The Marine Motorway from Mallaig to Oban via Skye and Uist

First port of call: an unusual view of Lord of the Isles at Armadale

On 1 September David Robertson and Neil Guthrie set off on an epic 21-hour tour of the Hebrides. Leaving their homes near Glasgow at 6 in the morning, they took in Mallaig, Skye, the Uists and Oban, plus three big CalMac ferries, and didn’t get back until 3 the following morning. David tells their story:

David Robertson and Neil Guthrie with David’s son Owen, who accompanied them on the trip

Just after 1000 we were approaching a murky Mallaig to begin the first sea leg of our day trip to the Outer Hebrides. With a bit of time before final check-in, we took the opportunity to drive round the harbour to take some photographs of our first ship, Lord of the Isles, which was already berthed at the linkspan, having recently arrived from Lochboisdale.

After capturing the vessel from every conceivable angle, we went to the terminal where we were checked in by a rather cheery man. He informed us that the Armadale ferry was fully booked and if we hadn’t made a reservation, we would have been unable to get on. He also said he had already had to turn down prospective passengers for this sailing and, intriguingly, that many had opted against booking on the next sailing at 1200. This seemed odd as they could potentially be turned away from further sailings for the remainder of the day.

We were directed to park at the front of one of the lanes which gave us a good view of ‘Loti’. The linkspan at Mallaig reminds me a bit of the old side loading linkspan at Rothesay, insofar as it is built in to the face of the pier and you can watch loading from both sides. It wasn’t long before we were parked neatly on the car deck and made our way upstairs to get ready for departure. The top deck on ‘Loti’ provides an excellent vantage point and was particularly good on this departure to enjoy the well-practised turn the vessel must make to leave the confines of Mallaig harbour.

Soon we were powering out of Mallaig and thundering our way across the Sound of Sleat. A few minutes later, we passed Loch Fyne returning to Mallaig. The difference in the onboard experience of the two vessels is very stark, but despite Lord of the Isles’ superior catering facilities, I don’t think many passengers on this crossing would have time to purchase and consume anything from the ‘light bite’ menu on offer in the Mariners restaurant.

Although scheduled to take 35 minutes to cross to Armadale, Lord of the Isles berthed there just over 25 minutes after leaving Mallaig. Once ashore, we managed to find a space to park the car and took the opportunity to walk the length of the pier. It’s remarkable to think that the narrow road up the pier was once the main artery to get cars to and from the hoist of Iona, Pioneer and Claymore in pre-linkspan days. I can’t imagine many of these leviathan motorhomes which flood the west of Scotland each summer would manage that now.

After the inevitable photo call, we were off heading up the Sleat Peninsula road towards Broadford and Portree. As we made our descent towards Sconser, we spotted Hallaig crossing from Raasay. We hadn’t intended to stop here but, given we were making good time, we opted to see her arrival. It’s been a long time since I was last at Sconser and since then, the terminal has been extensively redeveloped. The waiting room was particularly commodious. Hallaig crept stealthily to the slipway and unloaded a decent load of cars. There was no time to wait for departure as we had another ferry to catch!

We arrived at Uig Ferry Terminal a good hour before our scheduled 1430 sailing to North Uist. Soon Hebrides was purposefully ploughing her way across Uig Bay. For the second time in the day, our sailing was fully booked so the shore staff and the vessel’s crew were working hard to ensure all vehicles could be loaded and the space used effectively. We were one of the last cars to board and were just parked under the superstructure, beneath the end of the mezzanine decks.

Despite the full car deck, we easily found a seat in the forward observation lounge. This lounge offers excellent views from all seats and is a far better use of space than the equivalent lounge of the lavish Loch Seaforth. Having started the day in rather grey conditions in Mallaig, we were now passing Waternish Point in glorious sunshine.

The sun comes out as Hebrides enters Loch Maddy

With the hills of Harris to the north and the peaks of South Uist to the south, our crossing of the Minch was delightful. The channel up Loch Maddy towards the pier passes close to several rocky outcrops and islands, and gives good views of the neighbouring hills. At just after 1610, Hebrides was alongside with her visor aloft, ready to disgorge her load.  

As was becoming the theme of the day, we once again parked up and set about taking photographs. This was the first time in many years that I had disembarked at Lochmaddy and I was interested to see the terminal building there, complete with models of both Hebrides and Loch Portain. Also on display were details of the much-delayed vessel earmarked for the ‘triangle’ which is in the process of being assembled at Port Glasgow.

