A summer in Skye

‘Mallaig harbour as ever was thronged with traditional Scottish fishing boats, but the dominant presence was the strikingly smart and handsome Clansman’: the MacBrayne car ferry (right) is pictured with Loch Arkaig on 29 August 1966

David Parsons recalls a time and place when the sun always shone — or so the memories of youth keep telling him.

The young David Parsons c1966

Why a week’s holiday in Skye in the halcyon days of 1966 should be remembered so vividly, if not with total accuracy, over 50 years later and in the early hours of a Wiltshire winter’s night, is a mystery — but most welcome, for it led to my discovering afresh an album of high-quality contemporary postcards and establishing some of the true facts.

In the 1960s Alexanders (Fife) organised a wide range of day trips from Dunfermline. One of these on Saturdays and Sundays was up and down the picturesque but notorious A9 to Inverness — some 140 miles each way for £1 — and we were permitted to buy two sets of tickets which allowed us to travel north to the capital of the Highlands on Saturday and back on the Sunday of the following weekend.

From there the inevitable MacBrayne’s bus took us to Kyle of Lochalsh for the short ferry crossing to Kyleakin, from where it was but a short walk to Dunringell, a rather refined private hotel in extensive grounds on the outskirts of the inland village. The proprietors provided a warm welcome.

A round trip to Kyle of Lochalsh on the Sunday afternoon gave us the chance to acquire a weekly ticket for the ferry, and this was well used over the coming days. Although far from its Gourock base, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company had taken over the service in 1957 and by 1966 employed four vessels. Three included the still relatively young turntable ferries Broadford (1953), Lochalsh (1957) and Kyleakin (1960), the last of which was the final one of this configuration for the company.

Portree approaching Kyle of Lochalsh on 2 September 1966

The fourth was the apparently busier Portree, a product of James Lamont & Co of Greenock. Just one year old in 1966, she had seemingly minimal freeboard, a tiny wheelhouse about as far forward as possible, and loading ramps amidships which when folded resembled the fins of a large fish.

Sea time beckoned on the Monday, and we watched Loch Arkaig glide gently alongside the pier at Kyle before embarking for her departure at 1050 for Mallaig. Skilfully converted from her original incarnation in 1942 as a wooden-hulled inshore minesweeper, she had a very neat profile and went on to serve David MacBrayne Ltd principally as Portree and Small Isles mail steamer for nigh on 20 years.

For this day’s voyage, the surroundings could scarcely be emulated for scenic grander even by Scotland’s high standards. Loch Arkaig sailed down Loch Alsh and into Loch Rhea, then negotiated the sometimes turbulent narrows near Glenelg before continuing into the broad Sound of Sleat, with the prominent lighthouse at Isleornsay to starboard. On the port side she passed the mouth of the dark and forbidding Loch Hourn (‘Loch of Hell’), the massive Knoydart peninsula and the gentler Loch Nevis en route to the lively fishing port of Mallaig, the end of the West Highland Line.

Mallaig harbour as ever was thronged with traditional Scottish fishing boats which made a blaze of colour, but the dominant presence was the strikingly smart and handsome Clansman, the second of the three car ferries built in 1964 by Hall Russell & Co at Aberdeen for David MacBrayne Ltd’s western isles services.

Loch Arkaig belonged to this glorious world’

She had opened the Mallaig-Armadale route in her first summer and at 1630 she took us over the mill pond of the outer Sound of Sleat to the Skye terminal from which — in the version of my reverie — we caught a beautiful MacBraynes Duple Donington coach for the journey back to our base at Kyleakin. Unfortunately that was not true: the reality was merely a car of unknown provenance.

The next sailing — on the Tuesday afternoon — was also on Loch Arkaig. She left Kyle of Lochalsh at 1455 and headed towards the slender sentinel of the lighthouse on Eilean Ban, then out into the Inner Sound, passing the evocatively named islands of Pabay, Longay and Scalpay. Serene is not a description you would associate with our quaint little working ship, but such was Loch Arkaig’s progress into the calm Sound of Raasay and on to Portree (‘King’s Haven’), its bay making an exquisite sheltered anchorage.

