It was a Five Ferries Whopper

Scene at Port Askaig on the afternoon of 12 October 2019: Sound of Islay ferry Eilean Dhiura returns from Feolin as Finlaggan prepares to depart for Kennacraig. The weather was bright for most of the day

On Saturday 12 October, 50 CRSC members and friends went on a ‘Five Ferry Hopper’ to Islay. We had a full coach and a full schedule, taking us via Rothesay, the Kyles of Bute and Loch Fyne to Kennacraig, where we joined MV Finlaggan for the afternoon sailing to Port Askaig, before returning via Hunters Quay and the Western Ferries crossing to McInroys Point.

It turned out not only that the weather was kind, but the ‘spirit’ was with us — the spirit of happiness engendered by meeting together and sailing together amid spectacular west coast scenery. It was a very sociable day, as Robin Copland reports.

Club member Jane Ann Liston and CRSC President Roy Paterson photograph Argyle from the port bridge wing of Bute on 12 October, during the crossing to Rothesay

All over the country, alarms were set on Friday evening for an early start on Saturday morning. Gourock pier by 0815 was the target and 50 hardy souls duly assembled for the first leg of the Five Ferry Hopper — a coach trip along the road to Wemyss Bay, there to catch the 0900 sailing to Rothesay, given on this occasion by MV Bute.

By the time we arrived at the pier, the rain was well and truly on. The optimists in our number looked upwards and talked of “light clouds” and, “look over there — is that blue sky?” Damp and dreich was probably about the sum of it as we gently manoeuvred away from the pier. Neil Guthrie, CRSC’s Cruising Coordinator, stood at the stern rail looking back towards Wemyss Bay and was probably thinking that at least we had departed on time. Some of the ferry targets were tighter than others and all depended on the on-time running of the previous service. Most of the party were blissfully unaware of these things and were more concerned with bacon rolls, cups of coffee and empire biscuits.

As we crossed the Firth towards Rothesay, the weather cleared a bit. Conditions could never be described as warm or summery but we were generally lucky, and as the day progressed, the sun beamed between the clouds.

All too soon Rothesay pier approached. We headed down to the vehicle deck and climbed back onto the bus. Rhubodach beckoned.

What can we say about a bus trip from Rothesay to Rhubodach? Well, we drove through Port Bannatyne and the chat turned to trams; then we rounded Kames Bay and wondered what was happening in the boatyard at Ardmaleish; some of us took the opportunity for a nap — fortunately not Bobby Howie, our excellent driver for the day. He got us safely to the ferry ramp and then wondered what all the rush was for.

Crossing the Kyles of Bute to Colintraive on Loch Dunvegan

Loch Dunvegan was at the ramp, right enough, but on the Colintraive side. She was due to leave there at 1000 and then take us over on the 1010. Neil now realised that the goal of reaching Portavadie in time for the 1045 crossing was beyond us. No time for a coffee in Tarbert — but no panic either, because it was the 1145 crossing that we had been scheduled to take.

Actually, all’s well that ends well: it turned out that there was a fine new coffee shop on the Portavadie side for those who wanted to partake. Bobby managed to get us there in time to be first in the queue for the crossing — always a bonus.

Finally, the dreamers amongst us had time to slope off and find new angles from which to take pictures of MV Isle of Cumbrae, our next ferry, as she approached the Portavadie ramp. Built in 1977, she has been the oldest vessel in the CalMac fleet since the departure of the last of the ‘Island’ class ferries to Ireland.

Isle of Cumbrae is the matron of the fleet. She is also Billy Tomlinson’s favourite ferry. Why? You’d need to ask Billy, but I suspect she reminds him of a happy youth in times gone by!

Portavadie to Tarbert is one of my favourite sails. The sun had come out — strong and ‘in your face’ as often an autumn sun can be. It shone across the deck and blinded many an intrepid sailor as we took the air and some photographs on the deck. She’s a purposeful wee ship is Isle of Cumbrae, blunt-bowed and no secrets. “I am a conveyor of cars and people,” she says as she moves through the water. So she is, but she has a loyal following and gives a good summer service on her route.

Presidential forum on the deck of Isle of Cumbrae: CRSC Vice-President Andy Anderson, Roy Paterson and Treasurer Billy Tomlinson

We met up with Colin Mcnicol and Lawrence Allibone, her regular skippers: Colin came out to mingle and chat on the car deck during the sail across Loch Fyne’s lower reaches, while Lawrence welcomed a small handful of us in the wheelhouse, where the freshly polished varnish of her two driving wheels bespoke a crew who are proud of their ship.

Some of us got to thinking that Isle of Cumbrae spends much of the winter laid up at Sandbank: could she be a possible charter target for a wee sail round Cumbrae, for example? We’ll leave that thought for Neil to consider.

Tarbert approached at a good pace and our bus called us back. There were some scrunching noises from below us as we moved onto the ramp. Suspicious noises — the kind of noises that would have Lawrence Macduff reaching for a bottle. All was well; it was probably the car behind.

Through Tarbert we drove, leaving behind the old pier where Saint Columba, Lochfyne and Waverley were wont to call; past the fleets of yachts and fishing boats in the harbour; past the galleries and cafés, then up the hill and out of the town, and on towards Kennacraig. The eagle-eyed amongst us saw that MV Finlaggan was already sitting at the linkspan. Neil came round with our meal tickets and made an explanatory announcement through the loudspeakers.

In these circumstances I tend to zone out; I follow the masses and let someone else do the thinking — and that’s what’s so great about these CRSC adventures! Apart from ensuring that the Club fulfils one of its key objectives — giving members the chance to meet together and sail together — someone else (the long-suffering Cruising Coordinator!) takes the organisational strain. The only thing the rest of us had to do was turn up. Well, apart from Bobby the driver — I’ll grant you that.

