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This week, Brian Mitchell, author and expert Genealogist explores the rich connection between Ireland and the Scottish port city of Glasgow. 

Irish links with Glasgow, Scotland

It has been estimated that “fifty to ninety per cent of the people in the West of Scotland have some Irish ancestry in their family tree. Think of prominent Scots with Irish names – Loraine Kennedy, Dougie Donnelly, Billy Connolly, Brian Cox, Sean Connery. Certainly, huge numbers of Irish arrived in the Greater Glasgow area at the height of the potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century, but there had been a long tradition of links, particularly sea trading and work opportunities, between the West coast and the north of Ireland.

The single navy or agricultural worker who made periodic forays to Scotland was a common sight and there are novels which have been written about their exploits and hardships, notably Children of the Dead End written by Patrick McGill in 1914.” [Source: ‘A Fictional Family History’ by Dr. Sean Damer published in Newsletter, Journal of the Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History Society, No 88, June 2010, pp12-15].

Cross-Channel Migration and the Scotch Boat

Steamboat connections, established in the 1820s, between Irish ports and Liverpool and Glasgow, facilitated the transport of Irish emigrants overseas and the settlement of large Irish communities in the cities of a rapidly growing industrial Britain. The Derry to Glasgow passenger and livestock steamer was known as ‘The Derry Boat’ in Donegal and as ‘The Scotch Boat’ in Derry.

In 1829 the first steamer belonging to the port, the 136-ton paddle steamer Foyle, was purchased for the Glasgow route; with the 139-mile crossing from Derry to Glasgow, with stops at Moville, Portrush, Giant’s Causeway, and Campbelltown, taking 22 hours. 

In 1836 the Londonderry and Glasgow Steamboat Company, owned by local merchants James McCrea, Patrick Gilmour, and William Forsythe McIntyre and by Glasgow merchants Lewis McLellan, John Cameron, and Donald McLellan, had three boats on the Glasgow route. The Foyle sailed from Derry every Saturday, while the St Columb and Rover sailed every Tuesday and Thursday.

The Derry-Glasgow steerage passenger trade was initially dominated by the emigrant and the seasonal harvest worker. The former traveled to Great Britain either to seek work or to board a liner for America. The seasonal harvest worker went to work on farms in England or Scotland for a few months in the summer. 

The Gweedore Bar and Seasonal Migrants

James and Margaret Sweeney owned the Gweedore Bar in Waterloo Street, Derry from 1912 and they catered for seasonal migrants to Scotland from their home parish of Gweedore in the civil parish of Tullaghobegly in northwest Donegal. James Sweeney also lent money to these migrants on their outward journey to Glasgow for fare, lodgings, and drink, and on their return through Derry they would pay him back from wages earned in Scotland.

James Sweeney kept a record of this borrowing in the back of a large accounts ledger. These records begin in 1915 and end in 1945, and over this 30-year period, James Sweeney recorded 1,555 entries in his ledger, The Gweedore Book. This book contains names of many islanders, off the west coast of Donegal, from Gola, Owie, Inisher, Cruit, and Arranmore. Many left in the late autumn, and winter, coinciding with the end of the fishing season.

In Arranmore there was a long tradition of ‘tattie hoking,’ and squads of men, women, and children would leave every year for Scotland.

Burns and Laird

In 1851, Alexander Laird of Glasgow started a Glasgow to Derry service, which in time he came to regard as his principal passenger route to Ireland. The potential trade was obviously good as the Burns Steamship Company, another Glasgow firm, moved in, by providing, initially, twice-weekly cattle sailings. A trade war resulted, with the steerage fare for passengers to Glasgow falling to 1 shilling. By 1868 local operators had been eliminated owing to the faster ships, lower fares, and tighter schedules of the two Glasgow companies.

By 1901 Derry was served every week by four sailings to Glasgow on Laird ships and a further two on Burns ships. 

Passenger sailings from Derry to Glasgow continued to thrive in the inter-war years. In 1922, the two old-established Glasgow companies, G & J Burns and Laird Line, who had pioneered passenger, goods, and livestock routes between Scotland and Ireland amalgamated to form Burns and Laird Lines Ltd, and the Laird Line funnel of red, white and black was adopted by all of the ships of the fleet. 

In the 20th century, Burns and Laird ships played an important role in the development of tourism to the North West. The “Scotch Fair” of July and August brought ships, loaded to capacity with Scottish holidaymakers, to Portrush and Derry. A Derry-Glasgow passenger service, by sea, continued until September 1966 when Burns and Laird transferred their last remaining passenger steamer on this route, the Lairdsloch, to the Dublin-Glasgow service.

This ended the passenger sailing trade between Derry and Glasgow which had run for 137 years.

