Model ships for Dunalistair

Over the years I have seen several harbour layouts featuring excellent model ships: small coasters, full-rigged sailing vessels, a seagoing ship in low relief and a modern ferry which was complete down to its self-tensioning mooring winches. These are exceptions however as many otherwise quite good layouts are marred by unrealistic ship models and errors which are obvious to anyone familiar with the industry. I once spotted a ship made fast alongside the quay with its anchor cable, which makes me wonder whether the modeller in question has ever tried to pull a heavy object like an anchor cable by hand from the hawsehole to a bollard ashore and tie it into a knot!

Therefore, contrary to the rest of this website where I refrained from writing too much about construction detail, I decided to do just that in describing the ships for Dunalistair, and in the process tell you something of ships in general, as this is where my 'roots' are.

Lochalastair is a portrait of a turn-of-the-century island steamer with a cut down bowsprit. The gangway is typical, with sailcloth covers and a set of wheels enabling it to be rolled along the jetty.

This could be me sitting there in my old boat which was an 18' marine ply sloop dating from 1970. With its varnished cabin sides the boat doesn't look very much out of place. Note the steps leading down from the reinforced smuggling door at the back of the inn.

Renfrew Lass alongside the coal jetty, with the saddle tank pushing a load of coal in position above the chute. Note the funnel being forward of the wheelhouse and the generally drab colours of a typical working vessel. Note the derrick which has been topped out of the way of the loading chutes.

Sources of ship models and parts

A major problem in finding suitable model ships for your railway is the difference between model railway scales and ship modelling scales. Finding a ship close to 4mm scale (1:76) is virtually impossible. For N scale or 2mm scale the situation is slightly less problematical. The larger scales like 7mm or 10mm are closer to established model ship scales, but on the other hand the sheer size of these limits the scope of harbours and waterways on such a layout. In the smaller scales, instead of scratchbuilding the easiest approach to model shipbuilding for your layout is using a convenient model kit or even a suitable toy boat for scaling up or down to the appropriate model size. A fair margin can be dealt with, i.e. a ship to 3mm scale can often be scaled up to 4mm scale, and a ship to 1/200th scale will often do for an N gauge railway.

Similarly, there is an extensive market for model ship parts like lifeboats, ventilators, winches, anchors and blocks (known as pulleys to landlubbers). Again these are usually meant for large scales, but by judicious selection many can be utilized to detail a smaller scale model.

Having worked at sea for some years may qualify me to some extent to write about ship modelling. Instead of giving you a cooking recipe for ship modelling, I think many points can best be clarified referring to the model ships I built for Dunalistair, the harbour area of my Craigcorrie & Dunalistair Railway. Inevitably this narrows down the prototypes to those appropriate to my chosen period and location, i.e. the West of Scotland about a century ago.

Flora M

A suitable vessel to occupy the slipway at MacQuarie's is a small steam tug of perhaps about 40 tons deadweight. Effectively tugs are nothing but an engine room with bow and stern attached: there is nothing straight about their hull. During a sailing holiday many years ago I saw a toy fishing boat in the window of a village shop which looked a likely candidate to rebuild. This was a plastic boat made by the German firm of Schuco, incorporating a battery driven power unit that could be attached to the hull for use in the bathtub (no I didn't!). I repositioned the superstructure and set to work fitting all the typical attributes of a tug. Some of these are apparent from the photos, but I'd like to enlighten you on a few do's and dont's. This is especially useful because a tug and one or two cargo lighters don't take up much space and would be a good choice for any small harbour scene.

Left: close-up of the tug's crew being employed 'over the side', with a pot of red lead standing between them on the plank. From the bridge the skipper is making sure they do the job as it should be done. The after deck needs to be completely flush, which means that the dinghy must be stowed out of the way, in this case athwartships behind the funnel. A davit is used to get the boat over the side.

Right: the propeller gland on the tug being inspected.A few empty oil drums on deck are used as waste bins. Note the hawser rails across the stern and the towing hook which looks remarkably like an Airfix wheel with an 00 scale coupling hook!

