The Last of the Island Hops — Part 1

‘The perfect spot for observing Oban’s Wednesday congestion’: basking in the spring sunshine, Lord of the Isles, Isle of Mull and Hebridean Isles vie for berthing space at the ‘Charing Cross of the North’ (© CRSC)

Between 1989 and 2013 Stuart Craig, accompanied by a handful of friends, undertook 25 extended ferry trips around the west coast of Scotland. Each trip lasted from three to five days and had a theme: sailing on new CalMac ships, reaching islands they had not previously visited, or simply weaving a varied path from island to island.

The first 20 of the ‘Island Hops’ have been chronicled in Stuart’s books Away with the Ferries and Still Away with the Ferries. But what of the last five trips? Well, Stuart has decided to share these on the CRSC website, forming an eight-part series titled ‘The Last of the Island Hops’. Stuart’s friends were the usual suspects: Gibbie Anderson, Ian McLaren and newcomer Andy Anderson. We begin in June 2009.

Day One — Tuesday 2 June 2009

Stuart Craig

Stuart Craig

It is 0905 on a beautiful sunny morning and Andy is singing as he shuffles us into his blue Jag and heads off west. He has good cause to sing: the weather forecast is excellent for the next four days. Four days: the length of an ‘island hop’, and on this occasion it was Andy who planned it — an ambitious whirlwind tour of the Hebrides. No particular theme this time, just getting on as many big ships as possible. Andy will be the driver for the trip. Sitting beside him in the front, but not allowed to touch the controls, is his ‘big brother’ Gibbie. Ian and I are in the back. These will be our allotted seats for the next four days — except when we’re on a ferry, of course.

First stop is Ardrossan, just as it was on the very first ‘island hop’ 21 years ago. We arrive at the ferry queue five minutes late for the recommended check-in time and are gently reprimanded by the man with the yellow jacket and clipboard. Our tardiness can be blamed solely on our driver. He had insisted on approaching Ardrossan from several different angles, most of which involved passing through Saltcoats. He had also visited several petrol stations on the way in search of the cheapest gallon of fuel. He finally emerged from the chosen one after 20 minutes in the kiosk, the proud owner of a barbecue, a dry-cleaning voucher, a six-metre diameter inflatable swimming pool, and 50 litres of diesel.

So the car is full, but thankfully Caledonian Isles isn’t. In fact the other drivers must feel a sense of rough justice because we are ushered aboard first! Once aboard I’m first again — in the queue for breakfast. To be honest I’ve got to manhandle a few precocious kids out of the way but I am first served. Afterwards we assemble out on deck.

The sea has the texture of silk. The Cumbrae islands, Bute, and our destination Arran rise mysteriously out of the blue-grey water like spectres; this just doesn’t look like the Clyde. The ship is sailing with whatever breeze there is on the stern, and so even on the deck overlooking the bow there is only a gently puff of displaced air on our faces.

Loch Tarbert at Lochranza

The ship is busy but, as usual, on driving away from Brodick the traffic melts away and it is a care-free drive up to Lochranza. Of all the passengers being disgorged from ‘Caley Isles’ we will probably be spending the least time on the island, for we plan to sail away from Lochranza, at the top end of Arran, at noon.

At Lochranza ferry terminal the friendly deer is at her usual place — munching anything green and edible. She has a beady eye on Ian’s lettuce sandwich and so I go over to have a word with her and am astonished to discover she will let me pat her back.

“Stuart’s patting venison,” observes Andy.

There are three cars ahead of us in the queue for the Claonaig ferry and I approach each in turn with a polite request. Once on the other side we will have to make a fast dash to get across to Kennacraig for our next sailing, so I gingerly ask each driver if we could zoom ahead of them.

They all agree, but the ferryman screws things up by filling Loch Tarbert in a rather strange order. All the cars that were behind us are now in front of us — and I hadn’t thought on asking these drivers. On arrival at Claonaig, however, all the vehicles seem to have got the message and pull over to let us escape.

Andy now drives across Kintyre as if his life depended on getting to Kennacraig on time. “It’s only a ship,” says Gibbie as he holds onto his seat grimly. When I point out that we have 30 minutes in which to cover only six miles, Andy drives faster. When we zoom up to the lady with the yellow jacket and red clipboard only seven minutes have elapsed.

“We got a message to say you boys were going to be late,” she comments. “We are,” says Andy. “I thought I could drive it in six minutes.”

