‘It was fan-dabi-dozi’: Stuart Craig’s latest Hebridean jaunt

‘This is the exciting day! We’re going on Waverley’: (left to right) Sandy Stevens, Stuart Craig and Andy Anderson at Oban’s North Pier on 24 May

Anyone familiar with Stuart Craig’s books needs no introduction to the character and style of his island hops. Despite claiming to have put his ‘official’ island-hopping bug to bed almost 10 years ago, he still likes to organise short trips round the Hebrides, often by bicycle. In May 2023 he decided to reprise a ‘mini-hop’, taking with him his former island-hopping colleague Andy Anderson and biking pal Sandy Stevens. This time there was to be no cycling: they would take a car.

The original plan was to cross the Minch four times: Oban-Castlebay on Isle of Lewis, Lochboisdale-Mallaig on Lord of the Isles, Uig-Tarbert on Hebrides and Stornoway-Ullapool on Loch Seaforth.

But, as Stuart explains, delays to CalMac’s overhaul programme meant the plan had to be redrawn. Castlebay was closed for linkspan work, and there were no sailings to Mallaig. Undeterred, a new itinerary was written — and why not use Waverley? Stuart and his pals could ‘kick off’ with a sailing on the paddler from Oban to Tobermory on the first full day of her 2023 West Highland season — which meant they had to be in Oban for 9am. Here is Stuart’s account of how it went.

Wednesday 24 May

It’s an early start – a very early start. I am at Sandy’s house in Renfrew for 0530, dropping off my car and jumping into Sandy’s. Andy has gone a day ahead of us, having sailed round ‘The Horn’ on Waverley. His phone call to me that evening at 10pm, heralding his arrival in Oban, was not well received as I had been tucked up in bed sleeping for an hour in preparation for that early start.

Waverley at Tobermory

After kissing his wife goodbye — both of us — Sandy and I are on the road at 0555 and parked in our Oban hotel car park by 0820, 40 minutes before Waverley sails. Andy is lurking with intent on the North Pier – so the Three Musketeers are complete.

The paddler sets off into hazy sunshine on schedule, on a voyage which will take her up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory. From here she will take a party of schoolchildren (and anyone else) on a two-hour cruise to Ardnamurchan Point. After returning to Tobermory she will head for Kyle of Lochalsh, arriving in time to give an evening cruise.

There are about 60 souls on board for the opening leg of the trip. Just out of Oban we pass Coruisk on our port beam and then Isle of Mull, the former operating the Craignure sailings (in conjunction with Loch Frisa) and the latter inbound from Lochboisdale.

With Hebrides still in dock in Liverpool and Hebridean Isles out of service at Troon, there has been much shuffling of the fleet in the previous couple of weeks. Here is a summary: Isle of Mull Oban-Lochboisdale (in lieu of Lord of the Isles), Lord of the Isles Oban-Coll/Tiree and Colonsay (in lieu of Clansman), Coruisk Oban-Craignure (instead of Mallaig-Armadale), Clansman Uig triangle (in lieu of Hebrides), Isle of Arran Islay service with Finlaggan (in lieu of Hebridean Isles), Isle of Lewis laid up in Stornoway as Castlebay linkspan being serviced, Loch Bhrusda extra runs between Barra-Eriskay (instead of Mallaig-Armadale) due to Castlebay being closed.

‘The Three Musketeers’ on Tobermory pier. Click on image to enlarge

Our main conversation is centred on whether we get off at the first call at Tobermory, or stay aboard for the Ardnamurchan cruise and get off at the second call. It’s a difficult decision….but my two pals decide to jettison me! I don’t mind: I like a wander round Tobermory, and who wants to sail with 200 school weans breathing down their neck?

Regarding this, the chap on the paddler’s tannoy is very reassuring “…they will be very well behaved, they always are up here!” It turns out he was absolutely correct! Andy and Sandy reported later that there was a great atmosphere on board as the youngsters watched parts of their island pass by that they had probably never seen from the sea.

Once ashore I took a stroll out along the lighthouse path to film Waverley heading off. Not far behind her was Lord of the Isles heading for Tiree.