Enjoying the views from the top deck of Finlaggan: Iain and Carrie MacKinnon with Donald Thomas

Finlaggan was a picture. The sun was doing its thing again and normal people were sitting in their cars wondering why 50-odd folk were walking between the cars, squinting at the light and pointing cameras at a car ferry. They just don’t get it, of course; probably more interested in herbaceous borders, or whisky, or tramping round golf courses in earnest searches for lost balls. Each to their own.

The passenger ramp to the ship is quite steep — let that be said.  Some found it easier to negotiate than others, but the welcome from the crew was warm and soon both the restaurant and café bar were being patronised. The sail to Port Askaig is five minutes short of two hours, so there was plenty of time to visit and explore each of the lounges and public areas on board. A goodly number went outside and enjoyed the sail up the Sound of Islay under a blue sky — though, sad to relate, the open deck in front of Finlaggan’s bridge is now permanently shut off to passengers, severely limiting the opportunity to view the forward prospect.

The crossing to Islay was the best bit of continuous sunny weather we had all day. Halfway across eagle-eyed observers spotted Loch Alainn making her way south for a rounding of the Mull of Kintyre. Again, the chat moved from old steamers, to whisky, to sailing on Lake Windermere. Rob Beale had brought his young son Alfie up for the day, and it’s a day he’ll remember for the rest of his life!

Finlaggan slowed as she approached Port Askaig. The blue-hulled Argyll and Bute ferry Eilean Dhiura sat at her ramp. Cars bound for Jura filed onto her deck as we berthed, with much reverse shuddering as Finlaggan’s stern approached the linkspan. In no time at all, our load of cars had hit the road and begun dispersing to the far corners of Islay. Some of us stayed on board for the 35-minute stopover, others had a wander round the still relatively unspoilt harbour area.

Finlaggan at Port Askaig on 12 October

Somewhat fewer cars and passengers embarked for the return sailing to Kennacraig. After the obligatory safety announcements, the Mariners Restaurant opened and it was time for dinner. The steak pie was excellent; so were the fish and chips; the lasagne got the thumbs up and as for the apple pie and cream — what can I say?

In seemingly no time at all, we were disembarking down the passenger ramp and heading for our bus at the terminal. It was light when we left Kennacraig but gradually dusk, then night, fell as we drove through Inveraray and round the head of Loch Fyne. Hunter’s Quay beckoned; we had an eight o’clock appointment with MV Sound of Soay. By the time we reached the marshalling area, the night had become a bit wet, and a smirry shower fell out of the lumpen sky. I’m saying it was lumpen but what do I know? It was dark.

Notwithstanding smir, we were there early enough to take another stroll and watch the ferry slip silently towards the linkspan. You know what you are going to get with Western Ferries. Their ships are built for the short crossing to McInroy’s Point. No frills; no airs and graces, and you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them all. Unless, that is, you are CRSC President: Roy Paterson regaled us with a new fact. The bus-type seats on Sound of Soay are a fetching shade of red; they are blue on her sister, Sound of Seil.  Every day, you learn something new.

Our fifth ferry of the day did her job. So did Bobby the driver, who took us on the short journey back to Gourock pier. So did Neil Guthrie. A great day, Neil, and well done from all of us. Thanks for taking the strain and organising things so effectively. Here’s to the next cruise which, I wager, might be early in the New Year.

CRSC wishes to thank the crews of the five ferries for their courteous welcome, especially Captain Calum Bryce and Chief Officer Derek Dove of MV Bute, Skippers Colin Mcnicol and Lawrence Allibone on MV Isle of Cumbrae, and Captain Greg Clark and Third Officer Ally Donald of MV Finlaggan. We are also grateful to Finlaggan Chief Steward Alistair McPherson and his staff for looking after us so well in the Mariners Restaurant.

Captain’s forum: Calum Bryce, Master of MV Bute, answers questions on the starboard bridge wing — the first of three bridge visits enjoyed by CRSC members during the Five Ferry Hopper. Left to right: Neil Guthrie, Roy Paterson, Captain Bryce, Barbara Craig, Alasdair Young

View aft from the bridge of MV Bute during the crossing to Rothesay


Margaret Shutt

Carol Sales

Chief Officer Derek Dove (right) explains the various navigational aids on MV Bute to Jane Ann Liston and Barbara Craig

Arrival at Rothesay: Chief Officer Derek Dove guides MV Bute into her berth, observed by Barbara Craig and Roy Paterson

View of the West Kyle as we sped past Tighnabruaich

The new waiting room at Portavadie slipway




Our coach prepares to board Isle of Cumbrae at Portavadie on the third stage of our Five Ferry Hopper

Alasdair Young and Alex Russell

Margaret Blair and Donald Blair

Lawrence Allibone, skipper of Isle of Cumbrae, welcomes CRSC member Cameron Wilson to the wheelhouse — with varnished steering wheels in full view

Alfie and Rob Beale on the starboard bridge wing of Finlaggan

Loch Alainn passing Jura, viewed from Finlaggan


View aft from the starboard bridge wing of Finlaggan on 12 October 2019

Bridge visit: Finlaggan Third Officer Ally Donald with Rob Beale

Club member Alastair Watt with partner Carol Wordie

Last of our five ferries: Sound of Soay arrives at Hunter’s Quay

CRSC member James MacLeod with Finlaggan’s Chief Steward Alistair MacPherson

Rainbow over the Paps, with Paul Flint and Deryk Docherty

Souvenir of a memorable day

Photos © CRSC by Rob Beale, Andrew Clark, Robin Copland and Roy Paterson.

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Published on 14 October 2019