The Islay Ferry - Past and Present

Islay Ferry PioneerIn the 19th century, the era of the early steamships started and the first ever seagoing ship in Scotland was Henry Bell's Comet. A wooden ship sailing on the route between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh in 1812 and later from Glasgow to Fort William. This was the time when railways and motor vehicles had yet to be invented, making the steam ship the best, and sometimes only way, to travel and transport freight to points on the mainland and the Scottish islands.

Steamships were run by individual private operators but by the mid 19th century those trading to the West Highlands and Islands had come under the control of Messrs G & J Burns. Later Burns sold this part of their operation in 1851 to a partnership called David Hutcheson & Co composed of the eponymous Mr Hutcheson, his brother and the Burns brothers' nephew known as David MacBrayne. When the Hutchesons retired in 1879, MacBrayne carried on the business in his own name.

The Hutchesons' and MacBrayne's made vast improvements to the services to the north west. The so called swift steamers offered fast services operating as a sort of relay up the west coast as well as passenger cruises from Oban to take tourists to islands off the west coast of Scotland. The other part of their operation was the so called 'all the way' sailing taking cargo and passengers to Bute, Mull and Skye. Later other services were added and Islay was added to their schedule in 1876. When the railways took over the routes on the mainland, instead of the ferries through the carious Lochs and Canals, MacBrayne gained the contract to carry mail from the railheads to the islands and managed to add most of the Western Isles to their network and the mail steamer was born.

Islay Ferry LochielAt the beginning of the 20th century there were four dominant shipping companies on the west coast of Scotland - MacBrayne's in the north west and the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. (CSP), Glasgow and South Western Railways (GSWR) and North British Railway (NBR) on the Clyde. MacBrayne's had three categories of service: the all way steamers carrying cargo and passengers from Glasgow round the Mull of Kintyre to the mainland, islands and up the Caledonian Canal to Inverness; the swift steamers carrying passengers from Glasgow via the Crinan Canal up the coast, to Mull and Skye and via the Caledonian Canal to Inverness; and the mail steamers carrying passengers, mail and lighter cargoes from the railheads to the islands and remote parts of the mainland's coast.

Islay Ferry Loch NevisAfter the war conditions changed and the 1920's was a time of economic depression. MacBrayne's which was now owned by David MacBrayne junior since the death of his father, had to give up in 1928 when his company was taken over jointly by the London Midland Scotland Railway (LMSR) and Coast Lines Ltd, a shipping company with numerous British coastal shipping subsidiaries. The name MacBrayne was retained but the new management promptly abandoned the swift steamer sailings and concentrated on the mail and cargo steamers from the railheads and Glasgow to the islands and remote coastal regions. In 1947 the state gained control over the half the share of MacBrayne's which earlier belonged to the LMSR. On the 1st of January 1969 ownership of the CSP and BR's half share of MacBrayne's was transferred to a new body, the Scottish Transport Group (STG), which had been set up to control the state owned bus and road haulage companies. Six months later, the STG also acquired the half share of MacBrayne's owned by Coast Lines.

In the mid 1960's the islands on the west coast of Scotland were served by two kinds of vessels; mail ferries operated by David MacBrayne Ltd and 'puffers' - small bulk cargo vessels capable of landing at simple piers or on the beach to discharge coal, lime etc. MacBrayne's also operated a number of cargo vessels out of Glasgow. None of these vessels was equipped to deal with road transport. When private car ownership became a common thing the ferry companies had to find a way to deal with them, being at first treated like any other item of bulk cargo. Cars were hoisted on board with a crane on the mail and cargo steamers. Islay Ferry Lochiel 1939This situation soon ended and the car ferry was born. In 1964 the first car ferries were introduced by MacBrayne and later in the 1970's the Ro-Ro ferry was introduced. At first Ro-Ro (roll-on roll-of) was introduced so that cars and lorries had to drive on to the ship from the ramp on the back of the ferry. At arrival the cars and lorries had to turn on the cardeck before they could leave the ship. This was a rather time consuming operation. These ships were also knows as end loaders. Ro-Ro later became 'drive through' which required the ferry to have ramps off the car deck at bow and stern so that vehicles could drive straight off the ferry, saving lots of time and making the loading and unloading process much more efficient. The Scottish Transport Group (STG) was reponsible for the transformation from Ro-Ro to 'drive through'

The three car ferries owned by MacBrayne's were all side-loading and not suited to carrying the sharply increasing growth in tourist traffic or commercial vehicles. A group of Scottish businessmen having special interest in shipping and haulage matters, many of whom also had local interest in Islay and Jura, subscribed £100,000 capital and Western Ferries was set up. The Sound of Islay was ordered from Ferguson Brothers of Port Glasgow. She was designed to carry 20 cars or a combination of cars and commercial vehicles. She was launched amid a storm of derision.

