Lewis-based enthusiast Mark Nicolson spent a week of his summer holiday at Oban, taking full advantage of CalMac ferry services and photographing as many ships as time would allow. Here is his diary, followed by a photo album comprising many of the most memorable images from the holiday.
With all remaining Covid restrictions lifted, I decided it was time for another west coast tour, based at Oban. This latest trip was to coincide with two important events in the same week — the Platinum Jubilee bank holiday, and the long awaited arrival of the new Loch Frisa. With a decent forecast for the week, it promised to be a highly eventful time for ‘ferry spotting’.
Day One – Monday 30 May 2022
The first day didn’t start off too well weather-wise, with lots of cloud and showery rain as I drove down from my home in Lewis down to Tarbert, Harris, to catch the 0720 sailing to Uig, exactly a week after Hebrides had returned to service following her collision with Lochmaddy pier on 17 May and her subsequent 48-hour repair job in Greenock. No cause for concern on this occasion: it was all business as usual. The facilities at Tarbert have been much improved with a revamped marshalling area and stronger fendering, and the new terminal building is now under construction.
Departure from Tarbert signalled time for breakfast – a roll and sausage, some toast and cereal. I found it ironic that I was travelling during the Jubilee week on Hebrides – the very ship that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth launched at Fergusons of Port Glasgow on 2 August 2000. Her official portrait hangs in the vessel’s observation lounge along with the bell of the 1898 Hebrides.
As we approached Uig, I could see that work was underway on rebuilding the Skye terminal, starting with the demolition of the old waiting hut on the pier itself, with much more work to follow. The pier is due to be out of commission for part of the winter while reconstruction is carried out, and it will be interesting to see how vessels are redeployed.
A journey of almost 170 miles from Uig to Oban awaited me, including a stop at Fort William for lunch. After a rain-soaked drive through Skye I crossed the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh and continued until the A82 at Invergarry, from where the weather improved rapidly. At Fort William I noticed the cruise ship AIDAaura on a visit.
I had hardly arrived in Oban before the opportunity offered itself to photograph Clansman, Isle of Mull, Coruisk and Loch Striven. Then, after checking into the Premier Inn, I boarded Clansman for her 1620 departure for Colonsay. As we headed down the Firth of Lorn, blue skies appeared.
At Scalasaig there were few vehicles waiting to be loaded for the voyage back to Oban. This made me question whether such a large ship as Clansman is really necessary for such a run: perhaps the powers-that-be should consider some alternatives. Regardless of that, the first day of my trip ended well, as we passed AIDAaura and Hebridean Princess on the approach to Oban.
Day Two – Tuesday 31 May 2022
I left Oban early for a drive to Tayinloan with the intention of making my first visit Gigha. I managed to arrive at Kennacraig in time to watch the morning departure of Hebridean Isles at 0700, and a few minutes later stopped to capture her gliding down West Loch Tarbert before I reached Tayinloan for the 0800 sailing to the island.
Even before we sailed, I was asked by the owner of the Ferry Farm Bed & Breakfast to take the morning newspapers over on the ferry, so I acted as a lifeline before I even landed on Gigha for the first time!
Eventually, Loch Ranza appeared in the sunshine and I drove on board for the 20-minute passage to Ardminish Bay. After dropping off the papers outside the local shop, I began my exploration of the island.
My first hour was spent discovering the beautiful Achamore Gardens, a maze of paradise created by Colonel Sir James Horlick with the help of gardener Kitty Lloyd Jones, offering a magnificent view of the Atlantic Ocean. Like Scone Palace near Perth, the gardens are home to various peacocks, though they were nowhere to be seen on my visit, probably shading from the morning sun.
I then drove the length of the island before basing myself at the ferry terminal to photograph Loch Ranza arriving and leaving. But I also needed to queue for the 1130 return to Tayinloan to be in time for my second adventure of the day.
Not content with just one island visit, I drove to Claonaig in time for Catriona’s 1235 departure to Lochranza, with a view to spending a few hours on Arran. With plenty of snacks and goodies onboard, my only stop was at Brodick to photograph Caledonian Isles on her 1355 departure to Ardrossan.