First, a classic propeller-driven tug is supposed to manoeuvre around its towing hook or post, which is positioned amidships to allow the propeller and rudder to turn the ship so it can sheer away on the hawser. So a tug has its bridge structure forward with a post or a hook on a pivot immediately astern of it, then a low engine room toplight and after deck taking up half the ship's length. Two or three hawser guides should be fitted (the curved rails across the after deck). Bigger seagoing tugs in addition have hawser reels and winches below the bridge deck immediately forward of the towing hook. Note that modern harbour tugs have directional thrust rotors instead of a propeller and these often have the tow hook near the stern. Some older American tugs as portrayed by the well known Revell kit also have a stern-mounted hook or post, but how they manage to manoeuvre with propeller and rudder eludes me.

In an era when magnetic compasses were all you had to steer by, these were positioned as far away from the steel hull as possible and the wheelhouse was of timber construction enabling the compass to be placed inside. Often the compass was placed in a binnacle on top of the wheelhouse and could be viewed from below through a periscope. I still remember steering a cargo ship this way when the gyro broke down! The wheelhouse on 'Flora M' is clad in mahogany veneer to represent a wooden construction. I left the sketchy detail on the plastic superstructure in place, just employing creative painting to produce a convincing effect of a grimy white steel deckhouse. All the crew members of the tug by the way are H0 scale as the headroom in the gangways is under scale. The bridge ladder still lacks handrails. Note the navigation lights: red to port, green to starboard, two or three towing toplights in the mast, a steering light (to assist steering the towed vessel by night) behind the funnel and finally a stern light right aft.

The toy boat as obtained had a gold-coloured fitting which was supposed to represent an anchor windlass. This was converted into a steam-operated winch using plastic gears from scrapped locos and various odds and ends. A steam winch consists of a two-cylinder steam engine geared to a wire drum or (in the case of a windlass) to a drive shaft. They make a terrible racket: across a harbour where we were loading back in the '70s I remember a clapped-out Panamese freighter working its rattling steam winches for days on end. The anchor cables run from the chain locker below the fo'c'sle over grooved and notched sheaves in the windlass to the hawsehole. Between the sheaves and the drive shaft is a knuckle clutch, enabling the anchor to be dropped or hove in. The sheaves are fitted with brake bands and the cable can be locked by a ground stopper (a bar in a cast steel block fitted on deck over the hawsehole). The tug has one anchor which has been lowered (not dropped, mind!) on the slipway for safety reasons as people are supposed to work underneath. The anchor cable is a piece of cheap jewellery chain, painted black and rusty.

The tug's rudder appropriately is an old-fashioned plate rudder. I added bilge keels (which are meant to check the ship's rolling in a seaway) and draught marks all round the ship. Note the men painting the hull red lead and the propeller gland being inspected. The hull rests on a heavy wooden slip carriage with chocks to prevent her from falling over. Close inspection of the slipway cradle still reveals one glaring error. Originally the cradle had only four wheels, but its length was found to be insufficient, so I merely extended it and added a third pair, not realizing that in consequence the centre pair of wheels will be liable to derailment. Here really two sets of four wheels are required, one at each end, which follow the vertical curvature of the slipway rails.

Renfrew Lass

For a long time I wondered what kind of ship would have been used to transport coal from a port like Dunalistair to the Clyde area in the early years of the century. Many years ago Dave and Shirley Rowe sent me a sketch of a puffer, which basically is a steam-powered barge of about 70 tons. On the basis of that I decided to build a similar vessel with some modifications. The book on the Campbeltown & Machrihanish Railway by Nigel MacMillan provides more information.

Left: forward half of the collier, showing the windlass and the duck-under entrance to the cable locker. Right: close-up of the puffer's stern, showing the derrick stowed with the guyropes still cluttering the hatch cover. The skylight is propped open and on deck are the inevitable old drums. In the book on the Campbeltown & Machrihanish Railway by Nigel Macmillan a standard 'flat top' puffer is shown with a small vertical boiler engine forward of the mast.

