Golden memories of the Inner Islands mail

Claymore at Coll on 3 July 1970: landing there had been by flit-boat until the concrete pier was built in 1967. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Among Lawrence Macduff’s most treasured memories is his round trip on the 1955 Claymore from Oban to Tobermory, Coll, Tiree, Barra and Lochboisdale. Lawrence’s account is followed by a selection of scenic photos he has taken on the route since 1970.

In 1967 I experienced my first extended passage in west coast waters, from West Loch Tarbert to Oban via Islay. During that holiday I leapfrogged to Skye and North Uist, returning overnight from South Uist to Oban — the first occasion on which I completed a journey on the Inner Islands mail service. It was an overnight voyage, with the arrival of daylight coinciding with the inbound approach to Tiree. Two years later, I made my first outbound voyage and then, moving on to Easter 1971, I made my first complete round trip in the best possible weather. It was probably this voyage that left the greatest impression.

When Lawrence Macduff made his first overnight visit to the Uists aboard Claymore in 1969, he stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Lochmaddy run by Mina MacNeilage, and returned there regularly in subsequent years. Lawrence is pictured at Lochmaddy in 2005 with Mina’s daughter Flora, who married Captain Donald Gunn (first master of Loch Bhrusda and Hebrides), nephew of the late Captain John Gunn — almost certainly master of Claymore on Lawrence’s 1971 voyage across the Minch. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Oban, gateway to the Hebrides, has long been a logical hub for island services. Fifty years ago the town had a reasonable if slow rail link to Glasgow, the lack of speed being very much down to the nature of the terrain through which this 100-mile line traversed. The road link was little better, again because of the terrain. The only islands served from Oban, other than those on the Inner Isles mail route, were Lismore and Mull. The latter had gained its vehicle ferry link with Oban in 1964 — although, looking at the state of the roads on Mull today, you sometimes wonder whether time has really marched on that much. As a minor island Lismore would have to wait another 10 years before it was allotted an ‘Island’ class craft, capable of taking up to seven cars for the island’s limited road system.

Unlike the Mull and Lismore services, which were upgraded in the 1960s and 1970s, the Inner Islands mail remained utterly traditional in every respect of its operation. The ship on which I first experienced this passage was the 1955 Claymore. Her looks suggested a degree of modernity, with her raked bow, prominent domed funnel and cruiser stern, but these features belied her very traditional internal layout. When new, her arrangements were still based on the antiquated 1st and 3rd class system. This made her below-decks accommodation a mass of internal corridors in which, to begin with, I frequently got lost even though the class system had been abolished by the time I travelled.

Be that as it may, and old fashioned as she seemed, Claymore was still only 12 years old when I first set foot on her as a fare paying passenger. She would continue for another decade before she became so outmoded that she had to be retired from active service.

Now to the passage itself. This departed Oban on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7am, so if you were travelling from the south, you either had to stay in a b&b the night before or sleep on board in one of the ship’s numerous cabins. I use the word ‘sleep’ with some reservation as I will describe later! Claymore was always the first ship out of port: services to Mull and Lismore left Oban an hour or more later.

Claymore arriving at Tobermory on 3 July 1970, with Calve Island in the background and a naval vessel anchored in the bay. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Claymore’s berth was at the Railway Pier (roughly where the new linkspan is now), which in those days always exuded an aroma of fish, bunker fuel and, on a sunny summer day, hot tar. Much freight would have been taken on board the day before, but from 6.30am onwards final loading would be completed and that invariably included cars, most of which were taken as deck cargo in the time-honoured way, using slings and nets and the 7½ ton derrick. Before the mid 1960s this was the standard way of loading vehicles for the Western Isles, and as most cars were relatively small, the ship’s derrick was more than man enough to cope with them.

I did hear one wonderful story about this process, said to originate from the Inner Islands mail service and probably connected to Claymore’s smaller predecessor, Lochearn. One fine day, a small MacBraynes bus required shipment to South Uist, and when it appeared for loading, there was some concern as to whether the ship’s derrick could cope with its weight.

