The departure from the CalMac fleet of the last two ‘Island’ class ferries, Raasay and Eigg, marks a significant moment in west coast ferry history. CRSC pays tribute with an essay by Robert Cleary, reviewing the impact of the eight ‘Island’ class vessels since their introduction in 1972.
It was in June 1971 that the Scottish Transport Group placed an order with James Lamont & Co Ltd of Port Glasgow for the first two of the line, Kilbrannan and Morvern. Designed by the maritime consulting company Burness, Corlett and Partners, they were to be bow-loading, 75ft long and 21ft wide, and with a shallow draught. They would be capable of carrying 5 cars.
Kilbrannan entered service on 8 July 1972 on a new route from Lochranza in Arran to Claonaig in Kintyre, using purpose-built slipways on the north side of the old steamer pier at Lochranza and on the open coastline at Claonaig near Skipness. Traffic built up quickly and, after being replaced by a larger sister in 1973, Kilbrannan became spare ferry on the Clyde, often serving as back-up on the Largs-Cumbrae Slip route. One of her special duties was returning the Millport Pipe Band from the Cowal Games at Dunoon to Cumbrae Slip on the last Saturday of August. The only member of her class to sail with a CSP yellow funnel, Kilbrannan did not receive her Cal Mac colours until her overhaul in May 1974.
Kilbrannan also became associated with the Scalpay crossing — based at Tarbert (Harris) until 1977, when the new slipway at Kyles Scalpay was completed (hanselled by her sister ship Morvern). During this period Kilbrannan was often overhauled at the Goat Island facility at Stornoway.
Morvern had previously inaugurated a new service from Lochaline to Fishnish on Mull on 1 May 1973, flying the MacBrayne houseflag as the new CalMac pennant was not yet available. Morvern’s lifeboat was slung over the stern rather than on the bridge deck, to allow this deck to be used for passengers. It was accessed by almost vertical ladders on both sides, though the authorities later decreed that passengers were to be barred from the upper level.
Morvern was called in to serve Lismore from Oban from mid October 1974 when Loch Toscaig, the conventional passenger ferry, was out of commission. She loaded vehicles using the then new linkspan at Oban’s Railway Pier and unloaded on the beach at Lismore just north of Achnacroish pier, or on rocks to the south at two hours either side of high water. Livestock was also worked this way, but when carrying only passengers she berthed at the pier. Her relief sailings at Lismore were so successful that work began on a slip for the island.
The short ferry services across the Kilbrannan Sound and Sound of Mull — dubbed the ‘back door’ routes to Arran and Morvern — were an immediate success, providing facilities not previously available for motorists. With new access routes, Mull and Arran were now open for business for a greater number of day and overnight visitors.
After Kilbrannan and Morvern entered service it was decided that the six subsequent ‘Island’ class ferries should be six feet longer, enabling two more cars to be carried. The larger versions were also designed to be more manoeuvrable and better suited to severe weather conditions.
The later ferries were named Bruernish, Rhum, Coll, Eigg, Canna and Raasay. They all served on the Cumbrae Slip route at some time in their careers, making it comparatively easy for enthusiasts to have a sail on each new unit as it joined the fleet.
Rhum and Bruernish replaced Kilbrannan and Morvern on the Lochranza-Claonaig and Lochaline-Fishnish runs, the smaller pair having been quickly outgrown by the volume of traffic generated on their respective routes.
Coll came into service in November 1973, taking up the Oban-Craignure run because there was temporarily no other vessel available to operate it. Eigg made her debut on 25 February 1975 in emergency on the Kyle-Kyleakin crossing. A month later she was placed on the Portree-Raasay service. Canna, the seventh ‘Island’ class ferry, entered service between Portree and Raasay on 27 January 1976, and on Good Friday opened the new link between Sconser and Raasay, before moving later that year to the Lochaline-Fishnish run.
