In his latest collection of west coast scenic postcards featuring ferries and steamers, John Park finds that the Kyle-Kyleakin ferries are particularly well documented. This is the first of two articles covering the Skye scene of the past 60 years.
‘Over the sea to Skye’ seems the most obvious introduction for any selection of postcards featuring ferries going about their daily business either serving Skye or providing links from there to other islands. If you find the melody to ‘The Skye Boat Song’ beginning to play in the back of your mind as you read this, then it is probably quite appropriate as many of these cards would have been selected from postcard racks in tourist shops while this very tune was playing quietly in the background.
This selection covers the period from the 1960s onwards when increasing levels of car ownership brought new car ferry services to either end of Skye, resulting in long queues at Kyle of Lochalsh every summer: a flotilla of CSP turntable ferries had to work harder each successive year in order to deal with the ever increasing volumes of traffic. Two generations of larger double ended ferries eventually succeeded the small turntable ferries. The route became part of the CalMac network from 1973 and continued until the historic crossing was replaced by the Skye Bridge in 1995.
The turntable ferries were a popular choice of subject with publishers, and there were a surprising number of cards available. Many of these illustrated the turntable loading/unloading arrangement with relatively close up views, and one frequently used scene was of a ferry unloading at Kyleakin slipway with the ruins of Castle Moil visible in the background.
Most publishers had at least one version of this view in their range and, quite curiously, most of these featured the 1957 Lochalsh. Years later this has given us not just detailed views of the ferries but also of the various road vehicles using them at the time.
From the wide choice available, the best examples of this popular scene are an NPO Dexter card (SK001, above right) of Lochalsh with an early Ford Cortina and Morris Minor about to disembark and a crew member keeping an attentive watch on the angle of the ramp.
A similar J Arthur Dixon card (SK002, see below)) has an Austin Westminster leading a Hillman Minx ashore, also from Lochalsh, while a crew member keeps a plank of wood in place with his foot in order to bridge the sizeable gap between one side of the ramp and the slipway.
Sometimes the interest can be in what is parked on or around the slipway rather than what’s coming off the ferry. Another Dexter card (SK003) gives a wide view of the slipway and waiting area at Kyle in the early 1960s, demonstrating the large queues of waiting traffic which gathered at the height of each summer season.
But it is the sheer variety of period cars waiting in the queue which really catches the eye in this scene. How many can you identify?
Also at Kyle, another view by the same publisher (SK004, below) features Portree or Broadford in the company of two MacBrayne lorries. A Bedford S container lorry has been loaded and appears to take up her entire turntable while a later Bedford TK is parked on the slipway next to the ferry.
In the foreground, either Kyleakin or Lochalsh also has a full turntable and is ready for another crossing.
Another nice example of this is a Dixon card (SK005) of the 1954 Broadford, which gives a slightly wider view of the slipway at Kyleakin. Waiting alongside the ferry are two local buses: the one nearest the camera is a Glasgow-registered Albion which appears ready to depart on a service to Sligachan, clearly visible on its destination screen.
Other cards catch the eye simply for the amount of detail captured in a single scene. A personal favourite is the Valentines card (SK006) which gives a close up view of the 1950s Portree or Broadford about to land a load of cars at Kyle. With the turntable swung into position and the ramp lowered, a collection of smartly dressed passengers disembark safely from her passenger saloon at the same time, a perfect example of a time when common sense prevailed over health & safety issues.
Creating a perfect backdrop to this animated scene is Lochearn, resting peacefully at Kyle pier in the glorious evening sunshine.
A Kyleakin scene by WS Thomson (SK007) shows Broadford with a loaded turntable, while her sister Portree can be seen approaching in the background.
The busy slipway is littered with a great assortment of vehicles, passengers, luggage, onlookers, a man walking his dog, and a MacBraynes bus which looks rather close to the end of the slipway.
Many cards illustrate this busy nature of the crossing in summer and often feature two or more ferries in the same view. Clearly taken during the same sequence are views by Photo Precision (SK008) and WS Thomson (SK009) of three ferries scurrying past each other at close quarters to a coaster.
The reason for the close similarity of these postcards is explained below.
NPO Dexter (SK010, below) also managed to feature three ferries in one of their cards with a view of Kyleakin slipway: there is the added bonus of a MacBraynes bus visible between Kyleakin nearest the camera and Lochalsh furthest away.
