CalMac@40 — Part Four

Ian McCrorie traces Caledonian MacBrayne’s development from a poorly resourced merger-of-parts in 1973 to the highly integrated ferry company we know today

The travelling population of the west of Scotland probably did not realise the huge significance of the Westminster Government’s creation of the Scottish Transport Group in 1969 and the transfer out of railway control of the Caledonian Steam Packet Co Ltd and (initially) 50% of David MacBrayne Ltd. Changes were to come thick and fast, assisted by the increased finance available. Under the able direction of John Whittle, the two companies pooled their resources in the technical field. It was soon evident that habits had changed and the six cruising vessels in the fleet were really anachronisms because of the increasing popularity of package holidays to the sun – often absent from Scotland – and the consequent lack of traffic. The cruise vessels gradually left the fleet, the most prominent being the Waverley. By now known as the ‘the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world’, she was sold for a pound to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, although it is perhaps not generally known that the chairman of STG gave the representative of PSPS a pound note to give him back.

Changing habits — CalMac’s 1973
Waverley cruise brochure
CalMac’s 1975 cruise brochure —
an ‘anachronism’
The fleet of hoist-loading ferries was also unable to cater adequately with the upsurge in the use of the private car and the preponderance of heavy goods vehicles to carry freight. There were initially seven car ferries – the Hebrides, Clansman and Columba (1964) in the Western Isles and the three ABC ferries and the Glen Sannox on the Clyde. The two companies also had nine major passenger ships (including the Lochfyne, the Loch Seaforth and the four ‘Maids’) together with several small vehicle and passenger vessels and, in the case of MacBrayne’s, four cargo vessels sailing all the way from Glasgow.
Long-surviving CSP relic —
Glen Sannox at Port Askaig
Columba and Clansman
in James Watt Dock, Greenock
Iona, the network’s first ro-ro ferry,
began life with a yellow funnel on the Dunoon run
The change from hoist-loading to roll-on roll-off was not cheap, as piers had to be modified and linkspans installed. Things did not always go to plan. The first ro-ro ferry, Iona, for example, started her life on the Clyde rather than Islay, as was the original intention. Gradually, however, change was achieved. Second-hand ships were bought or existing members of the fleet (like the Arran and Clansman) altered with the addition of a stern ramp. The building of two larger ships for the busy Kyle-Kyleakin route to Skye allowed vessels to be cascaded and new routes opened, not least a vehicle service from Largs to Cumbrae Slip. Eventually a fleet of eight small ‘Island’ class vessels – known popularly as ‘daft ducks’ – allowed car traffic to travel easily to many of the smaller islands in the area.
Maid of the Loch —
CalMac’s last steam-driven vessel

Birth of CalMac
It was in 1973 that the inevitable happened. The CSP and MacBrayne’s, working ever closer together, merged — or, strictly speaking, the CSP Co Ltd was renamed Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd (CalMac), with David MacBrayne Ltd continuing to operate the cargo boats and some of the small ferries. The outward sign was the painting of the funnels red and black with the Caley lion superimposed on a yellow disc. More meaningful, however, was the fact that the Clyde as well as the West Highland routes could now be subsidised directly by the Government. The headquarters of the ‘new’ company became Gourock; the Glasgow head office of MacBrayne’s was closed. The two staffs had to learn to integrate; at first this was hindered by the fact that they belonged to different Unions.
Suilven was an important addition
to the fleet in 1974
Pioneer was popular in the
Hebrides and on the Clyde
Waverley looked good in CalMac red
The year 1974 was important for new tonnage, four major ro-ro car ferries being commissioned: the Suilven for Stornoway, the Pioneer for Islay and the Jupiter and Juno – the so-called ‘streakers’ – for the upper Clyde. At the same time, the concept of the shortest distance between two points became the order of the day, one of the best examples being that the Stornoway ferry now sailed from Ullapool, considerably closer than Kyle of Lochalsh, the Largs-Cumbrae Slip service being another case in point. Two further major vessels were added to the fleet in the first ten years of CalMac, namely the ‘streaker’ Saturn and the Claymore, initially for Barra, both in 1978. Then there was a lull in building.
The age of political scrutiny
The early 1980s saw the first signs of political scrutiny. As a result of the Conservative government’s attempt to ensure that Western Ferries were not forced off their upper Clyde route between McInroy’s Point and Hunter’s Quay, with competition from the subsidised CalMac Gourock-Dunoon service, the nationalised company’s subsidy was limited to passengers only and its service confined to one sailing per hour, except at peak times. Soon afterwards CalMac was investigated by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission to see if there might be scope for economies. The report was largely favourable to the company, although one or two recommendations were made.
Colin Paterson (left) being introduced to the Queen on Brodick Pier
As a result Colin Paterson was appointed chief executive of CalMac. With John Whittle now working in the upper echelons of the STG, a discernible change occurred in company policy. The era of the ‘mini-liner’ began – with all new ships being quite lavishly furnished. All had ‘Isle’ or ‘Isles’ in their name: the Isle of Arran appeared in 1984, the Hebridean Isles in 1985, the Isle of Mull in 1988 and the Lord of the Isles in 1989. Shipyards outwith the Clyde were now to the fore since, as CalMac was a state-subsidised firm, the European Commission insisted that new tonnage be submitted to competitive tender.
Isle of Mull at Gourock in 2008 Lavishly furnished — the children’s play area
on one of CalMac’s big ferries
Lord of the Isles, pictured at Coll,
continued CalMac’s ‘Isles’ nomenclature
Hebridean Isles was first in a series of new-builds
awarded to English yards
At the other end of the scale the ‘Loch’ class ferries were introduced. Traffic had built up to such an extent that the ‘daft ducks’ could no longer cope and larger ships were required. Many of the ‘Island’ class vessels were withdrawn, with several ending up in Ireland. The year 1989 saw the STG’s twentieth anniversary. Despite a decrease in the number of ships in the fleet from 42 to 28, passenger traffic had risen by 30%, car traffic by an incredible 243% and commercial vehicles by 184%. It came as no surprise when Secretary of State Malcolm Rifkind declared that CalMac should be kept in public ownership.
Bruernish was one of the longest-surviving ‘Island’ class ferries
Public or private?
A fundamental change took place in 1990. CalMac came under the direct control of the Secretary of State for Scotland, no longer the Scottish Transport Group. Three years later, there were worries when the Secretary of State Ian Lang promised “to review the possible scope for introducing the private sector”. The opposition declared that the advantages of the company as constituted were that the ships were largely interchangeable, with reliefs readily available and cross-subsidisation possible. There was general relief when in October 1994 a consultants’ report came out in favour of CalMac remaining in the public domain. This was around the time of the Estonia disaster: subsequently safety regulations were considerably tightened.
Isle of Lewis replaced Suilven in 1995

