Ewan Kennedy: The Fifes of Bute

The Red Shed, by Alexander Wilson (courtesy of the Bute Museum)

The Fifes of Bute

by Ewan Kennedy – Oct. 2020


On the front at Rothesay in June 2003 during the Fife Regatta I made the acquaintance of a delightful and well-informed lady, who turned out to be Miss Jean M Fife, perhaps the last surviving member of the Bute Fyfe family still in Scotland. I arranged to keep in touch with her and she later supplied me with much more information, with permission to publish it as I saw fit.

While she was doing this I researched the old Census records in order to trace the family and their connections with the other Fifes on the mainland, not helped by their habit of changing the spelling of their surname from time to time. There was also a Scottish tradition of favouring just one or two first names, in this case John and William, also of reusing names for later children after earlier ones had died, which doesn’t help the researcher.

What follows is based on Miss Fife’s work in local libraries, conversations with local residents and so on, but not least her own memories of her family and a lifetime of holidays on Bute, plus my own efforts on scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

The starting point for any Fife research is always “Fast and Bonnie”, May Fife McCallum’s masterwork. She records that a John Fyfe was born in Kilbirnie in 1743 and moved to the Earl of Glasgow’s Kelburn Estate to work as a wright in 1770. He and his wife Janet, nee Fyfe and probably a cousin, had at least six children of whom four sons, John, James, William and Allan followed their father’s trade, William becoming the famous William Fife I. She goes on to record:-

“It appears that John Fyfe Junior, the eldest son of John the wright on Kelburn estate was building fishing boats at the beginning of the 19th century. Old customs records list fishing boats built by him at Fairlie and registered at Irvine, the local port of registration at that time. As a youth William Fife, born in 1785, may have been attracted to his older brother John’s business, and thus began his introduction to boat building.”

Later, relevant to our story, she narrates:-

“A cousin [of William Fife I] John, who was a carpenter in Ardrossan, and his wife, both died about the same time, and an uncle in Ardrossan took care of their three sons. Apparently these orphaned boys were not happy in this household and walked from Ardrossan to Fairlie, a distance of about ten miles, to throw themselves on the mercy of their father’s cousin. He took them under his wing and employed them as apprentices. On completion of their apprenticeship they crossed to the island of Bute where they set up a successful boat building business at Ardmaleish.”

Nothing more is said of this carpenter cousin John and I was intrigued to confirm that he was indeed the father of the three orphans, whose names I already knew, courtesy of Miss Fife, were John, James and Thomas. I discovered the following, from the 1841 Census for Ardrossan:-

This John is almost certainly the father, but we can see that he was an established shipbuilder, not simply a carpenter. A further search showed that he died from jaundice on 14 May 1848. I couldn’t find his wife’s date of death and it seems the youngest, Daniel, died in childhood. Note that John’s brother James is living in the house, so he is “the uncle in Ardrossan”.

A look at the 1851 Census confirms that they’re still in Ardrossan, John a ship carpenter lodging at number 5 Harbour Street and James with his uncle James next door, still an apprentice. I haven’t managed to trace younger brother Thomas, but it’s likely he was also lodging nearby.

This seems to confirm that far from being helpless young orphans the brothers were useful, fully or at least partly trained ship carpenters by the time they moved back to their place of birth in Fairlie, sometime after 1851, and joined the workforce of William Fife I. Nor did they stay there long, for by 1856 a large wooden building had gone up on the shore at Rothesay, the Red Shed, probably not actually red in colour but named for the red rocks on which it stood, as seen in Alexander Wilson’s depiction of it above.

It seems that there were two James Fyfes building boats in Rothesay in the mid 1850s, described as Senior and Junior, but with only half a generation between them. This suggests that Uncle James (born about 1816) had moved from Ardrossan and nephews James (born 1832), John (born 1833) and Thomas (born 1838) had crossed from Fairlie to join him.

These Bute Fyfes were an industrious bunch and built almost anything that could float, apart from yachts. In his “History of Rothesay and its People” Dr Lawson records:-

“The Red Shed was below the level of the road. What is now the [New Rothesay, later St John’s] manse garden was the ground on which the larger keels were laid of smacks of a goodly size. Smacks, fishing skiffs and rowing boats (also small boats with round sterns and one sail) were the craft built by Messrs Fyfe. There would be a number of new boats lined up on the ground on the margin of the roadway extending to the ladies’ bathing place (now Isle of Bute Sailing Club). Behind the ladies’ and gents’ bathing places (the old bathing station) the land was lower than the roadway. This depression was used in winter time for the laying up and storing of small rowing boats.”

On 13 June 1857 The Buteman announced:-

“On Wednesday last there was launched form the boat-building yard of Messrs. Fyfe a beautiful craft of the gigger rig, c. 20 tons, property of Mr Thorburn, Farmer, Isle of Muck. She was named “The Islander’s Bride” by Miss Richmond, daughter of Mr Richmond, Temperance Hotel-keeper, Rothesay and is intended to carry produce of the isle of Muck to Tobermory, the nearest market port in that district, the owner being the lessee of that isle. She has a very faviurable appearance and, considering the cost she is built for, promises to be a swift sailing craft and a credit to her young and enterprising builders.”

This would have been one of the first larger vessels built by the family, but they went on to greater things. In April 1858 the Buteman again:-

“Launch! On Tuesday afternoon there was launched form the building yard of Messrs Fyfe a sloop of c. 70 tons burden, the property of Mr Kelso of Arran. The vessel was name “Catherine Kelso.” The launch was conducted with systematic accuracy and the vessel glided down the ways gracefully. We hope soon again to witness the launch of as large, if not larger craft form the same yard.”

By 1861 the Census described James as a Master Ship carpenter, John as a ship carpenter and Thomas  as a mere journeyman. One can see that they all knew their station.

With the coming of the railways and the Clyde steamers Rothesay entered its heighday as a holiday destination for all classes of society. Wealthier families could afford to build or rent villas along the front, while more ordinary ones went into lodgings for the annual Glasgow Fair. There was terrific business for boat hirers well into the Twentieth century, in fact right up to the arrival of cheap package holidays in the 1960s.

After many years the road along the front at Rothesay was improved and the Red Shed was taken down. The Fyfes moved round to Ardmaleish, where they established their second yard on the site where there now stands a sea-food factory. Thomas (Miss Fife’s great-grandfather) didn’t join his brothers. Instead he concentrated on building rowing skiffs and in the 1881 Census is described as “boat-builder/hirer (17 boats).”

The remaining Fyfes eventually concentrated on building fishing skiffs and three of James Fyfe’s sons were working at Ardmaleish until the 1930s, by which time the boats were getting much bigger and designs were changing fast. Two of John Fyfe’s sons were trained there, but George was drowned aged twenty in 1898 and  John emigrated to Canada in 1906. Most of Miss Fyfe’s surviving relatives are now in Canada and the United States.

Ewan Kennedy is the author of the long-standing and well-known blog Scottish Boating: everything about boating, more or less in Scotland, a treasure trove for those interested in boating traditions.