Ferry company has a fascinating history … and now, thanks to CalMac decision, a highly promising future
THE NEWS that the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service contract has been awarded to Caledonian MacBrayne has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. For many, Caledonian MacBrayne is more than a transport provider – it is a long-established and prominent feature of Scotland’s west coast and its cultural geography.
In 1851 David Hutcheson & Company established steamer routes from Glasgow to Oban, Fort William and Inverness via the Crinan and Caledonian canals. David MacBrayne took over operations in 1877 and the re-named shipping line expanded services to Islay and the Western Isles, matching sailings to connect with the railways.
After the First World War, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company and Coast Lines Ltd invested in the company to compete for mail- carrying contracts, and David MacBrayne became state-owned when the railway companies were nationalised in 1948. The Scottish Transport Group was formed in 1953 to manage public transport services which included David MacBrayne and the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, which amalgamated to create Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd in 1973.
The Scottish Transport Group handed control and ownership to the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1990, effectively the Scottish Government since 1999.
The pictures show the launch of the MV Lochnevis, built by William Denny & Brothers in Dumbarton for David MacBrayne Ltd in 1934. She sailed the Mallaig-Portree mail route until 1960, then operated as an excursion steamer out of Oban until 1969. She was sold to owners in the Netherlands in 1970 and broken up in 1974. PS Iona was built by J& G Thomson of Clydebank in 1864 for David Hutcheson and served as the principal vessel on the Glasgow-Ardrishaig route for four years. She sailed out of Oban on summer passages and on Wemyss Bay, Arrochar, Lochgoilhead and Fort William routes until being scrapped in 1936.
TS King George V was built by William Denny & Brothers for Turbine Steamers Ltd in 1926, passing to David MacBrayne Ltd nine years later. She serviced Inveraray and Campbeltown routes, and later sailed on runs from Oban to Iona, Staffa and Fort William. She was taken out of service in 1974 and broken up in 1984.
MV Lochiel was also built by Denny Brothers for David MacBrayne in 1939 to serve as the Islay mail boat. She continued on that route until 1970, when she was sold to Manx operators for service between Fleetwood and Douglas. In 1978 she was commissioned as a floating bar and restaurant in Bristol and stayed in business until 1994 and was sold for scrap the following year.
In 2006, Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd was divided into Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd to keep ports and ships in public ownership, and CalMac Ferries Ltd to operate the ferries. This satisfied EU legislation and created subsidiaries wholly-owned by the Scottish ministers.
More than 200 vessels have been built or acquired for these combined fleets in 165 years, providing work for several Scottish shipyards and some in other parts of the British Isles, Ireland and Europe. Future contracts for new ships will provide several years’ work for a Clyde shipyard and have almost certainly saved it from closure.
The continued provision of lifeline and tourism travel services to islands and remote mainland communities employs a workforce of nearly 1,500 and supports another 6,000 jobs across Scotland. The company’s £145 million turnover supports a further £270 million turnover in the Scottish economy, so the effects of its activity resonate far beyond the routes and the destinations that the network services.
In some places, CalMac jobs account for 10 per cent of all jobs, which demonstrates how ferries and ports have been, and continue to be, spliced to the social order of the west coast.
As part of the contract award package, CalMac has to make a great deal of improvements. Some of these have already been initiated, and I hope passengers can look forward to full wi-fi service on all routes in the not-too-distant future. The food and drink on offer is improving all the time, and the vessel replacement programme looks set to deliver purpose-built ships that will be safer, faster, more efficient and represent a network of ferry services that everyone can be proud of.
For many travellers, timetables that allow railway, bus and flight connections will make a huge difference, as will a port and harbour infrastructure that can accommodate growing numbers of passengers and vehicles, and vessels at all states of the tide.