The fleet continued to be improved, the Caledonian Isles being commissioned for Arran and the Isle of Lewis for Stornoway, the older vessels being cascaded. More ‘Loch’ class vessels appeared, most significantly the Loch Bhrusda, which was placed on a new service in the Sound of Harris linking the Uists and Berneray with Harris. Around the same time the long-awaited Skye Bridge opened: the two large ‘Lochs’ which had only been sailing on the route for four years were made redundant but eventually found new work within the CalMac network.
When Loch Bhrusda opened the Sound of Harris
crossing, she would finish each day
by crossing from Berneray to
an overnight berth at Otternish (foreground)
Claymore in her 1997-9
Argyll & Antrim colours
The Tarbert – Portavadie run
contributed to the huge increase in
CalMac’s vehicle traffic figures in the 1990s

In the mid-1990s the company’s management structure was reorganised in the interests of efficiency; it was in 1997 that Colin Paterson, now a CBE, retired. Traffic during his time had further increased – passengers by 30% and vehicles by 67%. On the downside, the Scottish Government had decided that CalMac should sell the Claymore to a private firm for a new service from Campbeltown to Ballycastle in Northern Ireland; this service was never really a success and ceased in 1999. On the other hand, one of the ‘Island’ class vessels, the Canna, was commissioned on a CalMac service from Ballycastle to the island of Rathlin, and proved very successful.

CalMac cruising — the Saturn made a special sailing
for the reopening of Millport Pier in April 1992
Keppel at Keppel in 1992 — her last visit