Although I decided to go back to Lochranza via the south end of Arran, it felt like a race against time to be in with a shout of catching Catriona’s 1545 departure for Claonaig. Despite the narrow roads, it was still a wonderful drive and I arrived in time. It helped that Lochranza-Claonaig is a ‘turn up and go’ route where tickets are purchased onboard and nothing needs to be booked in advance.
After arriving back on Kintyre, I returned to Oban via an extra-long drive taking in Inveraray, Arrochar and Crianlarich, finishing the day with a chicken burger supper at Nories in Oban.
Day Three – Wednesday 1 June 2022
I devoted my third day to general fleet photography, starting off at my preferred spot on the Ganavan Road to capture Loch Striven, Clansman and Isle of Mull leaving in perfect sunshine for Lismore, Coll/Tiree & Barra and Craignure respectively.
After returning to the Premier Inn for breakfast, it was time to take the 0900/0955 return to Lismore on the ‘Striven’ — commanded on this occasion by Ryan Hamil, who invited me up to the wheelhouse.
One thing I learnt on this trip was how the flat bottoms of the ‘Loch’ class units and ‘hybrids’, with their small draughts, can cause them to yaw and sway in contrast to the deeper draughted vessels.
Back at Oban, I immediately headed for the 1125 to Craignure on Coruisk, aware that the new Mull ferry Loch Frisa was about to make her first berthing there. Craignure would be my base for the next few hours as I watched ferry various permutations.
These involved Loch Frisa, Coruisk, Isle of Mull and Isle of Lewis, the latter passing in the background on her way to Barra. After a late lunch, I returned to Oban on Coruisk in wonderful sunlight, with Isle of Mull once again passing us mid channel.
For the evening, I decided to get another return ticket to Craignure, this time on Isle of Mull’s last scheduled return sailing of the day (1820/1935), and have my tea onboard. The fish and chips was a major improvement on what I had previously experienced on this ship.
Invited by Captain Lewis Mackenzie for my first visit to Isle of Mull’s bridge, I showed him my article about the ‘Mull’ in the June 2022 edition of Ships Monthly magazine (Isle of Mull was Lewis’ first full-time command after promotion to Master). I remained on the bridge for the rest of the trip, including the entrance to Oban Bay as Lewis took the 35-year-old vessel into port. I finished the day by capturing Clansman’s return to Oban after her long-haul round trip to Barra via Coll and Tiree — a voyage of almost 14 hours!
Day Four – Thursday 2 June 2022
I went further afield for day four, heading north to Fort William and the incredible ‘Road To The Isles’ (aka A830) to Mallaig, where I was greeted by Lochnevis and the Armadale-bound Loch Bhrusda. The sun was again out to allow for great light photography.
No sooner was the ‘Bhrusda’ away than Loch Fyne appeared, followed by Lord of the Isles on her 0545 sailing from Lochboisdale. Under the new summer timetable she now carries out two return trips three days each week.
It had long been my ambition to sail on Lochnevis, and now was my chance. Shortly after Lord of the Isles departed, CalMac’s Small Isles vessel moved to the linkspan and I embarked by the massive stern ramp. Lochnevis is a busy boat in terms of foot passenger traffic, vehicle traffic being restricted mainly to island residents and commercials.
On the way out I explored the ship as fully as possible. She has two lounges – a lower snack bar and upper observation lounge, both above the partially height-restricted vehicle deck. Our voyage to Eigg took 1 hour and 10 minutes. Eigg is the second largest of the Small Isles, and I decided to have some lunch there — a bowl of chips and chocolate brownie in the new premises of the Galmisdale Café.
After Lochnevis came back from Muck, the rain set in. Arriving off Mallaig shortly before 1500, we had to wait for Loch Bhrusda‘s departure to Armadale before we could disembark. Lochnevis then returned to her overnight berth in harbour, making a twirl that displayed her lines. I decided not to include a trip over to Armadale and, after stopping in Fort William for dinner, I made for Oban for more sleep.
Day Five – Friday 3 June 2022
My final two days in Oban revolved around a pair of trips on Clansman, both undertaken in ideal conditions. I was up early once again to board the 0610 from Oban: this being a Friday, the run out was to go directly to Tiree, with the only visit to Coll being made on the return journey. Clansman certainly made the most of her capacity on these two days, as she was busy with holidaymakers heading to Coll and Tiree for the Jubilee weekend. It was such a beautiful day that, after breakfast, I remained on the open deck, suitably wrapped-up to counter the chilly wind.
