Rob Beale’s Mull Variations

Sound of Mull berthing variations: due to reconstruction work at Lochaline’s slipway, Lochinvar has been making passenger-only visits to the wood pier outside the loch, where old MacBrayne favourites such as Lochinvar’s 1908 namesake used to make daily calls on the Tobermory mail run. In the background on the right, Isle of Arran heads purposefully towards Oban

On 6 November two ferry enthusiasts undertook an ambitious day trip from the Lake District to Mull, aiming to catch as many vessels as possible on crossings for which they are not usually scheduled. The trip lasted not far short of 24 hours, and CRSC member Rob Beale survived to tell the tale.

Rob Beale

Last Wednesday, Dave Wolstenholme and I set off from Kendal in the early hours. So early, it was almost the very late hours of Tuesday! We were heading for Mull with the main aim of travelling to the wood pier at Lochaline and photographing Lochinvar there. The plan had been formulated a couple of months earlier when Caledonian MacBrayne published an amended timetable for the route which, at the time, also included a couple of commercial vehicle-only sailings to Fishnish from Oban by Loch Bhrusda. By the time we came to head north it had become obvious that Loch Bhrusda was staying put on relief at Barra and there would be no direct Oban-Fishnish sailings. 

Determined still to go, we arranged a rather hectic plan which, if we managed to pull it off, would have us travelling on all the Mull routes, on vessels operating some sort of variation for one reason or another. We had already had a successful day trip earlier in September when we sailed to Port Ellen on Hebridean Isles, got within 200 yards of the pier, then diverted to Port Askaig because of the poor weather conditions — thus allowing us to sail a rather unusual route along the Islay coast. Hopefully our November trip to Mull would be on a par with the September one.

After a stop at Abington and Tarbet we reached Oban at 0545 with plenty of time to check in for our first sailing, the 0645 to Craignure. This was Isle of Mulls 0800 sailing brought forward, to be operated by Clansman. Previous to this I had not sailed on Clansman on this particular route. She was being used because, having an open stern, she is able to carry hazardous cargoes. At other times in the month Lord of the Isles and Isle of Arran have also taken a turn on the run.

Winter’s morning departure from Oban, leaving Isle of Mull and Loch Riddon at the Railway Pier

Once on board we let the breakfast rush die down and watched Loch Riddon move across from Oban’s North Pier to the slipway to take the 0645 sailing to Lismore. She was a variant too, covering the run whilst Loch Striven was away for overhaul. Also visible was Pharos and the former Renfrew Ferry and now Cromarty Ferry, Renfrew Rose. While we were having our CalMac breakfast and a latte, the sun steadily rose and to our delight the day was looking to be a whole lot better than forecast. Low cloud still hugged the peaks but clear skies above promised better if we were patient.

Upon arrival at Craignure we took the obligatory photos from near the old pier, then hot footed it along the stunning Ross Of Mull to Fionnphort. The views were amazing and the roads quiet, but we didn’t have time to stop — we had a ferry to photograph. The usual incumbent on the route, Loch Buie, was away for overhaul at Ardmaleish on Bute, so Loch Tarbert had come down from Tobermory to operate the short Iona crossing. Loch Tarbert is an ideal replacement for Loch Buie as they have identical hull shapes, both being built in 1992 at St Monans in Fife, and they entered CalMac service around three weeks apart.

The only real difference is the passenger cabin across the car deck on Loch Buie, designed to cater for the high number of summer tourists on the Iona crossing, which is primarily a foot service with only islander and service vehicles carried.

Loch Tarbert emerges from the Bull Hole

When we arrived at Fionnphort at 0835 Loch Tarbert had yet to emerge from her overnight berth in the Bull Hole — perfect! Dave headed up the hill south of the pier. A martyr for his art he was prepared to miss a sail to take rare photographs, whereas if I have chance I always prefer to sail — but my photographs are often more bog standard because of that!

The light was incredible: morning blue skies had emerged with a golden light reflecting off the ferry as she glided into the berth at Fionnphort. A number of vehicles loaded, plus a few staff members of Historic Scotland, a couple of tourists and me. Heading across we took a rather circuitous route to the north, which provided cracking views of Staffa and the Treshnish Isles.

I disembarked at Iona to a lovely welcome from a party of residents who were seeing off friends and welcoming people to the island. After taking my photos and joining the back of the queue I did receive a few funny looks and remarks about “a quick visit”, but we had places to be! In any case I have holidayed at Fionnphort before and, given time, I would have loved to stay on the island a few hours — but we had to press on.

‘The light was incredible: morning blue skies had emerged with a golden light reflecting off Loch Tarbert as she glided into the berth at Fionnphort’

A full load of vehicles accompanied a lot of foot passengers across to Mull that morning, and waiting on the Mull side was a fuel tanker ready to fill up Loch Tarbert for a few more days’ sailing. I rejoined Dave, who was extremely happy with his photos, and we jumped back in the car for the long drive to Fishnish. We weren’t in too much of a rush: it was 0915 and we were aiming for the 1110 sailing from the Mull slipway.

By the time we were heading through Pennyghael my Sat-Nav had an estimated arrival time of 1017 for Fishnish. We were making good time. A quick check of the amended timetable for the Lochaline route showed us that, unless we met a caravan or coach, we would surely arrive in time for the 1025 sailing to Lochaline. We made it! Lochinvar was quietly sitting at the slipway as we parked up near the ticket office. Three passengers disembarked from the ferry, one of whom was a CRSC member, Angus, up on a day trip from Edinburgh. 