The year 2000 saw the end of CalMac cruises on the Clyde. After using the Glen Sannox on the summer excursion trade in the late seventies and early eighties, CalMac had continued to provide short cruises with the Keppel, displaced from the Largs-Millport passenger service, and latterly one of the “streakers” or Pioneer. In recent years CalMac has continued the tradition by advertising many of its car ferry sailings as day excursions – an appropriate complement to the paddle steamer Waverley.
Competition rules
The years on either side of the new millennium were not insignificant for the company. With the creation of the Scottish Parliament, ownership of CalMac changed from the Secretary of State for Scotland to the Scottish Ministers. At the same time the European Commission insisted that ship refits be put out to competitive tender, with the result that some were sent to English yards for their overhaul. Under European safety regulations passengers had to give written details of any special needs, etc, if they were travelling more than twenty miles. Most importantly, the Scottish Executive decided – in accordance with EU rules – to have all subsidised CalMac routes subjected to competitive tender every five years. It was subsequently announced that the ‘empire’ would be tendered as a single unit, to prevent cherry-picking.
CalMac’s ’empire’ —
the Isle of Mull and Clansman in Oban Bay
CalMac was well able to deal with such external forces as in 1999 Dr Harold Mills CB had been appointed chairman. Formerly a leading light in the Scottish Office, he was an assistant purser with the CSP in his student days and still a steamer enthusiast. The following year Lawrie Sinclair became interim managing director: he had a lifetime’s experience in marine matters, not least because his father had been prominent in the CSP/CalMac before him. He was confirmed in the permanent post in 2001.
Dr Harold Mills CB Lawrie Sinclair
EU rules on competition also offered CalMac an opportunity to expand their operations beyond the Clyde and Western Isles. At the end of the nineties, initially with WightLink and latterly with Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the company successfully bid for the contract and subsidy to provide the shipping services to Orkney and Shetland. As a result, in 2002, a new joint company, NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries Ltd, took over the service to the islands from P&O, using three new ‘cruise ferries’, Hamnavoe, Hjaltland and Hrossay, leased from RBS. Built in Finland, the ships were designed under the direction of the Technical Department of CalMac, who also provided ship management services to the new company. The contract was renewed in 2006 when a company wholly owned by CalMac, NorthLink Ferries Ltd, took over the services. The third bid in 2012 was unsuccessful, with the service provision passing to the Serco Group, together with the vessels, the RBS leases and the brand name NorthLink.
The year 2001 saw the last of the major additions to the Hebridean fleet for some time. Following the Clansman’s appearance on the routes out of Oban in 1998, an improved sister ship, the Hebrides, took over the service from Uig in Skye to the Outer Isles. This caused another cascade of vessels, allowing the Isle of Arran to be used as a second ferry, initially for Oban and later Islay and Arran. An interesting development occurred in 2001 when each ship’s Gaelic name was prominently painted on the side of her hull. This initiative was not unconnected to the fact that the company’s director of communications at the time, Hugh Dan MacLennan, was a prominent Gaelic scholar and enthusiast. CalMac was also to become a major sponsor of the National Mod.
Bute’s Gaelic name Second ferry — Isle of Arran at Brodick
in August 2013, with Waverley
The dangers of competition became manifest when in the same year a private firm, Taygran Shipping, commenced an overnight cargo service between Stornoway and Ullapool. It was quite successful, largely because of commercial interests, such a service allowing goods to reach the required markets at a more convenient time. CalMac had to respond: eventually a chartered cargo vessel, renamed Muirneag, was placed on the run and the competition melted away.
Political wrangles
It was in 2002 that the first indication that CalMac might be split into a vessel-owning and vessel-operating company came about, when the Scottish Executive produced a document which allowed for a three-month consultation period. A new publicly owned company, to be named VesCo, would be set up to own CalMac’s vessels and terminals and a separate company would operate them, though maintaining the image of Caledonian MacBrayne in perpetuity. It is significant that the islanders and other users of the services were to be consulted – this became a very prominent feature in the latter CalMac years and, of necessity, increased the influence of politicians as the users’ representatives.
The split eventually took place in October 2006. The asset-owning company was now called Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd or CMAL, which was in fact Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd renamed. A new operating company, CalMac Ferries Ltd (CFL), was created. In addition, two companies were registered to cope with crewing issues. After a fair amount of political wrangling, CFL won the tender to operate the services as a bundle, according to EU rules, for six years, from 2007 until 2013. Grenville Johnston was appointed chairman of CMAL and Guy Platten chief executive.
Loch Portain at Leverburgh Coruisk in Garvel Dry Dock, Greenock

