Updated: Feb 28
Or the birth of 'the Everyman Cruise'. When I announced I was going to work on cruise ships in 1999, the jovial response from friends was that I was going to be 'hobnobbing with the rich and famous' on board. I soon discovered that was not going to be the case, but the common stereotype that ‘Cruising is for millionaires’ has been around since the earliest days of cruising and is surprisingly enduring, even while no longer true. In reality, cruising has become a mainstream and affordable holiday option for most everybody, particularly since the advent of the industry proper in the 1960’s, but it might surprise you to learn that the first attempts at operating ‘Everyman Cruises’ (as in mainstream, affordable travel products) are more than 130 years old…. and originated in Scotland!
Following the first successful, commercial leisure cruise in 1844, the big shipping companies were slow to adopt the cruise product as a regular offering. They were too steeply priced and time-consuming to be of interest to anyone but the wealthy top strata of society and that was not deemed a large enough market segment to explore. They were put on occasionally if there was a hole in the regular liner schedule to fill, a special occasion to pursue or an outside instigator bringing a charter concept to a shipping company, but there was no regular ‘cruising schedule’ to speak of with any shipping company.
And zero effort was made to try to popularise the concept to a mainstream audience.
The North Company
That changed on June 8, 1886 when the Aberdeen-based North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company (or The North Company as it was more commonly known) placed this advertisement in the Scotsman newspaper:
“..fast and commodious steamship St Rognvald, is intended to make a special trip with a limited number of cabin passengers on Thursday, June 24 ex Leith [Edinburgh] and Aberdeen to Bergen and some of the principal fjords and places of interest on the west coast of Norway”
For a pop culture timestamp of when 1886 is, think Sherlock Holmes (not the Cumberbatch version, but pretty much any other iteration).
Despite the short notice tickets sold out instantly, likely owing to a very affordable fare of £10 per person for a 9-day cruise. Still an exorbitant amount for an ordinary Scottish labourer (who made as little as £25 / year in 1886), but within the means of a growing middle class of shopkeepers, merchants, bankers, doctors etc. (who made anywhere from £170 / year and upwards). In fact, interest in the sailing was so overwhelming that the North Company scrambled to rearrange the St. Rognvald summer schedule to accommodate an additional 3 sailings in a row before the summer was over – all of which sold out.
St. Rognvald – the workhorse cruise ship
The 3-year-old St. Rognvald was a 984 GRT, 73m / 240ft long, 9,5m / 31ft wide, single-screw, coastal steamer, built for ferry/supply services for the Northern Isles. As such she was a ‘rugged workhorse’ and did not really boast intimate luxury or supreme comfort. She had 104 berths on the main deck (although in ‘cruise mode’ she used less for comfort), divided onto 2 classes. The cabins came in a variety of sizes, from 2 to 6 berths, decently but far from luxuriously appointed. Electric lights were not installed, nor was in-cabin plumbing – a combined 11 wash basins and 4 toilets were available to passengers. Stewards attended to the practical needs of the passengers but there were no 'cruise staff' as such and the ships entertainment facilities consisted of a piano and an organ in the single public lounge that anyone could help themselves to. She was later refurbished extensively for cruise purposes in 1890/91, but to begin with this was the humble standard.
The crossing from Aberdeen to Norway took the better part of two days (each way) and the cruises only included two ports of call; Stavanger and Bergen (although they called in Bergen twice). The rest of the cruise was spent puttering around the most scenic fjords of south-western Norway. Shore Excursions were available at a surcharge, of which the most popular was an overland excursion departing Bergen with an overnight stay ashore before rejoining the ship in Sognefjord. There were no scheduled social activities offered on board (apart from mass and meal times) but Scotsmen being jovial people (once they get to know you anyway), as well as accomplished dancers, singers and drinkers, managed this aspect of the travel experience quite confidently themselves.
A formula for mainstream success
The North Company had unwittingly stumbled upon a winning mainstream formula for the cruise product; short sequential cruises, near-identical itineraries, standard services and an affordable fare. Combine that with a burgeoning middle class that had more disposable income and vacation time to spend (thanks to the establishment of British working-class holidays in the 1870's) and a greater domestic travel range expanding the source market (thanks to the development of British rail since the 1840's) and you had an instant success.
