All tickets please (28)

‘Our revised itinerary now became a simple return on the Mallaig-Armadale route….a trip to Tarbert to look at the pier reconstruction there…and later, with the Mallaig-Lochboisdale sailing restored, to do that run on Lord of the Isles

Eric Schofield, connoisseur of west coast excursions, sees the humble paper ticket as a passport to ‘great days out’. In this latest addition to his long-running CRSC series, he reminds us that winter is a good time to start planning trips to the Outer Hebrides — as long as you factor in the possibility of unexpected changes to the CalMac schedule.

Eric Schofield

The tickets pictured above were for travel on different dates (writes Eric Schofield), but the journeys were connected, stemming as they did from an idea I had last winter when my wife and I received an invitation to my nephew’s wedding on the Isle of Skye.

With the wedding due on Saturday 26 March, just a couple of days after the change from winter to summer schedules, I saw the ideal opportunity to accomplish a vessel/sailing combination that I had wanted to do since the initial winter-only trial period began in November 2013 — the Mallaig/Lochboisdale service operated by Lord of the Isles.

We decided to turn the visit to Skye into a short holiday with B&B stops at Mallaig and in North Uist, before basing ourselves at Uig, reasonably close to Greshornish where the wedding would take place. The plan was to drive to Mallaig on Tuesday 22 March, board Lord of the Isles late morning the following day for passage to Lochboisdale, and drive up through South Uist and Benbecula to North Uist. We would then take the Thursday sailing from Lochmaddy to Uig, followed on the Friday by a passenger return sailing to Tarbert, Harris, principally to get a look at the reconstruction of the pier there.

After the Saturday wedding we would leave Skye on the Sunday via Lochnevis from Armadale to Mallaig and drive home. Booking was made for these sailings well in advance, on Rabbie Burns Day as it happened — surely an omen! ‘The best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft agley’. 

Lochnevis at Armadale. Click on image to enlarge

As if I was playing a version of the kids’ game Kerplunk, there followed a sudden collapse of our plan, culminating in a text from CalMac to get in touch to discuss alternative travel arrangements. Due to a combination of faults surfacing during overhauls of Lord of the Isles and Clansman, the subsequent knock-on effect in the major vessel overhaul programme brought about a complete withdrawal of the Mallaig/Lochboisdale service during the month of March.

Our revised itinerary now became simply a return passage on the Mallaig/Armadale route, leaving home a day later on the Wednesday with the outward sailing on Lochnevis at 1600 from Mallaig. Thursday became a foot passenger there-and-back trip between Uig and Lochmaddy. We extended our stay at Uig to the Monday morning to give my wife a couple of days’ break from Minch crossings. The sail to Tarbert was now planned for the Sunday.

For the return home we got booked on the only available Armadale/Mallaig sailing on the Monday, at 1200 by Loch Bhrusda. Oh well, at least I could look forward to a replacement vessel/sailing combination that was new to me.

Kerplunk!! — here we go again. Within days CalMac were again in touch to advise that our return booking would be cancelled: a number of problems with the smaller vessels in the fleet meant that Loch Bhrusda would be detained longer on her relief duty in the Outer Hebrides, and car ferry crossings between Skye and Mallaig over the last few days in March would be limited to Lochnevis’s single run. With no available capacity on the 28th or following days, we were left with the only alternative — driving all the way from Uig via the Skye Bridge to get home.

Clansman at Lochmaddy Pier

Despite this disappointment, I was cheered when it dawned on me that, due to a delay with Hebrides’ overhaul, our ferry excursions from Uig to Lochmaddy and Uig to Tarbert would be on the relief vessel, Clansman.  

This was the first time for me that a trip to Skye would coincide with Clansman’s annual relief duty at Uig: not surprisingly, images of the ship in and around Uig far exceeded wedding pictures in my subsequent picture catalogue. I was not the only one up early on the Sunday morning on the ridge of hill leading out above Idrigill Point.

Back home after our few days in Skye, and with the Mallaig/Lochboisdale sailings now restored, I determined that this was the year to make the effort to enjoy that run on Lord of the Isles, especially as changes to her schedule meant that a return trip from Mallaig could now be achieved in a single day on either Mondays, Thursdays or Saturdays.

The timings even made a day trip from home possible. In the past, I had done two single outward journey trips, in 1968 and 1971, one overnight inward sailing in 1972 on the 1964 Clansman, and a 1973 return trip on Columba, in her case Mallaig/Castlebay/ Lochboisdale/Mallaig, with the return section also being overnight.  

A day trip from home in Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides is just that little bit extra special. With a promising weather forecast for 28 April, an earlier departure than absolutely necessary would allow me to get to Mallaig to get a few pictures of the now restored Loch Bhrusda and Loch Fyne on their respective runs from Mallaig to Armadale, before I joined Lord of the Isles as one of only two foot passengers (plus 10 or 11 cars and their occupants) for the three and half hour trip out to Lochboisdale.

Lord of the Isles at Lochboisdale Pier

After departure from Mallaig at 0955, I headed for the less than crowded restaurant to enjoy a most welcome traditional Scottish breakfast with buttered toast and coffee. As we cruised round the Point of Sleat and then westwards, I had a wonderful view towards Loch Scavaig, Isle of Soay and of course the Cuillins through the window next to my table. On arrival at Lochboisdale there was time to nip ashore for a few pictures before re-boarding and settling on an upper deck seat to relax in the sunshine as the Outer Hebrides outline gradually diminished. Ahead of us, Canna, Rum and the Skye mountains pulled us closer to home. 

In the days before and immediately after my trip, the network suffered disruption and cancellations due to weather, but Eurus, the Greek God of the East wind, was clearly in a relaxed frame of mind, as there was a fairly gentle although steady easterly breeze throughout the day.

On the return drive from Mallaig, the inevitable roadworks did their best to delay homeward progress, but I did not care. Whilst waiting for red lights to change I mused over the magnificence of a great day out: the thought uppermost in my mind was how blest we are in Scotland to have such magnificent day excursions. Of course, we continue to enjoy ‘real steamer’ trips on Waverley in summer, but of the ferry journeys on offer, three trips seem to stand out — the Wednesday return sailing by Hebridean Isles from Kennacraig via Islay and Colonsay to Oban; Clansman’s trip, also on Wednesdays, from Oban to Coll, Tiree and through the Gunna Sound to Barra; and Lord of the Isles’ sailings on Monday, Thursday or Saturday from Mallaig to Lochboisdale.  

Which is the best? I leave that for you to decide.

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Click here to see the entire series of Eric Schofield’s ‘All tickets please’.

Loch Fyne leaving Mallaig, with Lord of the Isles preparing to arrive

At Mallaig, Eric was able to capture Loch Bhrusda heading out for Armadale, before he boarded Lord of the Isles for Lochboisdale

Clansman arriving in Uig Bay

Clansman at Tarbert (Harris)

The reconstructed linkspan and pier at Tarbert

Lord of the Isles leaves Lochboisdale

View of Mallaig from above the car deck on Lord of the Isles

‘I headed for the less than crowded restaurant to enjoy a most welcome traditional Scottish breakfast with buttered toast and coffee’ (Lord of the Isles)

‘How blest we are in Scotland to have such magnificent day excursions’: Eric’s view of the Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye, from the deck of Lord of the Isles

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Published on 4 December 2022