A ‘ferry ferry’ good day out

Unusual sighting: Loch Seaforth passes the Paps of Jura on 24 October 2016 -- copyright photo Roy Paterson

Unusual sighting: Loch Seaforth passes the Paps of Jura on 24 October 2016 — copyright photo Roy Paterson

Gordon Law savours the joys of the unexpected on an autumnal day out on the west of Scotland.

I always look for an October day out on the ferries. Often the most scenically beautiful, the month produces lovely autumnal shades. If you factor in a high pressure weather system and good company, the perfect day awaits. The five-stage journey to Port Askaig is normally my favourite destination, and so it was on this occasion.

Thus at 7.30am on 24 October 2016, I set out from Largs with fellow CRSC committee member Roy Paterson on the first stage — by car to Gourock. As we strolled into the station we spotted our next mode of transport, Ali Cat, making her way on time from Dunoon. Noting the now closed booking desk in the CalMac waiting room, we proceeded to board the catamaran for the crossing.

Despite steamed-up windows on Ali Cat as we approached Dunoon, we spotted the bus for Inveraray, our third mode of transport, at its stance on the pier. Duly at 8.50pm, the luxury coach with three passengers aboard headed off to the Loch Fyneside town via Strachur. A further passenger was picked up, as was a ‘Norah Batty lookalike’ who boarded at Strachur for a couple of stops to ‘do her shopping’. The bus driver insisted on slamming on the brakes at every sight of an oncoming vehicle, making it less than a smooth journey. We also encountered road works at Loch Fyne Oysters, which meant a delay of a few minutes on arrival at Inveraray.   

Ali Cat off Gourock -- copyright Gordon Law

First ferry of the day: Ali Cat leaves Gourock on her way to Dunoon — copyright photo Gordon Law

A visit to Brambles Coffee Shop was then required for sustenance – Roy creating a world record for ‘hoovering in a bacon roll’. We strolled back to the bus stop in brilliant sunshine to await the Glasgow to Campbeltown bus, which would take us, on our fourth journey of the morning, to Kennacraig Ferry Terminal. But there was no sign of the bus. As the minutes ticked by we started to consider Plan B (retrace our steps at 2pm) or Plan C (get on the bus whenever it came and stay on until Campbeltown). The bus finally showed up 20 minutes late at 11.30am and there was a flurry of activity – passengers alighting for a comfort  break, others getting their luggage from the hold, while the five awaiting passengers were largely ignored!

What then followed was an episode reminiscent of ‘I M Jolly’ (the late comedian Rikki Fulton’s classic spoof on a Church of Scotland minister), featuring the West Coast Motors driver known only as ‘Jim frae Glesga’. In order to quicken boarding, Roy and I were proceeding onto the coach only to be advised by Jim “to get aff as I’m no’ ready to issue tickets”.

It was some time before Jim finally took his place in the driver’s seat. I politely enquired if we would catch the ferry. Jim proceeded to tell me and indeed anyone listening that he had “had a hell of a morning”. He had had to change the coach, and the first road works were encountered as early as Great Western Road in Glasgow. And so it went on, “but”, he ventured, “I have a good relationship with CalMac.”

With the clock still ticking, Jim then announced that he was “off for his coffee” and duly disappeared into Inveraray Main Street, leaving the bus engine running. At this point there was a shaking of heads and consultation of watches: if the bus was to take the timetabled hour-and-23-minutes from Inveraray to Kennacraig, we would miss the ferry. It now looked like an afternoon in Campbeltown.

Finlaggan at Port Askaig, with looming signs of the ‘MacBrayne cloud -- copyright photo Gordon Law

Finlaggan at Port Askaig, with looming signs of the ‘MacBrayne cloud’ — copyright photo Gordon Law

Jim returned clutching his coffee and a bag of goodies, and we were off, more than half an hour late. Luckily traffic was light, but all boarding passengers were offered Jim’s story of the morning’s events. On reaching Tarbert at 12.45pm, the bold Jim telephoned Kennacraig, introducing the call as “this is Jim frae Glesga” before again launching into his story.

The CalMac lady was having none of it. She wanted quick answers to three questions — 1) where was the bus, 2) what was the running time to Kennacraig and 3) how many ferry passengers? Jim quickly responded: 1) Tarbert, 2) six minutes and 3) approximately 20. Before he could say another word he was cut off: “Get here as soon as you can and we will hold the boat”. With that she was gone. Islay after all and Finlaggan awaits – yah beauty!!!

