Transport of Delight to Islay

Lure of the Hebrides: CRSC excursionists on the top deck of MV Isle of Arran, shortly before leaving Kennacraig and heading down West Loch Tarbert for open sea and the crossing to Port Askaig

We were lucky with the weather. We were lucky with the ship. We were lucky with the captain. And yes, we were lucky to be part of a group of enthusiasts relishing the sights and sensations of a coach-and-cruise excursion to Islay.

CRSC president Robin Copland reports on the epic adventure of Sunday 23 April — our Club’s first all-day trip since before the pandemic.

For some, the day started the night before; for others, the alarm was set for stupid o’clock in the morning, followed by a long drive; and then there was the Bishopton gang – a quick cup of coffee and stroll along the road to the station where a coach was waiting to take 31 hardy souls on a wee day out to Islay. A wee day out to Islay? It must be one of cruising coordinator Neil Guthrie’s CRSC adventures!

First stop: our bus on board Sound of Seil en route to Hunter’s Quay, from where we headed to Portavadie

Many years ago Neil chose Bishopton station as a meeting point because of its easy parking and proximity to both a convenient train service and the M8 motorway. Your correspondent especially likes it because of the excellent morning rolls (flat sausage, seeing as you’re asking) available at Woodrows, the newsagent just opposite the entrance to the station car park. As I have often remarked to no one in particular, “I never visit Bishopton without a wee visit to Woodrows”. To be fair, until Neil chose Bishopton as a meeting point, I had never visited the place, period, but there we are.

Leaving Bishopton at 8am, the coach took us through the usual towns and villages on the way to Western Ferries’ terminal at McInroy’s Point. As you would imagine, the chat was all about Glen Sannox and Hull No. 802 not being ready yet; the fact that Arran will eventually be served by both of these troubled ferries; the recent dismantling of the replica Comet at Port Glasgow; and the quality of ice cream at the Esplanade Café in Campbell Street, Greenock, which, as an aside, is not actually on the Esplanade.

At McInroy’s Point, our group grew in number with Allan Smith and Lee Gallagher joining us. Club member Lawrence Macduff took over as driver of our coach. His first task was to drive us onto Western Ferries’ Sound of Seil, on which another CRSC member, John Newth, is chief engineer. We were in safe hands.

By now the morning was bright and crisp. It was just grand to be out on the open water, looking past the Cloch all the way down to Arran as we headed for Hunter’s Quay. From there the road to Portavadie is a tortuous one, but the scenery above Lochs Striven and Riddon was magnificent, and the weather held. Ere long we were on the final approach to Portavadie and the second leg of our adventure — the sail across Loch Fyne on CalMac’s oldest (and in some members’ opinion, finest) ship, Isle of Cumbrae.  There’s always a wee bit of a panic as you approach one of the small ferry departure points. You can’t book in advance, so you round that last bend on the approach to the slipway on something of a wing and a prayer – “Will I, won’t I get on?” We needn’t have worried: there were only two cars ahead of us. Isle of Cumbrae was disgorging her load of cars as we arrived, and once they were all off, the bus was on, and we were off.

Isle of Cumbrae purser John Paterson (left) chats to Neil Guthrie, Lawrence Macduff, Robin Copland and Roy Paterson on the voyage across Loch Fyne to Tarbert

Maybe not quite as ‘millpondy’ as our crossing to Hunter’s Quay, but still, it was a lovely crossing. Isle of Cumbrae never disappoints. True, she doesn’t have the airs and graces of her younger sisters, but her railings are so low that you get a wonderful view of the hills and mountains surrounding the southern end of Loch Fyne — a lovely part of the world. We had time to chat to her purser, John Paterson: it’s always a delight to meet CalMac crew members who love their job (and there’s a fair few of them in the fleet), and John seemed genuinely interested in our day. We were soon passing the pier at Tarbert and berthing at the slipway. It was time for a quick refreshment break in the village, and then on to Kennacraig.

During the short drive over to the West Loch, Lawrence put on a recording of a gentle song, played on Gaelic harp by Karen Marshalsay, called The Road to Kennacraig. There were no words, but we listened intently as we passed the site of the old MacBrayne pier and glimpsed our next ship, Isle of Arran, patiently awaiting our arrival.

What can I tell you about Kennacraig? It has a pier. It has a car and bus park, and you can buy tickets at the CalMac office. For most of us, it’s the place where you take pictures of whatever CalMac vessel happens to be in sight. Neil worked his magic and we were joined by the final four members of our wee gang, namely CRSC honorary auditor and past president Graeme Hogg, the Bowie brothers Walter and Hamish, and Susi Lunn.

Although Isle of Arran is showing her age – she is in her 40th year of service in the CalMac fleet – she remains a favourite amongst enthusiasts, not least because of the generous provision of outdoor space, especially in front of the bridge: the perfect ship to transport us out of the West Loch, past the north end of Gigha, on to McArthur’s Head and up the Sound of Islay.

Captain John Macleod welcomed us onto the bridge of MV Isle of Arran with quiet courtesy and charm, fielding questions and sharing his knowledge with successive groups of visitors. One of the youngest masters in the fleet, Captain Macleod hails from Stornoway and began his CalMac career 18 years ago as a cadet. He was a junior officer on Caledonian Isles for five years before graduating to Loch Seaforth as 2nd mate, chief officer, night master and master. He has been master of Isle of Arran since 2020. His handling of the ship on a flood tide at Port Askaig and in the face of a strong off-berth wind at Kennacraig showed impeccable seamanship

There was further magic! Bridge visits were arranged for all who wanted. You know you’re getting old when the master is younger than you are. You can imagine how it felt to discover that our captain, John Macleod, was actually younger than my eldest son, and indeed younger than the ship he was captaining! It was a most entertaining 20 minutes in the company of Captain Macleod, 3rd mate Ronnie Grant and chief steward Iain Nicholson. It turns out that they like Isle of Arran as much as we do.

