The Story of Campbeltown Shipyard’s most famous ship.

The Halcyon - Yard No. 007 - on the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Professor Ronald Roberts.

We are very grateful to Professor Ronald Roberts for writing up this very interesting piece about the Campbeltown-built RV Halcyon (Yard No. 07), which was commissioned for service as a tropical hydrographic research vessel in 1971.

He writes…… 

The Lake Turkana Survey was carried out by RV Halcyon and represents a further highly significant connection between Campbeltown and that beautiful East African country which has had a strong Kintyre connection right from its conception under the aegis of Sir William McKinnon’s Imperial East Africa Company. 

The Lake Turkana Survey was a very important study – the last Great Lake on the planet to be scientifically investigated.

Dr Dennis Hall of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whom I knew well, was responsible for the entire project and always insisted it was the Campbeltown Yard’s foreman, John Carmichael’s understanding of his requirements that swung the order for Campbeltown Shipyard compared to a South of England yard that quoted a cheaper price. He was very pleased with the result which allowed him to finally successfully deliver the biggest project of his career as Senior Fisheries Scientist to the Foreign Office and the UK’s largest ever tropical fisheries project. 

My involvement was rescuing it when the report was finally produced by the team, after great delays, but was too unwieldy to be published. Dr Hall got me to rewrite it with my colleague, Dr Hadrian Stirling, and arrange for it to be printed at much lower cost than the £120,000 that the Stationary Office was quoting and which Mrs Thatcher had personally refused despite the obligation to the Kenya Government which had been promised the report.”

Professor Ronald J Roberts FRCVS FRCPath FRSE

Lake Turkana, Kenya, also know as the Jade Sea. Courtesy of Professor Ronald Roberts.

In 1888 the Campbeltown shipping magnate Sir Wm McKinnon, established the British Crown Colony subsequently known as Kenya Colony.

McKinnon, a deeply religious man and a friend of explorer Henry Morton Stanley, was concerned to repress slavery, to prevent German hegemony in the area and to develop the Colony for British interests. Among the remarkable resources of Kenya, newly discovered at that time, was Lake Rudolph, the world’s largest desert lake, 150 miles long and 30 miles wide. Home to the Turkana tribe of nomadic fishermen, the Lake is nearly one thousand miles from the coast, largely over untracked desert.

In 1963 Kenya became an independent Country under President Jomo Kenyatta. As one of a number of support programmes to help the new country develop its resources, the British Government agreed to carry out a full scale hydrographic and fishery study of Lake Rudolph, renamed Lake Turkana– the last large lake on the planet to be studied.

The project required a 50 foot research vessel, to be delivered through the desert on a low loader, to El Molo on Lake Turkana.

Lake Turkana – Courtesy of Google Maps.

Dr DNF Hall the Senior Fishery Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office visited several UK shipyards. He finally chose the Campbeltown Shipyard because of its reputation for construction of sturdy fishing vessels and as he stated in his reports because of the professionalism of Yard Foreman Engineer Mr John Carmichael who was one of the few individuals able to understand the complex requirements that Hall had for a tropical fisheries research vessel to be built, trialled, then taken apart for transport via Mombasa to a desert location.

The 50 foot Campbeltown trawler, No 007 (named RV Halcyon), was constructed at Trench Point, greatly modified for purpose and in 1971, after sea trials, deconstructed for passage by sea to Mombasa. Here, in the shadow of the statue of Sir William McKinnon which now graces Campbeltown Aquilibrium, it was mounted on a low loader and John Carmichael accompanied driver Dave Edwards through hostile trackless desert, camping en route in lion and elephant country, to Western Kenya.

The Halcyon – Campbeltown Loch. Photo courtesy of Professor Ronald Roberts.

Halcyon was rebuilt and launched at El Molo within 6 weeks of arrival and over the next five years faultlessly carried out a very detailed and complex set of studies under the leadership of biologist A.J. Hopson but with great oversight by Dr DNF Hall.

The Campbeltown Shipyard-built Halcyon on the shores of Lake Turkana. Photo courtesy of Professor Ronald Roberts.

When the work was finally finished the team was sent to Port Erin Marine Station on the Isle of Man to carry out the analysis of all the data. Unfortunately the end result was a vast but extremely uncoordinated set of data. This required to be re-edited and then published for the government of Kenya, but the new British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, refused to fund a major revision and printing of the material, which ran to six volumes.

The world’s first bathymetric survey was in Scotland and the last, finally completed in Scotland. (LHS) A volume of the first bathymetric survey of the fresh water lochs of Scotland and (RHS) one of the volumes of the bathymetric survey of Lake Turkana. Courtesy of Professor Ronald Roberts.

The Foreign Office therefore requested Campbeltown Scientist Professor Ronald J Roberts FRSE who was Scientific Adviser to the Overseas Development Ministry, to take charge of producing the final report and getting it printed at an acceptable cost in his Institute at the University of Stirling.

In March 1982 at a ceremony in the University of Stirling, the six volume ‘ Lake Turkana Report’ was formally handed over to the Kenyan Ambassador by the Chief Scientist of the British Ministry of Overseas Development in the presence of the Survey Team and also of John and Margaret Carmichael of Campbeltown as well as Professor Roberts and Dr HP Stirling, who had together produced the final version.

Later HRH Diana Princess of Wales formally visited the Institute in recognition of the work and met with Dr Hall and Professor Roberts.

Sadly RV Halcyon was left to disintegrate on the shores of Lake Turkana and is no more.

Professor Ronald J Roberts FRCVS FRCPath FRSE

HRH Princess Diana with Professor Ronald Roberts and  Dr DNF Hall – Grey hair on right. Courtesy of Professor Ronald Roberts.






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