The advantage of modelling this type of ship is that it has a flat bottom and a box-like hull with full lines. This meant that the hull could be constructed on a balsa baseplate, with the hull, deck and superstructure built up using card. Part of the hull near bow and stern was packed on the inside and then carved away to produce slightly more rounded contours. The basic hull was now shellacked, which greatly increased its strength, and sanded smooth before applying microstrip rubbing strips. The basic puffer seems to have been flush-decked with built up bow plating instead of a fo'c'sle, and only a low poop like an inshore fisherman. Now this may be sufficient for a ship in relatively sheltered water, but part of the Dunalistair-Clyde run is on the unprotected Atlantic coast, so I decided to provide my 4mm scale puffer crew with a more seaworthy ship. The height of the poop deck was increased, incorporating the deckhouse, and a low fo'c'sle was added. On the poop deck a low structure includes the funnel, engine room toplight and wheelhouse.

Aluminium tube was used for the mast and derrick, blocks from the model ship trade fitted, a windlass was converted from a commercially obtained one and finally a scratchbuilt topping winch was added. There is only one derrick, the load being swung using the guys on the derrick. In bigger ships two derricks are used side by side, one over the hold and the other over the side, using separate winches with the runners shackled together. Note that in the puffer the windlass is also meant to work the derrick by taking a few turns of the runner wire around the turning capstan head for heaving up, and slipping the wire for lowering the load. This practice was once widely used but is forbidden today because of the risk involved. One patent anchor is hove home, the other is 'presented', i.e. lowered to water level; its head is canted as a real anchor's would when hanging free. The bulwarks were fitted with microstrip 'frames'.

The after section of the hold which is supposed to be full of coal is closed with beams, hatches and part of the tarpaulin in place. The forward part of the hold is still open with a pile of coal showing. On deck the remaining wooden hatch covers and a removable beam are blocking the gangway which is typical for the chaos on deck when a ship is in port. Note that the vessel is down by the stern because the forward part of the hold is still partly empty. The model was painted black, with a tarmac-coloured deck and ochre bulkheads and derricks. The antifouling paint below the waterline is represented by brick red, and finally I added draught marks all round and the ship's name and home port, calling her the 'Renfrew Lass' of Gourock.


The last ship I built for Dunalistair is the paddle steamer 'Lochalastair', a freelance interpretation of the steamers once used on the Clyde and between the islands. Formerly this was a plastic model of the French 1845-era wooden steamer 'Occident', once available as a kit from the French manufacturer Heller. Years ago I converted the ship into a waterline model which since then disgraced the layout because of its increasingly dilapidated state and being unsuitable to represent a Scottish island steamer. So finally I took the plunge, completely stripped the model and reconstructed it to its present state.

The steamer's stern, showing lifeboats with oars and manropes, passengers seated on deck, the engine room toplight and the panelled saloon. Note the position of the ventilators.

The foredeck with the windlass positioned at the break of the fo'c'sle. The port anchor is 'unstocked' and stowed on chocks on deck. Headrope and spring are coiled, also note the tarpaulin on the hatch cover and the non-slip paint on the paddlebox leading to the port steaming light.

The first consideration was its wooden hull. In Britain seagoing wooden steamships ceased to be built by 1860. Their life expectancy was about 15 years and they flexed too easily to allow the use of a propeller shaft which at that time started to replace paddle wheels. At first I considered cladding the plastic hull with paper strips to represent iron. After I experimentally painted one side of the hull matt black I noticed that the wood pattern hardly showed up, so I dropped the earlier idea. There are several archaic remnants of the original model left, like the solid paddlewheels which by 1860 were replaced by 'feathering' paddles (which are adjusted by an eccentric to minimize turbulence when dipping into the water). Another remnant is the funnel which should have been made up from sheet iron instead of the cast iron sections used in the 1840s.

Anchor being hoisted home. In the early 1900s the stock anchor was replaced by 'patent' anchors used in the other ship models.

Detail of the hatch and the deck cargo stowed to port. The mailbags on the starboard side will have to be shut into the mail room.

Secondly, the design of the kit could have been better. The drive shafts to the paddle wheels would have run a foot above the main deck, but luckily this doesn't show up. There was no covering toplight for the steam engine which in Edwardian paddle steamers was a horizontally placed compound or triple expansion engine, extending way above deck level. The deck layout had to be altered radically, the anchoring gear was dubious to say the least and there were wide gaps between major components of the model.

