Book Review: Colin Smith’s ‘Caledonian MacBrayne 1973-2023’

Many standout images: ‘A volume that deserves an honourable place on your bookshelves’

By charting CalMac’s 50-year development with such admirable sweep, while focusing on all the relevant details, Colin Smith is to be congratulated on a landmark achievement. Review by Rob Beale.

When you open this stunning book, the bar is instantly set high with a foreword by Caledonian MacBrayne’s first general manager, John Whittle, and a preface by its current managing director, Robbie Drummond. The first 80 pages cover the history of the company from 1973. The second half of the book details the history of the ships.

Colin Smith

Many people reading this review will already know the basic facts of the company’s history: these have been laid down in print numerous times. I therefore turned the opening pages of Colin Smith’s book with hesitation, wondering if I would learn anything new. I needn’t have worried! Caledonian MacBrayne 1973-2023 not only brings the story right up to date, it also illuminates many chapters in the company’s development.

After taking us briskly through the early history of west coast shipping, Colin Smith examines the period between 1969 and 1973, when the Scottish Transport Group became involved and Caledonian MacBrayne came into being. We then dive into the main story.

The basic framework of the book is chronological, but there are sections where it focuses on a particular geographical area if the CalMac story warrants it. In other places it may follow one vessel’s history, before returning to the main narrative. This method works well.

The periods when CalMac faced competition from other operators such as Western Ferries and Taygran Shipping are of special interest to me as an enthusiast of all passenger shipping, not just CalMac. What stands out is how competition spurred change. Western Ferries introduced radically different vessels on the Islay route, forcing a change of design with subsequent CalMac ships. Taygran Shipping proved the need for a superior freight service to the western isles, prompting CalMac to lay on a two-ship winter service on the Stornoway-Ullapool route and then a dedicated freight vessel. Part of me wonders about the morality of a government-subsidised operation undercutting and competing with private enterprise. Perhaps today’s equivalent is the two routes to Orkney from Scotland’s north coast, one operated by the heavily subsidised NorthLink and one by the private company Pentland Ferries. But that’s for another discussion!

Setting the scene: the book shows how CalMac came into being

A section on maintenance periods gives an insight into where the ships go and what happens to them when they are not serving the islands and routes where we are so accustomed to seeing them. There is also a fascinating map showing the network operated by Caledonian MacBrayne since 1973.

The map has the familiar routes that have been and still are the mainstays. It also shows some we shall sadly not see again, such as Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin, Mallaig to Kyle and Portree, and Ballycastle to Rathlin. Intriguingly, I spied a few missing routes — Oban to Lochboisdale via Castlebay, Lochmaddy-Tarbert, Mallaig-Castlebay, Mallaig to Coll and Tiree, Rothesay to Largs and Brodick, and Ardrossan to Douglas.

I suspect that these routes were excluded because they were short-lived, and their inclusion would have made the map a bit of a spider’s web!

Where this book really shines is in its recording of recent history. As an enthusiast I take note of the goings on around me, but spend most of my time reading up on the past. I often take the present Scottish ferry scene for granted, because it is always there in the background of our lives. I follow fleet movements, but not so much the changes in company structure and how the wider political situation influences change within the CalMac network. In the light of the pandemic, the ‘ferries fiasco’ and a string of unfortunate breakdowns, it is more pertinent than ever that the current, sometimes perplexing, tale is recorded. This book brings the history right up to date – to July 2023.

I learned a lot from the sections devoted to the tendering process, the 2006 company restructuring and the Altmark question. These complicated but integral parts of the CalMac story are often overlooked: Colin Smith deserves credit for laying down the facts. Politics and policy can be heavy reading, but maybe because the pages are studded with bright images of the fleet in glorious sunshine, the subject matter comes across in a manageable way.

Right up to date: ‘I was particularly delighted to see Saturn in her new role as Orion, working in the Mediterranean’

In the chapter covering the fleet replacement programme and the introduction of new vessels, Colin has given himself the unenviable task of trying to account for one of the most controversial periods in CalMac history. I am talking, of course, about the two Ferguson vessels currently outfitting at Port Glasgow.

Colin relates the story in an unbiased way — a refreshing change from reading about these ships in newspapers or online. Moving on from Fergusons, the Turkish vessels and potential future orders are explained in some detail.

There follow roughly 80 pages split into small sections covering each and every ship that has worked for CalMac, from Queen Mary II in the mid 1970s to the chartered Alfred in 2023. From the small red flit boats through to the giant Loch Seaforth — all are covered. I was particularly delighted to see images of Saturn in her new role as Orion, working in the Mediterranean for Creta Cargo Lines.

Many books covering the history of Scottish shipping are filled with black-and-white, grainy images, chosen for their historical value. Caledonian MacBrayne 1973-2023 covers a period when cameras were prevalent and every movement of the fleet was photographed many times. It must have been a difficult job to select illustrations that would wow readers. Despite this, the book has many standout images. Double-page spreads appear from time to time showcasing members of the fleet amid Scotland’s trademark scenery.

A favourite image – which would not have been possible without one vessel’s protracted overhaul and another’s unfortunate breakdown – shows the new Glen Sannox, Isle of Lewis and Caledonian Isles together at Greenock in early 2023. The wheelhouse of a ‘Loch’ class vessel also appears in the dock with Glen Sannox. Images of the older fleet do not disappoint: drawn from the collections of Eric Schofield, the late Jim Aikman Smith and Dennis Hardley, and many others, the images are varied and sharp. The double-page spread of Caledonia leaving Oban, taken from Kerrera, is especially striking.

We all have our favourite ship, route or port. In this book you can easily dip into a section and find the information you’re looking for. But beware: you will probably get sidetracked by a beautiful picture or a sentence that intrigues, so further reading is required. In his introduction, Colin maintains that the book is not intended to be a ‘complete’ history, but I would say that, particularly for the last 25 years, it comes pretty close. For connoisseurs of Caledonian MacBrayne or the wider Scottish shipping scene, this is a volume that deserves an honourable place on your bookshelves. Or coffee table!

Caledonian MacBrayne 1973-2023 by Colin Smith — 192-page softback, £23.50. Available by post from the publisher, Ferry Publications.

The early CalMac years are covered as thoroughly as recent developments

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Published on 22 September 2023