Adjacent to the linkspan are some new-looking pontoons, presumably recently reinstated after Hebrides made contact with them a couple of years ago. They had unrestricted access so a walk to the end of them offered an excellent vantage point for a photo. At 1645, with smoke billowing from her funnel, Hebrides was reversing from her berth to return to Uig, making a wonderful sight in the afternoon sunshine as she turned for Skye. We then proceeded south on a road trip that would take us to three further islands by means of causeways.

From North Uist we crossed to Grimsay, from there on to Benbecula and then finally to South Uist, our fifth and final island of the day. The road south is tremendous – small lochans scattered between the peat bogs while houses of different shapes, sizes and colours can be seen in all directions.

Hebrides’ observation lounge

The sun was shining and, in such conditions, it’s not hard to see why so many people succumb to the lure of the Scottish islands.  Some people view the Uists as a stepping stone from Barra to Harris and perhaps pass through them in a day or two. From what I saw, it certainly made me want to return to these islands for a prolonged visit in the future.

After a quick stop at the Daliburgh Co-op, we arrived at Lochboisdale and took a drive to the new marina where Loch Bhrusda was laid up. She would soon be on the move again when the winter overhaul programme got underway.

We were the first car to check in for the 1850 sailing to Oban. This was an additional sailing, to be undertaken by Clansman in connection with the lamb sales in Lochboisdale that day. The vessel was due to arrive at 1830 but at that time, she was only just appearing round the headland on her crossing from Oban.

About 20 minutes later she was making her final approaches to the berth to make her first call at Lochboisdale of 2018. This was also the first since her lifeboats were removed, something which has certainly enhanced her profile. She made an impressive sight as she turned to come alongside.

Despite having been built to serve this port, Clansman rarely visits Lochboisdale now due to timetabling changes. A handful of cars and passengers disembarked, and we were one of only eight cars to board. From the open deck at the stern, we were able to observe the lamb lorries being manoeuvred aboard, complete with a chorus of various tones of baaing!

A lorry-load of livestock boards Clansman at Lochboisdale: this was the vessel’s first visit to the South Uist port in 2018

The stern ramp was raised, the lorries were lashed down and soon we were ready for the off. After the captain’s welcome announcement, the smoke was coming from the funnel, and the smell of the diesel fumes mixing with the aroma of sheep resulted in an interesting fusion. We left Lochboisdale 20 minutes behind schedule and slipped passed Loch Bhrusda and the marina moments later.

Once clear of Loch Boisdale, the last call was made for hot meals so we proceeded to the refurbished cafeteria where almost every other passenger on board was already eating. CalMac’n’cheese and fish and chips were just what was needed towards the end of a long day. As the light began to fade, we could see our first vessel of the day, Lord of the Isles, in the distance returning to Lochboisdale.

With so few passengers on board, there was no shortage of places to sit. We split our time between the coffee cabin where we could watch TV and the observation lounge where some well-prepared passengers were asleep with their own pillows and blankets. It was a lovely, still evening to be at sea, with hardly any movement. On the approach to the Sound of Mull, a phone signal returned and soon the lights of Kilchoan were passing to port and those of Tobermory to starboard. Although the crossing was the best part of five hours, it passed quickly.

Our arrival in Oban was scheduled for 2340 but, given our late departure, it was after midnight before we berthed. Oban Bay was flat calm and the reflections of the town were amazing.

Our car was parked right at the bow ramp which meant we were first to drive up the linkspan and past Isle of Mull at the adjacent berth. Moments later we were snaking though Oban and on our way home.

In the space of a single day we had travelled on three of CalMac’s major ferries, whose crews and staff were friendly and obliging. We were also able to see some of the most scenic parts of Scotland and sail on a route that is rarely available in summer. It was a great, long and worthwhile trip.

All illustrations © David Robertson and Neil Guthrie

‘The Mallaig linkspan is built in to the face of the pier and you can watch loading from both sides’: newly arrived from Lochboisdale, Lord of the Isles prepares to depart for Armadale

Loch Fyne en route from Armadale to Mallaig, with the southern tip of the Sleat peninsula in the background

Lord of the Isles at Armadale

Hallaig at Sconser

Hebrides at Uig

Hebrides at Lochmaddy, ‘making a wonderful sight in the afternoon sunshine as she turned for Skye’

Clansman cants at Lochboisdale, with Loch Bhrusda in the background

After temporary layup in the Lochboisdale marina, Loch Bhrusda is expected to spend much of the 2018-19 winter on relief duty

‘With so few passengers on board, there was no shortage of places to sit’: port side accommodation looking aft on Clansman

Starboard side deck view as Clansman prepares to depart Lochboisdale

Farewell to Lochboisdale, as Clansman heads back to Oban after her first visit to South Uist in 2018

On Clansman’s return to Oban after midnight, the bay was flat calm and the reflections of the town were amazing

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Published on 20 September 2018