Skylark, Portobello: Cruise ship that served Edinburgh seaside visitors to be rescued and restored

She was one of the 850-strong armada of heroic ‘little ships’ which rescued more than 330,000 British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

By Stephen Wilkie
Saturday, 14th May 2022, 2:18 pm

Skylark IX went on to become a familiar sight in Portobello where she ferried took holidaymakers for trips along the coast, but she ended up a sorry sight, languishing in a desperate state of neglect and in danger of being beyond salvage.

As part of the plucky flotilla Skylark IX had her own ‘finest hour’ in Operation Dynamo – also known as ‘the Miracle of Dunkirk’ – and it seemed fitting that she should not end her days as an eyesore slowly rotting on the muddy bed of the River Leven at Balloch.

What started as an ambitious plan to save the vessel for future generations quickly won backing from supporters of all ages who were keen to see Skylark IX in a repair yard and ultimately restored as what is widely believed to be one of only a very few survivors of the Second World War operation in Scotland.

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As a pleasure craft, Skylark IX spent years taking day-trippers on Forth cruises from Portobello and Burntisland

The full recovery project is now underway and has fittingly centred on preserving her name, which features in the National Historic Ships UK Register.

The two day project to stabilise the flaking paint and timbers and preserve the name was made possible by the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and carried out by Conservator Rowan Gillis of AOC Archaeology Group.

A schedule of further repairs has been agreed to ensure that the historic wooden-hulled vessel which sank in the River Leven in 2010 and lay half-submerged for two years is stable enough to be returned to Dumbarton in coming years.

Once all the restoration work is completed, it is anticipated she will be transported by road on a custom-built cradle from her temporary home at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine to the grounds of the Museum’s Denny Tank in Dumbarton. There, it is hoped, funding allowing, she will sit at the heart of a new £3m Spirit of Skylark Centre.

Languishing in the mud: The historic Dunkirk 'Little Ship' was destined to end her days as an eyesore wreck. Pic: The Skylark IX Project

Claire McDade, Project Manager at the Skylark IX Recovery Project, explained the importance of keeping her story alive: “Over the last two years, we’ve been working hard behind the scenes to build a true picture of Skylark’s condition and significance and develop a conservation management plan.

“We started with Skylark’s name as it is such a significant and valuable part of the vessel and such a wonderful symbol of our rich social history last century.

“As well as her wartime service, the name ‘Skylark’ and that famous rallying call ‘All Aboard the Skylark’ resonates with so many people. It brings to life that period when the train network expanded, we fell in love with trips ‘doon the watter’ and shiny new seaside resorts sprang up across the country.”

The 50ftlong, 30 tonne Skylark IX was built in Poole in 1934 for Jake Bolson. She was one of eleven Skylarks he operated around Bournemouth as the town became one of the country’s first seaside resorts.

Skylark IX in a boat workshop at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irving

After Operation Dynamo she served as a barrage balloon vessel protecting the strategically important Poole Harbour.

Post-war, Skylark IX returned to work as a pleasure boat taking cruises from Portobello, Morecambe, Margate, Burntisland and on Loch Lomond.

Conservator Rowan Gillis works carefully to preserve Skylark IX's name
Worst fears: Skylark IX sunk in the River Leven in 2010