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THE SEA ROUTE TO ISLAY

The Journey to Finlaggan

An atmospheric shot of discharging cargo from S S Fingal (1861) at West Loch Tarbert

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Port Askaig around 1830 with the P S Maid of Islay

The second P S Islay (1867) owned by John Ramsay and others

The paddle steamer first appeared at Islay in 1825 when the Maid of Islay, owned by Walter Campbell of Islay and others, was placed on a schedule which included Skye, Staffa, Iona and the pier in the shallow waters of West Loch Tarbert. Over the next sixty odd years the service was refined until the Islay (second of the name) sailed every week from Glasgow round the Mull of Kintyre to the Islay ports before crossing to West Loch Tarbert and making a connection across the narrow isthmus with the Clyde steamer which plied between Tarbert and Glasgow (and on occasion voyaging to Portrush in Northern Ireland). Over the same period, the empire of David Hutcheson & Co., in which David MacBrayne was a senior partner, had expanded to include all the major islands off the west coast of Scotland – with the exception of Islay.

in February 1876 he took over the Islay from the Ileachs and two years later inaugurated a daily service between the West Loch and the island. The ship initially on this roster was the Glencoe, an old paddle steamer which had just been considerably upgraded. She in turn connected with the Columba, a new ‘swift steamer’ which was arguably the greatest Clyde steamer of all time and which maintained the Glasgow-Tarbert connection. Ironically, then, although Islay was the last large island to be included in the Hutcheson network, it was the first outwith the Clyde to be able to boast a daily ‘Royal Mail Service’ to the mainland. Incidentally, in 1879, David MacBrayne, now the firm’s sole partner, took over the company in his own name. In essence, this pattern was in place for nearly a century. The ‘mailboat’ crossed at least once every weekday between the Islay ports and the West Loch, while the ‘cargo steamer’ made the voyage from Glasgow twice a week, normally leaving the city on Mondays and Thursdays. The Glencoe was actually transferred to Skye after her first season and did not reappear,

It is said that the French vine blight of the 1870s prompted a period of great prosperity and expansion for the whisky distilleries on Islay. It is no coincidence that Hutcheson had his eye on this lucrative trade, with the result that 3

P S Glencoe (1846) at Port Ellen

P S Pioneer (1905) and P S Mountaineer (1910) at Port Ellen during Glasgow Fair

– they were able to model the new Islay boat on them as dictated by the West Loch pier. The Pioneer also had small fast-running paddle wheels and, as part of her route was over exposed waters, she was plated in at the bow. She made five crossings per week to Port Ellen, via Gigha, and two to Port Askaig, via Jura; on occasions she also sailed round to Bruichladdich. She maintained the service during the First World War although from 1918 she alternated between Port Ellen and Port Askaig. Her relief in winter during her annual overhaul was normally PS Mountaineer; after her withdrawal at the end of the 1937 season this role fell to MV Lochinvar, the Sound of Mull mail steamer. David MacBrayne Ltd suffered greatly from the Great War. Ten of the fleet were lost or sold and when peace returned in 1918 rampant inflation, industrial unrest, the changing habits of the travelling public and inroads from road transport all had a detrimental effect on the company. The loss of three steamers in their annus horribilis of 1927 compounded the agony and a new company, owned by the

at least in summer, till 1892. Meanwhile, the small screw steamers Lochiel (1877) and Fingal filled the breach along with chartered tonnage in certain seasons. The waters off the west coast of Scotland could be more than a little treacherous and several of the cargo steamers fell victim. The Islay was wrecked late in 1890 in Red Bay, County Antrim. She was replaced by a third Islay, formerly the Stranraer-Larne steamer Princess Louise; she stranded in 1902 in dense fog near Sheep Island, Port Ellen and became a total loss. Her replacement Glendale was wrecked off Kintyre in 1905 following an error in altering course. The new screw steamer Clydesdale came on the run and remained until the Second World War. In that same year, 1905, the Glencoe returned to Skye and Islay was given its first ever newbuild as a mail steamer. The paddle steamer Pioneer took up service in April. She was built by A & J Inglis, a significant choice as they had had the experience of building the light-drafted steamers for Loch Lomond 4

