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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited by Moderator)
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The Trial Voyage
  • 3 The success of St Rognvald
  • 4 St Sunniva
  • 5 Commercial Success
  • 6 Emerging Competition
  • 7 The growing threat to North Company's cruise business
  • 8 The final North Company cruises
  • 9 St Sunniva as a ferry
  • 10 Bibliography
  • 11 Photographs

At January 2014 the world cruise fleet consisted of 463 active ships with an aggregate 20,247,727 gross tonnage and a total 638,512 lower berths. Almost all of these ships have been specially built for cruising. These ships are the successors of the little SS St Sunniva, the first ship to be designed and built for cruise operations, 127 years earlier in 1887.

The Trial Voyage[edit]

The earliest recorded cruise was an around the world voyage in by sailing ship1845 that was promoted by the Hamburg ship owner Rob M Sloman. Thos Cooke later arranged lengthy tours of the Mediterranean using steamships to transport tourists from port to port, where they usually stayed in local hotels. The modern concept a shorter seaborne holiday to a fixed timetable was initiated by the "North Company" of Aberdeen. Its full name of The North of Scotland & Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company, which arose out of a merger in 1873 of older Scottish shipping companies, was rarely used.

The Scotsman newspaper of 8 June 1886 the North Company placed an advertisement announcing that the "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 and Aberdeen to Bergen and some of the principal fjords and places of interest on the west coast of Norway." This was the modest beginnings of a leisure industry that transported 21.2 million passengers in 2011.

The success of St Rognvald[edit]

At 984 grt, St Rognvald was the North Company's largest ship. She was also their newest, having been delivered by Hall Russell & Co of Aberdeen in 1883. She was an iron, single screw steamer and was typical of the larger coastal passenger vessels of the time. For the cruise her accommodation was restricted to 104 berths, sharing 11 wash basins and four toilets. No baths were provided. Although these provisions appear spartan today, they were regarded as good for the times.


The single advertisement placed only two weeks before departure, produced an amazing 90 passengers for the experimental maiden cruise. The directors of the North Company were delighted and hastily advertised a follow-up cruise, which was also well patronised, leading to three more cruises to be arranged for the rest of the summer season.

The North Company realised it was on to a winner, with its formula of a short duration, relatively inexpensive cruise. The directors responded by ordering a new purpose built ship from Hall Russell for delivery in time for the 1887 season.

St Sunniva[edit]

The new ship was named St Sunniva. Her specification was: -

  • Type: Cruise Ship
  • North Company service: 1887-1930
  • Builders: Hall Russell & Co Ltd
  • Yard: Aberdeen
  • First voyage: 26 May 1887
  • Gross tonnage: 960 tons
  • Net tonnage: 437 tons
  • Length: 236 feet
  • Breadth: 30 feet
  • Depth: 22 feet
  • Hull: Iron
  • Engines: Triple expansion steam reciprocating
  • Power: 141 kW at 96 rpm
  • Propulsion: single screw
  • Speed: 15.5 knots
  • Maximum passenger accommodation: 142

The ship was designed to externally resemble a classic steam yacht. A small steam launch was carried for tendering passengers ashore.The accommodation was laid out with 16 two berth cabins on either side of the main deck There was a further two berth cabin and a twelve berth ladies' cabin on the centreline. On each side of the main deck there was a bathroom and three toilets, with an additional bathroom and two toilets for the ladies' cabin. The ladies' cabin was fitted with two washbasins. All of the other main deck cabins had their own washbasin.On the lower deck were 8 four berth cabins aft each with a washbasin. Ahead of the machinery space there were 2 four berth and 4 six berth cabin sharing one bathroom and two washbasins. There were no toilets on the lower deck. The saloon could accommodate 132 people in a single sitting. A piano was provided for use by the passengers. A deckhouse, aft of the mainmast contained a ladies' lounge and a separate men's smoking room.