The last of the class, Raasay, was launched on 23 March 1976 and made her first sailing to Cumbrae Slip on 30 April that year (she even took Keppel’s sailings to the Old Pier at Millport on three occasions), before heading north to replace Canna on the Raasay-Sconser service on 9 July. She performed cargo runs to Rona and Fladda and evening cruises during the season. It was to her credit that she never missed a full day’s service while employed at Raasay.
The new ferries proved their versatility on many occasions. In 1976, for example, Morvern was employed to convey workers between Ardyne and an oil rig berthed offshore. When the rig was moved in March to deeper waters in Loch Fyne, Morvern was then based at Tarbert pier and also called at a new terminal at Ardmarnock Bay, north of Portavadie.
From late in 1976 until May 1978 an ‘Island’ class ferry, usually Bruernish, was engaged in charter work to a Howard Doris oil platform anchored in Loch Kishorn. Based at Kyleakin, she had portakabins welded to her deck for these duties. The ferry also attended to the Kyle-Toscaig service.
In June 1979 it was the turn of the Iona service to be modernised. Morvern was the vessel chosen to inaugurate the service between new slipways at Fionnphort on Mull and Iona. New seating was added to her deck and she had ferry doors cut in her bulwarks to allow her to tender to Columba on her Iona cruises.
Other interesting duties performed by the ‘Island’ class included calor gas runs from Largs to Brodick and cruises from Tobermory to Loch Sunart and Ardnamurchan (given by Coll in 1987).
Quite apart from calling at virtually every pier or terminal in the CalMac network they have also visited Ailsa Craig, Bunessan, Cara Island (south of Gigha), Carradale (CRSC charter of Rhum on Saturday 15 May 1982), Corpach, Easdale, Eilean Musdaile (Lismore Light), Eilean Shona (Loch Moidart), Girvan, Glenuig, Inchmarnock, Inverie, Inverliever (Loch Etive), Kilmichael, Lamlash, Luing, Port Bannatyne old stone quay, Sanda, Rossay (an island near Scalpay), Scarba, Tighnabruaich, forestry plantations on the west shore of Loch Striven and the slip on the island of Ulva opposite Ulva Ferry.
The six larger ferries were especially useful in the Western Isles. Bruernish would relieve Lochnell on the Tobermory-Mingary crossing. Rhum relieved Loch Arkaig at Raasay, giving the island its first car ferry service — at that time operating to the beaches and therefore dependent on tides. Coll also relieved Loch Arkaig — at the Small Isles, though in bad weather there were cancellations.
Whichever ferry was serving Lismore from Oban would also carry petrol tankers from Oban to Craignure if an enclosed-deck ferry was operating the Craignure route. Another duty was to undertake runs with special loads from Oban to Kerrera. If Columba was the Mull ferry for part of the winter, the Lismore ferry would convey lorries for her. The Lochaline ferry would bring a lorry and passengers direct from Lochaline to Craignure on her first run of the day to connect into the Craignure-Oban ferry.
From 1977 Coll became the relief vessel for her sisters. It was usual for the ferries to move between the Clyde and the Western Isles via the Crinan Canal, although early in her career Coll was the first of her class to come round the Mull of Kintyre. Often the ‘Island’ class ferries would be used to tow one of the red flit boats (at the Small Isles and Iona) to and from overhaul on the Clyde.
In 1979 Bruernish became the dedicated Gigha ferry, at first operating out of Kennacraig until slipways were constructed for her at Tayinloan and Gigha. In 1992 she was supplanted by Loch Ranza. She also undertook relief work for the council-operated ferries to Eriskay and Bernera, and worked alongside Coll on the Tobermory-Kilchoan route. In 1996 she was chartered to serve Rathlin Island from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. The following summer she operated between Tarbert and Portavadie on the Clyde.
Although Eigg’s main route became Oban-Lismore, she was occasionally to be found operating out of Largs, Lochranza, Tobermory, Iona, Raasay and Lochaline. She also served as Kilchoan ferry from 1996 to 1998.