Finlaggan departed a couple of minutes past one for Port Askaig. We found a strategic spot in the restaurant and settled down to some excellent CalMac fare. We spotted the favourite photographic spot of Lawrence Macduff and the late Hamish Stewart down the West Loch at Dunskeig. As Finlaggan powered out of the loch, the islands of Gigha, Jura and Islay were all bathed in sunshine – a wonderful sight, especially with the prominent Paps of Jura. Then it was past McArthur’s Head, the Black Rock and into the Sound of Islay. As we approached Port Askaig, Roy was positioned on the starboard foredeck while I was on the port side watching the berthing procedure – Captain Barry Scott required no assistance!

All of a sudden an excited Roy appeared and no, he had not just received his afternoon ration of sweeties. “I think”, he blurted, “the Loch Seaforth is approaching!”. I was aware that Isle of Lewis and Hebridean Isles had arrived in Stornoway that weekend and that the ‘Seaforth’ was due at Birkenhead the following day for overhaul. I was off my mark immediately to confirm the sighting. What amazing good fortune for two steamer dreamers! Momentarily the only cloud in the sky — Hamish Stewart used to call it “the MacBrayne Cloud” — cast a dark shadow on the Lewis ferry, only to pass over quickly, allowing numerous photographs of her in brilliant sunshine in the Sound of Islay. Lucky white heather!

Eilean Dhiura on her way to Feolin -- copyright

Eilean Dhiura heads off purposefully on her way across the Sound of Islay to Feolin — copyright photo Gordon Law

We then disembarked for the obligatory photographs of Finlaggan and Eilean Dhiura, but this seemed very mundane in view of the surprise appearance of the Stornoway ferry.

It was now time to retrace our journey. The inward trip on Finlaggan was relaxing as we marvelled at the stunning weather and recounted our encounter with Loch Seaforth and the earlier episode with ‘Jim frae Glesga’.

Finlaggan reached her mainland port 10 minutes early, so there was time to take the pictures that we had missed earlier. The Inveraray bus showed up on time at 5.55pm, then our hearts sank — Jim was at the wheel!! However, prompted by our enquiries as to whether his day had got any better, he had us back in Inveraray five minutes early. In a new outbreak of concern for his passengers, Jim announced that those going on to Glasgow were banned from bringing fish suppers, ice cream, ice lollies and alcohol on to the bus, and that teas and coffees must have a lid.

Thankfully our Dunoon bus was waiting and it was goodbye to Jim. Five passengers boarded the bus, driven by a former American serviceman who had married and remained in the Cowal area. The journey was quiet until Strachur, when we stupidly asked him about Donald Trump. I have now met someone who would vote for Donald Trump. It took the driver until Dunoon to justify his statement to himself, and even then we were far from convinced as to the logic of his argument. What is it about bus drivers?

Our ‘new’ friend had us back at Dunoon in good time to see Ali Cat approaching the berth, so all was well. We had also noticed that there was no sign of Argyll Flyer during our visits to Dunoon and Gourock. It transpired that the vessel had suffered technical problems and was at Ardmaleish for repairs. The 13 passengers from Dunoon disembarked from Ali Cat at Gourock, and Roy and I were soon in the car for the final stage of our journey back to Largs, which we reached about 9.50pm.

What a wonderful day out!

Gordon Law was CRSC President in the 2011-12 session and compiles the CRSC/WHSC Calendar.

I think Loch Seaforth is approaching! -- copyright photo Roy Paterson

‘I think Loch Seaforth is approaching!’ — copyright photo Roy Paterson

Loch Seaforth threads her way majestically down the Sound of Islay, here passing Feolin -- copyright photo Gordon Law

Loch Seaforth threads her way majestically down the Sound of Islay, here passing Feolin — copyright photo Gordon Law

Destination Birkenhead: Loch Seaforth heads south on her way for overhaul -- copyright Gordon Law

Destination Birkenhead: Loch Seaforth heads south on her way for overhaul — copyright Gordon Law

Finlaggan at Kennacraig in the dying autumn light -- copyright photo Roy Paterson

Finlaggan at Kennacraig in the dying autumn light — copyright photo Roy Paterson