The intelligent suggestion was then made that removal of all the wheels would reduce the load, so off they came. The vehicle was loaded and safely conveyed to Lochboisdale. When the time came to discharge the bus, it was lifted, swung across to the pier and carefully steadied. Puzzlement then followed as no one knew where the wheels were — until one worthy, questioned as to their whereabouts, retorted “Och, we coodna find a space anywhere so we chust put them all in the boot”! Having had direct experience of dodgy MacBrayne bus boots, I’m amazed they didn’t fall through the floor!

‘I soon found out that Claymore had a reasonable amount of deck space’: the view aft from the Denny-built MacBrayne mail boat as she headed out from Tiree. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

I soon found out when I boarded Claymore that she had a reasonable amount of open deck space, so this excited 21-year old, delighted with the prospect of a long sail out to South Uist in fine weather, took up station. The commanding presence of the Master, probably the late Captain John Gunn, could be seen out on the starboard bridge wing, instructing the removal of the traditional red wooden gangway. Then came the response of telegraph bells from the stern to the order to let go, followed by a typically asthmatic splutter from Claymore’s funnel as an engine fired up. Then came the answering of the engine room repeater and the perceptible drift of the bows away from the pier. Temporary silence, then a flurry of bells, a further cough from the funnel, and gradual forward motion as the ship pulled out into Oban Bay. Here was Oban in all its glory — though in silhouette, with sunshine from the east. On our port side lay lovely Kerrera and behind it, the tantalising shapes of the high peaks of Ben Buie and Ben More on Mull.

As with my first trip from West Loch Tarbert, I was equipped only with one basic 35mm camera, no binoculars and no map either, but having had access to the latter in my local library, I had a general idea of where I was going. Claymore now picked up speed as she forged out round the north end of Kerrera to port and past the ruins of Dunollie Castle to starboard. As with many other MacBrayne ships of the period, passengers had no direct view for’ard from the open deck unless you went into the main lounge, so it was a case of looking over the rail on either side of what would probably be termed the promenade deck, aft of the funnel. Most of you who read this will be all too familiar with the scenery in this open stretch of the Firth of Lorn, but as a youngster my eyes were somehow drawn to the mountains of Mull. So much smoother than the craggy ridges of Arran’s ranges, they were prominent on the port side, as was the hump of Scarba far to the south, while the unmistakably brilliant and tall white-painted tower of Lismore lighthouse loomed close to starboard.

‘It was a pleasure to be out on deck’: Claymore approaching Barra on 9 April 1971. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Keen eyes soon noticed the tidal eddies around Lady Rock, beyond which the iconic outline of Duart Castle on its rocky plug could not be missed. Beyond that and still to port, my eyes picked up on the modern structure of Craignure pier, completed in 1964 in time for Columba’s entry into service. At our steady gait of 12½ knots we seemed to travel a long way in a long time — a suitable cue to look round the open deck amenities of our ship.

The 1955 Claymore was a product of the Denny shipyard, and while her main deck aft was constricted by the need to accommodate lifeboats, the promenade deck was a nice place to be on a sunny day. Like most ships of the time, if she carried her designed full load of some 500 passengers, conditions would be very cramped, but on the day I was travelling there were not too many. Despite numerous traditional buoyant seats on this deck, there was plenty of circulating space.

Claymore had nice teak decks to walk on, with re-assuringly solid varnished teak side-railings and polished brasses at the landing gates. Her centrepiece was that shapely domed funnel of modern appearance, on the port side of which was situated a small stairway leading up to a small balcony.

Now, all diesel-powered ships have a sound signature with varying degrees of intrusion, but Claymore’s was very moderate. Not much power equals not much noise: a mere 1,200 horsepower in fact, and for me she had one other particularly endearing sound feature. Each of her engines had only four cylinders, and this accentuated the exhaust beat nicely but unobtrusively. Also, not much power produces not a lot of heat, so leaning against the funnel in the lee of a cool wind to get a modicum of heat into one’s being was generally a fruitless exercise.

