THE man to whom the Hebrides and Western Highlands of Scotland owed more than to any one else in his time was without doubt Mr. David MacBrayne. Everywhere among the sea-lochs and islands of the West Coast the steamers of his famous fleet are welcomed as the connecting link with the civilization and comforts of the greater world. It is by these steamers that the sons and daughters of the West go off to find their fortunes in a wider sphere, and by these steamers is brought back the eagerly looked for news of their prosperity, with their kindly gifts, to the remotest clachans and shielings of the isles. By these steamers, too, all summer long, the tourist wealth of the south is poured throughout the Hebrides, and all the year through the products of the isles are carried away to be converted into the things desired. It is proof of the kindly manner in which this enterprise has been carried on, that in all these years no rival has ever found a footing in the western seas, and that the invasion by railways at important points has only increased the steamers' trade.
A native of Glasgow, where he was born over ninety years ago, Mr. MacBrayne was a grandson of Dr. Burns of the Barony Church, whose two sons established the great steamship company of G. & J. Burns. The story of his steamboat enterprise forms one of the romances of commerce. In 1842 a group of Glasgow merchants, among whom were W. Campbell of Tilliechewan. J. Hunter of Hafton, and A. S. Finlay of Castle Toward, entered on passenger steamer ownership on the Clyde by building the Duntroon Castle. From the names of the various steamers it put upon the water the association was known as the Castle Company. But it did not succeed, and in 1845 the steamers were sold to Messrs. G. & J. Burns. The new owners at once attempted to "corner" the Clyde steamboat traffic, and for a time ran passengers to any point of their vessels' call for the sum of two pence. The effort, however, did not produce any adequate result, and in 1848 the ownership was devolved upon the firm of David Hutcheson & Co. The devolution was a family arrangement, David and Alexander Hutcheson being closely related to the Messrs. Burns, and Mr. MacBrayne, the junior partner, their nephew. Already there was a considerable traffic with the West Highlands through the Crinan Canal by track-boat, and from Crinan to Oban by the steamer Brenda. In August, 1847, Queen Victoria had travelled by this route to the West Highlands and it had thus acquired the name of the Royal Route. This traffic the Messrs. Hutcheson rapidly developed, buying the Shandon and other steamers from the previous owners, Thomson & McConnell, and building their "crack" steamer, the first Iona, in 1855. Seven years later she was sold to run the American blockade, but was sunk off Fort Matilda by the Chanticleer. Iona No. 2, built in the following year, was also sold for the blockade, but sank on her way thither, off Lundy Island. In 1864 the present Iona was built, and carried on the tradition of the "crack" steamer's name.
David Hutcheson retired from the business in 1876, and by the retiral of Alexander Hutcheson two years later Mr. MacBrayne was left sole owner of the fleet. He inaugurated his control with the building of the Columba in 1878, and so regained the supremacy on the Clyde which had been threatened by the launch of the Lord of the Isles. To-day the MacBrayne fleet consists of thirty-three steamers manned by more than a thousand officers and men, to say nothing of some five hundred employees on shore. Outside the Clyde the vessels ply to every port and island, from Islay to Thurso, and perform a service only differing in degree from that of the Cunard fleet of Mr. MacBrayne's cousin, Lord Inverclyde.
Of a somewhat retiring disposition, Mr. MacBrayne never courted public life, but among his duties as a citizen he was long an officer of volunteers, passing through all the grades from ensign to major. He was for several years a member of the Clyde Trust, and he was on the Commission of the Peace for the County of Lanark. Latterly his two sons, Mr. David Hope and Mr. Laurence MacBrayne, relieved him of the more burdensome details of business management, and about a year before his death the firm was converted into a limited liability company, with Mr. David Hope MacBrayne as its chairman; but the veteran owner to the last kept in touch both with the affairs and with the personnel of his splendid fleet. Mr. MacBrayne died at his residence in Glasgow on 26th January, 1907.
Index of Glasgow Men (1909)