12 Aug '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

During the Second World War the Royal Navy’s vitally important Anti-submarine Experimental Establishment was secretly moved from Portland in Dorset to the Ayrshire village of Fairlie. For the next six years it occupied the boatyard of yacht builder William Fife on the Firth of Clyde. As experiments took place into new ways of sinking German U-boats, the peace of the quiet village was shattered. Winston Churchill described the work done at Fairlie as critical to winning the Battle of the Atlantic and ultimately the war. The research remained relevant to anti-submarine warfare long after the war, and is still relevant today.

Read an extract of FAIRLIE’S SECRET WAR below and if you want to know the full story, you can purchase the book direct from our website.

From Chapter 2 – ‘To Fairlie’

Fairlie lies between the coastal town of Largs to the north and the inland town of West Kilbride to the south, with the Largs channel separating it from the two Cumbrae islands to the west. Prior to the early years of the nineteenth century, Fairlie was not a place of any note. in 1656, for example, it was described by Oliver Cromwell’s tax commissioner Thomas Tucker as having ‘only a few houses, the inhabitants of fishermen, who carry fish and cattle for Ireland, bringing home corn and butter for their own use and expense’.

The two Cumbrae islands provide considerable shelter to the Fairlie shore. This not only enabled the villagers’ small boats to fish and trade but also afforded a safe anchorage for the larger ships taking cargo to the other towns and villages of the Firth of Clyde and beyond. In 1759 James Watt of steam engine fame published the results of what would now be called a hydrographic survey of the Firth of Clyde undertaken by his uncle, John Watt. On the chart an anchor is shown off ‘Farly’, the symbol of a safe anchorage which is still in use today.

The anchorage off Fairlie was, and still is, known as the Fairlie road. Road is a shortened form of the term ‘roadstead’ derived from the Middle english words ‘roade’, meaning riding, and ‘stead’, a place. Mention of the ‘Fairly road’ is also made in Tucker’s 1656 report, showing that the area was recognised as a safe place for a ship ‘to ride to her anchor’ even then.

That the Fairlie road was a popular as well as a safe anchorage is illustrated by an article which appeared in an 1825 issue of a somewhat obscure publication called the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany. The author was one Andrew Allan, who described himself as a former Fairlie school teacher. In the article he recalls the village as he knew it towards the end of the Eighteenth century. Referring to the Fairlie road, he remembers having seen ‘ten, yea, twenty sail of gallant merchantmen anchored at any one time’ as they waited for better weather or the receipt of final orders from their owners before starting their next voyage. Andrew Allan also noted that while the ships lay safely at anchor off the village, ‘the captain and crews caroused among us till we scarcely knew them – or one another!’

Among those who would have watched the many different ships – and maybe have been part of the carousing – was a young man called William Fife. William was one of the four sons of John Fife who had come to work as a carpenter or wright on the 4th earl of Glasgow’s Kelburn estate, of which Fairlie was a major part. William was born within the estate in 1785 and as he grew up his interest in the vessels which he saw each day increased. Wishing to view them more closely, he would often borrow a small boat to row and sail around the anchored ships. He studied the different types, hull shapes and rigs, conversed with the captains and crews, and probably earned a few pennies ferrying the men to and from the shore.

With the assistance of his father, and no doubt with ‘spare’ wood from the estate, he then built his own boat. such was the quality of the workmanship that he was soon made an offer to purchase it. He quickly accepted and with the money received he started work on a second and then a third boat. His business prospered, and in 1803 the earl agreed to lease him part of the foreshore at the north end of Fairlie for use as a boat building yard. secure in his new shoreside location, William Fife was soon constructing a variety of boats for fishing and the coastal trade, with orders coming in either directly or by recommendation as his reputation both as a designer and as a builder spread. But the Fairlie yard was not alone in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and many other boatyards and shipyards became established along the clyde coast to build a vast range of vessels first in wood and then in iron. Steam power was also developing. Fife did try a single steamship – the small cargo boat Industry of 1814 – and was offered financial backing to expand into this rapidly growing new area of work. But he resisted, and took the decision to continue as a builder of wind-driven wooden boats.

While boats for fishing and cargo carrying provided steady work, William knew that what he really wanted to do was build boats able to sail faster and have a much more attractive appearance than these sturdy working craft. But who wanted such a boat? Fortunately, William Fife was not the only person to be granted a lease of the Fairlie shore by the Kelburn estate. The village’s sheltered location and sandy beaches began to attract visitors from beyond ayrshire. among these visitors were some very rich Glasgow men who, as in so many places along the clyde at this time, began to seek sites for a summer residence away from the grime and disease of the city. While part of the wealth had its origins in the compensation paid for giving up sugar and other slave plantations in South America, both as merchants and as members of the growing number of new industrialists, they had steadily amassed considerable fortunes. Always needing income for his estate, the earl of Glasgow readily granted feues, or titles, to these affluent incomers to the extent that by the 1850s just eight large houses – all but one still existing today – occupied two-thirds of the Fairlie shoreline.

The incomers had two advantages not available to Fairlie’s longstanding residents: they had plenty of money and, during their summer months in the village, they had abundant leisure time. like William Fife, they would watch the sailing boats coming and going in Fairlie Bay and began to think that maybe a boat intended for pleasure, rather than for trade, might provide a good healthy way to spend some of the summer. And perhaps there might also be the possibility of sailing against another boat to see which one was fastest. Who better to design and build such a boat – a racing yacht – than William Fife at his yard just along the Fairlie shore?

Born in Giffnock, John Riddell became interested in the Clyde, shipping and engineering from a young age. He worked as a civil engineer before becoming a senior lecturer and reader in water engineering at the University of Strathclyde. He has lived in Fairlie since 1972, and in retirement has continued to pursue his interest in the Clyde, ships and local history.

  • Paperback | Pub: 04 Aug 2022

    During the Second World War the Royal Navy’s vitally important Anti-submarine Experimental Establishment was secretly moved from Portland in Dorset to the Ayrshire village of Fairlie, to escape German bombing on the south coast. For the next six…

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