A cruise along a canal is, according to Seagull Trust Chairman Ronnie Rusack, the fastest way to slow down. A soothing trip along the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals is the perfect way to unwind, de-stress, relax and generally enjoy yourself. Such a pleasant experience is especially therapeutic for people with emotional problems, the disabled or terminally ill, but often these people have enough to cope with and never find out about the Seagull Trust.
Since the opening of the Millennium Link, the fabulously engineered boat lift at Falkirk, which links the two canals, life on this east-west artery has blossomed with holiday makers making the whole trip in a week, or visitors and locals enjoying an afternoon or evening cruise. And thanks to the vision of Seagull Trust founders, the Rev. Hugh McKay and Ronnie Rusack, this facility is available to everyone.
Canal? What canal?
As a young restauranteur, Ronnie took over the Bridge Inn at Ratho in 1970. The water alongside looked like a swamp with floating debris. â€œMy first question was, What river is that?â€ Ronnie recalls. â€œThatâ€™s how much I knew about canals.â€ The restaurant flourished, but still the curtains had to be kept closed because of the mess in the canal. Finally Ronnie went to the Reverend Hugh McKay, the only person he knew who had an interest in the canal, who ran a Sea Scout group at Woodcockdale. He asked Hugh how to clean up the canal and was told, â€œRonnie, the only way to clean the canal is to use it!â€
Those words changed Ronnieâ€™s life and, in 1973, he launched his first floating restaurant. To do so, Ronnie had to learn how to drive and maintain the boat, the Pride of the Union, as well as actually clearing the canal of 100 years of silt and rubbish.
One day, his enthusiastic friend Hugh confessed his secret dream, which was to put a boat for disabled people on the canal. Now that Ronnie had the experience and the facilities at Ratho, he was the ideal person to see this project off the ground
The Seagull Trust
And so the Seagull trust was born. Its first boat was a second hand boat from England which had a Ratcliffe tail lift (for wheelchairs) and was called the St John Crusader. With his Torphichen connection, Rev McKay was Chaplain for the Order of St John and the name fitted. Skippers and crew were recruited from the Ben Line, some of them retired captains. In 1978, its first year afloat, the St John Crusader gave 470 disabled passengers the experience of a canal cruise. For many of them it was the experience of a lifetime.
Since this first boat took to the water, standards have necessarily improved, and St John Crusader is now undergoing a refit by enthusiasts from the 1940 Canal Society at Drumshoreland, who plan to use it in the Broxburn area next year. Since then, too, the Trust has secured nine boats in all, made possible by donations, and offering up to 15000 people every year, the opportunity to sail on the canal. The boats were all built by British Ship builders and Ronnie cleverly worked out how to get them free!
â€œApprentices at the ship yards were originally taught how to build, say, a funnel,â€ Ronnie explains, â€œwhich was then thrown away. It seemed like a terrible waste so we suggested that they build a whole boat for us instead, a miniature boat to them, using all the correct techniques. This worked really well but we still had to pay for the fitting out. Then the apprentices and workmen at the shipyards heard what the boats were to be used for and they saved the money from the deposits on their lemonade bottles and that was how we paid for the fitting out. We were very lucky!â€
Today, the Seagull Trust has 9 boats, 2 at Inverness, 2 at Ratho, 2 at Kirkintilloch and 2 at Falkirk, with the Marion Seagull based at Falkirk too. The Marion is kitted out as a residential boat which enables disabled people, old or young, and their families to enjoy a weekâ€™s holiday together. â€œWhen someone is terminally ill, Ronnie says, â€œthis can be a very precious time for them. It is also wonderful for emotionally unstable people, people with mental health problems. Medical staff have told us what a difference it can make. Thereâ€™s a saying that the canal is the fastest way to slow down.â€
Every year, invitations are sent out to organisations and hospitals who have patients who might benefit from the experience and every year the bookings come flooding in. Each boat takes twelve passengers, with two members of staff and four crew, including the skipper. But there are often cancellations and the Seagull Trust has a database of volunteer crew members who will come out at short notice to help.
Along the canal can be found a variety of landscapes, from industrial Edinburgh and Glasgow, through agricultural West Lothian to picturesque Bowling on the Firth of Clyde. Cormorants, heron, ducks, swans, water voles, mink, deer, horses, sheep and cattle are all to be spotted â€“ Ronnie even saw an otter once. The canal can also be fished for pike, bream tench and occasionally trout. There are also wild berries to be enjoyed and thereâ€™s even a â€˜drive-throughâ€™ fish and chip shop in Clydebank. Other restaurants are beginning to appear as traffic on the canal picks up.
Volunteering itself has its rewards, as anyone will tell you. Many Seagull Trust volunteers are retired boat crew, skippers or engineers, who love being back on the water. Ronnie himself, now retired from the â€˜captaincyâ€™ of the Bridge Inn, has finally been able to take on the Chairmanship of the Trust, something he has wanted to do â€“ and something others have wanted him to do â€“ for a long time.
His plans for the future include a new branch in Glasgow, probably in Port Dundas. (Anyone got a spare boat?) He also wants to see younger people volunteering to help in the Trust, people who can learn boat skills and who might also, in later life, join the Board of Trustees.
If you would like to help, either by giving some time to crew a boat, or to help maintain it, you will be made very welcome. If you would like to give a donation to help with the running of these trips, which are all free, with the exception of a requested donation for the Marion Seagull, your help will be greatly appreciated. Please contact the address below.
THE SEAGULL TRUST,
Telephone/Fax: 0131 – 333 – 0332