This historical overview is based upon an article taken from the Seagull Trust Newsletter of December 1999 by Prof. J.R. Hume OBE (Hon President). The idea of providing specially adapted boats to allow disabled people of all ages, especially children, to enjoy British canals was a product of the mid 1970s. So far as we know there were two early initiatives, one in England and one in Wales, which were the immediate antecedents of the formation of the Seagull Trust. The one in England was set up by Claire Hanmer in memory of her brother and it ran a converted narrow boat on the Midland Canals. In Wales, the Heulwen (Sunshine) boat was placed on the Montgomery Canal under the auspices of the Princes Trust set up by the Prince of Wales.
The Rev. P. Hugh R. Mackay, MBE, Ph.D, an active canal enthusiast from these days and Minister of the Parish of Ratho on the Union Canal, became aware of Claire Hanmer's work. At about the same time Charles Quant, who was active in the Heulwen initiative, drew attention of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council (IWAAC) to that project which was on a 'remainder' waterway. British Waterways had no obligation to maintain 'remainder' canals in navigable condition and the Heulwen project had the dual role of providing a valued service to disabled people and demonstrating to a wider public the attractions of canal travel.
It seemed to Hugh Mackay and myself, as a member of IWAAC, that the idea of canal cruising for disabled people could be implemented in Scotland. Accordingly a meeting was held, addressed by Claire Hanmer, to canvas support for a Scottish project. The result was the formation of what became known as the Seagull Trust.
The name 'Seagull' devised by Major Simon Campbell came from the idea of freedom from physical constraint that canal cruising gives and the seagull seemed a suitable maritime symbol of freedom.
The embryonic Trust, formed on 21st November 1978, had no money and no boat or place to keep one. However, Hugh Mackay was, through his period at Ratho, Chaplain to the Order of St John in Scotland and approached the Order for the £10,000 necessary to buy a boat and meet its running costs. This he was generously given, and the boat purchased was Claire Hanmer's original craft and was appropriately named the St. John Crusader. To this day, the Order of St John remains a valued and active supporter of the charity’s work
The problem of where to keep the boat was very generously resolved by Ronnie Rusack, landlord of the Bridge Inn at Ratho, who took the boat under his wing and provided a booking service.
The Wider Role
Hugh Mackay and some of the founders of the Trust had very firmly in mind the value of its activities in demonstrating the worth of the Lowland Scottish Canals as a complement to its primary purpose of providing free canal cruising in Scotland for disabled people. The team embarked supported and were actively engaged in a number of projects to ‘reclaim’ a canal network that had fallen into disrepair. Projects supported included, dredging of the Union Canal at Falkirk and the Glasgow Canal Project - reopening most of the Forth & Clyde Canal between Kirkintilloch and Port Dundas. All the time the charity continued to extend its own brand network to support the demand for free canal cruising.
By the end of the 1980s there were bases at Ratho, Falkirk, Kirkintilloch and Highland Branch providing regular cruises as a significant part of the traffic on the Union, Forth & Clyde and Caledonian Canals. As well as its canal cruising activities, the charity has been and continues to be actively involved in developing the environmental aspects of Scotland’s canals, working with a range of agencies and volunteers to re-open and improve the canal network.
When the Millennium Link was first discussed, the Trust's activities were not the least significant part of the arguments put forward for the worth of the project and the availability of Seagull Trust Cruises' boats and bases allowed the canals to be shown to potential funders and supporters. The community support which had to be demonstrated to secure Millennium funding was generated in large measure by the activities of the Trust.
Now over thirty eight years after the idea for the charity started, the objectives which seemed to be at the least, impossible in the late 1970s, have in so many ways been realised and much more besides. Had anyone said to the founding Trustees that Seagull Trust Cruises would be operating from four bases across Scotland and that the Lowland Canals would be so extensively restored and navigable to vessels, it would have been taken with a pinch of salt; but all has been or is being accomplished.
Facts and figures are the least of what Seagull Trust Cruises is about. It has provided a focus for an enormous amount of caring concern, it has given pleasure to tens of thousands of people whose lives are restricted in different ways and it has become part of the Scottish life in a manner far beyond the expectations of the pioneers.
The need for the Seagull Trust Cruises is greater than ever and today’s team at the helm of the charity is committed to extending the services offered in the years ahead. Cruising and support for the canal environment remain centre of the organisations purpose.