CRSC’s 2017-18 winter programme got off to a cracking start on Wednesday 11th October with a talk by Colin Tucker on ‘MacBraynes in the 1960s’. The meeting at Jurys Inn, Glasgow, was packed, and there was a general air of ‘coming together again’ before and after the formal business, with some welcome new faces mingling with familiar friends.
Colin has delighted CRSC audiences on previous occasions with his knowledge of Hebridean shipping history, but this talk was special, partly because it resonated so strongly with those who ‘grew up’ with MacBraynes in the 1960s and remember the old mail boats and the first Hebridean car ferries. But it was also special because, as a former student Purser on the 1964 Hebrides and the ‘old’ Loch Seaforth, Colin has inside knowledge of that era — knowledge he wears lightly but which shone through his 70-minute address, subtitled ‘A decade of change’.
The sheer volume of change was graphically — and sometimes humorously — underlined by Colin’s selection of illustrations, many of them new even to MacBrayne specialists. These transported us from the ‘ancient’ MacBraynes of cargo cranes, flit boats and morning cruises out of Kyle, to the ‘modern’ MacBraynes of short ferry crossings, slick marketing and picnic packs —‘Chicken (portion), Egg (hard-boiled), Finger roll (buttered), Cardboard plate, Paper serviette, self-opening cans of beer’ etc.
But the sight of Columba’s vehicle hoist reminded us that, however revolutionary she may have been for the folk of Mull in 1964, the 1960s represented a very different world to today’s. This ‘period feel’ ran like a thread through Colin’s talk, as he took us through the various routes advertised in successive MacBrayne timetables.
One moment we were immersed in Lochearn’s complicated Sound of Mull schedule (with impenetrable abbreviations such as ‘DS’, ‘WO’ and ‘TS’); the next we were viewing the old-fashioned pier clutter of Port Ellen as Lochiel unloaded.
We followed the 1930 Lochmor as she left Eigg, Lochnevis on one of her weekly ‘supplementary’ sailings from West Tarbert to Oban, Clansman on her Mallaig-Lochboisdale crossing, Loch Toscaig as she battled her way to Lismore, Loch Arkaig on her visits to Loch Scavaig, with Bruce Watt’s Western Isles in attendance.
A particularly memorable sequence captured Columba making three attempts to berth at Lochaline in a gale. She finally ‘made it’, said Colin. No one got off; only one man and his bicycle got on. That man was the teenage Mr Tucker, ‘suitably embarrassed’.
We heard about such romantic notions as the ‘Hebridean boat train’ and landing at Port Appin ‘by arrangement’. We saw the Scalpay ‘stand-in’ fishing-boat/ferry, landing a crowd of worshippers in 1965 for the induction of the new minister (i.e. after Lochmor’s withdrawal and before the arrival of a turntable ferry). We were reminded that, although Loch Seaforth was timetabled for a 50-minute call at Kyle on the way to Stornoway, she invariably stayed much longer. And yes, Lochfyne sometimes stopped at Innellan without ropes being thrown ashore.
For anyone who wasn’t around in the 1960s, Colin’s talk was the perfect introduction. For those of us who remember the old MacBraynes, it was an evening of nostalgia, filled with eye-opening perspectives.
The 1960s may be a vanished era, but the decade set a marker for the future. Among the surviving remnants is a small launch, seen at Kyle in a photo Colin had unearthed from the mid 1960s. Her unmistakable profile brought us right up to date, for it is on that very boat — known in the 1960s as Vital Spark and now named Sileas — that CRSC members will be sailing on a special charter on Loch Shiel at the end of this month.
The meeting, chaired by CRSC President Iain Morgan, ended with some up-to-the-minute views of the new Brodick Pier, complete with Caledonian Isles trying to negotiate the recently completed passenger access tunnel — as photographed by Eric Schofield, who presents part two of his ‘Passage to Arran’ (the CalMac era) at our next meeting on 8th November.
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