‘The ship taking us to Port Askaig is Isle of Arran’, pictured here on her way down West Loch Tarbert, with Kennacraig in the background

The ship taking us to Port Askaig is Isle of Arran. Which is interesting, for it is nine years since we last sailed on her on an ‘island hop’.

For most of the year CalMac run a two-ship service to Islay, and despite her name Isle of Arran is one of the vessels (the other is Hebridean IslesFinlaggan did not enter service until 2011). We wander round the decks of the ‘Arran’, reacquainting ourselves with just how badly designed she really is.

There are signs that she is showing her age (25 years in 2009), and the conversion of one of her passenger lounges to crew quarters has left her with a paucity of comfortable seating. So we spend the two- hour crossing on the upper deck, lying out at various angles on her uncomfortable red seating.

When I stir from my slumbers (it was an early start this morning) the ship is well up the turbulent waters of the Sound of Islay. The tide seems to be going in the same direction so we turn into Port Askaig a little earlier than timetabled.

The Jura ferry is struggling against the tide towards her own berth on the Islay side. To our surprise it is not the usual incumbent Eilean Dhuira but a stranger, Margaret Sinclair. “Who’s she?” asks Gibbie of nobody in particular.

She is a small, red-and-cream-coloured car ferry and none of us has ever heard of her. It transpires that the usual ferry is away for repairs and Margaret Sinclair has been chartered. She seems nippy, but not nippy enough to entice the lads over to Jura for a quick visit. Gibbie comes up with the most feeble of excuses.

Margaret Sinclair at Port Askaig — ‘none of us had ever heard of her’

“My bus pass won’t be valid for Jura.” Has island hopping come to this? So I leave them to their beer and soberly climb the hill above the pier to film the shuttling back and forth of Margaret Sinclair and the departure of Isle of Arran.

Port Askaig has been considerably re-contoured since our last visit. Fortunately this little hill has been left untouched, but most of the rest of the hillside behind the little shop has been scooped out to provide marshalling space for ferry traffic. Sadly, much of the character of Port Askaig has also been shovelled away. New pier buildings are still in the process of construction but the shop now sits forlornly on its own.

The view from atop is as grand as ever. Apart from the ships my three companions are waving up to me from the hotel garden like a bunch of lager louts.

At the quayside a trio of small fishing craft have called it a day and unload their catch. This seems to consist mostly of crab, and the creels are tied over the side of their boats to keep their contents submerged, alive and kicking.

With time on our hands we head off to Bowmore and a whisky tasting session at the Lochside Hotel. Gibbie draws the short straw and has to finance the most expensive ‘round’ that we’ve ever had on an ‘island hop’.

Day Two — Wednesday 3 June 2009

The brothers Anderson — Andy and Gibbie

Breakfast was arranged for eight o’clock but only three of us turn up. On our return to Port Askaig last night Andy met up with the stillman from Bunnahabhain distillery and is now suffering from an acute bout of “…you got me one, so I’ll get you one…” As long as he turns up before 1015, that’s when our next ferry sails.

Meanwhile I induce panic in Ian and Gibbie by announcing that I want to take a return sailing over to Feolin (Jura) on Margaret Sinclair. She looks as if she is about to sail and I am confident she will return to the Islay side before 1015. Ian and Gibbie do not share my confidence. While I am studying the timetable, the ship sails and the opportunity is lost.

The real business of the day is sailing from Port Askaig to Oban, via Colonsay. Which ship will be taking us? Just before 1000 all is revealed, as Hebridean Isles glides into view. Andy also now glides into view — somewhat less gracefully.

Hebridean Isles is a very busy ship this morning. Apart from the traffic she is already carrying, she loads dozens of vehicles for both Colonsay and Oban. She also loads 32 bicycles. All shapes and sizes of two-wheelers are being pushed aboard. I’m just jealous: on a beautiful day such as this, five hours of cycling around Colonsay would be my idea of Nirvana.

The ropes are cast off exactly on time and the tidal rip eases us gently away from the pier. We head northwards up the Sound of Islay.

Being very familiar with this ship Ian drags us up to his favourite sheltered spot on the rear deck. To his chagrin he finds a woman sitting in his usual seat. Even standing over her and staring at her for 20 minutes fails to shift her. Fortunately she is getting off at Colonsay and consequently he is soon helping her to her feet.

