Stornoway-based Mark Nicolson spends most of the year looking at the CalMac network from the opposite end of the map from the rest of us. Confined to the outer Hebrides by the pandemic, he recently headed for Oban and packed as much ferry travel into six days of holiday as many of us do all year. Here is his diary:
Like many enthusiasts, I had to abandon travel plans when national lockdown took effect 18 months ago, decimating CalMac services. I felt lost without my annual pilgrimage to Oban.
It was therefore with some relief that, as mass vaccination took effect and restrictions were lifted across Scotland, I could plan something for 2021, focusing on a week in late August and early September. I knew I would be travelling under unusual circumstances. With Hebrides suddenly withdrawn for dry docking and repairs, Clansman took over the Uig triangle, leaving South Uist services suspended as Lord of the Isles covered Coll, Tiree and Colonsay, with Isle of Mull on hand to provide additional capacity. I was determined not to let ferry emergencies spoil my holiday.
Day one — 30 August 2021
Two days after my birthday, my Vauxhall Astra – a car I had purchased several months beforehand – was packed and ready to go, with new wheels for my tour. I was booked for Hebrides’ 0720 sailing from Tarbert to Uig. Having made an early start from my home at Back in Lewis, I decided to capture Loch Seaforth at the lay-up berth at Stornoway before she began her week’s schedule, in which she was aided by the freighter Arrow, on charter until 7 September.
At Tarbert, reached after a gentle drive over the Clisham, I was able to inspect progress on the rebuilding of the pier. I was impressed by how normal Hebrides’ performance was, given the mechanical problems that were to oblige her to head the next morning for repairs at Birkenhead. I enjoyed a quick breakfast, including a roll and sausage, a couple of slices of toast and corn flakes.
Although lingering Covid restrictions prevented a bridge visit, I was still able to meet Captain Lewis Mackenzie. On arrival at Uig at 0900, access to the mezzanine deck was not possible until the platform was fully lowered — a design quirk of both Clansman and Hebrides.
The weather began to improve as I drove through Skye to Armadale and my next ferry. I had originally hoped to cross to Mallaig on Lord of the Isles but, due to her redeployment to Oban, I went instead on Loch Fyne.
This was the first time I had travelled on her, and I thought she was a perfect shape of vessel for such a short run — especially after last winter’s overhaul, when she had her open deck extended and double buff masts removed.
On my crossing she was packed with tourists. In calm waters with wonderful views of the Small Isles, it was no surprise her double internal lounges were completely deserted. Having left Armadale at 1310, we were at Mallaig in half an hour rather than the 40-minute passage time she is timetabled for.
Driving along the magnificent Road to the Isles, I stopped for a late lunch in Fort William before carrying on down past Loch Linnhe, across the Ballachulish and Connel bridges and into Oban. After checking in at the Premier Inn, I was able to photograph Coruisk and Loch Striven.
Then, with Lord of the Isles capturing the evening light as she came on the scene from Colonsay, and Isle of Mull returning from Craignure, I witnessed the first of several meetings of the two Ferguson-built half-sisters during my week.
Day two – 31 August
Day two was to include a full day trip to Islay, with the idea of catching each ship at each port within the timeframe allowed there. After capturing early morning night-light shots of the two large Oban ferries, I headed down the twisty and narrow A816 road as far as Lochgilphead, then the less treacherous A83 to Kennacraig, where Hebridean Isles was waiting to start loading for the 0700 sailing to Port Ellen.
We left a few minutes early and West Loch Tarbert was graced with serene waters – one of the regular themes of this trip. Although the vessel was remarkably quiet, legal requirements obliged everyone to continue wearing face coverings inside. Finlaggan passed on our starboard side on her way from Port Askaig, and although she was quite far away for a photograph, I found my 600mm lens used to great effect here. Our captain on Hebridean Isles was a name new to me – Tony McQuade.
On arrival at Port Ellen, I met a familiar photographer in David Livingstone, who is renowned for his images of the ferries leaving this settlement, often in adverse weather. Fortunately for me, the weather was anything but rough as I watched Hebridean Isles depart for the mainland at 0945. Realising I had more than two hours to spare before Finlaggan appeared, I decided to drive to the village of Portnahaven. Along this road is the site of the former MacBrayne pier at Bruichladdich, where vessels such as Loch Ard would visit during the 1950s and 60s.
Back at Port Ellen, I was in position to photograph the arrival and departure of Finlaggan, with sunshine briefly hitting her hull as she came alongside.
