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Issue 68 - 160 years of island hopping

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013


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160 years of island hopping

John Hannavy explores the legacy of David MacBrayne

There is something very special about setting sail from Oban, Ullapool or Uig to explore Scotland’s islands – sailing out of sheltered bays under the huge expanse of a Scottish summer sky, with the mountains and landscape of the west coast as a backdrop. Travellers have been doing it centuries, their journeys rather less comfortable, and much more hazardous than ours today.

The introduction of the passenger steamer in the middle of the 19th century was, arguably, one of the most important milestones in the history of Scotland’s Western Isles. Before steamships, the islands were much more remote, and access to them – and from them to the Scottish mainland – was a slow and uncomfortable business. Today, Caledonian MacBrayne ferries link many of the Western Isles with the mainland, and with each other, and in so doing, make it possible to ‘island hop’ as part of a multi-destination holiday.

Their story starts in the middle of the 19th century when a young man by the name of David MacBrayne joined the staff of David Hutchison & Company, an early pioneer of steamer travel. The company had been founded just two years earlier, in 1851, so this year marks the 160th anniversary of MacBrayne’s involvement with the company that would bear his name. That happened in 1879, by which time he owned the company, and changed its name to David MacBrayne Ltd. During his life, his company grew into one of the key players in Scottish transport – operating buses as well as steamships – and MacBrayne himself became a powerful influence on Scottish life.

There can be few businessmen who have been the subject of rewritten psalms! MacBrayne is one who ticks that box! On Scotland’s late Victorian west coast, the usually God-fearing locals even modified the 24th Psalm to give a sense of his omnipotence!

"The Earth belongs unto the Lord,
And all that it contains.
Except the Kyles and the Western Isles,
For they are all MacBrayne's."

OK, so you get the picture – this was one very important man whose power, should he ever be tempted to abuse it, was great enough to bring the west coast of Victorian Scotland grinding to a halt.

MacBrayne, by that time, owned a large number of the passenger steamers plying the coast, and the ferries – and the people and goods they carried –were the lifeblood of the islands and the remote communities peppered along the shores of Scotland’s western sea lochs.

The company forever associated with MacBrayne’s name is now 160 years old and still at the heart of travel off Scotland’s west coast. It was responsible for building some of the fastest and finest Victorian steamers, many of them bearing names which have continued to be used throughout the fleet.

MacBrayne operated what he called his ‘Royal Routes’ to the islands, in luxurious and fast steamers. They also ran a service from Glasgow to Inverness via Ardrishaig, Oban and Fort William – also known as a ‘Royal Route because Queen Victoria had made just such a journey in 1847. On that service, according to MacBrayne’s 1897 timetable, it was possible to leave Glasgow on board the steamer
Cavalier at 1pm on a Monday, and disembark at Muirtown Locks at Inverness by 4pm on Wednesday. The 1897 timetable promised that “cabs and omnibuses from the different hotels await the steamer’s arrival at Muirtown.” For those with the time and the money to afford such a trip, the company advertised that the overnight cabins on the vessel were equipped with electric lights! The round trip fare “with first-class sleeping accommodation” was a whopping 40/-, or 70/- with all meals included! Along the way Cavalier – one of MacBrayne’s ‘Swift’ steamers under the command of Captain D. McTavish – put in at no fewer than 19 piers!

Such routes have long since been abandoned, but the company’s island network is still a vital transport link.

David MacBrayne retired in 1905 and his two sons took over the business, but in the years after the First World War the company started to experience considerable financial problems. This led to ownership passing to Coast Lines Ltd and the LMS railway.

While improvements in the design of hulls and engines progressed through the first half of the last century, with turbine steamers replacing paddlers, the real change in ferry design did not come about until the early 1950s, and came about with the dramatic growth in motor transport. Where vehicles had been carried in the past, they had either been loaded on to the boats by temporary ramps when the tides were suitable, or by craning vehicles on board in nets. Indeed, such methods were still in use on several Scottish ferry routes well into the 1970s. Indeed, on my first island journey in 1972, my father was appalled to see his brand new car, shrouded in nets, swinging worryingly over the hold of the ferry!

When it came to carrying cars, MacBraynes were rather slower off the mark, and lift-accessed vehicle ferries for the islands did not start to appear until well into the 1960s with
Hebrides in 1963, and Clansman and Columba in 1964. Each of them could carry up to 50 cars, and offered high quality overnight cabins for the longer crossings. Columba, much modified since her CalMac days ended in 1988, now sails the islands as the cruise ship – and occasional Royal Yacht – Hebridean Princess.

Iona – the seventh ship to carry that famous name – was a hugely important ship for MacBrayne’s – the first drive through Ro-Ro vessel ordered for the company, and the first with direct engine control from the bridge, she was built in Troon and entered service in 1970. In 1997 she was sold to Pentland Ferries and operated there for several further years as Pentalina B. Now more than 40 years old, she is operating out of Praia in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa.

When the LMS railway was nationalised in 1948, David MacBrayne Ltd became partly stateowned, and was fully nationalised when the Scottish Transport Group absorbed the company in 1969 as a subsidiary of the now state-owned Caledonian Steam Packet Company. The new merged company was named Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd, and a funnel livery incorporating MacBrayne colours and the CSPCo’s red lion has been used ever since. With government and EU funding, CalMac has undergone a period of dramatic modernization in the last 40 years. Many of the islands are now loaded via linkspans, andtoday’s vessels are much bigger, and better equipped to meet both the commercial and tourist needs of the islands they serve.

When the companies merged in 1969, the oldest vessel in the fleet, the 801grt
Duchess of Hamilton had sailed for 37 years, and the biggest was MacBrayne’s 1420grt Hebrides.

Today, Calmac’s longest serving ship is also 37 years of age – the little 69grt MV
Eigg which serves Lismore – but the biggest is MV Isle of Lewis at 6753grt, and the new vessel currently being built for the Ullapool-Stornoway service will be even bigger! Such has been the impact of the motor car!

In a pleasing little twist of fate, CalMac’s operating company is once again known as David MacBrayne Ltd – the name it first adopted 160 years ago.

But whereas in the past, its ships were all launched from Scottish yards, that is no longer the case. MV
Hebrides at 5506grt, the third-largest ship ever ordered for the Western Isles, was built by Ferguson Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow in 2000, but might she be CalMac’s last big Scottish-built vessel? We wait to see.

While the company continues to use British builders for smaller ships – MV
Hallaig launched in December 2012 for the Sconser to Raasay service was actually the first ship to be fully built and delivered on the Clyde in more than five years – the £18M contract to build MV Bute and MV Argyll in 2005/6 went to the Remontowa shipyard in Gdansk, as did the £25M contract for MV Finlagganwhich entered service in 2011.

The £42M new vessel for the Ullapool to Stornoway route, due for completion in June next year, is being built by Flensburger Schiffbau- Gesellschaft MBH, of Flensberg in Germany – all of which is a sorry reflection on the demise of shipbuilding on the river where ‘Clyde-built’ was understood worldwide as standing for quality.