We were soon making our approach to Port Askaig — one of the more challenging piers on the CalMac network due to the competing claims of wind and tide. Light work was made of it though, and in no time the ship was made fast and the crew were earning their money discharging our load, then organising vehicles bound for the mainland.

Some of us chose to disembark for more photography, and it was a pleasure to meet Ileach ship enthusiast Peggy MacEachern on the quay. Then we were back on board for a timely departure and a plate of CalMacaroni in the dining room at a group of tables specially reserved for us. As always on these trips, there’s a fair bit of reminiscing and remembering good times past. Long chats with Walter Bowie about his ‘Walter Specials’: a memorable one I went on was on Saturn from Gourock to Inveraray. To be fair, that was quite a long time on a ‘streaker’!

Then it was time to photograph Finlaggan passing on her way from Kennacraig to Port Askaig; and time to enjoy a coffee late in the day with Roy Paterson, chat to Graeme Hogg and Susi Lunn, and meet Colin Nimmo for the first time. I never got round the whole group though – for which apologies, but your day was probably the better for the lack!

Talking of Graeme, I never did find out whether or not he caught the last ferry from Tarbert to Portavadie on his way home to Tighnabruaich. I hope he did – it’s a long way round if you’re going via Inveraray! To be fair, we never saw him for the dust cloud as he drove away from the Kennacraig car park.

He was lucky. Those who had their cars and lorries onboard Isle of Arran had their disembarkation delayed by a temperamental bow visor. I’m sure they got it fixed — they must have, as Walter Bowie was soon sending us photos of the ship heading back down the loch to open sea. Meanwhile, Lawrence did us proud with an exceptionally smooth drive back to Bishopton via Inveraray, Arrochar and the Erskine Bridge.

Home to Balerno by 10pm. A long day, but was it fun? Of course it was. Would I do it again? Of course I would. Is a similar excursion coming anytime soon? Watch this space, but in the meantime, I’ll see everyone on Isle of Arran again on Sunday 4 June. The occasion? The first sailing of the summer by ‘the Auld Trooper’ to Campbeltown, which our Club has nominated as an excursion. Haud me back!

Sailing together: (left to right approx) Gary and Lynne Semple, Walter and Hamish Bowie, Iain and Carrie MacKinnon, Steve Flannigan, Richard Orr, Graham Hutton, Eric Schofield, Carol Sales, Sam Johnston, Robin Copland, John Riddell, Lee Gallagher, Tracy Telfer, Arthur Sales, Allan Smith, Franklin Clark, Alan Graham, Roy Paterson, Paul Flint, Lawrence Macduff, Susi Lunn, George Boswell, Andy Anderson, Sam Thompson, Barbara Craig, Neil Guthrie, Jane Liston, Graeme Hogg, Colin Nimmo, Alasdair Connell and Ron Lindsay

Our bus disembarks at Tarbert, with Lawrence Macduff at the wheel

Walter Bowie (right), veteran of many a ‘special’, with Isle of Arran able seaman Ben Anderson

Last up the gangway: past president Richard Orr at Kennacraig

Chief Steward Iain Nicholson (left) with CRSC cruising coordinator Neil Guthrie on the port bridge wing of Isle of Arran en route to Port Askaig

In the wheelhouse: (left to right) 3rd mate Ronnie Grant, Richard Orr, Paul Flint, Jane Liston, Alasdair Connell, Susi Lunn, Sam Thompson, Andy Anderson, Captain John Macleod

Eric Schofield and Colin Nimmo on the port bridge wing of Isle of Arran, with Kintyre and the Arran hills in the distance

Captain Macleod (centre) chats with Lynne Semple, Carol Sales, Arthur Sales and Gary Semple

Iain Cruise MacKinnon and Carrie MacKinnon with chief steward Iain Nicholson, who proved an expert intermediary when arranging our bridge visits

Alan Graham, Barbara Craig, Captain Macleod, Allan Smith, Lee Gallagher, Robin Copland and Graeme Hogg

Wheelhouse model of Isle of Arran

Wheelhouse art: a picture on the wall

Approach to Port Askaig

Berthing at Port Askaig: everyone commented on the plentiful deck space on Isle of Arran, especially for’ard

Unusual visitor: vehicle ferry James, registered in Westport, Ireland, has been substituting for the regular boat on the Feolin crossing

Isle of Arran at Port Askaig (1)

Isle of Arran at Port Askaig (2)

Homeward bound

The Paps of Jura make a fine backdrop as Finlaggan passes on her late afternoon run to Port Askaig

Destination Bishopton: Lawrence Macduff bids farewell to Isle of Arran at Kennacraig, before driving us home

Destination Port Ellen: after a brief glitch with the bow visor at Kennacraig, Isle of Arran heads off down West Loch Tarbert on her evening voyage to Islay — a photo taken by Walter Bowie, who drove back to Glasgow independently with brother Hamish

Our thanks to CRSC cruising coordinator Neil Guthrie for organising the excursion. Photography: Robin Copland, Roy Paterson, Walter Bowie, Allan Smith, Andrew Clark.

Please join us on our nominated excursion to Campbeltown on Sunday 4 June, leaving Ardrossan at 1.50pm. If you have any questions about CRSC activities, email

Published on 28 April 2023