Cameron Wilson had a ‘hectic but thoroughly enjoyable’ spring visit to Oban. Here is his day by day account.
Having seen two years go by with no prospect of long trips, I was determined to make up for it this year. My goal? To travel on every sailing out of and around the Oban area in the space of four days in late April.
Day One began with departure from home in Peebles early one Monday morning. I headed via Edinburgh to Glasgow, where I boarded Scotrail’s 10:33 service to Oban, arriving there around 13:45.
There was no time to waste. I took a taxi to Gallanach hoping to join Carvoria’s 14:05 crossing to Kerrera, only to find that, due to her 12-passenger limit, she was already ‘full’. I was left watching as the smallest vessel in the CalMac fleet spun off the berth without me. Thankfully the voyage across the Sound of Kerrera is short: it wasn’t long before she was heading back to Gallanach and I was able to board. I had around 45 minutes on Kerrera, not nearly enough to explore but, having seen the photographs of ferries that other enthusiasts have taken from the north end of the island, I do intend to go back. After crossing back to the mainland on the 15:00 sailing, I returned to Oban and, having checked into my hotel, ventured up the hill at Crannag a’Mhinisteir to watch Isle of Mull’s 15:55 departure to Craignure.
It was then time to head into the CalMac terminal to purchase a return ticket to Colonsay. This was my first time on the route and, amazingly, my first time aboard Clansman out of Oban, the reason being that anytime I’ve ever been in Oban, Clansman was either broken down or simply not there! On my early-season visit three years ago she was out of service with technical problems (see Photo of the Month June 2019) and, on my most recent venture in February this year, Clansman was away for annual overhaul.
We departed at 16:20, heading out of Oban Bay past Dunollie Castle before sweeping to port and setting course for Colonsay. The route is a lovely one, with views of the usually unseen east side of Mull as well as the Slate Islands as you head south. On this day I got lucky, with stunning panoramas of the Paps of Jura and Islay. Clansman faced some large swell conditions on the sailing, which took just over two hours. After a short layover at Colonsay (sadly not long enough to get off for a photo) we headed back to Oban with the wind behind us, resulting in a much more pleasant return journey. After a fish and chips dinner in Mariners, it was back onto the deck. With the sun setting over Mull I managed to get some stunning shots — and before we knew it, we were rounding the north of Kerrera, berthing in Oban a full half hour earlier than timetabled.
Scenes from Day One: click on image to enlarge. Day Two follows beneath
My idea for Day Two was that it should be dedicated to Mull. It began with an early alarm so that I could take Isle of Mull’s 07:25 sailing to Craignure. Having departed Oban, I grabbed a roll for breakfast and, after passing Coruisk, found that the staples of the Mull crossing (Lismore Lighthouse and Duart Castle) were soon in our wake. On arrival at Craignure I boarded the 08:25 West Coast Motors coach for Fionnphort where — after a journey of around an hour and a quarter — I took the 09:55 sailing to Iona. It was the first time I had made the Sound of Iona crossing on Loch Tarbert: she had been brought over from Tobermory to cover for Loch Buie, which was away at Ardmaleish for repairs. There was a wee bit of a swell going across. I had time for a walk — up to the Abbey and along some of the beautiful beaches — before heading back to the slipway to await the return sailing to Fionnphort. I then took the coach back to Craignure, fully intending to switch there to West Coast Motors’ service for Tobermory: the idea was to cross to Kilchoan on Loch Linnhe and then walk to Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse.
This plan was scuppered by an announcement at Craignure that the final sailing of the day to Oban (at 19:35) had been cancelled due to ‘Covid protocol’ — meaning there weren’t enough crew members to make the sailing possible, an unfortunate occurrence that in coming months we may still have to deal with. It meant that, if I was to head for Tobermory, I’d have only an hour there before getting the bus back to Craignure. I therefore hastily adjusted the plan: Fishnish was now the destination.
But on reaching the slipway there, I found I had an hour on my hands before the 14:25 sailing to Lochaline — an hour of torrential rain! The waiting shelter was the only thing for it, as Isle of Lewis passed on her afternoon sailing back to Castlebay. Finally Lochinvar appeared out of Loch Aline and headed towards us. By the time I boarded the rain had gone off, and I was able to stand on the observation deck admiring the Mull hills. The Fishnish-Lochaline sailing is not one commented on very often , but I found it enjoyable and interesting — not least the way the vessel has to turn after departing Fishnish to run ‘backwards’ across the Sound of Mull in order to prevent a tight turn when berthing at Lochaline. On arrival there I jumped off to grab some quick photos before boarding Lochinvar for the return sailing. Looking down the Sound of Mull I could see Coruisk approaching Craignure and, in the distance, Clansman powering her way en route for Coll and Tiree.
Scattered April showers were the story of the day, and as we approached the slipway at Fishnish there was another downpour: it was relentless. After another 50 minutes of waiting in which Clansman passed by, the same bus that had dropped me off two-and a-bit hours earlier came to my rescue. The driver, who had been sceptical of my plans when I told him at Craignure, greeted me with a ‘you made it!’ Back at Craignure, the sun was starting to split the sky: amazing what six miles can do! There was nothing else for it but to board Isle of Mull and return to Oban — which, as it turned out, was a stroke of luck.