Next, I drove to Port Askaig to catch up with Peggy and Arthur MacEachern. We had arranged to watch Hebridean Isles arriving and departing, and the sun came out at the right time on departure as she turned to head south down the Sound again, with the Paps of Jura dominating the background.
The crew of Eilean Dhiura kindly kept her on the other side of the Sound until Hebridean Isles was well out of sight. Peggy, Arthur and I then spoke of the various postings we had come across on Facebook, and our admiration for the fleet, crews and shore staff of CalMac, despite the company’s many problems.
It was soon time to bid them a fond farewell, for I was booked on Finlaggan’s 1800 sailing from Port Askaig to Kennacraig. It transpired that she had very few passengers.
In command on this occasion was Captain Guy Robertson, who has been associated with the ship since her construction in Gdansk: I heard him give a very clear and concise message over the PA system on departure from Port Askaig.
After arriving back at Kennacraig, I stopped in Tarbert to pay a visit to the lonely Isle of Cumbrae, lying at her overnight berth in the inner harbour. I then continued on my way back to Oban via Inveraray, mostly under the night sky.
Day three – 1 September
The halfway point of the holiday began early, and it was to be a day of Oban-based photographs, with no sailings at all. I captured the early departures of Lord of the Isles for Coll and Tiree, Loch Striven for Lismore and Isle of Mull to and from Craignure, followed by breakfast at Tesco. I then hiked up to McCaig’s Tower for later departure shots of Isle of Mull: the sun continued to shine throughout. It was the perfect day for a CalMac enthusiast – blue skies, warm temperatures and ideal light for the camera.
One of my favourite spots in Oban for photography is a seating area at the War Memorial on the Ganavan road – a suitable place for morning shots, with full sunlight on the side of the ships. As the sun slowly rotated to the other side of the bay, I realised I would need to find an alternative vantage point for the best afternoon light.
As Coruisk headed out for Craignure before midday, I knew that Isle of Lewis, inbound from Castlebay, would not be far off, with Isle of Mull close behind. Having slowed down to give Coruisk free passage, the ‘Lewis’ swept magnificently past, obliging canoeists in the bay to make sure they stayed clear of Oban’s current CalMac giant. A few minutes later, Isle of Mull provided a carbon copy manoeuvre as she joined her fellow Port Glasgow-built fleetmate at the pier. Eager for a new challenge, I decided I would proceed on foot up the famous Pulpit Hill to photograph the departure of the ‘Lewis’. After that, I was glad of a drink of water!
For the remainder of the day, with the sun shining from south-west instead of north-east, I based myself at the fish plant and lifeboat station, capturing the arrivals and departures of Lord of the Isles and Hebridean Isles – the latter making one of her bi-weekly visits as part of the Islay and Colonsay schedule. It had been a busy day, and an exhausting one, so I was glad to have a steak meal at the Premier Inn’s restaurant, followed by an early night.
Day four – 2 September
With some excitement I learned, through revised booking confirmations from CalMac, that it would be aboard Isle of Mull, not Lord of the Isles, that I would be sailing to Coll – an island on which I had yet to land and spend time on. Having never sailed on the ‘Mull’ to any location other than Oban or Craignure, this presented an unusual twist to my holiday.
The ‘Mull’ and ‘Loti’ had swapped places at Oban’s Railway Pier, and I photographed them under a dark morning sky, as ‘Loti’ prepared to take her first sailing to Craignure. The ‘Mull’ left at 0620 after loading the cars through the bow ramp. As we glided out into the Firth of Lorn, a clear, amber sunrise emerged. We passed Coruisk (repaired after having had an inlet pipe replaced overnight) as she left Craignure, and then Lochinvar at Fishnish and Loch Tarbert heading into Tobermory, where the sky became blue. There were plenty of yachts enjoying themselves.
Isle of Mull was then forced to slow down to five knots for a short time owing to some technical issues, which I initially mistook for giving right of way to the yachts. Although the problem resulted in our arrival at Coll being slightly delayed, my enthusiasm was unhindered as the captain (whose name I did not catch) kept everyone thoroughly informed. I suspect most passengers were too busy admiring porpoises and the stunning scenery on each side to notice any change in speed.
There was only a small stretch of open sea for the final 45 minutes as we approached Arinagour. By now it was beginning to get overcast. I disembarked and made for an ideal vantage point to capture the vessel alongside and leaving for Tiree. In the limited time available before she returned to pick me up, I was only able to drive the short distance to the southwest of Coll near Gunna Sound.