Somewhat rarer are cards featuring the trio of side loading ferries of the mid 1960s, due to their relatively short time on the route. However, the 1965 Portree does appear in a couple of cards at Kyle, and a slightly elevated Millar & Lang card (SK011) gives us a partial view of her side loading arrangement and car deck layout, making for an interesting comparison with her turntable fleetmate Lochalsh arriving at the other slipway.
A Valentines card from the same vantage point (SK012) captures the unique profile of Portree in the relatively short lived CSP blue hull colour scheme. Nearest the camera in this card is Kyleakin with a full turntable of six cars, and her crew can just be seen swinging a turntable round into position, ready to depart.
A quick note here to highlight that the turntable ferries Kyleakin and Lochalsh could be told apart due to the slightly different size of their wheelhouse windows.
However, I have never been able to establish any visual differences between the older sisters Portree and Broadford. Perhaps others know better?
Postcard publishers were always keen to update their range and the arrival of the 1970/71 pair Kyleakin and Lochalsh quickly resulted in fresh views featuring the new double ended ferries. Two publishers were actually so quick to do so that their updated views can be accurately dated to 1971, the first year both new ferries were in service together.
One was a Dexter card of Kyleakin harbour (SK013) which shows the new Lochalsh at the slipway and her sister just visible in the distance on the Kyle side. Of greater interest are the two small ferries in the inner harbour: careful study of fleet deployment in 1971 suggests these are Kyleakin (by then renamed Kyleakin II) and Coruisk, both now spare and soon to depart for the Clyde, to become the new Cumbrae ferry fleet. Loch Arkaig can be seen heading off towards Portree while Loch Seaforth is just visible in the distance berthed at Kyle pier. The large fleet of traditional wooden fishing boats and the obligatory MacBraynes bus on the slipway complete this idyllic scene. Did the photographer intend to capture this much detail in his photograph? It makes you wonder!
The other example is a Colourmaster card (SK014) which captured the quite rare combination of the new Lochalsh at Kyle together with a turntable ferry which is almost certainly Kyleakin II, a combination which could only have occurred in 1971.
The new Kyleakin and Lochalsh were well represented in cards during their time on the crossing, but early views are perhaps the most interesting from a detail point of view. An early J Arthur Dixon view (SK015) of the new Kyleakin clearly illustrates the much improved car carrying facilities of the new ferries. Note her yellow CSP house flag clearly visible in this view, a reminder that Gourock operated this busy ferry crossing deep in the heart of MacBrayne territory. It’s also another opportunity to spot some classic cars.
Similar views taken at Kyle of Kyleakin by Braemar Films (SK015) and Lochalsh by Dixon (SK016) give a good comparison between the new ferries, highlighting the ungainly mast arrangement of Lochalsh which provided an easy way to distinguish between the two sisters.
These very typical Skye ferry scenes were relatively timeless from a publisher point of view and some cards remained in circulation for many years.
The last of the Skye ferries, Loch Dunvegan and Loch Fyne, were only on the route for four years before they were replaced by the Skye Bridge, but even they managed a few appearances in postcard views before the end.
A Dixon card (SK018) of a rather large looking Loch Dunvegan at Kyleakin slipway makes an interesting comparison with earlier views of the smaller turntable ferries at the same location, while the same ferry also appears in a Whiteholme of Dundee card (SK019) leaving Kyle. The two Skye ‘Lochs’ can be seen passing each other in a long range view issued by Phil Banks Photography (SK020), with Kyleakin village forming a picturesque backdrop, and both feature in a larger size card by Stirling Gallery (SK021) entitled “Farewell to the ferries”, which must have been published shortly before the new Skye Bridge shown in the background opened.
W S Thomson postcards were published by freelance photographer William Sutherland Thomson, who was born in the Kelvinside area of Glasgow in 1906. He had moved to the Fort William area by the 1940s, when he began publishing a series of travel booklets in addition to his freelance photography work. He also supplied images to a number of postcard publishers including J Arthur Dixon, Millar & Lang, Photo Precision and Valentines, and is credited on some cards as the photographer. In the mid 1950s he began publishing his own range of colour postcards and these appeared in a style and finish similar to Dixon cards.
However, he continued to supply other publishers with images and this is illustrated by the two near identical Skye ferry postcards issued by Thomson and Photo Precision mentioned in the text above. He also appears to have had a keen eye for including ferries and steamers in many of his views. He later settled in the Edinburgh area with his family where his business was also based. He was awarded an MBE in 1966 but died the following year while on a summer visit to Skye.
CRSC thanks John Park for sharing his postcard collection. Part 2 of his survey of postcards from Skye will follow in due course.
Published on 5 June 2022