February 2011 Meeting – The Road to Finlaggan

For our meeting in February 2011, the Club was addressed by Ian McCrorie, a Past President of the Club and well known authority on the history of CalMac and its predecessors. Ian’s talk was entitled ‘The Road to Finlaggan’ and took us through the history of shipping services to Islay from the early days of steam navigation right up to the present time.

The Islay routes – cargo from Glasgow and passengers from West Loch Tarbert – did not come under the Hutcheson/MacBrayne umbrella until 1876. Many of the steamers used on the Islay runs were old, second-hand, vessels and it was not until 1905 that a new steamer, the paddler PIONEER, appeared on the run. Ian covered the events of the near-demise of the company in 1927 which led to a joint takeover by Coast Lines and the LMS Railway Co the following year. Although several new ships were built, Islay had to wait until 1939 before LOCHIEL appeared.

[Right: GLENCOE at Port Askaig]

Islay again seemed to have been left out when, in 1964, three new car ferries appeared on the west coast and consequently a new company, Western Ferries Ltd, appeared on the scene with their small stern-loading ferry SOUND OF ISLAY. So successful was she that, in 1969, she was joined by the west coast’s first drive-through ferry, SOUND OF JURA.

[Left: LOCHIEL at Port Ellen]

MacBrayne, by now part of the Scottish Transport Group, responded with a new ship that, because of political intervention, began her career on the Clyde. This ship was IONA, and her inability to use the existing pier at West Loch Tarbert saw the pioneer CSP car ferry ARRAN being transferred to serve Islay. She was an immediate improvement on LOCHIEL but still suffered from being a hoist-loader. Conversion to stern-loading followed in 1973 and finally Caledonian MacBrayne, as the company had just become, was able to recoup some of the traffic that had been lost to Western Ferries.

[Right: SOUND OF ISLAY at Port Askaig]

The next year PIONEER appeared at Islay, having been built with shallow draft to allow her use to use the existing pier at West Loch Tarbert. Western Ferries continued to serve Port Askaig from Kennacraig, but in 1977 sold their terminal to the STG, and for a few years both operators existed side-by-side at the mainland berth. By 1981 Western Ferries, outclassed by the subsidised competitor, had lost so much traffic that they were forced to withdraw. Two years before, IONA had finally appeared on the run that she was built for but, from around that period, Islay no longer had a dedicated ferry year-round, as ships such as GLEN SANNOX and CLAYMORE were placed on the run.

[Left: PIONEER at West Loch Tarbert]

ISLE OF ARRAN appeared in 1993 and remained the principal Islay ferry until 2001 when she handed over the role to HEBRIDEAN ISLES. The former returned as summer relief vessel in 2003, and as second ferry from 2005. In 2007, with traffic building rapidly thanks to an upsurge in the whisky industry, a new ship was ordered from the Remontowa Shipyard in Poland, with delivery due for spring 2011.

[Right: IONA and SOUND OF GIGHA at Port Askaig]

Shore infrastructure had to be improved to accommodate the new vessel, with Port Askaig being extensively rebuilt and re-opened by HRH The Princess Royal in September 2009; Kennacarig and Port Ellen will follow suit over the next few months. The new ship, named FINLAGGAN following a public competition, was launched in June 2010 and is expected to enter service in May 2011.

[Left: FINLAGGAN about to be launched in Poland]

Club members Alex Forrest and Gordon Law in the foreground, with (behind, left to right ) special guests Phil Preston, managing director of Cal Mac, Captain Robin Hutchison, former CalMac fleet commodore, and Captain Guy Robertson, skipper of the new Islay ferry Finlaggan

POSTSCRIPT (added 25th May 2011)

The new MV Finlaggan arrived in Oban on the evening of Sunday 22nd May 2011, after her delivery voyage from Poland.  She was formally named at Port Askaig on 25th May 2011 and a new booklet entitled The Road to Finlaggan was launched the same day and can be found here: http://www.cmassets.co.uk/assets/files/MV-Finlaggan_Book_English_May11_WEB.pdf