I retraced my steps back to the stone pier in Tobermory and watched with gastronomic delectation a dozen lobsters and a crate of langoustines being offloaded from a small fishing boat. “Huge lobsters,” I commented, with remarkable observation. “Ach they’re over-rated — and over-priced,” was the fisherman’s reply.

The 200 school weans flowed off from Waverleys decks – Andy and Sandy in amongst them. I overheard one lad boasting “I’ve spent all my money in the shop!” Music to the purser’s ears I guess.

‘I’m still not sure about this vessel’: Loch Frisa arriving at Craignure

As the good ship splashed off, we had a bus to catch. They aren’t very frequent in this part of the world, but a number 95 showed up on time and spirited us away to Craignure, where Loch Frisa was just arriving at the linkspan.

I’m still not sure about this vessel. I think she is too small for the route and, with only a catering machine offering the smallest possible tea or coffee, one’s mind goes back to the substantial catering facilities aboard Isle of Mull. There is more than a bit of a culinary contrast between the Mull vessels.

As we disembark – via the ramp, as the gangway doesn’t fit – and stroll up Oban pier, Andy has a near miss of striking proportions. A gull releases a considerable evacuation, which for some fortuitous reason misses his head and splatters onto his right shoe. 

“You should buy a lottery ticket tonight,” suggests Sandy.

“A trio of pints would be money better spent,” I suggest. My suggestion is agreed upon and we repair to Wetherspoons for a beer and a curry. The day is rounded off with a dram, or two. Our rule, on trips such as this, is that you can only drink whisky while you can still pronounce the name correctly. After three attempts to repeat the name of his favourite Islay malt, Andy is marched back to our lodgings.

Thursday 25 May

Today our task is quite simple – we have to get ourselves to Mallaig. There are several routes we can take to expedite this and, in traditional ‘island hopping’ style, we take the most expensive, in this case using two ferries. There is no immediate rush to leave sunny Oban, so we take a stroll on the Esplanade. Halfway along Andy finds yesterday’s chewing gum behind his left ear while trying to rub Volterol into his sciatic nerve, which he thinks runs down his neck.

Coruisk leaving Oban Bay, pictured from Loch Frisa. Click on image to enlarge

We’re back on Loch Frisa again, this time with the car. She is full to bursting and Sandy has to perform a 17-point turn, under the careful and skilled judgement of a crewman, to get his car tucked into a far corner of the deck. There is standing room only on deck, everyone gaping at the stunning scenery as we pass by. When we are finally on Mull, we seem to be last in the line of cars heading north. 

“I hope all those cars aren’t heading to Fishnish too,” says Andy.

“No chance,” I reply. “None of them is as daft as us to drive onto Mull, motor for six miles and then drive off half an hour later.”

One of the nicest aspects of the Fishnish-Lochaline ferry route is that there are eateries on either side. We decide we ought to try both. As we sip our coffees, a West Coast Motors bus appears and wheels round at the head of the slipway. Just as the ferry is about to touch base, off the bus goes! I can never understand the Scottish version of an integrated transport system.

Our ship is Lochinvar and she purrs across the sound in 15 minutes. Now to sample the culinary delights of the café at Lochaline: I share my fare with a robin so tame that it feeds from my hand. It is only scared off when a lady approaches me and asks when the next ferry departs. I scrutinise the electronic sign and tell her it leaves at 1313.

Loch Linnhe ‘resting’ at the old Lochaline steamer pier

“But that’s now!” she exclaims.

“You better hurry – oh, it’s changed to 1314 now.”

A chap sitting at the table next to me steps in to referee. “I think that’s the current time your reading out– the next sailing is at 1425.”  It is moments like this that make me wonder if I have ever actually travelled by ferry before.

Suitably replete, and embarrassed, we set off on the long drive to Mallaig, some 70 miles away, mostly on single-track roads. The road towards Strontian crosses some remote areas; quiet roads which Sandy and I cycled along just a couple of years ago. We stop just beyond Acharacle to chat to some Highland cattle — a somewhat one-way conversation which is highlighted by a close-quarters encounter with a  golden eagle which sweeps across us from a low ridge.

