Trevor Boult, an officer in the merchant navy, profiles the MV Isle of Arran a ship that has served Islay well
Remarks such as ‘she’s a fine sea boat’ and ‘she’s my favourite’ about the ferry Isle of Arran are made with enthusiasm and some nostalgia by serving crew and passengers alike. As the elder statesman of the major vessels in CalMac’s Western Isles fleet, she also displays a classical elegance in her proportions and profile. Built on the Clyde by Fergusons at Port Glasgow, Isle of Arran was launched in December 1983 painted in undercoat grey. Only her perky twin funnels stood in proud red gloss, emblazoned with the lion of the company crest. She was the first ship built at the yard to make her way up river under her own power for completion, rather than being towed.
Drive Through Ferries at Fergusons
Fergusons were also able to be proud to have built the first of a new generation of drive-through ferries, marking a significant advance on other CalMac stern and side-loaders of the 1970s. Innovation, however, always brings its challenges and the construction of Isle of Arran was something of a learning experience for new design ideas. Ships built for most of CalMac’s routes have restrictions on draught and beam because of the nature of the piers and harbours they must use, and designing and building a vessel within these parameters can be a challenge.
A varied service career
in April 1984 Isle of Arran took up the run between Ardrossan and Brodick on Arran, and proved an immediate success. Purpose built for this route, she saw growth in car numbers and commercial traffic in less than a decade, which often meant that she could not cope with the demand. So a larger vessel, Caledonian Isles was commissioned for the Arran service in 1993, after which Isle of Arran became the designated Islay ferry, During the winter she was CalMac’s spare vessel. By the end of her first season on this roving duty, she had sailed on all but one of the company’s major routes.
In 2001 Hebridean Isles took over the Islay ferry service. Spare once more, Isle of Arran acted as secondary vessel on the Isle of Lewis route between Ullapool and Stornoway, and in the 2002 season she made supplementary sailings out of Oban. Since 2003 she has been second vessel on an enhanced service to Islay, and has now been replaced by the larger newbuild, Finlaggan.
Whisky Transport by Ferry
Islay’s most famous export is Scotch whisky, with the island, which lies to the west of the Kintyre peninsula, boasting eight distilleries whose names are known around the world. Together with other home-grown products, the whisky leaves the island by sea and is taken to the mainland by CalMac’s ferries, with the Isle of Arran sharing the route with Hebridean Isles until this year. Port Ellen and Port Askaig are the departure points on Islay, with Kennacraig serving as the mainland terminal.
On board the Isle of Arran
Isle of Arran’s passenger spaces on boat deck level comprise a spacious cafe aft and two forward observation lounges, one of which is provided with a bar and shop. The ship was the first CalMac ferry to have an invalid lift linking the car deck and the passenger lounge. External seating is offered in sheltered galleries and a substantial open upper deck. This is complemented by an open seated area above the lounges, which provides uninterrupted views forward.
Sailing with the Isle of Arran
It is summer: a Wednesday morning at Port Ellen. Isle of Arran is lying stern in at the berth. Her watchman has made all his wake-up calls and has headed for home. The ship’s night motorman has finished his shift in the engine room and retired to his cabin. The rest of his colleagues begin their working day to bring the vessel to life. Isle of Arran sails at 09:45, on her one late start in the week. The ship’s stern ramp is lowered and passengers begin boarding by the short gangway. Many seat themselves in choice locations in anticipation of a fine crossing. Others congregate above the open stern to watch the spectacle of loading. The backdrop of Port Ellen’s compact semi-circular bay, the neat seafront dwellings, the quayside with its bright painted boats and small marina, provide a memorable setting.
Loading the Isle of Arran
The marshalling lanes are full with a variety of vehicles from motorbikes to motor homes; cars with bicycles, top-boxes or sea kayaks on their roofs; local traffic intent on a stock-up at a mainland supermarket, or a hospital visit; a post van and trade vehicles; and a gleaming chrome tanker, full of whisky. It will be a full load, with the additional challenge of standby traffic. The loading officer and crew will have ot achieve a tight stow to fulfil the ship’s stability criteria. Some will have noticed the red ensign above their heads flying at half-mast, a courtesy of the company to mark respect during the day to a burial service of any former CalMac employee, no matter how distant the place.
