Para Handy is the crafty Gaelic skipper of the Vital Spark, a Clyde puffer (steamboat) of the sort that delivered goods from Glasgow to the Hebrides and the west coast highlands of Scotland in the early 20th century. The stories partly focus on his pride in his ship, "the smertest boat in the tred" which he considers to be of a class with the Clyde steamers, but mainly tell of the “High Jinks” the crew get up to on their travels. He had at least one crossover with Munro's other popular character, Erchie MacPherson of Erchie, My Droll Friend. The name is an anglicisation of "Para Shandaidh", which means "Petey son of Sandy", and he is content to describe himself as "Chust wan of Brutain's hardy sons".
The other principal characters forming the four man crew include Dan Macphail the effete engineer, Dougie the superstitious ship’s mate, The Tar (first name Colin) the lazy deckhand and The Tar's replacement Sunny Jim (real name Davie Green and cousin to the Tar), as the young squeezebox-playing deck hand. Also featured is Hurricane Jack (real name John Maclachlan), Para Handy’s rather more outrageous adventurer friend. One inconsistency in the stories is that Dougie the mate has the choice of two surnames - Cameron or Campbell. Key points of friction among the crew are: transporting Ministers (bad luck), the small chain-driven boats carrying passengers across the Clyde called the Cluthas (in Para Handy’s view, the lowest of the low in Clyde shipping), and Macphail’s taste for bodice-ripping women’s pulp fiction.