Caley Cruisers at 40 - A Company History
A History by Guthrie Hutton (written in 2010)
In August 1969, a few months after their marriage, Jim and Elizabeth Hogan bought a Norwegian cruiser, a Myra 21, not as a pleasure boat, but to start a business. She was taken to Brodie, Moray, where Jim ran the family garage and through that winter, when he wasn’t fixing people’s vehicles, Jim worked on the boat. In the spring of 1970, suitably modified to accommodate two adults and two children, she was taken by road to become the first holiday hire cruiser on the Caledonian Canal. Named, simply, Myra her first customers were Editor of Scottish Field, Comyn Webster, and two adult friends, a crowd of three for the little boat. They left from above Muirtown Locks in a rain storm, not a good start, but the weather cleared and after a splendid week on the water, Comyn gave the venture a glowing report. Caley Cruisers’ future, like the weather that week, looked bright.
It was what the Caledonian Canal needed. In the 1968 Transport Act it had been designated a commercial waterway, the highest operational category for the British Waterways Board (BWB), and in 1969 hydraulic mechanisation of the lock gates was completed, but one crucial ingredient was in short supply - boat traffic. Although she was small, Myra pointed to a new future for the old waterway.
Myra also offered Jim a different way of life where he could be master of his own destiny instead of beholden to his garage customers, but before that could happen the venture had to grow into something more substantial than one wee boat, and finding the finance was not easy. Jim asked for a bank loan, but left empty handed with the manager’s words, ‘it’s a pity it’s not stone and lime’, ringing in his ears. So he did a deal with the Dunlop agent, whose tyres he sold at the garage, and by delaying payments for six months accrued sufficient money to buy the boat. He also drew a blank at the Highlands & Islands Development Board (HIDB), until a new chairman, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, took over the government agency in the autumn of 1970. Doors opened, funding for a Princess 32 cruiser was made available and later the words ‘do not underestimate this man’ were written on Jim’s file.
Jim and Elizabeth sought permission from the clan chief, the Brodie of Brodie, to call the new boat Brodie Castle. Judith Davenport, the wife of BWB resident engineer Brian Davenport, performed the naming ceremony at Muirtown. Caley Cruisers’ second season was under way, but it was not all plain sailing. Myra was holed when she hit an uncharted rock at Port Clair on Loch Ness near Invermoriston. The damage was not too bad, but the incident resulted in a warning marker being placed at Johnny’s Point. Caley Cruisers was changing the canal and its lochs in many ways.
Through the early 1970s Jim and Elizabeth had to contend with a succession of operational difficulties. The North Sea oil boom was creating highly paid jobs in the highlands and BWB struggled to keep trained staff. Small breakdowns could lead to big problems because there were no skilled men to carry out repairs. Boats could be stranded on the wrong side of damaged locks with irate customers having to be rescued from distant locations. In the late summer of 1974 waterway staff, in pursuit of a pay claim, refused to work on Saturdays and Caley Cruisers had to service, and turn the boats around at Dochgarroch.
In 1975 the boats were marketed for the first time through Hoseasons, one of two large companies that sold this kind of holiday. A larger fleet was needed to cope with the expected demand and, with assistance from the HIDB, the season opened with improved boatyard facilities and eight cruisers available for hire.
In May 1976 a pair of lock gates at Muirtown gave way. It was a dramatic incident, but because it occurred below the Caley Cruisers base it did not affect the business. That was fortunate because eight boats had been added to the fleet taking the total to sixteen. The highlight of the season was a visit from a BBC film crew and presenter Joan Bakewell who made a feature to be screened that winter on the Holiday Programme. Prospects for the coming season were given a further boost in October 1976 when ‘Nessie’, the Loch Ness Monster, was sighted from Urquhart Castle, but optimism was about to be dimmed. In late October, stonework at Laggan Locks collapsed and BWB announced the closure of the canal until January.
