Book review: ‘Hebridean Coasters: The Ships of R Cunningham (Scalpay) Ltd ’

Colin Tucker’s history of a family-run shipping company sheds light on part of the 20th century Hebridean scene that eluded the MacBrayne monopoly, writes Stuart Craig.

Judging from the glowing foreword, the titular grandson of the subject of this smart A4 production was clearly delighted with the way that Colin Tucker has chronicled the shipping history of his family; and so he should be. This is a neatly recorded account of the ships operated by R Cunningham (Scalpay) Ltd, packed with facts and anecdotes.

I must admit to having never heard of the company, nor the 12 vessels they operated around the west coast of Scotland and beyond, but thanks to Colin’s clear layout and delivery of the facts I reckon I could now use this as my specialist subject on Mastermind.

The Cunningham ships were operated by Roddy Cunningham and his five sons from the mid 1930s to the mid 1990s, the firm itself having been founded in the first decade of the century. The ships were small coasters which carried coal to lighthouses and general goods to island harbours.

This evolved into the transportation of Calor Gas. Goods were also taken to ports around the Irish Sea and to France. Changes to regulations in 1991 meant that gas then had to be carried by CalMac, but the emergence of fish farming allowed the last couple of Cunningham vessels to continue trading for a few more years.

Colin’s book is generously illustrated with black and white photographs, and has a colour section in the middle. Concluding a chronological history of the ships, Colin embellishes his book with some fascinating personal accounts of some of the crew who worked these ships. He then adds a miscellany of Hebridean poetry, and finally a concise ‘ships of the fleet’ appendix.

This is an easy read on a subject Colin has evidently researched thoroughly. No wonder the Cunninghams liked it. I did too: it has added to my knowledge of west coast shipping.

Hebridean Coasters: The Ships of R Cunningham (Scalpay) Ltd by Colin Tucker — 66 pages, £12 (plus £3 p&p).

Published by Comunn Eachdraidh Scalpaigh (Scalpay Historical Society). Copies can be obtained by phone on 01859 540488 or 0755 106 1891. Further information from

Stuart Craig is CRSC’s Membership Secretary.

An Eric Schofield photograph of the Cunningham company’s th’Eilean Glas at Rothesay in April 1972, illustrating the geographical scope of the Scalpay company. The photo is also rare in that this vessel, introduced to the Cunningham fleet in May 1971, was renamed without the prefix shortly after her Rothesay visit

Roddy Cunningham (foreground) founded the family shipping firm in the 1930s and had a great influence on the Scalpay economy. A larger than life character, he was born in 1893 and died in 1971


Book review: ‘Mary Jane and the Marquis — Steamship Communication to Stornoway from 1819 to 1855’ by Colin Tucker

Fun with Funnels: Colin Tucker stokes a controversial debate

Published on 10 October 2021