After a wonderful voyage up the Sound of Mull, it felt unusual to be giving Coll a miss on the way out, but it gave me the opportunity to appreciate the scenery of the west of Mull as we approached Tiree. I only had time to go ashore for a few minutes to snap Clansman at Scarinish pier. With no disrespect to the Tireachs, it is not the best place for ferry photography.
The traffic was turned round within the 30 minutes required and we left one or two minutes early on the 55-minute sailing to Coll, where we were alongside for a much shorter amount of time. For lunch, I tried CalMac’s new gourmet hot dog and chips (a very tasty combination of beef and pork). During the two-hours-and-40-minutes voyage back to Oban, I saw Lochinvar heading directly behind us on her passage from Lochaline to Fishnish. Sadly, the sky became overcast by the time Isle of Lewis passed us on her way to Castlebay. Back at Oban, I finally got my first proper sighting of Loch Frisa — at the Railway Pier as she continued familiarisation trials.
Before she sailed to Colonsay in the afternoon, Clansman turned around at her berth to go stern-in to the linkspan to enable some unexplained underwater checks to be carried out — creating another unusual photo opportunity. I caught this just in time, for two extremely heavy downpours of rain fell over over Oban and the town also suffered a power outage. I had no choice but to order another chippy from Nories and resign myself to bed.
Day Six – Saturday 4 June 2022
Saturday looked more promising as the bright sunshine and clear skies returned with higher temperatures. I was to spend my final Oban day on Clansman again, this time sailing to Coll, where she would make two visits with a call at Tiree in between. This gave me time ashore at Arinagour to meet up with Ewen McGee, author of the book Isle of Coll – Facts Of A Gem.
Outward from Oban, I sat in the same lucky seat in the cafeteria for breakfast and proceeded to photograph Coruisk on her way from Craignure. She was dressed overall for the Queen’s Jubilee — as was Isle of Mull. Clansman was just as busy as the day before. On arrival at Coll foot passengers had to disembark via the car deck, due to work on replacing pier fendering.
Ewen proved to be an excellent tour guide. We walked into the village where, at the recently built community centre, a crafts sale and Jubilee celebration were being held, so I thought it nice to partake of cake and orange juice.
The Collachs also have a new general store and beautifully appointed hotel, with a marvellous view of the bay. Ewen explained the history of the row of houses along the main street: much of the local history can be found in his book, available on the Islands Book Trust website for £14.99.
Arriving back at the pier in ample time, I captured Clansman’s return, thanked Ewen for his hospitality and boarded again via the car deck. After a plate of fish and chips I met up with two crew members — Joseph Bale, who comes from Coll and is part of the mooring crew, and chief steward A. J. MacMillan, a CalMac stalwart for over 30 years.
In the last hour or so of the sailing I again witnessed Isle of Lewis on her way to Castlebay, passing us off the ruins of Ardtonish Castle near Lochaline in ideal sunlight.
After Clansman finished for the day I remained in Oban for a couple of hours to witness Hebridean Isles coming up the Sound of Kerrera: it was a bonus to find her dressed overall, dwarfing the little Carvoria. Berthing at the linkspan for the Mull ferry, ‘Heb Isles’ turned round within 25 minutes for her return to Colonsay and Port Askaig, obliging Coruisk to wait for the berth to become available, as the 37-year-old veteran exited the bay once again.
My final day of Sunday 5th June 2022 was spent shopping in Inverness and returning to Stornoway on Loch Seaforth: I spent the entire crossing examining all the photographs I had taken, and came to the conclusion that, regardless of the Jubilee celebrations and the arrival of Loch Frisa, this was one of the finest holidays I’d ever taken as well as one of my most productive. The amount of travelling was enjoyable but could be very tiring — and yet, without the travelling, I would have not caught the special moments I did see. With Oban now fully covered, I must decide if my next big adventure should be somewhere different. Time will tell.
All photographs © Mark Nicolson
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Published on 21 June 2022