Final stop on the Inner Islands mail service: Claymore lies at Lochboisdale on 11 July 1970 astern of Clansman. The MacBrayne car ferry offered a direct overnight connection to Mallaig, from where there was the possibility of continuing on Loch Seaforth to Kyle and Stornoway or Loch Arkaig to Portree. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

By the way, to put a modern perspective on this, the power from the combined bow thrust units on the present Arran ferry, Caledonian Isles, is only 100 horsepower less than what drove Claymore at over 13½ knots on her sea trials! It was a pity Claymore had no forward view on deck: this was hidden by the bridge but there were half a dozen nice cabins abaft the bridge area. These were small and relatively peaceful, and one could only hope, if you had booked one in which to return overnight to Oban, that the passage was smooth. Claymore was not a comfortable sea boat and, sadly for a nice little ship, she was the first of the MacBrayne fleet on which I was sea sick.

Having passed, at a distance, Lochaline pier to starboard and Salen to port, Claymore was now not too far from Tobermory. Soon, across the Sound of Mull, lay the entrance to Loch Sunart and the recognisable profile of Ben Hiant beyond. With the ship now turning to port, Tobermory came into view, surmounted by the stunningly sited Western Isles Hotel and, nearer sea level, the village’s colourfully painted houses reminiscent of Norway. As the ship glided in slowly and berthed at the traditional timbered pier with its trademark art deco-style building, something else might have caught your eye if you were a transport aficionado: parked nearby were some small MacBrayne liveried buses, instantly identifiable by their trademark scarlet green and cream colour scheme.

With the bulk of supplies now reaching Mull via Craignure, Claymore did not need to linger long at Tobermory. As she swept out astern in a graceful arc, a small launch of some sort could be seen heading our way across the Sound — ah, this had to be the Kilchoan mail boat Lochnell. Seas were quiet on this occasion, but she would have got some pasting in a westerly on such an exposed route. Soon we were passing the lighthouse at Rubha nan Gall, a principal sea mark for the western entrance to the Sound of Mull, and then, a little further out and more distant, we could see the stone tower of Ardnamurchan, effectively marking the northern entrance.

Claymore off the coast of South Uist on 20 June 1973. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

We were now heading for open sea, eyes lured to the elevated Glengorm Castle on the port side and, beyond Ardnamurchan Point to starboard, to the unmistakable profile of Eigg, the peaks of Askival and Hallival on Rum and, beyond, the Cuillin range on Skye. Dead ahead and still looking distant was the long low profile of the island of Coll and, to the south west, a scattering of small islets, including ‘the Dutchman’s Cap’.

With some way to go before we reached Coll, there was ample time to explore Claymore’s public rooms. The spacious lounge occupied the entire width of the main passenger deck and had comfortable settees. A popular place to rest on the longest part of the passage, this amenity was ruined by a cyclical vibration which recurred every 10 seconds, causing all the ceiling light fittings to rattle. The dining area midships was a wood-panelled room featuring attractive marquetry panels and tables set in the traditional way with white linen and silver service. Claymore was the last MacBrayne ship to feature a dining saloon, a term that has faded into history. Starting with the car ferry trio in 1964, the place where you went to eat on board became the cafeteria, though nowadays the name (‘Mariners Restaurant’) is somewhat fancier.