Lochinvar is of course the usual ferry on the Lochaline route but the variation here was that she was operating a passenger only service to Lochaline’s wood pier, as the slipway in Loch Aline was being redeveloped. Three passengers loaded via the car ramp at Fishnish — Dave, Angus and myself! We inched across to Lochaline on half speed. Lochinvar is definitely not pressed on this route, which made me wonder slightly why she didn’t wait for the West Coast Motors bus which pulled on to the slipway as we were 150 yards into the Sound of Mull!

Lochinvar approaches the wood pier at Lochaline

Our original plan had us catching her next sailing at 1110, disembarking at Lochaline and heading back at 1245. By catching this earlier sailing we would be able to get photos of Lochinvar departing and arriving back at Lochaline too. From now on the rest of the day’s plan would be less hectic.

The three of us walked down the gangway at Lochaline, which necessitated Lochinvar berthing starboard side to the pier. Angus told us that when he boarded he came on to the upper passenger deck, whereas 30 minutes later the tide had dropped sufficiently to allow the gangway to rest perfectly on the middle deck. Lochinvar’s turnaround time was two minutes, but even going slowly she had six minutes to load her two passengers for her 1045 back to Fishnish. In those six minutes we found a spot to photograph her departure, and then bade farewell to Angus who headed back to Edinburgh via Corran.

While Lochinvar was over on the Mull side we moved further down the beach to get a good vantage point of her arrival back at Morvern, where she would lie between 1128 and 1245. With photographs in the bag, we then had time to spare, so we wandered along the road to have a look at the ongoing works at the slipway. In the absence of a vehicle link to Mull, Lochaline was very quiet. 

Jenna was inbound for Oban from Tobermory’

I wanted to get a high vantage point of Lochinvar at the wood pier, but we couldn’t find anywhere adequate. We did, however, head west of the pier and managed to get some good photos of her from there. It was also a useful vantage point for two more ‘variant’ shipping movements making their way along the Sound of Mull that very minute.

Firstly, Fergusons’ Jenna was inbound for Oban from Tobermory. She has been operating a cargo service to Coll since the linkspan was put out of action for replacement. Following on behind her was Isle of Arran, coming in from Lochboisdale and Castlebay as cover both for Lord of the Isles which was away for overhaul in Leith, and for Isle of Lewis which was up at Stornoway, in turn covering for Loch Seaforth, which was at Liverpool for her overhaul. Both Jenna and Isle of Arran passed close to the Mull side of the Sound, so we pulled out the 500mm lenses to get photos — and before we knew it, it was time to board Lochinvar for the 1245 sailing back to Mull.

Again there were three passengers: ourselves and a dog walker off to meander round the forests of Fishnish with his Labrador. We meandered around to the otter hide at Fishnish, not to see otters but to watch Lochinvar head back across to Morvern again, where she would sit until her next sailing at 1600. Our next sailing wasn’t until 1600 either, so it was back down to Craignure for a quick snooze, then we headed out past the old narrow gauge railway station to get some snaps of Isle of Mull arriving at 1446, Isle of Arran passing at 1500 and Isle of Mull leaving at 1500 too. 

Lochinvar at Fishnish

We had two more sailings to get, each with its own variation. First up was Loch Linnhe at Tobermory. Remember, the usual ferry Loch Tarbert was down at Iona covering Loch Buie, so Loch Linnhe was at Tobermory operating the Kilchoan crossing. I had travelled on her before on this route so it wasn’t a new sail for me, but it was still a variation on the usual vessel.

We boarded at 1600 for her last sail of the day to the Ardnamurchan peninsula. It was good timing as Isle of Arran was passing yet again on her way back to Barra and South Uist. Loch Linnhe dumped us at Kilchoan at 1635, 270 miles from home, at the end of 40 miles of single-track road, and it was getting dark. We photographed her departure in the receding light, then slowly worked our way east along the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

The views of Rum, Eigg and Skye caught me by surprise as it had been so long since I had been along that road. Usually I had done the Kilchoan crossing as a return trip from Tobermory. We made good time on the route and reached Ardgour at 1815. Here was our last ferry of the day. Maid of Glencoul was operating the short Corran Ferry, covering for the usual ferry Corran.

Maid of Glencoul was another first for me’

This was another first for me, as every other time I have crossed, I always managed to get on the larger vessel. Possibly because of her smaller capacity, the Maid of Glencoul was operating a shuttle service so we crossed at 1820 instead of the timetabled 1830.

During that short crossing I had an explore of the vessel, which didn’t take long. We disembarked, took a couple of pictures and headed off back down the road to Kendal. We arrived home at 2350. 

In the course of the day trip we drove 644 miles and sailed on:

Clansman Oban-Craignure

Loch Tarbert Fionnphort-Iona-Fionnphort

Lochinvar Fishnish-Lochaline Pier-Fishnish

Loch Linnhe Tobermory-Kilchoan

Maid of Glencoul Ardgour-Nether Lochaber

Some day trip!


Early start: Loch Riddon at 0636 in Oban Bay

The Lochaline slipway under reconstruction

Isle of Mull leaving Craignure, with Isle of Arran passing in the distance

Isle of Arran heads out to Barra

Loch Linnhe at Kilchoan

Farewell to Morvern: Loch Linnhe at Kilchoan slipway as dusk sets in

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ALSO BY ROB BEALE: Salute to Stockholm

Published on 10 November 2019