November 2014 Meeting: Turntable Ferries — from Glencoe to Glenachulish

Robert introducing his talk
 
Not many CRSC members have captained a 19th century pleasure boat. Not many could count themselves an expert on Scotland’s turntable ferries. Robert Beale scores on both counts. His daytime job is to skipper the vessels of Windermere Lake Cruises Ltd, including Tern, built for the Furness Railway Company in 1891. He has also made it his task, in his spare time, to research the history of a type of craft most ship enthusiasts have ignored but which, for much of the past century, played a pivotal role in the network of ferry crossings along Scotland’s craggy western coastline.

   
Windermere Boat – Muriel II
Windermere Boat – Teal (II)
 
 Windermere Boat – Tern
(Robert’s summer home)
 
All this made the CRSC’s November meeting at Jurys Inn, Glasgow, a groundbreaking occasion. Robert’s talk, delivered in a relaxed, easy-to-digest style, opened up a treasure-chest of facts and illustrations that have long lain hidden, leaving us wondering why ship historians neglected turntable ferries for so long. We must credit Robert and a handful of others for taking the initiative to explore the quirky background of these off-the-beaten-track ferries, notorious for their precarious loading technique and constant battle with tidal streams. We can also thank him for making their history seem every bit as rich and fascinating as their more conventional sea-going counterparts.
 
Routes where Turntable ferries have operated
 
Robert’s interest in turntable ferries began as a 15-year old in 2003, when he went on a cycling tour of the western isles. He returned the following summer and posted a selection of photos on the internet — sparking a connection with a 90-year old former Corran ferryman living in Vancouver, who gave him the benefit of his experience. He was also encouraged by contact with fellow enthusiasts Neil King and John MacLeod (who has posted footage of the Ballachulish turntable ferry on YouTube). Before long Robert had uncovered a trail of 11 turntable ferry crossings over narrow Scottish sounds and sea lochs — Ballachulish, Bonawe, Corran, Cuan, Dornie, Kessock, Kyleakin, Kylerhea, Kylesku (the most northerly), Scalpay and Strome — though it wasn’t until 2012 that he first saw one. The only turntable ferry in operation today is at Kylerhea.
 Sail and Oar ferries
transporting road vehicles
Loading a Daimler
at Ballachulish 1911 
 Strome ferry 1921
showing the precarious
loading arrangements
First turntable ferry,
the GLENCOE 
 
The earliest illustrations in Robert’s talk depicted a primitive Kyleakin ferry in 1905 with auxiliary sail, the Dornie ferry in 1910 with vehicles secured by ropes tied through wheel spokes, and a Ballachulish ferry in 1912 carrying a Daimler. “They were all pretty basic”, but they spawned a design that was as remarkable for its simplicity as for its ingenuity.
 
An interesting video clip showing a car being loaded onto a ferry can be found here 
 
Rather than landing on the slip, turntable ferries berthed alongside it, using a spin cradle capable of turning 360 degrees so that vehicles never had to reverse. Glencoe had its first turntable ferry before the First World War. Dornie  and Strone followed in 1920, Kyleakin in 1928, Corran in 1935, Bonawe in 1937, Kylesku in 1952 and Kessock and Cuan in 1953. The last was Scalpay in 1965. Some of Robert’s most telling illustrations were of car queues: a two-car ferry taking half an hour for a return crossing could leave motorists waiting for several hours, especially if the ferrymen insisted on taking their full meal breaks.

   
Queues of cars waiting for a ferry
 
James Noble of Fraserburgh was the most prolific builder of turntable ferries (17) and pioneered many of the improvements, such as springs to secure the ramps. The Clyde also produced its share — at Ailsa and Denny. As turntable ferries proliferated, their design became more diverse: Cuan’s Maid of Luing (1953) had a wheelhouse at the bow and a saloon aft. Kessock’s Inbhir Nis (1953) had a dedicated passenger gangway to enable quicker turnrounds. Ferries also became more capacious: by 1949 Corran had the four-car Garven, and by the mid-1950s four ferries were operating on the Caledonian Steam Packet Company’s Kyle-Kyleakin crossing.
   
Passenger expectations and transport requirements continuously evolve and drive the changes 

The reason for their demise was partly the building of bridges — Dornie succumbed in 1940, Ballachulish in 1975, Kessock in 1982, Kylesku in 1984 — and partly an evolution of ferry design. Turntable operation proved too restrictive for the growing volume of traffic and size of vehicles. The last turntable ferry to be built was the 64-foot Lochaber of 1973, with capacity for nine cars and 100 passengers. “A limit had been reached”.
 

   
The enemies of the ferries – new bridges!  The result of continuous design improvements
After being made redundant, most were beached and became wrecks. A few found employment elsewhere: Maid of Kylesku finished her days as a fish farm vessel. Glenachulish (1969), the present Kylerhea ferry, has proved a doughty survivor, swapping her original post at Ballachulish in 1975 for Corran and then Kessock, before moving to Kylerhea in 1982. So far she has fought off the march of ‘progress’: she was put up for sale in 1988, taken off the run in 1990 and subjected to faltering demand in 2004 when tolls on the Skye bridge were dropped. She is now owned by a Skye community company, and it is envisaged that in 2018, her 49th year, she will be enrolled on the National Historic Ships Register.

   
 Flexibility and adaptability were
key design requirements
 
The last turntable ferry sailing – Glenachulish
on the Kylerhea service

Robert’s final illustration showed a busy Glenachulish in radiant green, the livery in which she appeared in 2014.

 
 
In his vote of thanks, Ian McCrorie commended Robert on the superb quality of his first-ever lecture, “delivered like a professional”. Before the meeting, some might have judged the subject-matter to be arcane and peripheral, but Robert was welcomed —and applauded — by a full complement of members and friends, all of whom will have gone away properly enlightened.
 

 
Robert Beale’s book Scotland’s Turntable Ferries,
co-authored by John Hendy, was published in 2013
by Lily Publications

With special thanks to Robert for allowing the use of any images within his presentation, for this report.