The return voyage was equally glorious: it seemed Loch Arkaig belonged to this other world, and ever since she has been a real favourite.

David MacBrayne Ltd advertised cruises on Mondays to Loch Duich, Wednesdays to Loch Kishorn and Fridays to Toscaig (which was the usual service run), leaving at 1000 and returning at 1230 — times honoured in the breach, as we were to find. These trips were taken by the small motor vessel Lochnell, whose previous life from 1941 had been spent as the hospital launch Galen.

‘The delightful little Lochnell’ approaches Kyle of Lochalsh on 30 August 1966 on her return sailing from Applecross

On the Wednesday she left Kyle at 1025 and crossed the outer reaches of Loch Carron on her way to Loch Kishorn. With the surface of its waters like glass, Lochnell made for the head of the loch, roughly opposite the approaches to the dramatic Bealach Na Ba pass which leads eventually to Applecross.

In idyllic conditions the engine stopped and wondrous sun-kissed views opened up in very direction: this was a scene of perfect stillness — not a sound. The crew quietly and kindly dispensed coffee to all the passengers. However, the spell was then cruelly broken by a loud Canadian tourist who piped up “Gee, isn’t this just swell!” That really was a breach of the peace (sorry Canada, but he has never been forgotten since).

We had not reckoned on the delightful little Lochnell operating to West Highland time, and she reached Kyle — where the imposing Stornoway mail steamer Loch Seaforth was alongside, her brilliant red black-topped funnel catching the midday sun — very late.

This meant we arrived at our hotel across the sound nearer two o’clock for a one o’clock lunch, which somewhat disapprovingly was nevertheless still served — just in time for a short ride by Commer minibus to Ord House Hotel on the north side of Skye’s southern peninsula. With views over a tranquil loch to the distant hills and a superb afternoon tea graciously presented, this was all very civilised.

Respect for the Sabbath: the Kyle ferries have a day of rest at their Kyleakin mooring on Sunday 28 August 1966

On Thursday evening I sailed to Kyle on Kyleakin and walked to the adjacent headland, where for a while I just sat and watched as the last rays of the setting sun faded behind the sharp outlines of the Cuillins. Magical.

Our final cruise on the Friday morning was on Lochnell beyond Loch Carron to the remote Toscaig Pier, apparently in the middle of nowhere but which served the village of Applecross. Some years later the pier provided a landing point for the stylish car ferry Rangatira when she was reduced to being an accommodation ship for workers engaged at the Howard Doris oil rig construction site at Loch Kishorn.

This time we were not so late back at Kyle. Lochnell moved to the Tobermory-Mingary service in 1968 and stayed with MacBraynes until sold in 1981.

On the Saturday and Sunday we made the two-stage journey home, with an overnight stay in the fair city of Inverness, remembered for an evening stroll to Muirtown Locks where the Loch Ness excursion vessel and winter months’ icebreaking tug Scot II used to berth.

With landward outings on Skye in addition to the sailings, it had been an enthralling week — a glimpse now into the way we were. We were lucky to have enjoyed it while it was all still possible, and the sun really did shine all day every day. Well, it did then, didn’t it? Dream on…..!

David Parsons was CRSC President in 1980-81. He now lives in Wiltshire.

Scot II at Muirtown Locks, Inverness, in 1970

Rangatira at Toscaig in 1977. Built on Tyneside in 1971 for the ferry service connecting the north and south islands of New Zealand, she was retired after only four years, and in 1977-78 served as an accommodation ship for workers at the oil platform construction site at Loch Kishorn. She later fulfilled a similar role at Sullom Voe in Shetland and in the Falklands. In the late 1980s and 1990s she was employed as a ferry in the Mediterranean, before being broken up in Turkey in 2005

Summer idyll: Columba viewed from the deck of Loch Arkaig off Mallaig in 1974

Clansman approaching Armadale in the summer of 1971

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Published on 9 February 2019