The new M V Lochiel (1939) on trials

LMS Railway and Coast Lines Ltd., took over. There was no longer a MacBrayne at the helm. Apart from the Clydesdale having to go temporarily to Stornoway, Islay was not really affected. The up-side of the upheaval was a new mail contract which specified that several new ships were to be built, mainly powered by diesel rather than steam. Islay was to be given new tonnage in 1934 but the order was cancelled and it was the early summer of 1939 before MV Lochiel (fourth of the name) appeared. Her draft was too deep and the Pioneer was recalled (from Oban) until the area round West Loch Tarbert Pier had been properly dredged. It was June 1940 before the new purpose-built ship finally took up the service.

Lochnevis returned from service under the white ensign in 1944, she became the regular relief – but in 1946 she was not available and the Lochiel was replaced by the Robina, a small excursion vessel chartered from Coast Lines which coped with the passengers fairly well but could not carry cargo or livestock. This deficiency provoked many complaints from the islanders. During the war the number of piers used by the MacBrayne cargo boats in Islay was cut drastically but all were reinstated in 1946 – Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Port Ellen, Ardbeg, Port Askaig, Caol Ila, Buinnahabhain (and Craighouse on Jura). Many of these piers were also used by puffers serving the distilleries.

Painted in battleship grey, the Lochiel maintained the lifeline service to Islay throughout the Second World War, but the Clydesdale was replaced on the cargo run by the Lochdunvegan, a 50-year-old boat which had been acquired by MacBrayne’s in 1929.The supply of relief ships in the mid-forties posed a problem. When the 1934 Skye mailboat

The connecting service on the Clyde between Glasgow and Tarbert had also changed substantially. The grand old lady Columba, together with her consort Iona, had been withdrawn after the 1935 season. Well over half a century old, the two paddlers were part of the very fabric of the Clyde and were scrapped only when MacBrayne’s acquired 5

Awaiting the Royal Route connection at West L och Tarbert

Maysong). Bowmore calls were concentrated on Port Ellen, and Bruichladdich received only one call per week.

the fine turbine steamer Queen Alexandra, painted her funnels red and black and added a third (dummy) funnel and mainmast. With a stroke of genius, the Company renamed her Saint Columba and she remained on the Clyde section of the ‘Royal Route’ every peacetime summer until 1958.

Only minor events occurred over the next fifteen years: Craighouse Pier on Jura was lengthened but was still too shallow at low water, while a new pier on Gigha was completed after three years’ construction. The Islay route made the national press on 8 October 1960 when the Lochiel grounded on an unmarked rock in West Loch Tarbert. Although she was raised and renovated, it was felt that she was never quite at her best after the incident. In 1962 the Lochbroom became spare and MV Loch Ard (1955) took over the Glasgow-Islay service. Cargo, cars and livestock were still loaded and unloaded in the age-old way – by derrick from pier to hold. As the number of vehicles on the roads of Scotland was increasing at an alarming rate, management realised that action had to be taken. The car ferry revolution came in 1964 when three side-loading car ferries, Hebrides, Clansman and Columba were introduced to the Outer

1 January 1948 was a very significant date for the MacBrayne firm. The shares owned by the LMS were nationalised and the Company also acquired the ships and goodwill of their friendly rivals McCallum, Orme & Co. The only aspect impinging on the Islay story was that MacBrayne’s were now responsible for the island of Colonsay (which did not yet boast a pier), the former McCallum Orme steamer Dunara Castle giving a weekly service from Port Askaig. At the same time the Islay service from West Loch Tarbert was extended to Colonsay initially twice per week. A rationalisation of the service given by the cargo ships followed. The Lochdunvegan was withdrawn and eventually replaced by the newly acquired MV Lochbroom (ex Empire 6

