A Hebridean Adventure 1986

On his 1986 tour of the Hebrides,  Tom Dunlop spent a night at Tobermory, where he photographed Claymore arriving on the morning of 24 April (above): those were the days when the ferry to Coll, Tiree, Barra and ’Boisdale called at the Mull capital

CRSC member and keen photographer Tom Dunlop recalls a journey to the Western Isles 36 years ago. He had two objectives: to sail to Colonsay on Hebridean Isles, and to do the Uig triangle on Columba. Ferry timetables were pored over to make the best use of his week, and with plenty of  room for further adventure by ferry,  rail and bus, the journey was not without incident.

It was April 1986. The old Hebrides had departed the triangle the previous November and her sister, Columba, was keeping the route warm for her permanent replacement, Hebridean Isles. The new ship was delivered in March 1986 and began her CalMac career covering Craignure and Colonsay. Extensive pier work at Uig, Tarbert and Lochmaddy meant Columba was best suited to cover that route for the time being.

Summer timetables in 1986 did not begin until mid May, and my first decision was how best to fill Sunday 20 April, as in those black and white days there were few Western Isles sailings on the Sabbath: no Craignure, no Tiree and definitely no Lewis or Harris. Islay, however, had a 1300 trip from Kennacraig to Port Ellen and back, with connecting bus from Glasgow. I was not overly excited at the prospect of this trip, as Iona was the regular Islay ferry. She was never one of my favourites, as she had little open deck space and some bright designer had placed her bar beneath the car deck, with the toilets three floors away!

Glen Sannox at Port Ellen on Sunday 20 April 1986: in those days services to the Hebrides on the Sabbath were by no means a ‘given’. Tom had been expecting to find Iona on the Islay run, and was pleasantly surprised to find a vessel with plenty of vantage points on deck

As the bus rattled towards Kennacraig I was delighted to see Glen Sannox at the berth. This pleasant discovery gave way to disappointment when a crew member told me the ‘Sannox’ was covering for Iona which, in turn, was covering for Columba at Uig. The latter was in Clyde Dock undergoing repair, so it looked like one of my main objectives was going to fail.

The sail to Port Ellen and back was pleasant in calm weather and, of course, there were plenty of vantage points on the roomy Glen Sannox. I joined the bus back to Glasgow and wasted a few hours before climbing onto the midnight train to Inverness. What should have been a quiet sleepy journey to the Highlands was like being on a supporters’ bus after your team has won the cup. The train was full of returning oil workers drinking and singing away their last few hours of freedom. Most of them got off at Perth, connecting for Aberdeen, and the train then trundled to Inverness in the dark.

My next journey was only possible because of a considerate bus driver who happily waited for my late Kyle train in order to connect with the Skye ferry (Kyleakin or Lochalsh). My bus crossed to Kyleakin and headed south to Armadale — another journey teeming with spectacular scenery and wildlife. A second ‘ship surprise’ awaited me at Armadale: Lochmor was on overhaul and the replacement Small Isles vessel was Pioneer. Time was no problem as we whizzed round these beautiful  islands. The ferry boats at Eigg and Rhum were dwarfed alongside Pioneer and we had time ashore at Canna. To do …nothing.

After a night in Mallaig I caught an early train to Fort William and a bus to Oban in nice time to catch Hebridean Isles’ afternoon sail to Craignure and back: a new ship for these piers. The Mull folk clearly enjoyed having CalMac’s latest recruit on their run and I heard the usual rumbles of wanting to keep her. For my part I thought Hebridean Isles was very impressive. In design she was a step up from Isle of Arran, which was proving popular at Brodick.

One of Tom’s main objectives was to sail to Colonsay on the new Hebridean Isles

The next day I could achieve one of the main objectives: I boarded Hebridean Isles for the 1000 return to Colonsay. She coped easily with a slight swell and her open deck beneath the bridge gave a fantastic view over to Mull, Scarba, Jura and the Garvellachs. At Colonsay I asked permission to nip ashore to photograph the event. The mate questioned both my intelligence and my parentage but promised not to leave without me. On the return I stayed aboard at Oban, crossed to Craignure and took a Bowmans Bus to Tobermory where I spent the night.

Next morning I was at Tobermory pier well before Claymore’s call at 0845. In the good old days ships actually berthed there and, guess what, today I was the only passenger! We set off in glorious sunshine to Coll and then Tiree. I managed to get ashore at both for photos, despite more queer looks and mutterings from the crew. I returned to Oban around 1700 after another glorious sail down the Sound of Mull. When the weather and scenery is this good, it’s easy to feel very content.

Harris now beckoned but my route was not straightforward. I took Claymore from Oban at 0030 to Lochboisdale, where I joined the postbus to Benbecula. I was then asked to change to another postbus for Lochmaddy, and I was dropped off at the pier where I boarded Iona for a return trip to Uig. Sailing between Uist and Skye is spectacular, and after a decent meal in the hotel at Lochmaddy I secured a cabin on board Iona.

Next day I sailed across to Uig and was ready to join the Glasgow bus when an old friend appeared in Loch Snizort – Columba! Repairs complete, she had sailed back from Govan and was ready to resume service. As Iona left Uig to return to Kennacraig and Columba sailed in, I moved swiftly and boarded her.

Iona at Lochmaddy on 25 April 1986: ‘she had little open deck space and some bright designer had placed her bar beneath the car deck, with the toilets three floors away’

Off  we sailed to Lochmaddy and Tarbert. I had finally achieved my second objective — but, in my excitement, I had overlooked something fundamental: Columba is slower than a week in the jail. A low tide and a full load meant she ran hours late, and my connecting bus from Uig to Inverness was long gone.

Seeing my plight, a friendly couple offered me a lift to Kyle. There I met Fraserburgh Amateurs FC who had played Staffin that afternoon and were noisily and happily heading home. I was offered a lift to Inverness — luck was smiling on me. I never found out the score of the game but the celebrations were worthy of Hampden or Wembley, and the hospitality was beyond generous. Tired, happy and nowhere near sober, I got off the bus and found a hotel.

My week had been arranged at short notice but the changes added to the enjoyment. The weather was kind to me. There were no cancellations and only one delay. Glen Sannox, Pioneer and Columba were bonuses that I could not have predicted.

Ferry news spread more slowly in those days; a website was where you would expect to meet spiders. Thirty-six years ago the newsworthy items included the PM having her integrity questioned (Westland), a deadly health epidemic (AIDS) and an explosion at Chernobyl, which launched Ukraine onto the front pages. So, for those of you who believe in fate, put a tenner on Argentina to win the 2022 World Cup.

Read more west coast shipping stories on the CRSC website by clicking on News & Reports.

The new Hebridean Isles at Oban on 23 April 1986: ‘her open deck beneath the bridge gave a fantastic view over to Mull, Scarba, Jura and the Garvellachs’

Pioneer at Mallaig on 21 April 1986, still sporting a hoist abaft the funnels

The old MacBrayne ferryboat Ulva taking goods and passengers ashore from Pioneer at Eigg on 21 April 1986

Hebridean Isles at Craignure on 22 April 1986

Claymore at Coll on 24 April 1986….

….and at Tiree the same day.

Not one of Tom’s favourites: Iona at Uig on 26 April 1986

Columba at Lochmaddy on 26 April 1986. Her 1964 sister Hebrides had left the fleet six months earlier, and Columba herself would be sold in 1988 — to be rebuilt as the privately owned cruise ship Hebridean Princess

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Published on 28 October 2022