It is a stunningly gorgeous evening in Mallaig, which somewhat compensates for the over-priced hotel we find ourselves in. We make full use of our credit by sitting out on the terrace until the midges win the day.

Friday 26 May

This is the exciting day! We’re going on Waverley – again. To rendezvous with her we have to cross to Armadale on Skye because, for reasons unknown to us, she won’t be calling at Mallaig. Our first ship of the day, then, is Loch Fyne, back serving the island (Skye) for which she was built. Now denuded of her large masts she looks neater, and I notice that she has grown a small extension to her upper deck, presumably to accommodate more foot passengers on this busy tourist route. 

Ice cream stop on the road

Awaiting the arrival of the ferry we get chatting to Peter, one of the CalMac crew in the marshalling area. He tells us that he first came to Mallaig to work in the days when former Clyde ferry Arran was on the run. This was even before the wee Lochmor commenced service.

Loch Fyne wheels away from Mallaig, crammed full. The mobile cinema truck seems to be taking up most of the space on the car deck, while a large contingent of Spanish folk fill the upper level.

Over on the other side we take a circular drive across Sleat to Tarskavaig – just to kill time and confuse Andy. He has not been paying attention and consequently has no idea where we are going.

On our return to Armadale an hour later, Waverley can be seen heading down from Kyle of Lochalsh. Soon we have joined the other 350 passengers on board.

As we wait to set off, the ship once again becomes the subject of dozens of photographic records. I spot that keen CRSC photographer Andrew Clark hurdling across several trees, fording a stream, chasing away a herd of cows and then climbing a small cliff in order to get a unique vantage point. The man never stops!

Off we sail, right on time, and we settle down to watch the Sound of Sleat slip past. The old ship seems to be performing perfectly, her machinery plunging round in those great arcs as if possessed by a life of its own. The pistons are so animated that they look as though they are enjoying themselves!

Through the narrows at Kylerhea we go, past the seemingly ancient turntable ferry Glenachulish, and then into the confines of Loch Duich.

I have to admit that Eilean Donan Castle at the entrance to Loch Duich does nothing for me – I prefer the contents of the shortbread tin rather than looking at the front picture — but seeing it from a different angle it looks larger and more impressive. Like most aboard, I presume, I had never sailed into this loch before on any kind of vessel. To sit on the stern deck of the paddler and watch the shore pass so closely was almost surreal.

Paddling under the Skye Bridge

Sandy watches the hills slip past and Andy doesn’t speak for at least half an hour – which, we reckoned, was a record. Cars had stopped at the side of the road to allow their occupants to photograph, or perhaps just stare, as the world’s last sea-going paddler steamed past in all her glory. How many wished they were aboard? We were glad we were: it was just fan-dabi-dozi.

The ship takes us right to the head of the loch and then wheels in a big circle to starboard. Another sweep past the most photographed castle in Scotland and then we turn to head up to Kyle of Lochalsh.

But the excitement is not over, for the skipper takes us beyond Kyle and under the Skye Bridge — not once but twice. Finally, gliding up to Kyle of Lochalsh in a seemingly effortless fashion, we touch gently against the pier, where most of the ship’s complement disembarks. Dozens remain on the pier to film our departure back south — testament to the interest, and indeed love, that the old ship generates.

I love sailing on Waverley when she has only a few dozen passengers on her decks. I know that doesn’t help pay her fuel bill, but over the last three days she has apparently carried hundreds of passengers, so I can enjoy my own private trip back to Armadale.

We arrive there at 1640 and another crowd of well-wishers is on the pier to greet us. Some are also waiting to board for the last leg of the day’s journey down to Oban. Unfortunately we have to get off, retrieve Sandy’s car and head up to Uig. A young but skilled piper plays a haunting lament as the old ship turns her nose southwards. We head in the other direction.

Our accommodation in Uig could only take two of us, so Andy gets shoved off to our old friend Angus’ roomy abode. Andy joins us for a meal later and will be picked up by his generous host, under strict instructions to behave himself and get to bed before midnight. Over a delicious dinner Sandy constructs a paper aeroplane out of his table napkin. This is a considerable assembly, consisting of proper ailerons and tail flaps. To our amazement he then launches it and watches in horror as it lands in the soup of one of our fellow diners. And to think it was Andy who had been told to behave himself!