In 1983 she had a ferry door cut out on her port side to allow passenger landing at low tide at Achnacroish pier, Lismore. At Tobermory Games she would tender to Columba in the bay. She would regularly undertake livestock runs from the Small Isles on a Sunday — the one day in the week when she had no Lismore duties. She was issued with a passenger certificate to cover the full Small Isles roster from 1995 to 2000, whenever Lochmor was away from station for her annual overhaul.
Eigg also served the quarry at Glensanda and relieved the Port Askaig-Feolin ferry. To meet new regulations to allow the helmsman a clear view ahead when a lorry was being carried, she had her wheelhouse raised a deck in 1999: this distinguished her from her sisters but did little to improve her appearance. She was re-engined two years later.
Canna served at Fishnish for 10 years until replaced by one of the larger ‘Loch’ class vessels which came into service in 1986. In 1989 she moved to Iona as second ferry for the summer and a year later was allocated the Scalpay service. She travelled far: by 1997 she had become established as the Rathlin ferry in Northern Ireland, and had spells on charter in Orkney between 1997 and 2000, serving the islands of Shapinsay, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre. In October 2000 she was re-engined.
It was not until 1990 that CalMac received permission from the Government to build vehicle slipways at Tobermory and Kilchoan, and on 29 April 1991 Coll duly opened the new car ferry link between Mull and the Ardnamurchan peninsula, which had previously been a passenger-only service. That first summer she carried 20,204 passengers, 3,463 cars and 2 buses, with passenger carryings up by 90% on the previous year.
By the late 1990s Raasay could no longer cope with the timber traffic from Raasay, and so in 1997 she was replaced by Loch Striven, thereafter lying at the buoy in Tobermory Bay as spare ferry for the Western Isles. Yet she was kept busy filling in for her sisters, and called at 18 ports during 1997. She also inherited new duties, including relieving at Jura and serving as the Mallaig-Eigg ferry while the flit boat there was being overhauled.
After Lochnevis entered service to the Small Isles it fell to Raasay to be her relief ferry. From 2003 she also became the relief to her sister Canna at Rathlin, and worked the winter Kilchoan route. Having been fitted with new engines that year, she spent the next year on the Clyde as spare either at Gourock or Fairlie Quay.
In 1999 all the ‘Island’ class ferries had their black hulls painted up to the top of their bulwarks. They were overhauled at Port Glasgow for their first few years, from 1976 at Shandon, and latterly at Ardmaleish and then Corpach.
It was sad but inevitable that they should gradually be replaced by their larger ‘Loch’ class fleetmates, but with traffic increasing so much, the 1970s ferries could no longer cope with demand. What was particularly pleasing was that five of the first six ferries found ready buyers in the Republic of Ireland. Kilbrannan was the first to go in 1992, followed by Morvern in 1995. Rhum and Coll were also sold to Irish buyers in 1998 and Bruernish followed in 2006.
I was able to visit Donegal in the 1990s and had a few days of bliss sailing on board some of the rejuvenated ‘Island’ class ferries: their facilities were much appreciated by the residents of Arranmore, an island served from the mainland terminal at Burtonport. It was just like the old days as one of the ferries — in addition to using the concrete slipways at either port — also visited a smaller inshore island, landing some passengers and cars on the beach.
I always enjoyed sailing on the ‘Island’ class ferries, not least on the Oban-Lismore and Tobermory-Kilchoan routes where the crossing could be lively. You could stand on the car deck and have a fine view of your surroundings. When it was still possible to access the bridge deck as a passenger, this also provided a good vantage-point to appreciate the scenery. The passenger cabin was usually rather dingy and unappealing, only to be visited when the weather conditions ruled out staying on deck.
