Mark Nicolson reports that, despite its chequered history, the Lochboisdale-Mallaig service can yield multiple pleasures in the right conditions.
As part of my week’s holiday touring the Isles this summer I wanted to include a return voyage from Lochboisdale to Mallaig. I had never sailed on Lord of the Isles, and was determined to put this right and see how much of a good ship she really was.
Lord of the Isles is a CalMac legend. Nicknamed LOTI, the one-time fastest ship in the fleet, she was launched from Fergusons of Port Glasgow in March 1989. Built for the busy Coll/Tiree and Barra/’Boisdale services out of Oban, she served for nine years on there until replaced by Clansman in 1998. She then moved to Mallaig-Armadale, before returning to Oban full-time from 2002. With imposing lines and features including a hoist and side ramps, she is popular with tourists, islanders and enthusiasts alike.
Since March 2016 Lord of the Isles has been serving Lochboisdale from Mallaig full-time — despite an unsuccessful winter pilot in 2013, when more than 50 per cent of the scheduled sailings were cancelled owing to weather and tidal conditions. Mallaig harbour is said to be another cause of problems: the tight entrance requires a sharp 90-degree starboard swing to berth at the linkspan, and leaves little room to manoeuvre back out again. But the service can be successful, especially if the weather allows it.
I embarked via the car deck for the 0700 departure — we were underway a good five minutes ahead of schedule — and went to the Mariners Restaurant for that popular breakfast of CalMac’s.
A tradition of mine when sailing on a vessel for the first time is to capture shots of as many internal areas as possible. In my view, the accommodation of LOTI is quite spacious despite her smaller size compared to the larger vessels that followed her.
The cruise ship Perziosa made her way down past Uist behind us on her way to the Clyde, and she was certainly worth capturing. The first piece of land I could see to starboard was that of Canna and Rum. To port was the southern edge of Skye.
With Mallaig in sight we reduced speed as Lochnevis departed on her 1015 sailing to the Small Isles: I could now see at first hand the challenges of navigating Mallaig harbour for CalMac ferries lacking azi-pod propulsion.
It was soon time to return to the car deck to disembark. While LOTI undertook her scheduled middle-of-the-day crossings to Armadale, I had almost seven hours to spare before the return journey to Lochboisdale, and used much of that time to photograph as many individual vessels and combinations as I could. This included LOTI herself, as well as Armadale’s new servant, Loch Fyne, and the returning Lochnevis.
Other events included capturing ‘The Jacobite’ steam train passing through Morar and at rest at Mallaig station, the locomotive on this occasion being the magnificent Black 5, The Lancashire Fusilier, No. 45407.
A quick drive down to photograph Loch Eilt, location for the Harry Potter films, and the magnificent viaduct across Loch nan Uamh – sadly not visiting Glenfinnan also – proved worthy conclusions to my time ashore.
I returned to Mallaig to queue for the 1730 sailing back to Lochboisdale. This was not as busy as the morning run, with all traffic being confined to the open area of the car deck.
Again, we departed five minutes ahead of schedule, and I indulged in a Mariners fish and chips — the breaded version on LOTI, not the battered fish and chips served on other ships. I had the pleasure to engage in conversation with another ship enthusiast, Callum MacLeod who, like myself, was simply wanting to experience what a ‘steamer dreamer’ wants to, no matter where they are or which ship they sail on.
As it had been an eventful day, and lots of travelling had been done as I neared the end of my holiday, I laid low for an hour’s snooze in the upper observation lounge, before rousing myself in enough time to experience the entry into South Uist territory and the final approach towards Lochboisdale. This required a 180-degree spin off the pier to allow LOTI’s stern ramp to be lowered as we berthed at 2045.
The politics of the Mallaig ferries is a subject I do not wish to discuss here — I’ll leave that to others — but I can be thankful that Lord of the Isles gave me a very enjoyable debut voyage aboard her: she gained a huge new fan. She is certainly one of the finest CalMac ferries I have sailed on to date, and I feel she is still highly capable, even with her 30th anniversary approaching in 2019. She has aged well, and I look forward to seeing how her final years of CalMac service pan out.
Also by Mark Nicolson: