Requiem for the Argonaut – the Gatty Boat

Professor Herbert Macgregor (BSc 1958) has fond memories of his time at St Andrews as a Zoology student. Here he shares one particularly vivid memory of the summer of 1957, when he and his classmates ran into some adventure on board the ‘Argonaut’ – the old Gatty boat.

The idea was to go out with a dredge and see what we could scrape off the bottom of St Andrews bay. Great! Much better than sitting all day in that dreary teaching lab in the Bell Pettigrew under the ever watchful eye of that wonderful old soul Chrissy Sutherland – God bless her woollen socks!

Ten of us stood expectantly on the St Andrews quay while Dave Clark brought the Argonaut alongside and checked that we had the right gear aboard. Dave was one of the St Andrews fishermen, baggy trousers, old blue woollen rollneck, soft cap and the iconic pipe. He was a man of very few words who had worked the bay since he was boy.

All aboard scrabbling for the best seat up on the foredeck. Dave entered the little cabin that housed the ancient Victorian Lister petrol/paraffin single cylinder plonker, cranked it up and off we went, out along the pier and into the sunlit freshness of the bay, with the Bell Rock lighthouse 10 miles  dead ahead to the east.  This was great! I was glad I’d decided to do Zoology!


Pictured are the undergraduate students on board the ‘Argonaut’ in the summer of 1957. Herbert Macgregor is seated on the extreme left.

Two hours later we were two miles offshore, with the May Island peeping round the headland to the south. We’d had a go at dredging and brought up some interesting stuff. Two of the party were seasick but in general we were happy – and hungry. Time to head for home?

Then something happened. The Lister coughed and died. The reassuring part of this was that Dave didn’t seem the least concerned, even though tide and wind were driving us slowly but surely out into the North Sea. I had two years’ National Service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers behind me, so I asked Dave if he would like me to take a look, which I did.  Uh Oh! The magneto, arguably the very heart of the engine, had – disintegrated.

Now remember, in 1957 there was no Health and Safety, no VHF, no EPIRB, no life jackets, no oars, no sails, nothing, and the sun was going down. Two more went down with sea sickness. The outlook was grim.  We were – yes – doomed.  Dave, meanwhile, settled down beside his steering wheel, filled and lit his pipe and did nothing. “Ach, Dinnae worry yerself laddie” he said in a way that only a Fifer can.

An hour later, when the shore had receded to the skyline and things seemed desperate, Dave relit his pipe just at the moment when we spotted a tiny dark shape making its way towards us. Being a native of the town I recognised Tom, another of the local fisherman, seated in the stern of his boat, puffing his pipe and headed in our direction. May the Good Lord be praised! We were about to be rescued! Tom went straight past us without even looking in our direction and then, at the last minute, turned and shouted to Dave “What’ye doing sittin oot here? “Oh just fishin” says Dave. Whereupon Tom took us in tow and we headed for home.

A few weeks later, the Gatty bought a new boat.

Fast forward over 50 years and the Gatty not only has a specialist, highly robust vessel for operation in shallow waters at high speeds (with not a pipe in sight) – the University has also recently announced plans for a new £10 million marine laboratory, which will cement Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in oceanic research.

new marine lab

Artist’s impression of new Gatty Marine Lab by East Sands, photo courtesy of University of St Andrews


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