Pioneering to Canna – and finding ye (almost) canna get back!

Pioneer at Canna on 10 May 1980, during one her periodic spells as relief vessel on the Small Isles run

In the latest of his ‘Confessions of a Cameraman’, intrepid photographer-enthusiast Lawrence Macduff heads for the Small Isles during one of Pioneer’s rare spells of duty there, and makes a hazardous escape.

From the very first time I saw this squat, purposeful looking little ferry charging up West Loch Tarbert in the autumn of 1974, I enjoyed travelling on and taking photographs of her. She always cut such an impressive sight when under way. In 1979 Pioneer transferred from Islay to the Mallaig – Armadale service where she remained for 11 summers. I enjoyed many further passages on board, including one to Canna when she was relieving there in May 1980, and then on a livestock sailing on 21 August 1988.

On this latter occasion, quite unlike a normal service call, Pioneer was scheduled to remain at the pier for at least an hour and a half, giving her plenty of time to load her flock. I had always been intrigued by the beautiful church which sits on the neighbouring islet of Sanday. This is clearly visible from any ferry arriving at Canna pier and I had always wanted to walk round there, not just to view the building at close quarters, but to take pictures of whatever ship I had sailed in with. This, then, was an ideal chance to take pictures of Pioneer.

It’s a longer hike than you might imagine to reach a suitable crossing point to Sanday. As it is tidal, the distance you must walk is variable, but I dutifully followed the inland path for some time until eventually reaching a boggy place to land on the islet. It is a fair walk over open terrain to reach the church and then find that suitable photography point for the ‘must have’ image of the ship.

A full half hour later, yours truly finally made it. I was still pretty fit back then — in spite of which I was breathless and pretty stewed, with little wind to cool me down. The sun was tantalisingly covered in high altitude mackerel, so my pictures were duller than hoped for. But I got some, had a look round the church and then glanced at my watch. It was already time to go back.

Ah, but the tide had now gone out, hadn’t it, so, seeing an ideal short cut over a now exposed beach, I started to plowter across sand and seaweed. I’d save a good bit of time, and the opposite shore was temptingly close — wasn’t it?

Wrong move. Conditions underfoot became softer and boggier, and at one point I was worried about sinking so deep that I had a good chance of getting stranded. Every seemingly firm-looking bit of weed-covered stony ground was just a trap for the unwary. I finally reached terra firma, my chest heaving like that of an athlete who has just finished a 200-metre sprint. I was never so relieved to get back to a ship and recover myself.

At that time, I still carried my gear in a holdall, which was just a liability. But, never having been a boy scout, the idea of a rucksack hadn’t registered. Other passengers must have looked askance at the state of me, but not so a couple of enthusiasts who had seen the battle for survival and probably thought ‘look at that stupid b…r – he was mad trying that’.

The final compensation was an utterly glorious sail back to Mallaig, during which the cool breeze and stunning silvery sea, fringed by the starkly outlined contours of Eigg and Rum, was a joy to behold. Memories, memories…….

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The view from the islet of Sanday on 21 August 1988, when Lawrence trekked round the bay to photograph Pioneer during her livestock call at Canna

Lawrence first captured Pioneer at Canna on 10 May 1980 (above). When she was about to be withdrawn late in 2003, her very last service run under the CalMac flag was a trip to the Small Isles on 1 November

Boating with a Box Brownie
Remembering Jim Aikman Smith
Three Lochs Tour: Loch Shiel, Loch Boisdale and Loch Snizort
Lawrence’s Mission Improbable
Return from Mission Improbable
Kerrera, bank keys and the ‘King George’
A fitting introduction to the Kingdom of MacBrayne
Golden memories of the Inner Islands mail
‘Hielan Mary gets all the best steamer views!’
A brand new ferry to pursue (MV Pioneer)
A new ferry in the West Loch: MV Finlaggan in 2011
What one does for the love of a steamer photo
The delights of Dunskeig
Hiking up to Hutcheson
That Kennacraig foreshore is bogging!
Crashing down on the party at Iona
Skiting sunwards on snowy roads: ferry photography in a wintry West Loch Tarbert
The long slog to Stornoway Castle Gardens
Lawrence Macduff on MacBraynes’ Lochiel (CRSC members only)
Lawrence Macduff on MV Iona
Lawrence Macduff: ‘On the Spot’
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Published on 26 March 2022