The Herald

Ferry tales we can all believe in

As Caledonian­MacBraynel­aunches its newest vessel, DavidRosse­xplores the fascinatin­g history of the fleet that has servedScot­land since1851

- david.ross@theherald.co.uk

LOCHShira isn’t much of a loch. It’s really just a finger of salt waterwhich points in a north easterly direction past Inveraray into the hills that separate Loch Fyne and LochAwe. But it is a fitting name for the new £6.38m Caledonian MacBrayne ferry which will be launched from Ferguson’s yard at Port Glasgow today for the Largs/Cumbrae service – for Loch Shira points to the old MacNaughto­n country, a clan which also embraced people by the name of MacBrayne.

One Donald MacBrayne left there in the early years of the 18th century to go and work in Glasgow. As he toiled in the High Street linen printers, little could he have imagined that three centuries later mere mention of his surname would conjure images across Scotland’s inner eye of ships, storms, legendary mariners and magical islands – all courtesy of his then unborn grandson David.

The family name will be recited again today as the Loch Shira makes a wee bit of history. There have been around 250 predecesso­rs, undervario­us guises, from the Comet, in 1812 Europe’s first successful commercial steamship, to the modern Clansman plying its trade out of Oban.

What David MacBrayne would have made of the 24-carLoch Shira is anybody’s guess. But he would certainly have been aghast at the prospect of a company that has borne his name since 1879 having to bid for the right to continue doing what it already does.

We knowthat much today, and a lot more besides about David MacBrayne, his commercial forebears and heirs, thanks to an extraordin­ary book just published, written jointly by a hydrogeolo­gist and an eminent Celtic scholar.

Dr Nicholas Robins, who works with the British Geological Survey, and Donald Meek, professor of Scottish and Gaelic Studies at Edinburgh University, have put together a definitive history of what they call the Kingdom of MacBrayne.

How many anoraks of the red and black funnels knew that David MacBrayne looked for new routes at the end of the 19th century and had one vessel, the Pelican, sail to Iceland several times, stopping to load cargo in ports such as Oban? Or that in 1909 five young Suffragett­es landed on Staffa and refused to rejoin the paddlestea­mer Grenadier to highlight their campaign?

As with many Scots, and especially Hebrideans, Meek’s relationsh­ip with CalMac’s ferries is a personal story. He can even remember his first sight of his favourite ferry. Aged six, Meek was on his way home to his Tiree croft, overlookin­g the Sound of Gunna between his island and Coll, when he caught sight of the Claymore.

“I reached the top of Croish in Caolas, just in time to catch sight of her, dressed overall and taking her first dip through what would become very familiarwa­ters for her over the next 20 years. I had such an affection for these ships. They were central tomy self-awareness.”

The Claymore served Coll,Tiree, Barra and South Uist from Oban, but she ended herworking life in Greece where as the City of Hydra she sank in November 2000.

“On reading of her demise I suffered a sense of bereavemen­t,” says Meek, “as if a family member had passed away.”

“I became known as somebody who liked to gather pictures of ships so people would giveme their old photograph­s, like the lady who went to St Kilda in 1936 or 37.

“Then when I was at Oban High School I started to write and do little broadcasts which people heard and they started to give me photograph­s and illustrati­ons. All this stuff started to accumulate and I began thinking what would happen ifmy house went on fire. It was time to put it all in the public domain, not least to honour those who gave it all to me.” ALMAC’S story is a human tale, compelling to anyone who was brought up on tales of the intuitive genius and courage of MacBrayne’s skippers and their crews, with their nicknames: Squeaky Robertson, Hurricane Dan, Paraffin Dan and Polaris, the last so-called because he was reputed to be the only master to break radio silence at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

These men represente­d a link to something very important in our past. There was a time when the seaways off the west coast were

Cunimagina­bly busy. Before the First WorldWar there were 32 vessels in MacBrayne’s fleet, and they were just one operator. But things began to change. The more ambitious services were no longer viable, such as that which had plied from Oban to Mull to Eigg to Mallaig to Kyle to Broadford to Portree to Gairloch; or that which linked Glasgowto Inverness through the Crinan and Caledonian canals.

Cruising had been one of the foundation­s of the MacBrayne kingdom, but it wasn’t long before the likes of the steamer King George V had to stop her elegant sweep down the Sound of Iona with up to 1000 tourists bristling on her decks. Car ferries took their place while lorries supplanted the cargo boats such as the Loch Carron or Loch Ard. Side loading ferries were replaced by roll on-roll off vessels, pioneered in Scotland by Western Ferries in Islay.

The Kingdom of MacBrayne is the first book about the ferries to offer a view from the islands. It is a salute to those who sailed their boats through storm and calm, night and day.

It makes the point that the CalMac ferry is so much more than a holiday cruiser. For the islanders, David MacBrayne, along with his predecesso­rs and successors, have meant the difference between their communitie­s dying or surviving.

Their vessels could carry people both ways and in the 19th century they took many thousands on the first stage of their emigration to North America or the Antipodes.

That was in the time of the Clearances and the subsequent land wars in which crofters fought for security against eviction. MacBrayne’s steamers were sometimes used to carry the forces of law and order to quell such insurrecti­on, which was deeply resented by crews and officers whose own people were involved in the very same struggle. In 1884, MacBrayne’s vessel Lochiel was chartered to take a force of police to Skye, the first such expedition­ary force there since the Jacobite Rising of 1745. But the master, a Captain Cameron, refused to comply and had to be replaced.

Mary MacPherson, Màiri Mhòr nanOran (Big Mary of the Songs), was the bard of the Land League on her native Skye and recorded these sad times. But she was also just one of the Gaelic poets who composed at some length about the vessels which served their islands.

She wrote of the pain of leaving Skye and the joy of returning, with the steamer journey to Glasgow a central feature of both emotions. “These ships are so much an integral part of the world that I study,” says Meek. “The people saw their island homes afresh when they sailed back from perhaps a lifetime in the city or abroad. There was also their ambivalenc­e towards the ship. It could take them home, but it always took so many away.” The Kingdom of MacBrayne, by Nicholas S Robins and Donald E Meek, is published by Birlinn, priced £30.

 ?? Picture: Birlinn Ltd ?? SAFE HARBOUR: The compact Lochnevis, seen here docked at Canna, is just one of the vessels that serve as a lifeline for Scotland’s islands.
Picture: Birlinn Ltd SAFE HARBOUR: The compact Lochnevis, seen here docked at Canna, is just one of the vessels that serve as a lifeline for Scotland’s islands.
 ?? Pictures: Birlinn Ltd ?? CHANGED TIMES: Caledonian MacBrayne’s new £6.38m ferry, Loch Shira, which is launched today to serve the Largs to Cumbrae route. Below: a pig is winched from The Hebrides at Greenock in the 1930s.
Pictures: Birlinn Ltd CHANGED TIMES: Caledonian MacBrayne’s new £6.38m ferry, Loch Shira, which is launched today to serve the Largs to Cumbrae route. Below: a pig is winched from The Hebrides at Greenock in the 1930s.
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