Saturday 27 May

It’s ‘big ferry’ day and we need to be in the queue for the 0950 sailing to Tarbert (Harris) in good time. Breakfast is made interesting by Sandy setting fire to the toaster with his all-butter croissant, despite there being a photo of a croissant with a broad red line drawn through it on the front of the toaster. Fortunately the waitresses find this very funny. Having created a stir Sandy feels obliged to eat it, despite it now looking like a carbonised brick. I don’t think he will be allowed back to this hotel.

Hurtigruten ship Maud at Stornoway, with Loch Seaforth

About 70 vehicles are waiting to board Clansman at Uig pier. She is supposed to be on her usual roster out of Oban, but her sister Hebrides is still having her annual survey in Liverpool. We have a wait of almost an hour before we can board and, after listening to Andy relating his morning ablutions for the third time, I head out for a stroll up the pier, which is being considerably reconstructed. It looks such a mess that it makes me wonder how anybody would know how to put it back together again.

It’s a tight squeeze on the car deck – have car decks shrunk or are cars bigger? Out on deck we are heading into a brisk westerly breeze under a disappointingly battleship grey sky. A metre of swell rhythmically greets our bow, but it is a smooth crossing to Harris.

Just as on Mull, we immediately head north in order to take our next crossing — back to the mainland. Isn’t this a touch mad?

Harris imperceptibly turns into Lewis. I feel they should paint a broad line across the road, although there is a welcoming sign. We arrive in Stornoway just as Loch Seaforth is arriving. She joins Hurtigruten ship Maud at the pier, which explains why the town is populated by red-jacketed, blond-haired tourists. A tour of the town, a light lunch and a poignant visit to the monument commemorating the heartrending Iolaire disaster fills our time before, at 1530, we are underway again.

Loch Seaforth is undoubtedly suited to the only CalMac route she can operate on. She is very comfortable and has a stunning forward-facing observation lounge, with huge picture windows where you can watch the Minch in comfort — provided you can snatch a seat. I have one criticism of her: her internal layout can be a bit confusing. Twice I turned a corner and ended up at a dead end. I found myself (and the chap who was following me, because I clearly looked as if I knew where I was going) standing in front of a blank wall. She is a nice ship, however. Can’t hold a candle to Hebridean Isles (I just had to get that in), but a nice ship.

‘My two pals’: Sandy and Andy

Our journey home from Ullapool was broken by an overnight stay at a hotel on the outskirts of Inverness. Although not part of our ferry hop, I have to include it, as it was an establishment run by a Basil Fawlty character bearing un uncanny resemblance to Alan Titchmarsh. In fact, I’d guess he knew more about plants than running a hotel.

A succession of intending guests appeared during the course of the evening for whom no booking could be found. This produced a barrage of frustrated exclamations from Basil.

“Do you want me to build an extension for you?”

“This isn’t the hotel’s fault you know!”

And to us: “They’re all from India, you know. Have you put in your breakfast order yet? It’s £15 extra.” The only shout missing was “Manuel!”

I always like to conduct a post mortem at the end of a Hebridean trip. I asked Andy if he would do a trip like this again. His reply was “What, with you two?” Perhaps that sums it up.

Was the planning good enough? Was there anything we could have arranged better? Could anything have made the trip more interesting? The only thing I can think of is: I wish that Oban gull had spent more time on target practice!

Anyone who has been captivated by Stuart Craig’s highly entertaining series of articles on island hopping will love his books on the subject — Away With The FerriesStill Away With The Ferries and Finally… Away with the Ferries. The latter two can be bought direct from the CRSC Shop.

Stuart and Andy en route to Mull on Loch Frisa

Epitaph to a Hebridean jaunt — sunset at Oban on 24 May

Andy, Sandy and Stuart are all CRSC members. By joining CRSC, you too can share your enthusiasm for ships with like-minded people. A first-year subscription costs £15 and brings full benefits, including the annual Review of west coast shipping, reduced-price offers, a 54-page magazine and access to photo-rich ‘Members Only’ posts. Click here now.

Published on 12 June 2023