developed a profound interest in the buses, trams, trolleybuses and underground trains of London Transport. His father was a painter and decorator.

When war was declared in September 1939, John was evacuated to Chichester. His father gave up the painting and decorating business and worked for the Army Supply Depot. In 1941 they were moved to Thornliebank, Glasgow, to escape risk from bombing, and the family was reunited. This temporary move became permanent and so John spent the next 82 years in Scotland.

At the age of 18, John started work with Glasgow Corporation Transport timetabling department. In those days, Glasgow Corporation operated trams, trolleybuses, motor buses and the subway. In 1955 he moved on to the traffic department of Central SMT, a very profitable bus company operating in Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire. In 1966 he was promoted to Traffic Manager.

In 1968 the late Barbara Castle MP issued the Transport Act which brought together the principal Scottish bus companies together with the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSPC) and David MacBrayne Ltd, a shipping operator in the west of Scotland. John was asked to become general manager of the CSPC in Gourock, a position of significance in Clyde Coast steamer services.

The CSPC had been formed in 1889 and continued until December 1972. In 1973 David MacBrayne was merged with the CSPC, the enlarged company becoming Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac). John then became general manager and deputy chairman.

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During his tenure, old side-loading ferries were replaced or converted to roll-on-roll-off, or, better still, drive through. Piers were revamped and linkspans fitted, Roll-on-roll-off ships made cargo vessels obsolete. The Maid of Cumbrae (1953) was converted from a passenger only vessel to a passenger and vehicular ferry, Jupiter (1974), Juno (1974), and Saturn (1978) were built to serve Gourock, Dunoon, and Rothesay, replacing the pioneer side-loading ferries Arran (1953), Bute (1954) and Cowal (1954).

From the Clyde in 1973 and 1974, two unusual and very significant movements took place. Glen Sannox (1957), the Arran ferry, moved to Oban and Mull and Bute to the same route, and so started the now taken-for-granted interchange of vessels from each area, Clyde and Western Isles. The marketing changed from Clyde Coast Steamer services to the Marine Motorways Clyde and Western Isles purely because the ships were gradually becoming drive through.

In the Hebrides, Pioneer (1974) was built for Islay, Suilven (1974) was purchased from Norway to serve Stornoway from a new terminal at Ullapool. The 1964 built Clansman, one of the original MacBrayne car ferries was rebuilt from a side loader to a roll-on-roll-off vessel to serve Arran, eventually being replaced by the Isle of Arran (1984), the last ship ordered by John for Calmac.

Claymore (1979) was built for the Oban to outer isles service, Lochmor (1979) served Eigg, Muck, Rum, and Canna. Eight new Island class bow-loading vessels using landing slips were built in Port Glasgow between 1972 and 1976. These new vessels brought the company into a new age.

John and some of his colleagues were on board Loch Seaforth (1947) in March 1973 when she grounded in Gunna Sound and later sank at Scarinish Pier, Tiree; this vessel had been the 1947 Stornoway mail vessel redeployed to Oban in 1972 to allow a roll-on-roll-off service to Lewis to be established in 1973. It was the only time John was shipwrecked and sadly Loch Seaforth never sailed again.

In 1983 one of his last jobs was to place an order for the car ferry Isle of Arran, still with Calmac 40 years later.

With all this came sadness that some lovely steamers, the last of a golden age of the Clyde had to go. The King George V (1926) left the Sacred Isles cruise from Oban to Staffa and Iona for the last time in 1974. The Queen Mary (1933), the very last turbine steamer on the Firth of Clyde, went in 1977.

John, being a transport enthusiast, helped so many. He was honorary president of the West Highland Steamer Club (WHSC), honorary member of the Clyde River Steamer Club, and honorary member of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society.

However, his legacy and epitaph was the gifting of the Waverley (1947), the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer for £1, following withdrawal from passenger service in September 1973.

John and his colleague Sir Patrick Thomas, then chairman of the Scottish Transport Group, made this gift in the headquarters of Caledonian MacBrayne at Gourock Pier.

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Present at Gourock that day in August 1974 were Terry Sylvester and Douglas McGowan of the brand-new Waverley Steam Navigation Company who now had the challenge of turning the fairy tale into reality. Waverley was returned to service in 1975 and nearly 50 years later still continues to ply the waters of the Firth of Clyde, and has carried six million passengers in that time - quite a legacy.

John is survived by his wife Evelyn, four sons and a daughter, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.