The severity of the problem at Laggan did not hit home immediately. There was nothing to worry about if the canal would be open in time for the new season, but the lock wall collapse proved to be a major structural failure and British Waterways could not afford the cost of repairs. The canal wasn’t just shut its future was in doubt. With the boat hire business also in jeopardy, Jim became a campaigner fighting to save the canal. Representing all of the canal’s commercial operators he lobbied Government ministers in London, wrote copious letters (including one to the Duke of Edinburgh) and consulted Queen’s Council with a view to suing the Government for failing to carry out its statutory duties to maintain the canal. The HIDB got involved, as did Highland Regional Council, the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council and the local MP Russell Johnston. It worked and in the spring of 1977, after a worrying winter, additional funding was made available. Laggan Locks were back in operation on 29 August, the season was almost over, but the future of both the canal and Caley Cruisers had been secured.
The problems at Laggan occurred at a crucial time for Jim and Elizabeth. They had decided to sell the garage business at Brodie and move to a house at Burnfoot beside the boatyard, a move complicated by the birth of their fourth child, Alan. It was a ‘what have we done’ moment, but there was no time to dwell on such thoughts. The Holiday Programme generated huge interest and with help from the HIDB, Jim had ordered sixteen new Princess 32 boats from Marine Projects. On one occasion a boat arrived from the makers just in time: the hirer passed the delivery lorry on the A9 and helped to hang the curtains before setting off.
In January 1979 one of Elizabeth’s favourite pop songs, YMCA by Village People, topped the hit parade, and the centrepiece of the International Boat Show at Earl’s Court in London was a 35-foot prototype cruiser Highland Admiral. She had been designed for the HIDB and built by Orcantic Ltd. in Orkney. The company unfortunately had gone into receivership the previous summer, but the HIDB secured the moulds and three more boats, Seaforth Castle, Muirhouse Castle and Beldorney Castle, were built for Caley Cruisers. Highland Admiral, renamed Highland Captain, was also taken into the fleet and contributed to many successful seasons.
That first momentous decade ended with another major development. Caley Cruisers bought the adjacent boatyard known as Loch Ness Marine when it was put up for sale and by 1980 a new business, Caley Marina, had been established on the site. It developed into a major facility. For boaters there was a well-stocked chandlery, boat sales, slipway, berthing and boat repair facilities, and for boat hirers, toilets, showers and souvenir shop. The two fully integrated and complementary businesses operating side by side added up to a significant enhancement of what the canal had to offer. Not a bad outcome for what had started with one small boat.
Jim shifted his focus to building up the marina while Elizabeth continued to look after the hire business, attending to the office work, preparing the boats, supervising and often doing the cleaning, and showing hirers around. Winter was when the bookings came in and someone was always on ‘telephone duty’ and, with over twenty boats to turn round the following morning, there was no going out on a Friday evening. The popularity of canal cruising in England was spreading north, but with its large dimensions, exposed lochs and occasionally wild weather the Caledonian offered a different test of boat handling skills described by Jim as ‘adventure cruising’. It could get adventurous for the hirer too, ‘like having a hotel 60 miles long’.
Boats were hired out at all times of the year until 1982 when one hirer, ignoring instructions only to tie up at specific, sheltered locations, chose instead to anchor off Invermoriston. While ashore having a drink, the boat went adrift and was saved only with the help of a fishing boat crew who later tried to claim salvage. Their claim was invalid, but with a badly damaged boat and a legal hassle, that was the end of hiring outside the normal tourist season.
In the 1980s people began to expect higher standards of comfort from the early days and the boats were progressively upgraded. By the middle of the decade the fleet had grown to 47 boats. Of these, 27 were Princess 32’s, known by Caley Cruisers as the Brodie Class, eight were Princess 30s, the Iona Class, there were four Highland Admirals, four Project 31s, the Lochranza Class and three Princess 33s, the Tantallon Class. There was also one Atlantis, a converted Project 31, with professional quality sonar, paper recording depth scan and colour depth scanner - ideal for Nessie hunters.
In October 1987 most of the fleet, including Atlantis, was engaged in Operation Deepscan, a sonar exploration of Loch Ness looking for Nessie. The boats advanced up the loch in line abreast each sending a signal into the depths, but the notoriously shy beastie remained an enigma. It was one of many events on loch or canal that Caley Cruisers were involved in. A Wellington bomber that had crashed in Loch Ness during the Second World War was brought to the surface in September 1985. Jim took television crews to the scene and also towed the recovered aircraft to the shore – it was slow progress at two miles in five hours. Former Scottish rowing champion George Parsonage and world lightweight sculls champion Peter Haining set a faster pace in April 1993 when they rowed down the loch in a record 2 hours, 28 minutes and 9 seconds. Alan drove the back-up boat.