Cargo vessel M V Loch Ard (1955) at Port Ellen

M V Lochiel after striking a rock in West Loch Tarbert

Isles, Skye and Mull respectively – but Islay was completely bypassed, most likely because the very shallow waters of the West Loch required a very light-drafted vessel. A strategic plan, however, was brought forward the following year. A terminal was suggested well down the West Loch where a ferry could run to Port Askaig (and Colonsay) but not to Port Ellen (or Gigha). As a consequence the connecting service on the Clyde, provided since 1959 by DEV Lochfyne, would be withdrawn, as it was not sensible for a passenger only vessel to feed into a car ferry. Argyll County Council initially co-operated with the idea of the new terminal but the Ileachs were bitterly split, some preferring an ‘overland route’ through Jura. Meanwhile, a compromise was struck: in July and August the Lochnevis became the mailboat and the Lochiel, following alterations which had increased her hold capacity, became a ‘car ferry’, that is she offered additional sailings for vehicles to and from Port Askaig.

loading ferry from Ferguson Brothers Ltd of Port Glasgow and constructed terminals at Kennacraig (a few miles down from the West Loch Pier) and Port Askaig. This was as MacBrayne’s had planned (without the extension to Colonsay, which incidentally had at last acquired a pier in early 1965). As no Government subsidy was to be provided no consultation was required. Their terminals complete, the new firm, Western Ferries, introduced the red-hulled Sound of Islay to the route on 8 April 1968. The 11-knot ferry, which could carry 25 cars and 75 passengers, offered sailings at 07:00 and 14:00. She sailed with a crew of only seven and had vending machines instead of a cafeteria, but she soon cut into the MacBrayne traffic as motorists naturally preferred to reverse on to a car deck than have their vehicles lifted by derrick into a cargo hold. So successful was she that Western Ferries ordered another ferry from Norway. She was to be rather larger and with superior passenger accommodation. The Sound of Jura took up service on 1 August 1969. She was the first drive-through car ferry in the Clyde

Meanwhile a private firm, backed by many interests in Islay and Jura, ordered a stern7

Western Ferries’ M V Sound of Islay (1968) and M V Sound of Jura (1969) at Kennacraig

which had entered service in 1954) and offer the new Islay ferry to the Clyde. Accordingly, on 18 January 1970, the Arran, sporting a MacBrayne red and black funnel, introduced a hoist-loading car ferry service between West Loch Tarbert and Port Askaig, plus Colonsay twice per week. The Arran could carry 30 cars but Western Ferries had a slight edge as the Sound of Islay sailed direct rather than calling at the north end of Gigha by tender and at Craighouse, Jura. In addition, the Arran was delayed by having to load individual whisky barrels, a legacy from the cargo ships. As a direct result, the Lochiel was withdrawn, together with the cargo boat Loch Ard, the spare cargo boat Lochbroom and the spare passenger and relief ‘steamer’ Lochnevis. The STG was certainly making its presence felt. Meanwhile, the Iona, originally destined for Islay, was placed on the Gourock-Dunoon run – with a CSP yellow and black funnel.

or Western Isles, though initially she operated as a stern-loader. With a crew of only six, she could carry 36 cars, 250 passengers (74 in winter) at 14 knots. In December of 1968, it was MacBrayne’s turn to place an order for a new Islay car ferry, as the County Council had rejected the overland route on grounds of cost and supported a new terminal at Redhouse, well down West Loch Tarbert. A month later, thanks to the cost of land acquisition and representations from Western Ferries, they declined after all to proceed with Redhouse but instead offered a terminal further up the loch at Escart Bay. Most significantly, by the middle of 1969, David MacBrayne Ltd had been wholly nationalised and was now owned by the Scottish Transport Group along with The Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd (who owned and managed the ‘railway steamers’ on the Clyde). With the two companies under the same umbrella, an ingenious compromise became possible. The STG decided to switch to the existing Islay service the Arran (the CSP’s pioneer car ferry

