On the Spot: Mark Nicolson

‘I love the social side of CRSC, as my three trips on Waverley this year have proved’: Mark Nicolson (left) on the paddler’s bridge on 21 July 2022, with two fellow CRSC members — Waverley Excursions general manager Paul Semple (centre) and Captain Dominic McCall (right)

Still in his twenties, Mark Nicolson has already established himself as the ultimate ferry enthusiast — travelling on the CalMac fleet in all weathers and seasons, writing prolifically about his experiences, getting to know the masters and (last but far from least) photographing the ships. He has done this not from a convenient base on the mainland, but from the Hebridean outpost of Stornoway. Although Mark has contributed to our website in recent years (see links below), it was only recently — on CRSC’s nominated excursion on Waverley to Loch Long at the end of August — that Club members had a proper chance to meet him face-to-face. His decision to come south for that occasion speaks volumes about his wish to involve himself in the life of CRSC, something that was already clear from his contributions to our Zoom meetings during and after the pandemic. The time is surely ripe for Stuart Craig, our membership secretary, to put Mark ‘on the spot’.

‘I thought of Caledonian Isles as a slightly smaller version of Isle of Lewis’: Mark aged nine at Brodick

What is your earliest memory of sailing on a ferry?

Ah, this is too easy a question to begin with! Ha-ha! My first sailing on any ship or ferry was on Isle of Lewis in July 1996, almost exactly one year after she entered service. I was a toddler at the beginning of my first family holiday. I still remember her original furnishings at that time. My first onboard experience of a ‘Clyde steamer’ was Caledonian Isles,when I made my first visit to the island of Arran in 2004. At that young age I simply thought of Caledonian Isles as a slightly smaller version of Isle of Lewis.

What was the most recent sailing you took?

My latest sailing was aboard Loch Seaforth from Ullapool to Stornoway on 18 November.

Holidays: which island would you choose?

Harris. This has nothing to do with the fact it is an easy drive from my home in Lewis. It is because Harris has magnificent mountains and awe-inspiring beaches. Tarbert is one of my favourite ports to sail from and at which to photograph the different fleet members – I captured Isle of Mull making her very first visit to Tarbert in August this year, for example.

What is your favourite steamer or ferry?

Anyone who knows me is likely to know this! Isle of Lewis is my favourite ferry of all time – attractive and well-balanced, with magnificently laid out and spacious internal accommodation, and a good speed. I have many childhood memories of her. From days gone by, I would say my favourite David MacBrayne mailboat is the original Loch Seaforth of 1947. As far as long-gone CalMac ferries are concerned, it has to be Suilven. Maybe I’m biased towards the Stornoway vessels, but Isle of Lewis, Suilven and the original Loch Seaforth have all served Lewis extremely well in their own ways.

Which was Waverley’s best livery?

‘I’m biased towards the Stornoway vessels’: Mark and Isle of Lewis at Ullapool in May 2021. Born and brought up on the island of Lewis, he made his first sailing on a CalMac ferry at the age of three. He says the future of the Stornoway run would best be served by the addition of a permanent second vessel

Her current livery suits her fine, although I did like the typeface with which her name appeared on the bow prior to her extensive millennium rebuild.

If young enough what was your favourite ‘streaker’, or if older, your favourite ‘Maid’?

I’m afraid I never sailed on any of the ‘streakers’, but I saw plenty of them. I think Jupiter was my favourite, as she looked the most nicely balanced of the three. She was the one I captured my best action photograph of, on 13 July 2009.

What name would you give the second of the ferries being built at Fergusons just now? You can be imaginative!

Given the recent announcement made by CMAL and the Scottish Government about a further two new vessels for the fleet, it is unlikely we will see 802 on the Uig triangle. We could likely see another Caledonia in the fleet if this vessel appears alongside Glen Sannox on the Arran route. We shall just have to wait and see.

Looking back, what is the perfect example of a steamer or ferry?

I am too young to have lived the glory days of the actual Clyde ‘steamers’, but I think Isle of Arran, built in the early 1980s for her namesake island, offers the perfect balance between a modern car ferry and the classic feel of the ‘steamers’ of a bygone era. I can therefore understand why CRSC has chartered her for their previous January cruises, events which I have been unfortunate to miss out on.

‘CalMac HQ should be relocated to Oban’, where Hebridean Isles and Lord of the Isles are pictured in May 2018

What would you like to see happen on the Clyde or Hebridean ferry scene over the next few years?