Trading began on April 7th 1968 between Kennacraig, West Loch Tarbert and Islay. The service provided a new facility (roll-on roll-off), it operated twice as frequently as the existing boat to Islay, and it offered lower rates without the benefit of subsidy. Unlike its competitor, it operated seven days a week, at night if required, and was punctual. It was immediately successful not only in taking the traffic which had formerly used mail or cargo services but also in converting much of the bulk trade which had formerly travelled in 'puffers' to using trailers, thus saving on time, handling, breakage, pilferage and port dues. Also lower rates meant a general increase in trade and the volume was such that a larger and faster vessel was required.

Islay Ferry Sound of JuraThe Sound of Jura had to be ordered from Norway. She came into operation in 1969 with three sailings a day. The capital of the company was increased to £250,000. Western Ferries had already formed a very close working relationship with a local haulier. He opened depots near both ferry terminals so that trailers could be moved on and off the vessels quickly without drivers and tractors units having to cross with them. He provided a parcel service as well as bulk service, and with dedication, grass roots expertise and low rates he built a thriving business.

At the beginning of 1969 the Port Askaig (Islay) Feolin (Jura) service began, a high frequency service across a short stretch of water with a landing craft type vessel (the Isle of Gigha now modified and renamed Sound of Gigha, capable of carrying the largest commercial vehicle permitted on the road, or six cars). This effectively joined Islay and Jura and increased the traffic to the mainland. Jura was now served by three through sailings a day instead of three per week and both islands could now enjoy things which had been luxuries so far, like fresh fruit.

In 1970, the Sound of Islay commenced the Campbeltown (Scotland) to Red Bay (Northern Ireland) service and was successful with the initial help of a cement strike in Ireland and a dock strike in England. Attempts to keep up a winter service, primarily with timber, were unsuccessful. The ship continued to operate a summer service until 1973 and spent the winter on charter work all up and down the West Coast carrying every conceivable kind of cargo provided it was legal. She acted as relief vessel to Islay when the Sound of Jura was going to drydock.

On 1st of January 1973 the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. (CSP) acquired most of the ships and routes of MacBrayne's and commenced joint Clyde and West Highland operations under the new name of Caledonian MacBrayne, with a combined headquarters at Gourock. In 1990 the ferry business was spun off as a separate company, keeping the Caledonian MacBrayne brand, and shares were issued in the company. All shares were owned by the state, first in the person of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and (after devolution) by the Scottish Executive.

Western Ferries claim that they were essentially forced off the route by what they later described as, 'some very questionable competitive tactics' by the state owned Caledonian MacBrayne who were given  public money to compete. He argues that it was this public money that allowed CalMac to introduce a new ro-ro ferry, the MV Pioneer, onto the Islay route in 1975. Western claimed that CalMac essentially lured the freight traffic away by 'presenting the hauliers with an offer they could not refuse' thus undercutting the private operator on price using their colossal public subsidies. There was a long and acrimonious battle - with Western famously offering to carry all cars and foot passengers on the Islay route for free if the Government would provide them with the CalMac subsidy. A report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission said, 'the least cost effective of the competitors on the route survived - to the detriment of public funds' because, inevitably, the Government refused to support the private operator against its own CalMac, and Western Ferries were forced to pull out of Islay.

Below some pictures (courtesy of the Museum of Islay Life) from various Islay Ferries that sailed in the period 1970 to the present day.

Islay Ferry Iona 1970

Islay Ferry Pioneer 1974

Islay Ferry Claymore 1978

Islay Ferries MV Hebridean Isles and MV Isle of Arran side by side at Port Ellen

Islay Ferries MV Hebridean Isles and MV Isle of Arran side by side at Port Ellen. The Isle of Arran Ferry has been replaced with the MV Finlaggan in the summer of 2011

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | Walter Campbell | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


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