What appeared to be the final blow to MacBrayne’s came in November 1971 when the Conservative Government in Westminster 8

M V Arran (1953) in her hoist-loading condition at Port Askaig

M V Arran in her stern-loading condition at West Loch Tarbert

proposed to withdraw their subsidy and instead give cash to Western Ferries to sail to Colonsay. The STG soon decided to transfer the Arran back to the Clyde from 30 March 1972. However, a public enquiry in Port Ellen in February 1972 brought 587 objections to the proposal and MacBrayne’s withdrawal was refused. MacBrayne’s agreed to continue, initially until 30 September and then indefinitely, and it was not long before the Islay Transport Users’ Association recommended that a terminal at Redhouse or the Western Ferries’ terminal at Kennacraig should be available to them. During the summer of 1972 Western Ferries appeared to be in financial trouble: they were to be subject to an STG takeover. Despite opposition from many Ileachs, the Secretary of State approved. With the offer due to close on 27 October, the shareholders were about to accept when a ‘white knight’, Sir William Lithgow, offered to buy the firm. The offer was accepted and Western Ferries (Argyll) Ltd was born. Meanwhile, on the last day of 1972, the Arran was withdrawn to be converted to stern-loading.

New Years Day 1973 saw the formation of Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd (soon to be known as CalMac) when the two shipping subsidiaries of STG finally merged. The Arran now with a stern ramp in place of her hoist and all superstructure aft removed, reappeared on 19 April, giving three double runs daily between converted terminals at Kennacraig and Port Ellen. Gigha was now served by a Council ferry from Tayinloan on the Kintyre peninsula, Jura by the Sound of Gigha, a small ferry operated by Western Ferries which sailed between Port Askaig and Feolin, and Colonsay from Oban. For the first time, Sunday sailings were offered. A new shallowdrafted vessel had been ordered by CalMac ‘for general work’ and, on 14 August 1974, the stern-loading Pioneer, reviving the name of the favourite paddle steamer, appeared at Islay and took over from the Arran. Although her capacity was not significantly greater than the Arran’s, at nearly 16 knots she was faster and her accommodation was superior. Two cranes on her upper deck aft allowed her to discharge cargo at Gigha and calls there were reinstated. 9

M V Pioneer (1974) at West Loch Tarbert

M V Iona (1970) and the Jura ferry M V Sound of Gigha (1966) at Port Askaig

Despite the new competition, Western Ferries held on: it was a more sheltered crossing to Port Askaig, the Sound of Jura had a wider ramp and she was drive-through. On one occasion, Western Ferries offered a free trip to her regular passengers – unpaid crew, free food, free whisky – which they alleged would be the norm if the private firm obtained the same Government subsidy as CalMac. With the subsidy behind her, however, the Pioneer won through and on 29 August 1976 the Sound of Jura was withdrawn and subsequently sold to Mexico. She was replaced by the Sound of Islay, which soldiered on until 30 September 1981. On her last run bottles of Bowmore were presented to her crew.

Clyde, she had spent some years on various West Highland routes and at last she came to Islay, as had been STG’s original intention. With a capacity for 47 cars and 581 passengers, she was a better carrier than the Pioneer. An interesting feature of the Islay operation from now on was that there was no longer a ship dedicated to the run. The Iona was to be seen, especially in winter, throughout the CalMac network and several other ferries put in an appearance at Islay. Foremost among these ‘relief ’ vessels was the Claymore of 1979, normally on the Isles run from Oban, but the Arran and Pioneer also appeared from time to time and even the former Arran ferry Glen Sannox was sometimes to be seen in Islay waters.