The company’s credits also include working with stars like Barbara Dickson, Billy Connolly and the pop group ‘The Police’. Television programmes like Blue Peter, two further Holiday Programmes and the Ted Danson movie ‘Loch Ness’ all heightened the image of Caley Cruisers.
In the late 1980s, The Seagull Trust, a charitable body established on Scotland’s Lowland Canals to provide free canal cruising for disabled people, decided to extend their activities to the Caledonian Canal. The only contact they had was Jim who involved himself wholeheartedly in the project. A boat, surplus to requirements at Jacobite Cruises, was obtained and Jim arranged for her to be stripped and shot blasted at an oil rig construction yard. She was then rebuilt and fitted out at Caley Marina and commissioned as Highland Seagull in 1989. Based since then at the marina she has been maintained at minimal cost to the Trust, and been provided with fuel and water. The Seagull Trust has thus derived great benefit from Jim’s involvement.
The next generation of the family came in to the business in 1989 with Lizzie working in Caley Cruisers reception and Jamie in the workshop. He was involved in building two boats, one in 1990 and the other in 1991. They were based on the hull of the Highland Admiral and were known as Highland Commander I and Highland Commander II. At the same time six cruisers were purchased from a hire company on Loch Oich, taking the fleet to a high of 55 boats in 1991, a season that was fully booked for 25 weeks following another Holiday Programme presented by Eamonn Holmes.
Audrey started in the business in 1990 at Caley Cruisers reception and Lizzie took on a reduced role within the company as she brought up her young family. Alan came into the business in 1995 and began to develop expertise in outboard engines and Orkney and Pioner boats. Caley Marina was the main U.K. importer of the polypropylene Pioners from Norway, delivering them throughout Britain, including one order for 250 boats for Hyde Park and Regents Park in London.
In the mid 1990s Caley Cruisers led a consortium to replace the old pontoon in Urquhart Bay with improved facilities. They were opened by Princess Anne and operated under the banner of the Loch Ness Harbour Company.
The ghost of the Laggan Locks came back to haunt the canal in 1994. British Waterways (the word ‘Board’ had been dropped from the title in 1988) had looked closely at the entire structure and realised they had an emergency. Again the canal faced the very real prospect of closure, but the Scottish Office reacted quickly, money was made available and starting in 1995, and for the next ten winters, the ageing stonework was painstakingly stabilised and the canal effectively renewed. It was a remarkable achievement.
The winter of 1996/1997 also saw a change of emphasis at Caley Cruisers with the start of a process whereby older, smaller boats were sold, many to former hire customers and replaced on a rolling programme with fewer, larger vessels. Pre-moulded ‘Broom’ hulls were bought in from Aquafibre (now Brooms) in Norfolk and fitted out at Caley Cruisers, a process that is still continuing. There has been a change too in the way the business is marketed. Setting up a stall at boat shows in London, Germany and Scandinavia has been consigned to the past. In the 21st century most bookings are made directly on-line and hirers can ready themselves for the coming adventure in a comfortable briefing room with video facilities, and tea and coffee on tap.
In the new century, Jim and Elizabeth have been able to take a back seat. Jim sadly suffers from Parkinson's Disease but they both still take an active interest in the company. With 35 employees and making a significant contribution to the local economy, the new Inverness Marina is the most recent venture to join the Caley Cruiser brand so the remarkable history of Caley Cruisers, and Caley Marina, is still being written.
Had a great week, overall the boat was excellent, weather, scenery and lovely people we met on the way – thank you, will recommend Caley Cruisers.
The "Brodie Castle"
The boatyard at Burnfoot, near Muirtown Locks
Customer training (probably the seventies from the look of the fashion!)
Jim & Elizabeth assist Mike Carrie searching for the Wellington Bomber
Happy Family (probably taken around 1978)
Looking for the Loch Ness Monster on the "Atlantis"