Strachur’s first international sporting hero

Thistle crew Erie Basin by JS Johnston courtesy Long Island Maritime Museum
Thistle crew, Erie Basin, New York, September 1887. (JS Johnston/ Long Island Maritime Museum)

“I sometimes wish, mysel’, I had taken to the yats… it’s a suit or two o’ clothes in the year, and a pleasant occupaation. Most o’ the time in canvas sluppers.

Dougie (the Mate).

Among the Yachts from In Highland Harbours with Para Handy by Neil Munro, 1911.

A little-known yarn about a crew of specially selected seafarers from the Firth of Clyde’s maritime communities – which 129 years ago became one of Scotland’s first international sporting teams – will be spun at the New Hall, Strachur from 7.30pm on Saturday 13 February, when yachting historian Iain McAllister presents his great-grandfather’s story:

STRACHUR’S FIRST INTERNATIONAL SPORTING HERO: professional yachtsman Archibald “Pierie” McNicol and the quest for the America’s Cup.

Helensburgh-born Iain, who has strong Strachur roots, hopes his profusely illustrated presentation, part of Strachur and District Local History Society’s open winter talks series, will encourage other descendants of the crew of Thistle, the Royal Clyde Yacht Club’s 1887 challenger for the America’s Cup – yachting’s holy grail – to share handed-down stories and memorabilia.

In spring 1887, when 23 year old Archie McNicol (with pale complexion, 2nd from left seated on a cushion in the above image) eschewed the herring fishing, instead leaving his family’s St. Catherines maritime croft to sign-up for a season of well-paid yachting adventure aboard the 108ft long Thistle – newly built of steel and teak under great secrecy at D&W Henderson’s Partick, Glasgow shipyard – could this son of a Lochfyneside fisherman and fish curer possibly have imagined featuring in the New York Times by September, being fêted at Manhattan gala evenings by exiled Scots?

Great hopes were built up around the Firth for Thistle’s success; everything seemed set in place for nothing less than wrestling the ‘Auld Mug’ back across the Atlantic to defend it on the Clyde.

The Hunter’s Quay-based challenging club had rapidly grown from the Clyde Model Yacht Club, gaining Royal patronage along the way to becoming the world’s largest yacht club in number of members and tonnage of yachts owned.

The challenging yacht was owned by a syndicate of some of Glasgow’s most successful industrialists, including the Paisley, New Jersey and Rhode Island-based ‘thread barons’, the Coats and Clark families, and brothers James and William Bell, quietly intent on dominating the world market in shipping chilled and refrigerated meat. All had something to gain from the venture, commercially and in esteem.

Thistle had been designed by young Glasgow naval architect, George Lennox Watson, rapidly becoming dominant in the creation of successful yachts powered by wind or steam. It wasn’t just the challenger that Watson had drawn, but also the mothership that would accompany her across the Atlantic, John and William Clark’s sumptuous 700-ton steam yacht, Mohican.

And Thistle’s crew was chosen by Gourock-based skipper John Barr: the pick of the Clyde’s professional yachtsmen. They were:

John Barr, Master (Gourock); William Craig; John Crawford (Carpenter, Fairlie?); John Fyfe (Bute?); John Graham, (sailmaker); John Graham; William Griffin (Bute); Alex Hill (1st cook); William Holmes; Hugh Howat; James Hughes; Angus Kennedy; (Captain) Donald Kerr (Navigating Master); Alex McDonald (1st officer); Archibald McIntyre; Daniel McKellar (Bute?); Daniel McKenzie (2nd Officer); Archibald McNicol (2nd cook, St. Catherines); James Shedden (Portencross); James Wilkie; William Wright (steward).

Thistle was soundly beaten in America, but for Archibald McNicol it was just the beginning of a professional yachting career aboard big budget ‘superyachts’ that would leave him comfortably off for the rest of his life.

~ Iain McAllister ~

  • Who: Iain McAllister – classic yacht consultant and historian.
  • What: Strachur’s First International Sporting Hero:
  • Who? Professional yachtsman, Archibald “Pierie” McNicol.
  • Why: The quest for the America’s Cup.
  • Where: Strachur & District Local History Society, New Hall, Strachur.
  • When: Saturday 13 February 2016, 7:30pm.
  • Entry: £3.00 (including tea).

Further reading:

Order of the Thistle

Scotia’s Thistle

All mod cons: the steam yacht Hermione, 1891

Thistle at Facebook

Thistle at Twitter

Thistle Library of Congress
Thistle off Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York, September 1887 (Library of Congress)