Coll was just over an hour’s sailing time from Tobermory. Soon we were in sight of what was, in 1971, a nearly new pier: until the late 1960s passengers and cargo had to be taken ashore by one of MacBrayne’s small red-hulled ferryboats, Eriskay (named after the island she originally served). There was little traffic on the day of my journey. We were there for less than 20 minutes before our skipper drew the ship astern and we turned westwards once more for our next call, Tiree. Stationed at the stern rail as the ship was backing out, I had a grandstand view of a now distant Mull and the Treshnish Isles. It took us a further 45 minutes to reach Tiree, and if you thought Coll was flat, well, Tiree has always struck me as even more so, and far less rugged, with a shoreline laced with sandy beaches and an almost Caribbean colour to the water as we began our approach to the concrete pier at the hamlet of Scarinish.

It took the best part of an hour to discharge our cargo. First off was a car that had been carried on the open deck: as the slings securing the nets round the vehicle began to tense, the winchman carefully took the strain up to lifting point, and Claymore leant a fraction to port as the car was swung out and safely landed ashore. I had time to walk round Gott Bay to take some pictures and savour the natural scene before heading back on board in good time for the ship’s sailing.

Claymore at Castlebay on the return visit before crossing the Minch on the homeward voyage. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

In adverse weather on Claymore, if you were feeling seedy by the time you reached Tiree, you still had a further 3½ hours of open sea to endure, for this was probably the most exposed of all MacBrayne’s sailings. She was not one of the more comfortable sea boats, but on this day of travel in 1971 it remained calm and bright, with only a slightly perceptible swell. It was a pleasure to be out on deck. You could imagine the famous Skerryvore lighthouse, with its 135-foot tall tower, being visible on a clear day 11 miles to our south west, but all landfall would remain distant for quite some time until the profiles of Barra, Eriskay and South Uist began to grow – initially as one continuous chain of land.

By late afternoon we were nearing our next destination, and most prominent ahead of us was the 1,200-foot summit of Heaval, Barra’s highest hill. I mentioned in my earlier article on the West Loch Tarbert-Oban service that my favourite Hebridean port was Port Askaig. Well, Castlebay on Barra is fully its equal and when you see it for the first time on a fine evening, it’s easy to understand why. The ship sails in past the bulk of Muldoanich island to starboard, but far more captivating are the beautiful white beaches of neighhbouring Vatersay close on the port side. When I first came to Barra in 1967, you had to get a small open boat to take you across to Vatersay. Nowadays a short causeway connects the two. Castlebay’s most iconic building is Kismul Castle, passed on our starboard side as our Master swung Claymore’s bow to port as he prepared to berth.

For anyone staying on Barra for longer than a night, I can recommend a climb up Heaval. The trig point at the summit yields absolutely breathtaking views southwards towards Barra Head and northwards towards the hills of South Uist. The island has only 15 miles of road — an easy bike ride, especially on the west side where some of the finest beaches in the Outer Hebrides are to be found.

Sunset over Tiree from the deck of Loch Seaforth, which occasionally substituted for Claymore on the Inner Islands mail, especially in the early 1970s. The date on this occasion was 1 June 1972. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Half an hour generally sufficed before Claymore was ready to set off on the final leg of her long outward sailing. It took us a further 1½ hours to sail northwards, past Eriskay, probably best known for its love lilt, but also immortalised as Great Todday in the famous title Whisky Galore. And remember this – the mail boat skippered by the fictional Captain McKechnie was in fact Lochearn, Claymore’s predecessor on the Inner Islands mail service.

By now the sun was dropping towards the western horizon, and as we entered Loch Boisdale around 8pm, it was low in the sky. Lochboisdale village could be seen in silhouette but the upper slopes of the 900-foot high Ben Kenneth to starboard was still catching the warm glow from the west. This was indeed journey’s end for the outward passage: time for the rest of the ship’s cargo and all remaining passengers to go ashore. Some were doubtless local but others, bound for Benbecula and North Uist, boarded the MacBrayne mail bus for the 47-mile slow, final stage of their journey.

There was little rest for the crew at Lochboisdale. Departure time for the return to Oban was 11.30pm. The stewardesses had to prepare the cabins and clean the accommodation, the Purser was busy with his cargo manifest and the ticketing process, while the Chief Steward also had various duties to attend to. Off-duty crew had to be fed and engineers on watch would be dealing with maintenance issues in advance of the return passage.