The Government paid for the Kennacraig Terminal to be handed over to CalMac in 1977: a year later, on 26 June 1978, the Pioneer was transferred there. The West Loch Pier was closed – it had lasted for over 150 years since it first came into use in a very primitive form. Less than a year later, the Iona took over the service. After her original employment on the

An important innovation was a new separate service from Kennacraig to the South Pier, Gigha, operated by a small ‘Island’ class vessel: from 1980 this service ran from a new slipway at Tayinloan to the Gigha slip at Ardminish as the old Council ferry had done. Another development, favoured by many of 10

M V Claymore (1978) at Kennacraig

P S Waverley (1947) and M V Hebridean Isles (1985) at Port Ellen

the islanders, was the reinstatement of Port Askaig as a CalMac ferry terminal. From 1980 the midday run from Kennacraig sailed there every day. Port Askaig and Kennacraig both received new linkspans in 1989, the latter having previously had its Portacabins replaced by a new waiting-room, ticket office and staff accommodation. A linkspan had been installed to complement the concrete slipway at Port Ellen in 1981.

increased at a stroke by 50%. CalMac sold the Claymore to a private firm for the new route from Campbeltown to Ballycastle on the basis that she could be chartered back in her new colours when no other vessel was available on a relief basis. This actually happened. Other ships on occasional relief duties were the Lord of the Isles and Hebridean Isles. The “Heb Isles” actually took over the Islay route as the main vessel on 4 March 2001, although as events turned out she was absent for extended periods, not least when she was required on the service to Orkney operated by CalMac’s sister company NorthLink.

The end of the eighties saw two changes. The stern-loading Claymore replaced the Iona as the main Islay vessel on 16 June 1989, while in that season a completely new roster was devised for Wednesdays: the ferry now sailed at 08:30 from Kennacraig to Port Askaig and then continued to Colonsay and Oban, returning in the afternoon. (The other services to Colonsay were given by an Oban-based vessel.) It was on 26 August 1993 that the Isle of Arran, released from the eponymous island on the appearance of the Caledonian Isles, replaced the Claymore at Islay. The service became genuinely drive-through and capacity

Meanwhile, Argyll & Bute Council, as the local authority now was, tabled plans for an extensive upgrade of Port Askaig terminal.There were to be new berths for the Jura ferry and the fishing fleet, an extended car park, a new waiting room, an extension of the harbour wall and improvements to the approach road. Money was forthcoming for a slightly revised plan and work started in 2003. At the same time, CalMac initiated an extensive consultation on 11

M V Isle of Arran and M V Hebridean Isles at Port Ellen

existing CalMac vessels and infrastructure to operators originally over a five-year period, the ships on a bareboat charter basis. In addition, Scottish ministers decided that there should be a clear legal separation between the company which operated the ferry services and the company which owned the vessels and ports. To comply with these demands, Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd had to be restructured. In 2006, the company established a new whollyowned subsidiary, CalMac Ferries Ltd (CFL), which would be used to bid for the contract for the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services. CalMac Ferries Ltd later became a subsidiary of the formerly dormant David MacBrayne Ltd, which, like Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd itself, was wholly-owned by the Scottish Ministers, and the operation of the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services together with the crewing company was transferred to it. The ownership of the vessels and ports continued to be vested in Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd which, in recognition of the change in its role and functions, was renamed Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) with headquarters in Port

the future of the Islay route, not least because the larger vessels in the fleet could not use the existing terminals. 2003 also saw the Isle of Arran become a second Islay vessel in summer, having the previous season given two sailings per week from Oban. She and the Hebridean Isles now gave four crossings each way every day, alternating on the basic roster and extra sailings. One condition was that, as the “Arran” was still spare vessel, she might have to be withdrawn at short notice in emergency. In addition the service would be reduced to its previous level during the ships’ overhaul period. With the Islay distilleries entering a boom period, however, this latter restriction was untenable and other ferries such as the Lord of the Isles, normally based at Oban, were sometimes drafted in. In the early years of the new millennium a tendering exercise for the CalMac network was enforced under European Union (EU) ‘State Aids’ legislation. After extensive consultation, the Scottish Executive proposed a public sector owning company which would lease the 12

