All tickets please (29)

A great day out: Isle of Mull at Port Askaig on Saturday 1 June. Despatched to Islay for the benefit of the island’s whisky festival, CalMac’s big carrier on the Mull run ended up with only a handful of passengers

Eric Schofield, connoisseur of west coast cruising, saw a golden opportunity to make an unusual sailing to Islay during the island’s recent whisky festival. The day demanded an early start and didn’t turn out exactly as he expected — but it was all worth the effort. Here is the latest instalment in Eric’s series of articles inspired by the tickets he has collected.

Day excursion to the Hebrides: Eric’s ticket for the return trip from Oban to Port Askaig via Craignure on Saturday 1 June

Ferry cruising in the Clyde and Western Isles has not been the easiest of activities over the last few years. Challenges facing  the enthusiast have included not just the Covid pandemic, but also capricious weather patterns and seemingly CalMac’s own pandemic – ship withdrawals at short notice, delays, cancellations, vessel re-scheduling and re-routing. With timetables frequently having to be re-drawn and amendment notices issued, any day afloat must involve a Plan A, Plan B and perhaps also a Plan C, thought out in advance and ready to put into action if necessary.

A CalMac ‘Customer Update’, issued even before the 2024 summer timetable came into operation, contained details of special services between Oban and Port Askaig on Friday 24 May, Saturdays 25 May and 1 June, and Sunday 2 June, designed to ease the burden of Islay traffic during the Fèis Ìle whisky festival. The opportunity for a direct Oban-Port Askaig return sailing caught my imagination, all the more so as these sailings were to be undertaken by MV Isle of Mull. The May weekend clashed with an already organised wider family event in the Lake District, so I concentrated my thoughts on the Saturday 1 June sailing.

Plan A: depart Oban at 0725, arrive Port Askaig 1020; depart Port Askaig 1115, arrive Oban 1410. This would involve leaving home in Glasgow around 0400 for the drive to Oban. The return would allow me to be back in time to watch the European Championship Final between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.

Plan B: a somewhat earlier departure from home, say 0315, to drive to Kennacraig for MV Hebridean Isles’ 0700 departure for Port Ellen, arriving at 0920; then Islay Coaches’ bus to Port Askaig arriving 1029, MV Isle of Mull departing 1115 for Oban (arrival 1410), West Coast Motors No 23 bus at 1500 to Lochgilphead/Ardrishaig, connecting with the Campbeltown-bound Citylink coach to Kennacraig to retrieve my car, then back to Tarbert for MV Isle of Cumbrae’s crossing to Portavadie (1800-1825), drive to Hunter’s Quay for the 1930 ferry to McInroy’s Point (MV Sound of Shuna or other vessel), and home for second half of the televised football match.

‘After the obligatory photos were taken…’: Loch Striven at the North Pier (close-up), with Clansman and Isle of Mull at the Railway Pier

I liked the idea of Plan B, but it did have a greater risk of things going wrong. More pertinently, it still would not allow me to be at Port Askaig in time to photograph Isle of Mull’s arrival.

So, having checked the CalMac website on the Friday morning, Plan A was my choice: just as well as it turned out.  

Having arrived and parked up in Oban on Saturday 1 June, I walked down to the sea front and almost immediately heard the tinkle of a cycle bell followed by the greeting “Good morning, Eric”, as CRSC membership secretary Stuart Craig came along, also heading for CalMac’s terminal.

Stuart had been advised the previous afternoon of a late alteration to Isle of Mull’s schedule: she would be sailing at 0715, going first to Craignure, then to Port Askaig.

After the obligatory photos were taken from the North Pier (a threesome of Loch Striven at the North Pier with Clansman and Isle of Mull at the Railway Pier, and more unusually Coruisk at the Lighthouse Pier), it was round the bay to the terminal to purchase my ticket. There was a large number of passengers in the departure lounge, nearly all of whom were the reason for the call at Craignure – they were tourists bound for Iona. 

Shortly before we set sail, Coruisk cast off and headed out of the bay for Craignure on a light run, hanging back until we had entered the Sound of Mull. Having bid farewell to most of our complement at Craignure, those of us remaining on Isle of Mull (eight passengers, one cycle, three vehicles ) enjoyed a glorious three-hour voyage to Port Askaig, arriving about an hour and a half after the originally advertised time.

Stuart Craig in contemplative mood on the top deck of Isle of Mull off the Garvellach Islands, en route from Oban via Craignure to Port Askaig

This immediately set me thinking… “Oh, I could have been there to get photos of Isle of Mull arriving after all (Plan B)” — but of course the return to Oban would have been too late for me to catch the Ardrishaig bus, so Plan A was indeed the right choice.

Isle of Mull’s later arrival impacted on Finlaggan’s schedule, the Islay ferry having to lie off in the Port Mor area of the Sound of Islay until Isle of Mull eventually departed about 1220.

This gave me some interesting new views of Finlaggan arriving, whilst Stuart, who had always planned to return to the mainland on Finlaggan, was up on the cliff above the pier for a different view.

Being the only round-trip passenger, and with only about 20 vehicles aboard, I found the run back to Oban almost as peaceful as the outward voyage: glorious scenery, perfect warm sunny weather — superb!

Much as I enjoyed this unusual outing (and from what I heard, traffic on the previous weekend was not great either), many like me cannot help questioning CalMac’s decision to withdraw a major ferry from the Mull route on a busy weekend for so little in the way of patronage at Islay — incidently requiring Coruisk to divert from her Mallaig/Armadale route to cover Isle of Mull’s absence from Oban/Craignure. I have heard it said that CalMac was under instruction from Transport Scotland, so perhaps therein lies the reason – political tinkering getting in the way of common-sense thinking. Or is there more to this? Perhaps funding from Islay business sources underwriting the costs?

Whatever the truth of the arrangements, all I can say is “thank you to whomsoever gave it the nod”. I thoroughly enjoyed my day out.

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

Coruisk basks in the morning sunlight as she leaves Oban’s Lighthouse Pier for the light run to Craignure on the first day of June

Isle of Mull heads down the Sound of Islay on her approach to Port Askaig, with McArthur’s Head in the distance

Picture perfect: Isle of Mull at Port Askaig on Saturday 1 June

Eilean Dhuira in the foreground, with Finlaggan approaching — view from the top deck of Isle of Mull at Port Askaig

Finlaggan approaching Port Askaig on a glorious day for west coast ferry cruising

All images on the CRSC website are protected by copyright law. Do not reproduce them on Facebook, Pinterest or any other public platform.

Published on 9 June 2024