‘From Raasay to Rona and Beyond’: Captain John Gillies

The title of John Gillies’ talk had a double-meaning. From his native Raasay (top left), John occasionally visited the small nearby island of Rona (top right) as a crew member of the CalMac ‘Island’ class ferry Raasay. Rhona also happens to be the name of John’s wife. In the course of his career, he has ranged far beyond — across the oceans (lower left) and all the big CalMac ferries (Loch Seaforth in Churchton Bay, Raasay, lower right)

Attracting skippers or engineers or management from CalMac to ‘give a talk’ to our members is something CRSC has always been keen to achieve, writes Stuart Craig. The presentation that Captain John Gillies gave us on Wednesday 9 November was in the top drawer of such occasions, and was nothing short of fascinating for those in the audience at Jurys Inn and at home, watching online. Paid-up members who missed the evening can catch up with the video here.

Coming to address our Club could seem a bit daunting for a speaker, and John hinted that he would rather be reversing Loch Seaforth into dock in a south-westerly than standing before us. But he soon settled into a relaxed and communicative style – so I think he was only joking!

‘From Raasay to Rona and Beyond’ was the title of John’s presentation – a play on words, for his wife is called Rhona. His family hail from Raasay, where he still lives, and he started by giving us an insight into his early years and his love of boats. As a child he would construct them from cardboard and sail them. Watching how small ferries and bigger MacBrayne ships berthed at Raasay pier fascinated John from a young age. “I just love ship-handling, berthing, manoeuvring.”

Loch Arkaig arriving at Portree c1974

The arrival of the Portree mail boat Loch Arkaig  was “the highlight of the day on the island” and John was drawn to the workings and berthing of the little ship. He admitted that he used the same techniques when he became skipper of Hebridean Isles, Finlaggan and others.

It wasn’t long before John found his vocation. His father had given his blessing for him to embark on a career as a mariner, with one caveat: “don’t ever work for MacBraynes!”. And soon he was — as a deck hand on the ‘Island’ class ferry Raasay. A time at deep sea followed, working for Denholms, but John was soon drawn back to the west coast and rose through the grades to become master. “They say if you love your job, you never go to work again. That’s me!”

I don’t think the CRSC audience has ever witnessed such natural enthusiasm for a career as John demonstrated. He loves what he does – isn’t he lucky? And so were we to have him address us.

His first ‘big boat’ was Lord of the Isles, followed by Iona, Hebridean Isles (a particular favourite of his, which endeared him to the author of this report) and then Clansman. His first command was Hebrides, followed by three years as master of Isle of Arran.

We were treated to some beautiful pictures and it was interesting to see the many stages of John’s career captured on film.

He threw us some intriguing snippets: he loved the ‘Island’ class boats, thinks that the Sconser jetty is built on the wrong side of the pier and feels sea-sick just looking at Lord of the Isles.

It was only natural that John would eventually graduate to the biggest of them all, Loch Seaforth — a ship he loves and “a really good sea boat.” How poignant then, at the conclusion of his presentation, to see an aerial photograph of the ‘Seaforth’ off Churchton Bay, Raasay, with the current ferry Hallaig in the background. John had brought the ship in close to his home island while on trials.

With 47 in the ‘live’ audience and another 81 watching online, this was one of our most successful public meetings. John’s enthusiasm, modesty and professionalism shone through the screens of those watching at home and brightened up our evening at Jurys. It made me want to jump on a ferry soon…

Paid-up CRSC members can see all 137 photos in Captain Gillies’ presentation by watching the video here.

You can join CRSC here for £10 and get the full benefits.

SEE ALSO: John Gillies: a versatile Hebridean master

After his presentation, Captain John Gillies (centre) was congratulated by CalMac colleagues Captain Calum Bryce (left, master of MV Bute) and Captain Guy Robertson (right, master of MV Finlaggan until his recent retirement). All three are CRSC members

Thanks to Robert Newth for the video and technical management.

Published on 11 November 2022