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Caledonian MacBrayne to Islay

by John Shepherd

Kennacraig, the Kintyre terminal for the ferry to the Island of Islay, seemed just too far away from Merseyside. First of all there would be the 240 miles to Glasgow followed by another 101 miles, according to the Caledonian MacBrayne brochure, to Kennacraig on narrow roads around the head of Loch Long and Loch Fyne. Even with two drivers we would be hard pushed to make the 18.00hrs sailing.

There are far worse ways of spending a wet evening than studying the Caledonian MacBrayne summer brochure. There are many interesting long distance sails to be planned. It immediately became apparent that our journey could be shortened by travelling to Ardrossan for the Arran ferry, driving up Arran to Lochranza and then taking the LOCH TARBERT across to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula, just six miles from Kennacraig.

My first contact with the Caledonian MacBrayne reservations department was not encouraging. The young lady who answered the phone informed me that I could not make a booking for the Lochranza - Claonaig link - it was a question of turning up and getting in the queue - and if I couldn't get on, then 'tough'. This unhelpful information almost scuppered the entire holiday. I then telephoned Cal Mac at Brodick who were very helpful when I explained the situation and I was assured that it would be highly unlikely that I would have any problems on the days I was planning to travel.

I next phoned Cal Mac's central reservations department again and this time I was more fortunate with the booking clerk who was extremely helpful and booked me on the Ardrossan-Brodick ferry and the Kennacraig - Islay ferry. I was travelling on the 'five-day return' and I found the fares extremely reasonable. There were no gimmicks, or even worse this wretched 'fluid-pricing' - the fares published in the brochure were the ones I paid. And so it was off to Ardrossan for the 12.30hrs sailing to Brodick on Monday 5th June. We arrived about 11.30 and there was time to stroll around the harbour. It's 25 years since I was last at Ardrossan and the place seemed much the same. The Cal Mac linkspan is new and is situated close to the old sandstone harbour wall - almost where the 'Lion's Den' used
to be in the days of Burns and Laird.

The CALEDONIAN ISLES arrived at noon and quickly discharged her cars and passengers. Loading took place at 12.20 and we were instructed to drive on to the port side mezzanine deck. The vessel left promptly at 12.30. The CALEDONIAN ISLES is a very functional vessel, well designed for the 55 minute crossing to Brodick, and capable of carrying a large number of day-excursion passengers if required. The passenger accommodation was clean and the catering was adequate and reasonably priced. If I had a 'complaint' it was that the passenger accommodation was unacceptably cold on this early June morning - some heating was required. Somewhat ironically there were notices on all the doors to the open decks exhorting passengers to keep them closed as the air-conditioning was operating ! 

We crossed to Brodick in flat calm conditions and arrived on time. After re-joining our car the mezzanine deck was lowered to the level of the main vehicle deck and we driving north to Lochranza by 13.30. On arriving at Lochranza we could see the LOCH TARBERT about half way across the Kilbrannan Sound. But where were the queues for the next sailing? It seemed as if we were the only one wanting to cross. There is a 'marshalling area' at Lochranza consisting of 18 numbered car spaces : on arrival one occupies a space and waits for the ferry. We watched the LOCH TARBERT arrive and she discharged about five cars. We spoke with the crew and decided to spend an hour in Lochranza and travel on the 15.45 departure.

After the 14.30 sailing had left we moved the car to car-space No. 1 to be first in the queue and went off to discover the fleshpots of Lochranza which seemed to consist chiefly of the Women's Institute meeting in the local cafe. Returning to the ferry slipway at 15.30 we watched the LOCH TARBERT berth and then drove on board. There were just five cars on board for the 30-minute crossing to Claonaig. I went to buy tickets but the Purser(?) was having great trouble balancing the day's takings - would I come back later? The views of the mountains of north Arran are spectacular from the LOCH TARBERT, especially so on the glorious June afternoon. 

The LOCH TARBERT boasts a 'lounge' but frankly I have seen more comfort on the top deck of a No.37 bus. However it should be appreciated that on this vessel passengers do have the option of sitting in their cars in inclement weather, and foot passengers on this route are very few and far between. Just before arrival
at Claonaig the Purser balanced his books and I bought my tickets. Claonaig consists of the ferry slipway and nothing else. There is a single track road with passing places across Kintyre to Kennacraig, the ferry terminal for the Island of Islay. We arrived at 16.30 for the 18.00 sailing to Port Askaig on Islay.
Like Claonaig, Kennacraig is the Cal Mac ferry terminal - nothing else. The terminal itself is built on a small island about 400 yards off shore, and connected to the shore by a causeway. We checked in and spent an hour in the by now hot sunshine waiting for the ISLE OF ARRAN to appear at the entrance to West Loch Tarbert. She duly arrived at 17.30 and quickly discharged an almost full load - a mix of lorries carrying livestock and whisky from the Islay distilleries, and private cars.

I had been warned that 'the ISLE OF ARRAN is a bit long in the tooth now'. I quickly found her to be the most pleasant vessel I have sailed on for very many years. By now I was discovering that Caledonian MacBrayne operate an extremely efficient service. We boarded at 17.45 and sailed promptly at 18.00. Our trip to Islay had been specially arranged to fit in with this Monday evening sailing which goes to Port Askaig, half way up the Sound of Islay between Islay and Jura, rather than to Port Ellen on Islay's southern coast. There was a full load on the vehicle deck and the ISLE OF ARRAN had about half her passenger complement on board - her
certificate is for 446 passengers.

