The McMillan’s were seafarers from way back. Alexander’s grandfather, John McKinnon, was a boatman at Gourock , and his father a seaman of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. The waters of the River Clyde were their home and no doubt, at times, their most ruthless opponent. Long before tar seal and combustion engines ruled the land, the rivers and seas were our roads. Cruel weather, currents, and rocks, were all just hazards of the job for the men who rode those wild highways. The skills and knowledge needed to navigate safe passages were passed down from father to son, and master to apprentice.
Alex and his siblings were born in Rothesay, but details of their childhood prove elusive. It was in Rothesay that he married Jane Currie in 186. He was twenty six years old and listed his occupation as “steam boat captain”; she was twenty five, and a “straw bonnet maker”. As trips “doon the watter” became more and more fashionable with Glaswegians, towns like Rothesay became the tourism hot spots of the day. Straw bonnets were probably in demand; as souvenirs, if not as protection from the fierce Scottish sun.
By the mid nineteenth century, canals and railways were being carved across the British countryside – the arteries which fed the industrial revolution’s racing heart – but coastal shipping still held its own. In his youth, Alex probably served his time on one of the coastal steamers or small puffers, which plied their trade on inshore waters. Once married, he settled with Jane in Greenock, where he was first a tug boat master, and then a Clyde River Pilot.
Both roles would have required intimate knowledge of the ever changing river. Tall ships under sail still ferried people and cargo to the farthest reaches of the globe, but they were unable to find their own way up the constantly silting Clyde channel. Tug boats towed them safely into harbour. In the eighteenth century that meant Greenock, but within Alex’s working life the Clyde was successfully dredged so that the largest ships could travel all the way to Glasgow.
Within a few years Alex had swapped his career on steady old tug boats for a much more exciting life as a river pilot. Pilot cutters raced their skipper out to the waiting vessel so that he could embark and give directions. In the days of sail, river pilots were self-employed, and business was competitive: the first pilot on board had the right to the job.
Steam power brought fresh challenges, because the new cargo ships were more manoeuvrable and so less at the mercy of wind and tide, and the owners argued that this should reduce the pilots’ fees. It was a volatile time for the profession, but an exciting one, when great sailing ships and transatlantic steamers shared the estuary with coasters and fishing vessels of all sorts. Alex seems to have weathered all storms, remaining a pilot until he retired in his sixties.
The river transported us all from pre-industrial times to the modern world, and it transported the family from islanders to city dwellers in the beat of a generation. Alex and Jane brought up six boys and a single girl, moving up river to Govan as the family grew. Three of the boys became engine fitters (presumably in the ship yards), one an electrician, and the youngest a ships’ draughtsman; wee Jeanie married an assistant grocer who went on to be a successful merchant in his own right. Jane died at her daughter’s home in 1904, but Alex’s last years are as elusive as his early ones. I think he lived with one of his sons, probably near the sea and a busy port, keeping ‘a weather eye open’.
Fiona – Mari – Dan – Jeanie – Alexander