Scotch Boat Holidaymakers

Image: This stern view of Burns & Laird Steamer Rose Glasgow, showing a packed deck, mostly of men wearing cloth caps, was published in Derry Standard on 18 July 1927 with the caption ‘The Scotch Fair – Hundreds of visitors from Scotland have arrived in Derry during the last few days: A contingent of holidaymakers on the Glasgow boat.’ During July and August, and in particular, during the Paisley and Glasgow Fairs, the Scotch Boats were loaded to capacity with Scottish holidaymakers destined for the holiday resorts of North West Ireland.  (Courtesy of Libraries NI, Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 16-9)

Scotch Boat crew members

Image: ‘Burns Laird Line’ crew members on board ship at Derry Quay. In 1930 Burns and Laird ships sailed from their Prince’s Quay berth, every weekday at 6.30 p.m., for Glasgow. (Courtesy of Libraries NI, Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 16-4)

The Importance of Glasgow as a departure point for Irish Emigrants in the Age of Steam Ships

By the 1870s sailing ships could no longer compete with the speed, comfort, and reliability of the transatlantic passenger steamers. From 1861 right through to 1939 ocean-going liners called at Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry, to pick up emigrants who were ferried from Derry in paddle tenders. Derry now became the major emigration port for the northern half of Ireland. Annual Emigration Reports from the Port of Londonderry published in the Londonderry Sentinel show that between 1877 and 1897 inclusive 193,887 passengers embarked at Moville for North America; with 153,886 destined for the USA and 40,001 to Canada.

LEARN MORE: The Port of Derry

The Glasgow shipping company of Handysides & Henderson, in 1856, inaugurated a new mail, cargo, and passenger service, the "Anchor Line of Steam Packets" between Glasgow and New York. From 1866, the company’s Glasgow to New York steamships started calling at Moville and continued to do so until 1939.  

In 1916 the Anchor Line and another Glasgow company, the Donaldson Line, merged their services to Canada and formed a joint company, Anchor-Donaldson, to operate the route. Four Donaldson ships, the Letitia, Saturnia, Cassandra, and Athenia, were transferred to the new shipping line. 

By 1930, the Anchor Line was promoting their ‘Londonderry & Belfast to New York’ service on their ‘New Oil-Burning Liners “California,” “Caledonia,” “Cameronia,” “Tuscania,” “Transylvania,” – all 16,700 Tons;’ and the Anchor-Donaldson Line their ‘Londonderry and Belfast to Canada’ service which sailed ‘in Summer to Quebec and Montreal; in Winter to Halifax and St. John, N.B., or Portland, Maine.’

Anchor Line tender Seamore

Image: Anchor Line’s paddle tender Seamore, under a full head of steam, departs Derry Quay with over 300 emigrants on Saturday 6 April 1929, and heads downstream to connect with a transatlantic liner, anchored off Moville, in the deeper waters of Lough Foyle, some 18 miles downstream from Derry, that left weekly for USA and Canada. Until 1939, when transatlantic liners ceased calling in Lough Foyle, the Seamore ferried passengers, emigrants, and tourists between Derry and Moville. (Courtesy of Libraries NI, Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 13-3)

Anchor Line Office, Derry

Image: A party of emigrants is photographed outside the ‘Anchor Line’s Office at 111-113 Foyle Street before sailing for America.

In 1911 the Anchor Line came under the control of the famous Cunard Line. In 1925 ‘Anchor, Anchor-Donaldson, and Cunard Lines office in Derry moved from 20 Foyle Street to new premises at 111-113 Foyle Street, beside ‘Hotel Metropole,’ at the junction with Bridge Street. For many emigrants, the boarding houses and hotels in and around Bridge Street (such as Metropole and the Canadian Hotel) were where they slept on their arrival, usually by train, in Derry. At the bottom of Bridge Street was the jetty, at the ‘Transatlantic Tenders’ shed on Abercorn Quay beside the Great Northern Railway station, where the tenders of the Moville Steamship Company and, from 1928, of the Anchor Line took emigrants to Moville to board the liners that left weekly for the USA and Canada. (Courtesy of Libraries NI, Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 14-12

Pipe Band on Caledonia

Image: Pipe Band on board Anchor Line ship, Caledonia, off Moville on Saturday 2 July 1938 (Courtesy of Libraries NI, Bigger and McDonald Collection, POR 15-9)

The Bigger and McDonald Collection of Photographs

On Friday 15 April 1927, the Derry Standard began to publish local photographs in the pages of its newspaper, with the hope ‘to present … pictures of local doings which can bear comparison with those of any other newspaper in the land.’  These images, some 14,000 original plate glass negatives, were rescued by David Bigger and Terence McDonald in 1968 after the paper’s closure in 1966, and the whole collection now rests with Libraries NI at Derry Central Library.

The value of this collection is further enhanced by the fact that a microfilm copy of Derry Standard from 1927 through to 1939, except 1928, is held by Libraries NI at Derry Central Library. This means that many of the photographs in this collection can be dated and further detail gleaned from captions and, in some cases, reports that accompanied each photograph in the Derry Standard. In this period the Standard was published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Indeed, the first photograph published in Derry Standard on 15 April 1927 was of ‘Emigrants leaving Derry to join the Transylvania at Moville for Halifax and New York, boarding the tender at the Quay.’

About the Author

Brian Mitchell has researched a selection of these photographs, focusing specifically on the maritime history of the city from 1927–1939, which were published in a book, Foyle Maritime Memories: Photographs from the Bigger and McDonald Collection 1927 to 1939 (by Brian Mitchell and Libraries NI, 2018, Colourpoint Books, Newtownards, Northern Ireland, Images include the activity on the quays, loading and unloading of ships, tug-tenders plying between Derry and Moville, transatlantic liners, the Scotch Boat, and emigrants and passengers on board the tenders, liners and cross-channel steamers. 

Derry Genealogy, 2023

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