After a pleasant crossing, we were greeted in Oban Bay by three cruise ships— the ever-present Hebridean Princess, Lord of the Glens and Hurtigruten Expeditions’ Spitsbergen (berthed respectively at the Lighthouse Pier, North Pier and anchored in the bay). After getting some food I went for a wander: it dawned on me that, given the cancellation of Isle of Mull’s final return journey, she would be blocking the usual berth for Coruisk’s last arrival of the day, meaning that she would have to berth at what was, for her, the rarely No. 2 linkspan. From the vantage point of the North Pier, I watched Coruisk go alongside the No. 1 berth and then headed along Ganavan Road to the war memorial, to catch her departing on the final sailing to Mull. There was a stunning sunset over Mull, leading to some lovely shots of the island and of Coruisk making her way out of the bay. It was then back to the hotel for an early night, as Wednesday was going to be the busiest day yet.
READ ON FOR DAY THREE!
Day Three started with a ten to six alarm. The plan was to tick off three islands on one return sailing. I headed into the ferry terminal in plenty of time to catch Clansman’s 7:00 sailing to Castlebay via Coll and Tiree and, having stepped aboard, realised this was my home for the next 14 hours! Having observed our departure from Oban Bay I headed down to Mariners to get myself one of CalMac’s famous breakfasts, before heading out into the open air again as we passed Lismore Lighthouse. Coruisk came into view on her first sailing to Oban of the day and then, after winding our way up the Sound of Mull, we passed Tobermory and and saw Loch Linnhe off Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse on an early sailing from Kilchoan.
A short while later Muck, Rum and Eigg appeared on the horizon. We had near-perfect visibility throughout the day, allowing me to see Isle of Lewis in the distance as she powered her way towards Oban from Barra. After a quick stop at Coll, where I observed one of the best bits of ship handling I can remember, we set off for the hour’s steam to Tiree. The master made light work berthing Clansman alongside the pier there. After unloading traffic we set off through Gunna Sound and set course for the two-hour cruise to Castlebay. I spent most of the journey in the observation lounge, recharging the camera, and my own batteries — but as Barra hove into view it was time to get ready for arrival!
We berthed 20 minutes earlier than timetabled. I sat on the outer deck enjoying the sun and taking photos of the Barra landscapes. However, I began to realise this was going on for longer than I had imagined, and after a quick check of the time I saw it was twenty past two and we still hadn’t sailed. Shortly afterwards the captain made an announcement that there was a technical issue with the thrusters and they were working on a fix. Hoping I wasn’t going to be stranded on Barra for the evening I, like all the other passengers, had to make the best of the situation and enjoy the sun! After around half an hour the crew were called to their positions and the ropes were let go: the issue had been resolved. Having set course for Gunna Sound it was time for another couple of hours of relaxation. I headed for Mariners once again for some food before heading back on deck to observe the passage through Gunna Sound. There was no time wasted on our return visits to Tiree and Coll. As we passed Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse the sun was properly setting over Mull, leading to some lovely camera shots. Continuing down the Sound I could see Lochinvar tied up for the night. Coruisk followed suit at Craignure. As darkness drew in, there was one final surprise — the sight of Hebridean Princess anchored off Kerrera, prompting me to reflect that the journey I had taken that day on Clansman would have taken a bit longer on the old Columba!
READ ON BELOW FOR DAY FOUR…
Thursday, Day Four, was the final day of the trip, and there was still a lot to fit in before my 18:11 train departure. After a slightly longer lie I was out in time to catch Loch Striven’s 09:00 sailing to Lismore and back. It was colder than the previous two days, with a bit of cloud cover but, with no sign of rain, there were no complaints! We passed close to Clansman, operating the Mull service for the day (after switching roles with Isle of Mull: apparently Clansman’s technical issue at Barra the previous day was still having an effect). Around 50 minutes into the trip Lismore’s slipway came into view and, after a quick berthing procedure, I disembarked for a couple of quick photos before boarding again for Oban. The return sailing exhibited one of the downsides of Voith power: Loch Striven struggled to remain in a straight line.
As Lismore Lighthouse became visible, so did Coruisk, similarly Oban-bound: the race was on! Entering Oban Bay, Coruisk was right behind us, and so, after we had berthed at the Oban slipway, there was time to watch her sidle into the linkspan.
It wasn’t long before my ticket got scanned and I was aboard Coruisk for her 11:25 sailing to Mull, an experience which — come June and the introduction of Loch Frisa — may be a thing of the past. As we rounded the north end of Kerrera, my luck was in: Isle of Lewis was sitting off, awaiting access to the bay, and behind her, approaching at speed, was Clansman inbound from Craignure. Passing both vessels, I managed to get some nice shots.
At Craignure I once again headed for the bus stop, where I boarded West Coast Motors’ 12:45 service to Tobermory. There simply wasn’t enough time for a sailing on Loch Linnhe to Kilchoan, but during my short time in Tobermory I did catch sight of Isle of Mull passing the bay on her way back from Coll and Tiree. I was back in Craignure in time to watch Coruisk’s arrival — an opportunity to get some final photos of her at the Mull terminal before she heads back to Mallaig for the summer. On the return crossing we slowed right down outside Oban Bay, having run at only a couple of knots for around five minutes. The reasoning became clear as Isle of Mull emerged from behind the Kerrera hills on her 16:20 sailing to Colonsay. After disembarking at Oban, there was still time to get some final shots of Coruisk, so I ventured back up the hill at Crannag a’Mhinisteir.
It was now time to head for the train station and, as we departed Oban, I began to reflect on what had been a hectic, busy but thoroughly enjoyable visit, during which I had sailed to eight islands, on seven vessels — all in four days!
CAPTURED ON CAMERA ON DAY FOUR…
Published on 7 May 2022