Tony Bibbington sails and paddles Macgregor’s route in a Rob Roy canoe

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Rob Roy canoe gear – click on the drawing for a larger image

I’ve just learned that Mersey Canoe Club member Tony Bibbington last year sailed and paddled from Oslo to the Baltic, following Victorian pioneer John MacGregor’s paddle-strokes all the way. My thanks to Brian Smith for letting me know about this, and for pointing out that there are some great photos online at – click on the 2009 calendar and then on Nov 4, and you will find photos of his trip round Heligoland.

It was a 500km trip that he had to complete in three weeks due to the that old enemy work, but perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect of the whole thing is that Tony was  determined to follow exactly the same route as his hero and did so using a 138-year old original Rob Roy canoe made by Sewells of London that he restored himself.

This insistence on following Macgregor’s route caused a few problems along the way – the first  of which was that the spot from with Macgregor first launched his canoe in Norway is now someone’s back garden. Thankfully, the owner proved friendly and Tony was on his way.

An article in the magazine Canoe Focus tells the story of a varied journey, sometimes tedious, sometimes  beautiful, and with plenty of incidents worth retelling, with Tony dressing as a Victorian gentleman canoeist and meeting an artist determined to paint his portrait; moments where, like Macgregor before him, Tony had to drag his canoe out of a stream water and use a car or other means to reach the next patch of water; and a final landing in which he landed inside the perimeter of a factory security fence. Luckily, on that occasion his path was smoothed by the security man who had read about Tony’s expedition in the newspapers.

How did Tony get on with his canoe, and how did she stand up to the journey more than a century after she was first made? In the Canoe Focus article Tony himself was happy to quote Macgregor: ‘The Rob Roy has proved herself able ”to sail steadily, to paddle easily, to float lightly, to turn readily, and to bear rough usage on stones and banks, and in carts, railways and steamers; to be durable and dry, as well as comfortable and safe” just as she was originally designed to be. MacGregor’s theory was that ”a canoe ought to fit a man like a coat”. The Rob Roy had been a perfect fit on my journey and I look forward to our next adventure.’

I think the whole thing is an extraordinary story with at least four heroes in addition to old John Macgregor himself: Tony for being brave enough to set out on an arduous 500km paddling and sailing trip in unknown country  in a 138-year old canoe, his family for travelling with him and enabling him to make the journey in a modern age without horses and carts in wide use in remote areas, and the dear old boat itself.

For more on Macgregor, click here; to read Macgregor’s account of his own trip to the Baltic, click here.

4 thoughts on “Tony Bibbington sails and paddles Macgregor’s route in a Rob Roy canoe”

  1. G'day Gavin. What a fantastic thread! As a Macgreggor sailor myself I am in total awe of the achievement. And in a canoe that might have been hung up in a museum too. It takes a certain type of man too venture so far in open water in such a small craft.

    I've run a pointer in WB forum, hope you don't mind.

    Thank you for the thread and links,


  2. I live in Melbourne Australia and I have taken an interest in a fellow who followed John McGregor in that he used a "Rob Roy' canoe to undertake voyages in Victoria & Tasmania over one hundred years ago, his name was Reverend Frederick Charles Bonfield Fairey. The Rev was originally from Brighton England.

    A Rob Roy was imported to Australia from the boat builder Searles of Lambeth.

    I am a member of the Victorian Sea kayak Club & we would like to build a Rob Roy Canoe to donate to a local Maritime Museum who have a Sea Kayak display.

    Where can I obtain a set of plans that would provide enough detail/scale/dimensions to allow construction to take place?

    Any guidance would be appreciated.


    David Golightly

  3. Plans of early Rob Roys are available, but not more than A4 size and would need to be scaled up; these could be found in Dixon Kemps early works – Rob Roys went out of fashion after the introduction of Baden-Powell's Nautilus range of canoes, and other models suitable for local waters around the British Isles (Humber Yawls, Mersey Canoes, Clyde Canoes, and those of the Smith Bros of Oxford (the latter for which I have scant information as the brothers emigrated to the United States?. There is a possibility that Tony Bibbington's sailing canoe (which I saw two years ago at Hilbre Island has been drawn up – I just do not know. I hope this is a little information to help in establishing the range of canoes of the Victorian Era. If not, ask again….

    With regard to the Rev Fairey's exploits, I have a copy of his articles in BOP but would like to learn more, if there is more to learn – such as – is his canoe still about?

    On a further note, the two canoes of Lord aberdeen and his brother have turned up; have been renovated, and will be put on display by the present Lord Aberdeen – these must be the oldest recreation canoes in existence in that Lord Aberdeen travelled with MacGregor for part of his tour of "1000 Miles" and the other a year or so later was paddled and sailed across the English Channel, sent by rail to the Rhone and paddled and sailed down the Rhone to the Med and along the French and Italian coasts before returning to UK by way of Switzerland and the Rhine.

    The reason that very little was known about these trips before is that Macgregor was full of self esteem and published widely whilst the two brothers died in accidents shortly after – Lord Aberdeen on a sailing ship travelling from USA to Australia and his brother following an shooting, accident, although the story was published in a private paper shortly after his death. This wass the journey of the "Rothian."

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