The Allan Line of Glasgow

The Allan Line of Glasgow was founded by Captain Alexander Allan around the year 1820. The company started off with one small sailing ship and gradually further sailing ships were added to the fleet.

As a young boy, Alexander Allan was raised on the Fairlie Estate in Ayrshire, Scotland, located midway between the Ayrshire villages of Dundonald and Gatehead. His father was employed on the Fairlie Estate and it is recorded that the young boy walked barefoot to and from school in the town of Kilmarnock each day, a distance of about 4-5 miles.

From an early age, Alexander Allan took a great interest in ships and the sea, grasping any opportunity that availed itself to spending time around the ports and harbours of South Ayrshire and talking to anyone connected with the ships in port. From this he learned a great deal at an early age on matters concerning ships and how they were worked, sail plans and rigging, and long passages to distant foreign shores.

Duly smitten, Alexander Allan decided the sea would be his life and resolved to leave school at the first available opportunity and endeavour to embark on a seagoing career. In due course he did just this and started hanging around ships and seamen in the Ayrshire ports of Ayr, Troon and Irvine, where he was already well-known. It was only a matter of time before some observant ship master recognised the enthusiasm, and not a small understanding of matters maritime, in the young boy and offered him a berth on a three-masted barque bound for foreign parts.

In an unusually short time, Alexander Allan gained rapid promotions and was noted as a serious student of navigation, ship handling, rigging, sail plans and all matters relating to the ship. Before long he was promoted to ship’s mate and in due course invested capital saved in acquiring a share of the vessel along with her Owner and her Master.

Eventually he became full Owner and Master and it is said that he was very strict on discipline, allowing none of the normal robust and often drunken behaviour found in ship crews of that time. Although a strict disciplinarian, his reputation as a first class seaman of high reliability quickly spread in shipping circles and there was no shortage of crew waiting to join his ship in the knowledge in Captain Allan they were in very safe hands. Also, there was never a shortage of cargo or Clients, the word having quickly spread that a cargo on board an Allan Line vessel was safe and would always be delivered and on time. In this regard, the Company was very successful and profitable.

In due course, Captain Allan purchased additional sailing vessels and crewed these with men who he carefully hand-picked from men who had sailed under himself in the past. In this manner, all Allan vessels enjoyed the same high standard of seamanship and reliability that he had instilled as a Company byword.

A deeply religious man, hard but kindly in disposition, Captain Allan always remembered his own early beginnings and ensured any promising youngsters on board, showing more than average interest and ability, were encouraged and given every incentive to expand their knowledge and contributions. Strong language, disrespect, and alcohol were rarely heard of on an Allan Line vessel, and anyone disregarding the Allan ‘etiquette’ was duly disposed of at the first port unless prepared to ‘tow the line’.

These then were the humble beginnings of what was to become one of the greatest ocean-going liner Company’s of the 19th century. 

Angus MacKinnon

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