The first part of the passage is down West Loch Tarbert with the Island of Gigha appearing to block the mouth of the loch. The ISLE OF ARRAN has generous open deck space which was much appreciated by the passengers on this wonderful June evening. After clearing West Loch Tarbert the vessel swings to starboard to round Gigha and then course was set towards the entrance to the Sound of Islay. About half way across an 'abandon ship' drill was carried out, which necessitated temporarily closing the bar and cafeteria so that all the crew could participate.
After the drill was completed we had a meal in the cafeteria which serves a variety of well cooked food at reasonable prices. 

All the crew we encountered were friendly and helpful and the ISLE OF ARRAN's
accommodation was spotlessly clean and well maintained throughout. There is
a comfortable lounge bar on the starboard side forward and a non-smoking
lounge on the port side forward. After our meal we went back on deck about 19.15 as the ISLE OF ARRAN approached the Sound of Islay. The scenery here is spectacular with the mountains of eastern Islay on the port side from the lighthouse at McArthur's Head, and the Island of Jura with its distinctive Paps on the starboard side. The tiny ferry terminal at Port Askaig is completely hidden until the vessel is swinging on to the linkspan, stemming the strong tides of the Sound of Islay. Apart from the Cal Mac terminal there is a berth for the Jura ferry (privately operated), and the Islay lifeboat has a mooring. The ISLE OF ARRAN berthed promptly to time at 20.00 and five minutes later we were negotiating the 'one in seven' hill out of Port Askaig with its double 'u-bend', following lorries carrying barley for the local famous distilleries.

Our holiday on Islay was one of the best I have ever enjoyed. One could easily spend a fortnight or three weeks exploring the Island. Everywhere we went we received a welcome. Peter Sissons and the nine o'clock news have very little relevance on Islay - of far more pressing importance is the shipping forecast and the Cal Mac schedule.

The highlight of the holiday was the day-excursion to Colonsay which operates in the summer from Port Askaig. The ISLE OF ARRAN leaves Kennacraig at 08.15 and arrives at Port Askaig at 10.15 before sailing for Colonsay at 10.40. For the entirely reasonable fare of 43, a car and four passengers can spend the day on Colonsay, about twenty miles to the north. This excursion operates as part of the ISLE OF ARRAN's Wednesday schedule when she sails north to Oban, returning south in the early evening. Once again we were impressed by the entire operation. The
vessel arrived on time, discharged a full load and was on her way again to the minute with a good number of day-excursionists for Colonsay and through-passengers for Oban. 

The sail north through the Sound of Islay can only be described (again !) as spectacular and the lighthouse at Rubha a Mhail (north-east islay) was abeam at 11.10. Just beyond the lighthouse the ISLE OF ARRAN began to roll easily in the moderate to heavy westerly swell. Colonsay was reached at 12 noon and the small port of Scalasaig, on the sheltered east coast, boasts a modern linkspan. Colonsay has some wonderful beaches on its west coast, of which the most well known is Kiloran Bay at the north-west tip of the Island. With the heavy swell coming in from the west, these beaches looked at their finest on this sunny June day. From the view point on Colonsay's highest hill (456 feet) it is possible to see from Malin Head to Ben Nevis on a clear day.

The ISLE OF ARRAN arrived back at Colonsay from Oban at 17.45 and was away again at 18.00 for the ninety minute run to Port Askaig where she berthed to time, before sailing on to Kennacraig. We left Islay on the morning sailing on Friday 9th June. The ISLE OF ARRAN arrived at Port Ellen at 09.20 and after swinging off the pier, had her stern ramp down by 09.25. A linkspan is not required at Port Ellen as the tidal range here is the smallest in UK waters - just 0.9 metres at mean high water springs and 0.3 metres at mean high water neaps. Once again we encountered the delightful Ruth who runs the Cal Mac office both at Port Askaig and Port Ellen. We were impressed by the efficiency of the both the shore and sea staff who ensure that the ISLE OF ARRAN does not fall behind a very tight schedule and we sailed promptly at 09.50. It was a clear morning and soon Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre came into view as did the Paps of Jura and Islay's rocky and mountainous south-east coast. The Cal Mac breakfast seemed like a good idea but we were reluctant to leave the open deck as the gannets were putting on a superb performance by diving into the sea in their search for fish. All too soon Gigha was abeam and the ISLE OF ARRAN berthed at Kennacraig at

For the first time for a week we were under a bit of pressure as the LOCH TARBERT was due to leave Claonaig for Lochranza at 12.35. We drove off the ISLE OF ARRAN at 12.10 and started to negotiate the single track road with passing places across Kintyre. We were thwarted by a camper-van travelling at 15-20mph and we were obviously cutting this very fine. However as we dropped down towards Claonaig we could see the LOCH TARBERT heading for the slipway, about 600 yards off. She had a full load on the 12.35 sailing, almost everyone taking the 'short cut to Islay' and avoiding the 101 miles to Glasgow on the A.83. The return crossing from Brodick to Ardrossan was uneventful.

Our holiday on Islay was spectacularly successful due to a combination of excellent weather and the efficient Caledonian MacBrayne operation. On all counts - timekeeping, on-board cleanliness, catering and friendly crews - I would give them '9 out of 10'. The highlight was undoubtedly our time on board the ISLE OF ARRAN - she may be a bit 'long in the tooth' (Ailsa - 1984) - but it was just so good to be back on a 'proper ship' again. 

Try and get on board her before it's too late - she won't last for ever ......


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