Hebridean Isles in Oban Bay

Heading northwards again, on a quieter ship, the sea is as calm as I can ever recall on this stretch of water. Looking eastwards to Corryvrecken nothing seems to be stirring. The ship sails east of the Garvellachs and we position ourselves on the forward deck as we head into the Sound of Kerrera.

This is the perfect spot for observing Oban’s Wednesday congestion. As we enter the southern end of the bay Clansman is leaving the northern end. Isle of Mull soon follows her. For the first time on an ‘island hop’ two linkspans are now operating at Oban. Lord of the Isles has just tied up at the first one and soon we berth at the second. This will give us a unique photo opportunity and so, as soon as we tie up, I am hot-footing it round the bay to get my camera in position.

The rest soon join me, and as we sit basking in the spring sunshine another interesting mode of transport draws our attention. A seaplane now offers daily flights from Glasgow Harbour to Oban and it banks into view over Kerrera. A sharp turn to port and it is splashing down in the bay, close to the Kerrera shore. A handful of passengers disembark onto the pontoon. The turnaround is even quicker than a CalMac ferry, and the little plane is soon back in the air — this time heading south. The view from up there today must be…well, just as glorious as it is down here.

Gibbie suggests a prawn sandwich as we head back to the pier. A fine purveyor of delicacies of the crustacean variety will be found there — unless it has been bulldozed to make way for the second linkspan.

Our next ship is Isle of Mull and at 1600 we’re all aboard, licking remnants of Marie Rose sauce from our chins. It is a full day of travelling today; we cannot rest till we get to Mallaig.

This ship is also fairly busy, but she’s going to be even busier on the way back. An enormous queue of day trippers is waiting to return from Craignure on the 1700 sailing. We are in the car and off sharply but, despite reassuring Andy that there is no rush to get to Tobermory, he has overtaken every car that disembarked ahead of us by the time we reach the Fishnish road.

Isle of Mull ‘the wrong way round’ at Craignure

Seeking solace Ian embarrasses himself by asking if we can stop off at Sligachan on the way. It is not for the first time that he has got his islands confused. “This is Mull, Ian, not Skye!” “Well, can we stop at Sligachan when we eventually get to Skye?”

Needless to say we are first in the queue at Tobermory for the Kilchoan ferry. I leave my colleagues in the car and head off to an old haunt.

The Mishnish is one of the most famous pubs in the Hebrides and much frequented by ourselves over the years. I sit at the bar and sip a ginger beer (honest!) and reminisce over the many island hopping evenings spent here. Through the open window I spot Ian and Andy shuttling back and forth looking, in vain, for a toilet. I thought it was just women who went to the loo in twos.

Loch Linnhe reluctantly drags herself off Tobermory pier and comes round to the slipway to load us and a couple of other cars. This is one of my favourite crossings, as it links two distinctly different parts of the west coast, and because there is usually a wee ‘heave’ on the way across the Sound of Mull. On this early evening it is as good as ever and we manage to brave the strengthening northerly wind for most of the passage. The effect of this is to enhance Gibbie’s weathered complexion to a deep russet.

I’m trying to be kind here — his brother is more blunt: “Gibbie, you’ve got a face like a punched tomato.”

The drive through the Ardnamurchan peninsula is single-track and long — very long. We are ultimately heading for Mallaig, and to entertain us along the way Andy is singing his own version of John Denver’s Annie’s Song. He changes the odd lyric here and there. Regretfully someone encourages him and he is spurred on to other ballads. “You’re going to get my Susan Boyle collection tomorrow,” he promises.

Mallaig is surprisingly windy. The sea is being whipped up into ‘white horses’ and the boats in the harbour, including Coruisk and Lochnevis, are being jostled about.

We indulge in a posh ‘fish tea’ in one of the restaurants and then find a corner in a very modern looking bar. Some effort has been put into giving the establishment a ‘retro’ 1930s look. Prints of Jack Vettriano and Tamara Lempicka artwork grace the walls.

There is a relaxed mood amongst us, and we are only half way through the trip.

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Part 2 of ‘The Last of the Island Hops’ will be published soon.

‘One of my favourite crossings’: Loch Linnhe leaves Kilchoan on her way back to Tobermory

‘Mallaig is surprisingly windy’: Coruisk manoeuvres away from the linkspan en route to Armadale, with the mysterious contours of Rum as a backdrop. These were the days before Coruisk was transferred to the Mull run in summer

Published on 5 September 2019