Commercial Success[edit]

St Sunniva was a huge success and St Rognvald was needed to undertake two cruises to carry the overflow of bookings. To provide a greater equality between the ships St Rognvald was restricted to 50 passengers. St Sunniva was laid up in the winter of 1887/88 and St Rognvald returned to ferry operations. The North Company Directors turned their attention to providing a more ambitious programme of cruises for 1888.The initial development was to despatch St Rognvald on a 21 day cruise to North Cape followed by St Sunniva to the Baltic and to extend the season, by undertaking an around Britain cruise. She was later being chartered for cruises in the Mediterranean in the winter.To cope with the enthusiastic demand for cruises the North Company carried out a major upgrade of St Rognvald during the winter of 1890/91. This involved turning cargo space over to additional two berth cabins and installing two bathrooms plus two more toilets.

Emerging Competition[edit]

The tremendous commercial success of the North Company's cruise activities naturally attracted the attention of other shipowners. The Wilson Line of Hull began cruises to Norway immediately after St Rognvald's first successful voyage, but St Sunniva far outclassed anything Wilson could offer. More seriously Orient Steam Navigation Co Ltd entered the market in the summer of 1889 with two of their Australian mail service ships, Chimborazo and Garonne.
The majority of passengers avoided the Australia service during the period late June to early September, because of the intense heat in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal during those months. This of course coincided with the British holiday season and based on the North Company's success, Orient decided to divert these two much larger ships to test the market in general and Garonne was despatched on a Norwegian cruise.


At 3,876 grt and with only her 60 First and 100 Second Class berths in use, Garonne greatly exceeded the space and facilities available in the North Company ships. This first cruise was an outstanding success for Orient and ensured that the company made a great effort to exploit the cruise market in subsequent years.

The growing threat to North Company's cruise business[edit]

The success of Orient Line inevitably brought more liner companies into the market to use their ships more profitably. By 1900 Orient Line, P&O, Royal Mail, French Line, North German Lloyd and HAPAG were all offering summer Scandinavian cruises in addition to tropical and Mediterranean cruises. More competition came from Thomas Cook who joined forces with the Norwegian Hurtigruten coastal ferry companies. As a result the North Company was now finding its cruise business to be far less attractive.

The final North Company cruises[edit]

During the winter of 1900, St Rognvald was wrecked on Burgh Head, Stronsay, Orkney while on her usual winter ferry schedule. All on board were rescued. A new ferry was ordered to replace her, but without cruise facilities. The growing quality of the competition was becoming too great for the North Company to survive in the cruise market.
Also during the winter of 1990/1991 HAPAG took delivery of Prinzessin Victoria Luise that provided sumptuous accommodation for 180 passengers in a 4,409 grt ship. In 1904 P&O completely rebuilt their 1881 mail liner Rome as the cruise ship Vectis. She was a ship of 5,545 grt that was now arranged to carry only 150 passengers. These ships were far ahead of the North Company's offering in the cruise yacht market.
In 1907 / 1908, the North Company reduced the cruise offerings of St Sunniva and withdrew entirely from the market at the end of August 1908. The small pioneer cruise ship had provided the company with 21 years of service in the cruise market, but her career was far from ended.

St Sunniva as a ferry[edit]

During the Twentieth Century a number of ferries (usually commercially over-ambitious designs) have been converted into cruise ships. St Sunniva is possibly the only vessel to have been designed and built as a cruise ship that was later converted into a ferry.The ship's lower deck accommodation was removed and holds with 'tween decks created. The main deck accommodation was extensively remodelled and the superstructure extended.


St Sunniva was re-introduced as a Lerwick mail steamer, operating weekly service from Leith and Aberdeen, with an extra Aberdeen service in the summer.
St Sunniva remained on this tough schedule until 10 April 1930, when proceeding north in fog, she had the misfortune to run aground on the small uninhabited island of Mousa. All on board were rescued but the ship was a total loss.
The North Company retained its independence until it became part of the Coast Lines group in 1961. The North Company was taken over by P&O in 1971 and traded as P&O Ferries (Orkney and Shetlands Services) until the route concession was lost by P&O in 2002. Up until the end of the P&O services the name St Sunniva was carried by successive ships operating on the route.


The main sources for this article are: -
An article by Alastair Wm McRobb in Fairplay Cruise Review 1987
Cruise Ships - An evolution in design, by Philip Dawson. Conway Maritime Press 2000.


Photo 1: Fairplay
Photo 2: P&O Archive
Photo 3: P&O Archive
Photo 4: Allan Besant
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