Passengers assemble forward beneath the open bridge wings for departure. They are privy to the commands issued by radio to the bow and stern mooring parties: ‘single up fore and let go’. By the time the stern passes the end of the pier, Isle of Arran is already showing a good speed, before pointing to the square-towered Carraig Fhada lighthouse which, together with a green buoy, form the outer boundary marks of navigable water. Clearing a line of jagged skerries, the fin stabilisers are extended without delay.
The first few curving miles of coastal passage reveal a wild shore, with the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg visible, their names delineated in huge black letters on the expansive whitewashed walls. Far to the south, the coast of Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre are also visible. More immediately to hand, local fishing boats and marker buoys off the coast of Texa provide interest. But it is the tell-tale movement of black fins that galvanise observers into excitedly pointing at basking sharks, whose lazy meanderings take on purposeful movement as the ship approaches.
Approaching Isle of Gigha
Moving away from the Islay shore, the northern end of Gigha is an hour’s passage in open water, providing passengers with the chance to sit in the cafeteria and sample a cooked meal. An announcement requests passengers travelling onward by bus from Kennacraig to advise reception, as coaches between Glasgow and Campbeltown, which stop at the ferry terminal, are few. On most days, Isle of Arran and Hebridean Isles pass each other, but today Hebridean Isles is on her weekly 14 hour return run from Kennacraig to Port Askaig, Colonsay and Oban.
Entering West Loch Tarbert
To the north of Gigha lies the low skerry of Black Rock. It marks the point where the route turns north east towards the entrance to West Loch Tarbert. To the unfamiliar it appears a desperate act, as the Kintyre coast presents an apparently unbroken variegated green expanse of hills, forests and pastures. Gradually an entrance can be discerned, with the unfolding promise beyond of a fine passage up this sea loch. Its reaches are marked by waypoint beacons. The bordering shallows on either hand appear pale turquoise against the deeper hues of the channel.
Five miles from the entrance, Kennacraig is a stand-alone terminal, sited on a small island linked by causeway to Kintyre’s only main road. As the ship arrives, passengers are called to the car deck and gangway and a number of the crew, their fortnight’s duty done, emerge from cabins in shore attire, their bags packed, ready to hand over to their reliefs.
Ferry Crossing from Kennacraig to Port Ellen on the Isle of Arran
The return crossing
It is a busy hour’s turnaround. Fuel bunkers are taken from a shore storage tank, the pier-end umbilical hose passing through a side shell door to the car deck manifold, and no opportunity is lost to top up on fresh water. Across the forward ramp, beneath the raised visor, wheelie bins are scuttled ashore for emptying. A trailer is manhandled aboard with fresh stores, shop confectionery and the latest newspapers. The diverse mix of waiting holiday traffic is flanked by a lane of commercial regulars: a heating oil tanker, building trade lorries and a livestock float.
Destination Port Askaig
Backing away from the berth for her 13:00 sailing, Isle of Arran turns off the pier end and heads out to pick up the marks for her passage seaward and her destination at Port Askaig on the Sound of Islay. A fresh complement of passengers adopt the ship temporarily as their own and soon they will get their first glimpse of the famous and distinctive mountains of Jura. On her westerly passage these peaks will swell in sature, revealing a particular aspect of their symmetrical form at the final approach to Port Askaig, which lies at the narrowest part of the Sound of Islay, making it a place of strong tidal streams.
Berthing at Port Askaig
On some days, with the added complication of gusting winds, getting into the berth at Port Askaig is a considerable test of traditional seamanship with a conventional ferry such as Isle of Arran. Nearby is the small local vehicle ferry Eilean Dhiura which provides the onward link to Jura. Isle of Arran makes the return trip to Kennacraig before her final sailing to Port Ellen, where she is berthed for the night. There, the westering sun bathes the resting ship in warm evening colours. The red ensign flies high once more and her working day is done.
A fantastic boat for Islay
In praise of the ship, an Islay local confided: ‘She has been a fantastic boat for Islay – plenty of room on the decks to wander about and sit and take in beautiful views. Top deck fab and no matter how rough the sea, I never feel sea-sick. Just the perfect excuse to go below and toast Isle of Arran.