Of course, that formula would not have worked had Scotland not enjoyed such a geographically convenient location to a destination as attractive, eminently cruiseable and 'hot' as Norway. Prior to the 1870's Norway was no one's idea of a holiday destination – it was a remote, rural backwater of Northern Europe. But when a group of international journalists accompanied Norwegian King Oscar II on a sea journey to the North Cape on the occasion of his coronation in 1873, word of the magnificence and grandeur of coastal Norway got out to the world. One French travel writer on the trip, Paul du Chaillu, coined the immortal slogan ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ in his subsequent reporting and that inevitably became the primary sales pitch for the first big Norwegian tourism boom.
On the cruise front, British tour operator Thomas Cook was first out of the gate with annual North Cape cruises out of Bergen in 1875 but other tour operators and shipping agencies, Norwegian and international, soon followed and by the time the North Company started entertaining the notion of a tourism enterprise, there was no doubting the appeal and marketability of Norway as a destination if the right package could be put together.
St. Sunniva – the belle époque pioneer
Confident of the profitability and prospects of their new venture, the North Company commissioned a new ship, even as the St. Rognvald was still finishing its first set of cruises. This was to become the St. Sunniva – often credited as the world's first purpose-built cruise ship. She was built over the winter of 1886/87 at Hall, Russel & Co. in Aberdeen and was ready for service in May of 1887. At 864 GRT, 71,6m / 235ft length and 9,1m / 30ft beam she was marginally smaller than the St. Rognvald but thanks to her improved design and the exclusion of cargo space, she could fit up to 142 passengers, in first-class-only, two and four berth cabins.
The ship designer had fully embraced his mandate to create a ‘ship of leisure’ – not only was she functionally much better suited for cruising, she also looked gorgeous. Whereas the St. Rognvald was rugged, bulky and utilitarian, the St. Sunniva was elegant, curvy and handsome with her dashing clipper bow with bowsprit and figurehead, her spoon-shaped stern and her raked masts and single funnel. In fact, she may have been the first cruise vessel to introduce the stylish yacht aesthetic that came to characterise many of the most iconic cruise ships around the turn of the century.
Everything about the St. Sunniva experience was just better. Cabins were better appointed, there was electric lighting, public areas were more numerous and spacious (incl. separate male and female lounges as Victorian social protocol demanded), catering was said to have been the equivalent of a first-class hotel and relieved of the practical ferry / supply features of her predecessor, she felt more like a private luxury yacht – a fantasy passengers were all too eager to immerse themselves in. Yet the fares remained reasonable – you could still get a berth for £10 s 10 (albeit in a shared cabin) but prices now also ran as high as £35 for the best cabins on board, thus expanding the target clientele from middle class to upper middle class as well.
19th century success, 20th century demise
Unsurprisingly, the St. Sunniva became so popular upon her introduction that demand once again overwhelmed capacity, and once again the St. Rognvald had to skip her ferry duties to conduct additional cruises for excess demand. And so it went for the next many seasons. Both ships working seasonally mostly as cruise ships, initially on the well-trodden Southern Norway route, but as of 1888 also into the Baltic, up to the North Cape and later still around the British Isles and into the Mediterranean, sometimes under the North Co. banner, sometimes under charter for contemporary travel operators.
But despite their success, the North Company never opted to add more vessels to their fleet and eventually competition from other shipping companies with bigger and more modern ships crowded them out. In April of 1900 disaster struck when the St. Rognvald hit a reef while on an Orkney ferry run and foundered. All passengers and crew were saved, but the ship was a total loss. The St. Sunniva continued its cruise schedule until 1908 when the North Company finally closed its tourist operation and converted the ship to ferry/supply duties. The North Company continued as a shipping company until 1971 when it was eventually absorbed into P&O Ferries (where the names of St. Rognvald and St. Sunniva lived on as names of Northern ferries). The Scottish cruise boom continued on for a few more years until the onset of World War I put a stop to all maritime leisure traffic in 1914.
So all stereotypes about Scottish frugality aside, it was in fact Scottish entrepreneurs who cracked the code on how to make cruising attractive and affordable to the masses more than 130 years ago. But while the formula was eagerly imitated by local competition for a few decades, it never really went mainstream or became an established market segment in its own right. But for World War I maybe it would have, but as it was, the popular Scottish cruise boom just sort of came and went, without leaving much of a dent in the market landscape or changing the common perception that cruising was for wealthy people.
Later on the concept would be revived and tweaked by other entrepreneurial folks, including the Nazis… but hey, that’s a story for a different time.
This is the fifth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.