Neil Munro (1864 – 1930) was born in Inveraray and worked as a journalist on various Scottish newspapers. He wrote a number of historical novels but is best known for his humorous stories about the fictional Clyde puffer the Vital Spark and her captain Para Handy, written under the pen name of Hugh Foulis.
Although Neil Munro didn’t emigrate any further than Glasgow, his background (his grandmother was from a Gaelic-speaking part of the Highlands) would have given him an insight into emigration and what it felt like to be an exile. This poem is written more from the perspective of someone who stayed behind.
Are you not weary in your distant places,
Far, far from Scotland of the mist and storm,
In drowsy airs, the sun-smite on your faces,
The days so long and warm?
When all around you lie the strange fields sleeping,
The dreary woods where no fond memories roam,
Do not your sad hearts over seas come leaping
To the highlands and the lowlands of your Home?
Wild cries the Winter, loud through all our valleys
The midnights roar, the grey noons echo back;
About the scalloped coasts the eager galleys
Beat for kind harbours from horizons black:
We tread the miry roads, the rain-drenched heather,
We are the men, we battle, we endure!
God’s pity for you people in your weather
Of swooning winds, calm seas, and skies demure!
Let torrents pour then, let the great winds rally,
Snow-silence fall, or lightning blast the pine;
That light of Home shines warmly in the valley,
And, exiled son of Scotland, it is thine.
Far have you wandered over seas of longing,
And now you drowse, and now you well may weep,
When all the recollections come a-thronging
Of this old country where your fathers sleep.
They sleep, but still the hearth is warmly glowing,
While the wild Winter blusters round their land:
That light of Home, the wind so bitter blowing
Look, look and listen, do you understand?
Love, strength, and tempest-oh, come back and share them!
Here is the cottage, here the open door;
Fond are our hearts although we do not bare them,
– They’re yours, and you are ours for evermore.
Vital Spark and Artic Penguin, Inveraray.
There is some 20 years gap between the two photographs in this post both taken at Inveraray , Argyll and Bute, Scotland.
The image below was taken in 1993 and features the Artic Penguin sitting by herself, the above image was taken on Thursday as I was passing. As you can see two boats are now harboured along the pier.
The second boat in the image is the Vital Spark, the detail of which are below :
The Vital Spark
Vital Spark is a fictional Clyde puffer, created by Scottish writer Neil Munro. As its captain, the redoubtable Para Handy, often says: “the smertest boat in the coastin’ tred”.
Puffers seem to have been regarded fondly even before Munro began publishing his short stories in the Glasgow Evening News in 1905. This may not be surprising, for these small steamboats were then providing a vital supply link around the west coast and Hebrides islands of Scotland. The charming rascality of the stories went well beyond the reality of a commercial shipping business, but they brought widespread fame. They appeared in the newspaper over 20 years, were collected in book form by 1931, inspired the 1953 film The Maggie, and came out as three popular television series, dating from 1959 to 1995.
The original BBC Series Para Handy – Master Mariner, which ran from 1959–60, starred Duncan MacRae (Para Handy), Roddy McMillan (The Mate), and John Grieve (Dan MacPhail, the engineer). Six episodes were filmed, none of which survive.
In 1963 Macrae, McMillan and Grieve, accompanied by Alex Mackenzie and guitarist George Hill, recorded an album of songs, Highland Voyage. A short film was made to accompany the recording, filmed on board a puffer as it cruised around the Firth of Clyde. Macrae and McMillan appear as The Captain and The Mate, while Mackenzie appears as The Engineer, causing Grieve to move to play The Cook. Although very obviously based on Munro’s characters, the names of Para Handy, the Vital Spark, etc. are never mentioned, probably due to copyright issues.
In the second version, The Vital Spark, McMillan took the role of Para Handy, and Grieve reprised his role as McPhail; Walter Carr (Dougie the Mate) and Alex McAvoy (Sunny Jim) completed the crew, and the series ran for three series between 1965 and 1974. The third series, filmed several years after the first two, was in colour and consisted of remakes of selected earlier episodes.
In 1994 BBC Scotland produced The Tales of Para Handy which starred Gregor Fisher in the lead role alongside Sean Scanlan as Dougie, Andrew Fairlie as Sunny Jim and Rikki Fulton as Dan McPhail. The series also featured a young David Tennant in one of his first acting roles. Alex McAvoy, who played Sunny Jim in The Vital Spark, appears in one episode as a fellow captain of Para Handy in the coastal trade.
The deck of a “puffer”.
“In her captain’s own (islands accented) words, the Vital Spark is “aal hold, with the boiler behind, four men and a derrick, and a watter-butt and a pan loaf in the foc’sle”. The way these steam lighters with their steam-powered derricks could offload at any suitable beach or small pier is featured in many Vital Spark stories, and allows amusing escapades in the small west coast communities. The cargoes carried in the hold vary from gravel or coal to furniture to livestock, the crew’s quarters in the forecastle are taken as lodgings by holidaymakers or lost children and the steam engine struggles on under the dour care of the engineer McPhail. Tales are recounted of improbably dramatic missions in World War I. Others scoff at her as a coal gaabbert, reflecting the origins of the puffers, but an indignant Para Handy is always ready to defend his boat, proudly comparing her 6 knots (11 km/h) speed and her looks with the glamorous Clyde steamers.
Eilean Eisdeal dressed as the Vital Spark.
The stories sparked considerable interest in the puffers, and many books explore their now vanished world. When VIC 72, renamed Eilean Eisdeal, ventured from her home at the Inveraray Maritime Museum to visit the Glasgow River Festival in 2005, she proudly bore the name Vital Spark in testimony to her continuing popularity. Now in 2006 she proudly is the Vital Spark of Glasgow having been successfully re-registered.
The Argyll brewer Fyne Ales, situated close to Inveraray, where the current boat rests and Neil Munro was born, produces a beer called Vital Spark  in tribute to the series.
In December 2007, the Vital Spark Clyde puffer returned to the Forth and Clyde Canal – the place of her ‘birth’, as reported on STV news' Reporting Scotland.
The puffer now sits on the slip way at Crinan boatyard awaiting restoration. ”