In recent years, when only Eigg and Raasay remained in the fleet, opportunities to sail on them were rare. In September 2017 some Club members took advantage of the chance to sail on Raasay when she was called upon in emergency to provide the Tarbert-Portavadie link for the last time.
The ‘Island’ class vessels truly revolutionised transport in the CalMac network. They opened up a new route to Arran, two additional routes to Mull and provided a safe and reliable link from Skye to Raasay. The island communities on Gigha, Iona and Lismore were provided with much improved services. The eight small ferries were economical to operate both in terms of fuel and crew costs. They were virtually interchangeable on most routes and could work in tandem where additional capacity was required.
The CalMac route map was much enhanced by their appearance, as a number of new tourist routes became possible with the island ‘Hopscotch’ ticket facility. Like many things, they could be taken for granted, and now that they are gone we will miss them on the west coast.
John Newth provides a brief timeline for Eigg and Raasay and summarises their final movements under the CalMac pennant.
12/12/74 – Launched
11/02/75 – Trials
25/02/75 – Entered service on Kyle-Kyleakin crossing
18/03/75 – Inaugurated twice daily Portree-Raasay service
19/03/76 – Regular Lismore ferry
04/04/96 – Regular Kilchoan ferry (summertime)
Spring 1999 – Wheelhouse raised
26/06/99 – Regular Lismore ferry
In the summer of 2014 Eigg saw regular relief duty on the Lismore service, providing the service when Loch Striven was unable to use the slip at Oban because of low tides. Her final spell on the route was from 29 November until 18 December, covering for Loch Striven while she had her annual overhaul. Thereafter Eigg only served Lismore once more – on Wednesday 18 February 2015, while Loch Striven was off service for part of the day. On Friday 24 April she left Oban for Port Askaig and, the next day, took on the role of Jura ferry for the next two weeks. When Eilean Dhiura returned to service on Wednesday 13 May Eigg left for the Clyde. Initially laid up in the James Watt Dock, she moved to the Holy Loch Marina at Sandbank on Wednesday 11 November. Thereafter she only moved when heading to Corpach for her annual surveys, in February 2016 and March 2017. Eigg was due to have one final survey at Corpach in early March 2018 before her departure under new ownership for the west coast of Ireland.
23/03/76 – Launched
27/04/76 – Trials
30/04/76 – First sailing in service (standby at Largs-Cumbrae Slip)
09/07/76 – Took over as regular Raasay ferry (using Sconser)
28/07/97 – Full time spare vessel
10/2003 – Regular Kilchoan winter ferry
In recent winters Raasay continued to maintain the crossing from Tobermory to Kilchoan, her excellent seakeeping qualities allowing her to sail in almost all weathers. On Thursday 9 February 2017 she handed over to Loch Linnhe and next morning headed back to Oban, where she had spent most recent summers tied up beside the Lismore ferry slip. At the end of June she had a special duty – taking toilets to Kerrera for installation at the island’s newly rebuilt ferry slip. With CalMac having taken over the short crossing from Gallanach, Raasay was pressed into service on the company’s newest and shortest route for a few hours on Tuesday 11 July. Following an annual survey at Corpach, she was laid up again at Oban but returned to service unexpectedly at the very end of September when she covered for Isle of Cumbrae on the Portavadie service for a couple of days. In November she was again used on the Kilchoan run, but right at the end of the month served Lismore. After another spell at Tobermory Raasay returned to cover the Lismore run for two weeks as no ‘Loch’ class vessel was available. Her final period of service with CalMac was on the Kilchoan run: her last sailing was on Tuesday 23 January 2018. Making her way back to the Clyde, Raasay called at Rhubodach and Colintraive on Saturday 10 February before joining Eigg at Sandbank on the Holy Loch. She was due to be handed over to Irish owners on Wednesday 28 February.
CRSC thanks members who have contributed photographs to this celebration of the ‘Island’ class, and also pays tribute to the many crew members who gave distinguished service aboard the eight ferries.
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Published on 27 February 2018