Although the return to Oban was not as sunny as the outward sailing, I spent enough time on deck to catch Lord of the Isles and Isle of Lewis as they headed for Tiree and Barra respectively, before going inside for an enjoyable early tea of fish and chips. Our arrival back in Oban was accompanied by bright sunshine and clear skies.
After disembarking, I photographed the ‘Mull’ alongside the newer Oban berth and performing a manoeuvre in Oban Bay before she returned to her normal berth, stern-first.
There was still time for an uneventful return trip to Craignure on Coruisk, a short route for which she seems ideal — though in my opinion, Mull would best be served by two double enders, each with 70-car capacity. Despite her successful career, Isle of Mull can feel wasted and over-equipped for that run.
Day five – 3 September
My final day in Oban was to revolve around Lord of the Isles and a return trip to Tiree as a foot passenger. I felt I would be missing something out by not sailing on ‘Loti’, which has always been a firm favourite. Having previously sailed to and from Colonsay on her, I was intrigued to see how she would tackle the sailing to Coll and Tiree. I duly arrived at the ferry terminal for the 0610 departure direct to Tiree. In command on this occasion was Tiree-based Captain George Campbell, an experienced master whom I had met briefly on Isle of Lewis when she was relieving at Stornoway. I knew we were in safe hands.
The first part of the voyage was blighted by fog and low visibility. I decided to pass the time by having breakfast and sorting through the photographs I had taken so far. With less capacity than Isle of Mull, ‘Loti’ was noticeably busier — and faster. It was only after clearing the Sound of Mull, with the sky beginning to clear, that I decided to venture up on deck. It felt unusual to be bypassing Coll.Whilst ashore at Gott Bay for the obligatory photograph of the ship alongside, I met Donald Meek, then staying at his family home in Caolas. Donald is one of my heroes in shipping circles, as well as a friend and mentor in literature: he is currently advising me with my next book. As I went back up the gangway, I was sad not to have been able to stay longer, but we continued to chat right up until ‘Loti’ moved off the berth just after 1000 and headed for Coll.
Thereafter I continued to work on my laptop in the lower stern lounge. Having seen plenty of the landscape the previous day on the ‘Mull’, I indulged in another plate of CalMac’s finest fish, chips and peas. I still made it up top to get an unusual angle of Isle of Mull loading at Craignure and Isle of Lewis passing on her way back to Castlebay. On our approach to Oban at 1410, we gave way to the departing Loch Striven and had a glimpse of Hebridean Princess at the Lighthouse Pier. Back on shore, I commenced the three-hour drive to Inverness, feeling well satisfied by my Oban stay.
Day six – 4 September
After a night in Inverness, I spent some time shopping and reached Ullapool to check in for Loch Seaforth’s 1900 sailing to Stornoway: driving up the starboard mezzanine deck, I discovered she was going to be busy. Having partaken of a chicken burger supper out of the local chip shop whilst waiting for her, I knew I could just relax for the journey home. Nevertheless, as we left the shelter of Loch Broom (calm waters having been a common factor for my whole week), I knew that sitting down for two and a half hours was not my style!
Thus, even on my local ship, I couldn’t avoid seeing people, two of whom were old school friends — Heather MacRae, a member of staff at the refurbished Lews Castle in Stornoway, and Andrew Graham, a long-distance lorry driver. Working as part of the catering team on Loch Seaforth was Scott MacAulay, who follows my adventures through social media. Meeting folk like this certainly made the journey home worthwhile, as sailing on Loch Seaforth is quite mundane at the best of times: I speak as a Lewis local, even if non-locals don’t think of her that way. I was therefore quite relieved when we reached Stornoway at 2130, and was cheered by being able to access the mezzanine deck at the same time as everyone else. There was not a space left to be found on either level!
Sadly, I did not find time to sail on Clansman during her relief stint on the Uig triangle: I will have to wait until she returns in March 2022 at the earliest.
To sum up, although 2021 has seen islanders’ relationship with CalMac ferries take a downward slide, I felt that, throughout my trip, the ships excelled under tremendous pressure, and gave me another store of great memories. I am confident that one day, even if not soon, we will see improvements in the ferry network. Whatever does result – and I know we will eventually have to say goodbye to some old friends in the ferry fleet – I will continue to enjoy what I do: I truly love being a ship enthusiast, traveller and photographer.
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Published on 21 September 2021