MV Finlaggan poised for launch at Remontowa shipyard Gdansk (2010)

Finlaggan, Glendale, Pioneer and Lochiel. The name Finlaggan – Gaelic Fionnlagan – was announced on 30 November 2009. It was a very appropriate choice as in Medieval times Finlaggan, in the north of the island, was the administrative capital of the chief of Clan Donald, the all-powerful Lord of the Isles.

Glasgow. From 1 October 2006, CFL, as the operators of the ferry services, leased the vessels from CMAL. It was therefore CMAL which placed the order on 2 November 2007 for a new ship for Islay, only the fourth new build in the history of the route and the first since 1974. The yard which won the order was the Remontowa shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, builders of both new ferries for the Wemyss Bay-Rothesay service, the Bute and Argyle. The overall cost was estimated at the time as £24.5 million. The ship was to be around 85 metres long and have a service speed of some 16.5 knots. She was designed to carry 80 cars and 550 passengers as well as coaches, commercial vehicles and trailers. By having an open deck aft she would be able to carry dangerous goods. A mezzanine deck for 18 cars was to be fitted. Passenger accommodation was to be arranged on two decks, access being to the lower of the two from an enclosed gangway. Two years later, CMAL offered the Ileachs the chance to name the new vessel. The choices given were

A new linkspan and pier roundhead had been fitted at Port Askaig early in 2007 after the pier had been closed for around six months, but it was not until 2009 that the whole project was completed and opened on 10 September by the Princess Royal. Meanwhile, in 2008, plans for new terminal facilities at Kennacraig and Port Ellen in anticipation of the new ferry had been mooted, although subsequently they were scaled back by Scottish Government constraints as a result of the recession. At Port Ellen, land was to be reclaimed north of the existing pier for a new linkspan and dolphin while a single-storey terminal building was to be erected, again on reclaimed land, for access to the ship by a covered walkway. At Kennacraig works would remove a sunken barge close 13

MV Finlaggan launched at Remontowa shipyard Gdansk (2010) 14

Completion of MV Finlaggan at Remontowa shipyard Gdansk (2011)

to the pier – an operation finished by June 2010. The provision of a new dolphin and other works at Kennacraig were completed in April 2011, in time for the Finlaggan, but Port Ellen was closed for redevelopment in late March of the same year for some nine months and all sailings were temporarily routed to Port Askaig.

drydocked in March 2011 and by 7 April she had finished exhaustive and successful six-day trials. Building was completed and she was handed over to CMAL on 11 May. CMAL immediately chartered her ‘bareboat’ to CalMac Ferries Ltd. and, with a crew in place, the long voyage to Oban comenced on 19 May. After storing, the Finlaggan sailed south and was in time for her naming ceremony at Port Askaig on 25 May and subsequent entry into service. The Isle of Arran could now be employed elsewhere – a new era for the sea route to Islay had begun.

Meantime work continued apace in Gdansk. The Finlaggan was ready for launching on 30 June 2010 and fitting out followed. She was 15

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS * CMAL wishes to thank most sincerely Ian McCrorie, CalMac Historian, for writing this booklet. The Company also acknowledges the valuable work of Dr Harold Mills and John Newth in ensuring historical accuracy. The images of the Finlaggan are their own but they wish to thank Elliott Bowman, Robin Boyd, Iain McPherson, John Newth and Dave Wolstenholme along with the author for the use of their photographs of the modern ships. The images of the more historic vessels are either from postcards or are part of the collections of the Clyde River and West Highland Steamer Clubs, to whom CMAL is very grateful.

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The Sea Route to Islay - The Journey to Finlaggan