Because I had to start virtually from scratch I studied photographs of similar vessels. There is a photo of the MacBraynes steamer 'Lovedale' at the Highland Railway pier in Kyle which offers a nice view of the ornate deck saloon and the position of the lifeboats. I have another photo of a Scilly islands steamer aground in 1870, showing the paddleboxes and the masts and loading gear which I copied. None of these show a typical wooden wheelhouse and bridge wings, so I designed these on the basis of common sense. The deck saloon was constructed much as a railway carriage, using microstrip for the beading. I noticed too late that the foremast and the bridge were too close together. As a result I could only accommodate a short derrick which when swung over the side would only reach slightly beyond the paddleboxes!

Passengers sitting on deck.

Detail of the fo'c'sle and windlass.

The windlass was converted from a Billing one with considerable detail added. The original stock anchors in the kit were modernized to include a sliding stock to facilitate stowing them away. One anchor is in a cradle on the main deck with the cable shackled to the fo'c'sle, the other is in the process of being hoisted inboard with the anchor davit. The lifeboats have been hoisted in their davits with correctly rigged blocks and knotted manropes hanging between the davits. The ship's name was made up using a photocopier, cut out and glued to the paddleboxes. Finally, the ship has been moored correctly with head- and sternropes and springs, the latter reaching from the ship's extremities to a bollard ashore near the paddleboxes. One thing one might still notice is that the vessel is riding rather high with its paddle wheels hardly dipping into the water.

8mm film of the last Clyde steamers in 1969: click on icon

Fishing boats

No Scottish port would be complete without fishing boats. However, when Dave Rowe provided material describing a 'Zulu' sailing fishing boat typical for the area modelled, I found it would hardly fit in the harbour due to its size with bowsprit and impressive rigging. So I decided to content myself with a pair of open fishing boats which - detailed with nets, floats and casks - provide enough atmosphere to complete the picture. As a starting point I used small plastic lifeboat hulls which I changed to waterline models on a flat baseplate. The nets were cut out of an old nylon stocking, and the floats are small beads on a string glued along the edge of the nylon tissue.

Left: Catriona turning into the wind, prior to dropping her sail. Note the man on the ladder standing by to take a line, and the detail on deck. One marker flag of the drift net peeps out. Right: Faith alongside one of the ladders. Note the details of the cutter rig, with the gaff mainsail stowed on the boom and the jib on the bowsprit. The staysail is still up, being dried. Note the scene ashore with nets drying and barrels being cleaned, a bucket of harbour water standing by. Normally there would be a 'hard' with a stone slope, enabling fish to be landed at any state of the tide. Lack of space prevented this feature from being modelled.

Seamus MacGillavry's boat 'Faith' is a small cutter with a flat stern which isn't very typical of the area (up there canoe sterns were favoured which date from Viking days). The other boat, a lug-sailed double-ender, is an attempt to portray the general outline of West Coast 'sharpies' or 'skiffs', without any claim to correctness due to the scanty information I had. This boat is called 'Catriona', a rather beautiful name for a tarred workboat! Its main shortcoming is that it isn't 'clinker' built with the hull planks overlapping. The sails were made of paper with thin yarn glued along the edges, and painted a tan colour. I represented the standing and running rigging as fully as possible and even included the running backstays in 'Faith'. Note also that the latter boat is fitted with a bin which basically is a watertight box extending down to the hull which in this area is fitted with one or two perforated iron plates. The bin is used keep fish alive and fresh until harbour is reached. I'm not sure whether these were used in Scotland, so let us call this modeller's licence.

Lochalastair's bridge and wheelhouse. Note detail inside.

The wheelhouse at night, showing the starboard navigation light and interior lights.


Perhaps I made a number of shortcuts in these models, but I feel they are useful examples to show how a plastic kit or a toy boat can be converted into a perfectly suitable ship for your harbour layout. After all, this is the easiest way to get the job done. Building your own hull as in 'Renfrew Lass' is slightly more complex and should only be attempted with boxlike ships (which also applies to modern ferries). Although a model ship represents a major modelling job, it calls for no more work than a factory or a row of houses. In the case of Dunalistair the harbour theme dominates the entire scene, needing several ships to be built over the years. A simple jetty along one side of a layout however, with one ship or even a tug with a lighter alongside, will do in most cases. So I hope this account fires your imagination. But please do me a favour and, in future, refrain from using anchor cables to tie up a ship!