The ongoing interruption to the car ferry service across Loch Linnhe has generated huge frustration within the Lochaber and Morvern communities, but — as John Newth discovers — there can be some upside for adventurous foot passengers.
The Highland Council usually has two vessels available for the five-minute crossing over Loch Linnhe at the Corran Narrows, but it is one of many ferry operators suffering from mechanical woes this year.
Its main vessel Corran has been off service for several months, while she waits at Rothesay for new parts for her Voith Schneider drive units to arrive from Germany. The relief vessel, Maid of Glencoul, also suffered from a protracted spell of service from mid April.
With no suitable ferries available for the crossing, motorists had no choice but to take lengthy detours while the council was forced to put in place alternative arrangements to ferry passengers from one side of the Narrows to the other.
From 12 April the small Fort William-based passenger boat Elsie was chartered to provide two or three sailings a day from Fort William to the slipway at Ardgour, these sailings being worked around her daily schedule of cruises for her owners, Cruise Loch Linnhe.
A few days later, a covered fast-RIB also appeared, running on the original ferry crossing to the normal times as in the published car ferry schedule. In addition, passengers could avail themselves of a shuttle bus service that started from Strontian and continued past Ardgour to Camusnagaul, where a connection was made to meet the Highland Ferries service across to Fort William. With the exception of this latter ferry crossing, these replacement services were all free of charge, as foot passengers normally travel at no cost on the Corran Ferry.
Maid of Glencoul resumed service at the beginning of June, and so these arrangements were no longer required and stopped. However, at the end of the month Maid of Glencoul unfortunately suffered from an electrical issue that, combined with a steering problem, forced her withdrawal from service again for a few days.
In the interim Cruise Loch Linnhe had expanded and introduced a second vessel to their fleet, Dunara. Like Elsie, she is a catamaran acquired from Staffa Tours, who had used her at Tobermory for wildlife spotting cruises. Dunara was built in Ireland for a short-lived service between Brixham and Torquay in the south of England, and was originally named Brixham Express.
With the absence – albeit temporary – of the car ferry at Corran, the makeshift arrangements for foot passengers were brought back into force. Taking advantage of the re-introduction of these temporary arrangements, combined with a two-hour cruise on Loch Linnhe from Fort William, made for an enjoyable day outing at the start of July.
At Fort William I joined Elsie for her early afternoon cruise from the town’s pier. Starting off in a north-westerly direction, we passed the entrance to the Caledonian Canal, the new marina at Corpach and the timber handling berth before turning round and heading back past Rubha Dearg. Continuing southwards down the west shore of Loch Linnhe, we passed the salmon cages and then the mussel farm, both industries making full advantage of the clean waters of the loch.
From Inverscaddle Bay Elsie crossed over some of the deepest waters of the loch (where the seabed lies up to 130 metres below sea level) to Black Rock, which is locally known as ‘Seal Island’. This small rock is home to a large number of both grey and common seals, with a number of newly born pups present on the rock. From there it was back to Fort William.
The next vessel I sailed on was the small pedestrian ferry Bhoy Taylor, which has crossed between Fort William and Camusnagaul for several years. Originally named Cailin-an-Aiseag she dates from 1980, and is now operated by Highland Ferries. This operator now also owns the former Port Appin-Lismore ferry, The Lismore, which occasionally sees service on the Camusnagaul run. Otherwise, she lies at a mooring off the Fort William waterfront. After arrival at Camusnagaul, it was a short wait until the Shiel Buses shuttle bus arrived to take me down to Ardgour.
I was the only passenger that afternoon, but the service had been provided by the council to try to provide another alternative way of getting to Fort William from Lochaber. Alighting from the bus at the slipway, I then boarded the fast RIB Rannochmor, which had been chartered from Coastal Connection to operate to the main ferry timetable on the five-minute sailing across the Narrows. She is a covered vessel with good comfortable seating for up to 12 passengers, but the shortness of the crossing did not allow her to demonstrate her full potential. With heavy rain on the horizon, I opted to return immediately to Ardgour on the RIB, as my next vessel was now coming into sight.
This was Dunara, providing the third way of getting to Fort William. Again, I was the only passenger. Only recently having joined the Cruise Loch Linnhe fleet, she was still undergoing some final outfitting for her new owners, but was providing up to five return trips a day on the hour long sailing from and to Fort William. Chatting to the crew suggested that the run I was on was one of their busier sailings! On arrival back at Fort William, we went alongside Elsie, which was preparing for an evening cruise on Loch Eil.
Despite the weather it had turned out to be an interesting day out, with four very different vessels sampled, and made even better with two of them being at no cost to the user. Fortunately for the residents of Lochaber, and much to their relief, Maid of Glencoul was repaired and duly returned to service a few days later. Plans to replace the Corran ferries, possibly with electrically powered boats, are already afoot but it will be some time before final decisions are made.
In the meantime, the second busiest car ferry service in Scotland (or at least it was until this year’s plague of breakdowns, Western Ferries holding top spot) will continue to provide a vital link to Lochaber — unless fate intervenes again and both ferries are off service at the same time, in which case some more opportunities for unusual sailings may occur.
Since originally writing this article, Maid of Glencoul has suffered another breakdown, resulting in her withdrawal from service early in August. The delivery and installation of spare parts required to get Corran back into service has also been delayed and so – for the time being – it is once again possible to enjoy these alternative ways of crossing Loch Linnhe.
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Published on 27 August 2023