Glasgow And Ships Of The Clyde

PIBROCH and the Submarine

A short essay

Before we properly begin let’s get the pronounciation correct.  Our ship’s name is PIBROCH.

PIBROCH is a Scottish word for a mournful variation of a tune played on the Scottish Bagpipes.

Now we know about this melodious musical mystery it’s time to speak it.

Pi ………. as in a “pea”, the little, round green vegetable that we eat.

Braw ….. as in a “brawl”…. A punching and kicking fight in a street.

Ch …… this is a bit more difficult. It’s the “ch” at the end of the Scottish word “Loch” as in the famous Loch Lomond.   Not as some of our English friends often pronounce it as “Lock Lomond”.

So let’s get on with the story.


It was maybe 1984 or 1985 when I was a deckhand on the small general cargo coaster PIBROCH owned by the Glenlight Shipping Company of Glasgow.


The ship was built in 1957, was 87 feet, 30m, long, had one hold and was equipped with McGregor sliding steel hatch covers.

She normally carried bulk cargoes of coal from Ayr in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland or from Garston in the river Mersey, or bulk cargoes of tarred metal from Gardner’s Quarry at Bonawe on Loch Etive near Oban, and carried the cargoes to various towns and villages, hamlets and tiny isolated settlements in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland.


One very early summer morning PIBROCH was sailing southbound in the Sound of Islay (pronounced eye-la, sounding like a lady's "eyelash" but without the "sh" at the end) the sixteen mile long narrow stretch of water which separates the islands of Islay and Jura in the West of Scotland.

We had delivered a cargo of 150 tons of coal to the Island of Rhum (pronounced Rum, as in the drink) and were returning to Ayr to load coal for Inverie near Oban.

I was on watch below and asleep in my cabin when I was awakened by a blast on the ship’s horn.

Dashing up the stair to the wheelhouse I found that we were in an extremely dense bank of fog. This was the first time in my memory that the horn had been sounded and that even the radar was switched on.


We passed Port Askaig to starboard, invisible in the fog.

Our full speed was about seven knots going downhill, so we didn’t need to slow down. Everyone listened and kept a sharp lookout.

Soon we came to the exit from the Sound of Islay and the fog began to clear.

There were four of us in the crew, three of them were smokers and I was the only non-smoker.

All of us were in the small wheelhouse. Two in there would be comfortable, three is a crowd and four is cramped.

As the fog cleared the three men got out their cigarettes and began smoking. Pretty soon the wheelhouse was filled with their thick choking smoke.

It was almost worse than the fog. My eyes became itchy and my throat became sore and I decided to go out on deck for fresh and clean West Highland air.


I walked the few feet to the stern rail and looked out at the coast of Islay, disappearing in our wake.


And I was astonished to see a submarine Periscope sticking out of the water about 20 metres (60 feet) away on our starboard quarter. The Periscope looked at me and I looked at it.


The Periscope kept station on our starboard quarter and followed us at our gargantuan speed of seven knots.

After maybe about two minutes I did the only thing I could think of and waved to the Periscope.


It continued to be pointed at me and I then walked back into the wheelhouse and saw that the last of the fog was almost cleared and the sky was becoming blue and bright.

It was going to be a lovely and calm sunny day.

A beautiful time to be in the Inner Hebridean Isles of Scotland.


And then I saw, maybe about three or so miles ahead on our port bow, over towards the Isle of Gigha, was a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship stationary in the water.


I recognised the ship as a torpedo recovery vessel which was often seen in the Clyde area, but I do not know what her name was.


I seem to remember that there were a number of torpedo recovery vessels at that time. Names were probably TOREADOR, TORRENT or TORRID.

The first three letters of their names - TOR - signifying their "TOR-pedo" activity.

Perhaps someone may be able to confirm the names.


It seemed obvious that the submarine which was following us was conducting an exercise with the Fleet Auxiliary ship.


A few minutes later I looked over the starboard quarter but the Periscope was not to be seen.

The water was flat calm and as smooth as glass.  Not even a ripple to show where our underwater friend was.


That was my first and only encounter with a real live submarine.