She plotted her course from Balloch, festooned in bunting and with day-trippers on board for a gentle cruise through spectacular scenery.

For 33 years Skylark IX was a familiar sight on the calm waters of Loch Lomond; a world away from the carnage of the Second World War, when she was among the brave ‘little ships’ that scooped 340,000 British and French troops to safety from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The war over, the plucky little cruiser had sailed north to bring pleasure to tourists. None, surely, could have suspected the blood and terror which once stained her pristine decks.

By 2008, however, the once gaily decorated pleasure cruiser was rotting and it seemed a watery grave awaited on the bottom of the River Leven.

Now, little ship that saved hundreds of war-battered soldiers is set to take pride of place at a new £3 million heritage and training centre and, in a poignant twist, doing what she does best - plucking those in need from miserable depths and offering them another bite at life.

At Dumbarton-based community drug project Alternatives, lives are patched together through counselling, workshops, outdoor pursuits and training programmes.

There are complimentary therapies, family support groups, and a chance to move into supported accommodation – a first step for people once in the grip of life-sucking substances or isolation to ease themselves into a home of their own.

Thanks to Skylark IX, there has also been the chance for some to learn the traditional skills of boatbuilding alongside a specialist team, helping to restore the 50ft war veteran and building new skiffs which it’s hoped will help aid their recovery and revive the once thriving sport of skiff rowing to the waters off Dumbarton.

The new Spirit of Skylark Centre will ensure a permanent home for Skylark IX - believed to be one of only two ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’ from Operation Dynamo surviving in Scotland.

Located in the grounds of the Scottish Maritime Museum (Denny Tank) in Dumbarton, it will become a hub for boatbuilding training, with volunteers from Alternatives and others learning traditional wooden boatbuilding skills as they work on her restoration and construct 22-foot St Ayles skiffs.

Although a recent condition survey revealed Skylark IX is too structurally unsound to take to the water again, she will eventually take pride of place in a sound and vision experience that will tell the story of Operation Dynamo and celebrate the age of pleasure boat trips ‘doon the watter’.

For James Currie, one of the volunteer boatbuilding trainees from Alternatives’ Safe as Houses project in Clydebank, being involved with Skylark IX has helped change his life around. He is currently working on the Trust’s second, hand built 22-foot St. Ayles rowing skiff. Once complete, it’s hoped to form a new rowing club which will aid Alternatives’ clients’ recovery through exercise, social engagement and team building, as well as re-establish the sport in the town for the first time since 1925.

“Being involved with the Skylark IX Recovery Trust gives me a sense of purpose and routine,” he says.

“I know I can be at the workshop on Mondays and Tuesdays and I’ll have people around me I can talk to.

“I can look back and see how far I’ve come.

“Last year, I wouldn’t have believed in myself or had the confidence and I wouldn’t have had these opportunities or been able to do all of these things and the other projects within the Trust.”

However, as lockdown hit, the Skylark IX Recovery Trust workshop, housed in the Scottish Maritime Museum and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, had to close.

Instead, work moved online, with James and other Alternatives’ trainees switching from working on Skylark IX and the full-size rowing skiff, to constructing their own 1/8 scale model Echo Bay Dory skiff.

Working with boatbuilding experts at Archipelago Folkschool, the Trust has plans to develop apprenticeships so trainees can to on to gain qualifications to aid employability.

Skylark IX was built as a pleasure cruiser in 1934 in Poole, Dorset, and spent over a decade enjoying the leisurely existence of a pleasure boat until being drafted into war service as a shallow water minesweeper.

One of her roles was placing anti-invasion obstacles around the entrance to Poole harbour.

Her finest hour, however, came over four days in late May and early April 1940 when she joined hundreds of ‘little ships’ plucking soldiers to safety from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Skylark IX alone rescued around 600, cramming 150 men at a time on board, well over her capacity of 115.

With the war over, Skylark IX headed first for Burntisland in Fife and then Loch Lomond, where Sweeneys Cruises operated her for 33 years.

Her past glory was forgotten until 1978 when a veteran recognised her as a one of Dunkirk’s little ships.

Skylark IX became a focus for Dunkirk veterans who paraded in Balloch each May armed with poppies to pay silent tribute to the men who didn’t make it home.

However, damage and time were against her. She took on water and began to sink in 2010.

A desperate effort to save her was launched, and she was eventually raised – at the second attempt - with help from Royal Navy divers and salvage experts whose reward came in several bottles of whisky.

The effort to restore her brought together the unlikely collaboration of addiction project Alternatives, Vale of Leven Remembrance Association, Leven Cruising Club, local community fundraisers and the Scottish Maritime Museum.

The Skylark IX Recovery Trust plans to begin fundraising for the Spirit of Skylark Centre in early 2022 with hopes to begin construction in 2025.

Mary Burch, Chair of the Skylark IX Recovery Trust, said: “In her lifetime, Skylark has been battered by wartime service, storms and at least two sinkings.

“Although we have had to sadly accept that she will never sail again, we have taken some of her indomitable spirit to go well beyond our original vision.

“We will preserve Skylark IX in the most historically authentic and dignified way and help more people make positive and even transformative change to their lives and community.