Notwithstanding the success of Loch Seaforth since she started service in 2015, it would be nice to see the return of a permanent second vessel on the Ullapool to Stornoway service to allow a better frequency of service and a greater emphasis on freight traffic, and to take the strain off the single vessel.

I feel RET needs to be axed if it cannot be given a major rethink. It is causing more tourists to visit the islands than they and the ships can handle, and this leaves great frustration among local travellers wishing to go on holiday themselves or attend appointments on the mainland. I also think CalMac headquarters should be relocated to Oban, as was the plan in the early 1990s.

The best point-to-point route you’ve sailed on?

Oban to Castlebay, no matter which direction. I love the exit out of Oban, the open stretch towards Craignure, followed by two hours of majestic scenery striding either side of the Sound of Mull, and seeing other ferries sailing in the other direction. Once out of the Sound, you are presented with open sea, and a sense of tension, as you know the Barra hills will be in the distance, but you are left to work it out for yourself as to when they will appear. The final approach to Castlebay is truly glorious, as the vessel berths just adjacent to Kisimul Castle, which gives the village its name. 

Which new west coast route would you like to see open up?

Clansman and Hebrides at Uig on 26 March 2019: ‘I would like to see new original names for the two new ships designated for the Uig-Tarbert and Uig-Lochmaddy runs’

I don’t have an idea for a brand-new location to be served, but I would like to see dedicated ships and services each from Uig to Tarbert and Uig to Lochmaddy. Following the recent Government announcement, that looks most likely to happen. I would also like to see two new original names for each ship: the Uig to Tarbert ferry to be named Clisham, and the Uig to Lochmaddy vessel Langass. Each would then be relieved by Hebrides during their respective overhauls.

What inspired you to join CRSC?

I joined CRSC in May 2013. I think it was down to my infatuation with the photographs and books of the vessels, particularly those unusual moments captured by Jim Aikman Smith, Hamish Stewart and others, and I have enjoyed reading the annual Reviews and journals in which these pictures appeared. I now take immense pride in having my own photographs published in these publications. I’m glad when my work is valued by others.

Would you like to see ‘virtual’ meetings become a permanent feature of the Club’s year, even though normal meetings have re-started at Jurys Inn?

I am extremely grateful to the Club for introducing Zoom for their meetings, and ever since it was implemented, I have attended all but two of the presentations. Being a resident of the most north-westerly island in the UK, and with the notorious winter weather we get here, it isn’t easy to travel to Glasgow for meetings, so I remain in favour of Zoom or other virtual means.

What makes you continue your membership of CRSC?

What makes me remain a member of the Club is the continued progress of the annual publications, an example of which is the way the Review is now fully illustrated in colour. The social side of the Club matters most to me, however, and my first three trips on Waverley this year have proved that. I feel this is the best way to engage with enthusiasts in person. It’s such a wonderful hobby to have, and I also love the travelling that comes with it.

What could the Club do better?

I don’t think there is much the Club needs to do as far as its aims are concerned, as these are achieved with great aplomb. Although it is good to see the new direction of the annual Review, the printed resolution of illustrations could be improved for future editions.

Mark Nicolson joined CRSC in 2013 and has never looked back. Have you joined? Click here for our £10 introductory membership and you’ll get all the benefits, including the annual Review of west coast shipping, CRSC’s colour magazine and exclusive access to photo-rich ‘members only’ posts on this website.

Mark captured Isle of Mull on her first visit to Tarbert (Harris) in August 2022

Mark on the bridge of Isle of Mull with Captain Lewis Mackenzie in June 2022

‘I take immense pride from having my photographs published. I’m glad when my work is valued by others’: Mark’s portrait of Loch Seaforth approaching Stornoway on 12 February 2021

Mark with Professor Donald Meek and the late Ian McCrorie in Glasgow in March 2017

Favourite of all time: Isle of Lewis


Mark’s 2022 Oban odyssey

Return of the West Highland traveller (2021)

CRSC Members Night July 2021

Mark’s 2018 Hebridean holiday

Orkney diary 2019

Orkney diary 2018

Book Review — ‘MV Isle of Lewis’ by Mark Nicolson


Rob Beale

Lawrence Macduff

Carrie MacKinnon

Allan Smith

Paul Semple

Stuart McMahon

Barbara Craig

Graeme Roy

Charles McCrossan

Andrew Anderson

Fraser MacHaffie

Gavin Stewart

Graeme Phanco

Walter Bowie

Kay Hutchison

Graham Lappin

Jim Stirling

Duncan Wilson

and plenty more….

Published on 23 November 2022