Services during the period continued to improve. When in 2003 the Loch Portain was commissioned on the Sound of Harris run, the Loch Bhrusda could be transferred to a crossing between Barra and Eriskay which had just started up. The result was that all the Outer Hebrides were now connected from Vatersay to Lewis either by ferry or by causeway – a huge step forward. In the same year the Coruisk, in a sense an enlarged version of the Loch Portain, appeared. Known as a ‘sheltered water vessel’, she eventually settled down to the Mallaig-Armadale run in summer and Bute reliefs in winter.
Bute enhanced capacity on the
Rothesay-Wemyss Bay crossing
Bute and Argyle were the first Clyde ferries
to be ordered from a foreign shipyard
Meanwhile on the Clyde two sisters, the Bute and Argyle, were commissioned on the Rothesay-Wemyss Bay service, greatly enhancing capacity there. When the new Loch Shira took up the Cumbrae service in 2007, the usual cascading of vessels took place and services to other islands were also improved. Finally came the Finlaggan in 2011. She took her place on the Islay service, where traffic – not least from the distilleries – now dictated that two vessels were needed. Over the period, Sunday services were gradually introduced to most of the islands despite Sabbatarian opposition.
Finlaggan (left) joined Hebridean Isles
on the Islay run in 2011
Finlaggan’s bridge
The Gourock-Dunoon problem
One problem which continued to cause political and operational angst was the service between Gourock and Dunoon. The restrictions on subsidy and frequency of service in 1981 had resulted in the share of vehicle trade accruing to the popular and efficient Western Ferries increasing to well over 90% in thirty years. Because of competition from the private sector, the Gourock-Dunoon run had to be tendered separately under EU rules, and the subsidy had to be for passengers only, vehicles being excluded. A new company, Cowal Ferries Ltd, had to be set up, and this became, like CalMac Ferries Ltd, a subsidiary of the long-dormant David MacBrayne Ltd (DML). Eventually, the Scottish Executive decided that passenger-only vessels should be employed and such a service was put out to tender. The bidders were whittled down to one – Argyll Ferries Ltd, another new subsidiary of DML.
Ali Cat, pictured at Wemyss Bay,
was dubbed a ‘bathtub’
Argyll Flyer,
seen from the deck of Ali Cat
Since the withdrawal of Saturn in 2011,
one seldom sees a CalMac vessel at Gourock pier
 Since 2002 CalMac had employed a smallish catamaran, the Ali Cat, chartered from the Solent, to carry out peak-time passenger services on the Dunoon run. She was now purchased outright and joined by a small Irish ferry renamed Argyll Flyer – and the last of the ‘streakers’, the Saturn, was withdrawn. Somewhat susceptible to the vagaries of the Scottish weather, especially in winter, the two small ships were not popular with the travelling public and many letters of complaint appeared in the local press. They were known pejoratively as the ‘Bathtubs’. A local action group was set up with the goal of restoring the car ferry service with more substantial vessels. Government ministers were summoned to meetings, but a resolution of the problem, despite promises, seems a long way off. A corollary of this scenario is that the Gourock office of CalMac is no longer open to the public and one seldom sees a CFL vessel at the once-thriving Gourock Pier.
Still useful — remnants of the ‘Island’ class
 at Oban in September 2012
The imposition of RET has increased
 traffic to the isles
Isle of Arran and Argyle
at Rothesay in September 2012
Meanwhile, in the wider network, a significant change involved the imposition of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) fares on certain routes, mainly to the Outer Isles. This resulted in a substantial increase in traffic where it was applied. The Scottish Government hopes to extend the scheme to other islands following public demands. Of course, the increase in passengers and vehicles could potentially result in capacity problems. This whole issue was well aired in the public response to a government consultation document on the future of ferry services in Scotland. As a result of this wide-ranging process, certain important recommendations were made – for example, Arran and Mull should have two ferries instead of one, the Small Isles should have a Sunday service and a ship should be rostered from the mainland to Campbeltown on the remote Kintyre peninsula. Most of these proposals have now been implemented, some on a trial basis. The islanders from South Uist are very keen for a service from Lochboisdale to Mallaig to be reinstated.
A changing environment
The role of the CFL management has had to change significantly. In addition to operating the services, consultation with the users and the tourist industry is of great importance and it is paramount that head office staff work towards creating the environment whereby the company is likely to win the next tender – a process that has been put back to 2016. CFL must be doing something right as it has been voted ‘Ferry Company of the Year’ for three years running. After Lawrie Sinclair retired, he was replaced for a short time by Archie Robertson and then by Martin Dorchester. For the first time the managing director did not have previous experience in marine transport, but his skills were reckoned by the board to be ideal in forwarding the company’s case for winning the tender, reckoned to be crucial after the NorthLink contract was lost.
The two new ‘hybrid’ ferries
 at Ferguson’s, Port Glasgow
A decision has yet to be made on a
 link from Lochboisdale (pictured) to Mallaig
CMAL has made a considerable contribution to the ferry scene since its formation. It has built two ‘hybrid ferries’, the Hallaig and Lochinvar, for Raasay and Tarbert-Portavadie respectively. These are designed to use the most innovative green technology: they are powered by small diesel generator sets feeding power to a 400V switchboard which works the electric motors turning the propulsion units. After extensive trials at Ferguson Shipbuilders in Port Glasgow, they are due to enter service later in 2013. The order for a new Stornoway ferry was placed with a German yard in 2012. To be called Loch Seaforth, she is due to be delivered in June 2014. With the fleet ageing and traffic for ever on the increase, new builds are essential and the Scottish Government and CMAL have plans to bring this to fruition, finance, of course, being the main stumbling block.
Splendour of the Hebrides —
Finlaggan in the Sound of Islay
Loch Shira and Loch Bhrusda
 at Largs in July 2011
There is certainly much to occupy CRSC members in the years ahead regarding DML, CFL and CMAL, as the three organisations, together with the Scottish Executive, face considerable challenges.
Ian McCrorie
September 2013
All photographs are from Andrew Clark’s collection.
This is the last in a series of articles commissioned by to mark CalMac’s 40th anniversary. 
You can also read the first interview with CalMac managing director Martin Dorchester, the second with CMAL chief executive Guy Platten, and the third, with John Whittle.
Sign up for CRSC membership and further your interest in Scottish shipping.