On departure the ship had to be backed away from her berth and swung through 180 degrees so that she could head back out to sea. By this time it was pitch black but, as the moon rose, it began to radiate enough brightness for us to discern the faint profile of land as we made a steady passage back towards Castlebay. There was tea and toast in the restaurant, a service provided to suit travellers who had come a long way to reach the ship for her return to the mainland. Back on deck, the night was mild but the ship’s progress created a fair breeze and you had to be well wrapped up.

Claymore at Tobermory on 3 July 1970. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Although I had booked a cabin for the overnight voyage, I wanted to get the flavour of the middle of the night as Claymore approached the floodlit Castlebay pier at the back of 1am, with a handful of lights twinkling from both the village and the heavenly sky above. The still sea and its reflections were disturbed as we berthed. The gangway was soon ashore and a handful of passengers boarded, waving to family and friends before going below. Our derrick retrieved a shipping box, and within 15 minutes our ropes were cast off, splashing into the sea as we eased away from the pier.

Half an hour later we were all but surrounded by darkness, bar the silvery track from the rising moon and the odd light from a fishing boat working out in the Minch. From Claymore’s funnel the reassuring steady purr of her engine exhausts confirmed our progress as she proceeded towards Tiree. It was now time to head for the cabin, accessed from the same corridor which led to the engine room. It could only be described as basic, albeit spotlessly clean. I was only going to be in it for a short time, but once under the sheets, I realised that sleep on Claymore was an ideal to be dreamed about: the cabin was alive with noise, particularly from the main generators.

My internal clock brought me round. The cabin was inboard, so I had to go on deck to see where we were. Just as well I did, as it was beginning to brighten in the east, harbinger of a fine day to come, and the long low outline of Tiree was not so far away. We were alongside about 5.15am but there was not much inbound traffic. Our visit to Coll was similarly brief, and as we headed for Ardnamurchan, the stunning morning-lit profiles of the Small Isles seemed quite different to the way they had looked on the outward journey. The remainder of our passage home was quite routine: a brief call at Tobermory and a departure at 9am that saw us back into Oban by 11am.

The Inner Islands passage has been reconfigured in recent times — it is now possible to go as far as Barra and back in a day via Coll and Tiree, once a week in summer, with no call at Tobermory — but its various components still represent one of the finest sailings in the CalMac network.

The ferries and the facilities today are light years from what I have just described, but many of the crew are still drawn from the west coast and the islands, and the scenery is just as it always was. If you have yet to make your first trip on the year-round direct Oban-Barra service, don’t hesitate. Take a car and tour — and do so with the utmost peace of mind, knowing that you will not see your pride and joy of a car, if indeed it is one, swinging drunkenly in mid air in the course of coming on board or ashore!


Outward from Oban, Claymore offers a morning view of Lismore on 26 June 1971

A peaceful Sound of Mull, viewed from the deck of Claymore on 9 April 1971

Arrival at Tobermory: the Western Isles Hotel dominates the scene as Loch Seaforth approaches the pier on 1 June 1972

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, guarding the north entrance to the Sound of Mull

Arinagour, Coll, on 27 June 1973, viewed from the deck of Claymore in the bay

Bac Mor – the Dutchman’s Cap – pictured from the deck of Claymore on 27 June 1973

Loch Carron and Claymore at Coll on 9 April 1971

Loch Seaforth off South Uist on 1 June 1972

Sunset over South Uist on 31 May 1972

Back home: Claymore at the Railway Pier, Oban, on 16 December 1972, with Bute at the North Pier. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Boating with a Box Brownie
Remembering Jim Aikman Smith
Three Lochs Tour: Loch Shiel, Loch Boisdale and Loch Snizort
Kerrera, bank keys and the ‘King George’
A fitting introduction to the Kingdom of MacBrayne

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