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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Arran History

The ARRAN was the first seagoing car ferry ever built for service in Clyde or West Highland waters and, as such, was probably the most important pioneer in CalMac history since the invention of the steam-engine. She entered service in a CSP outfit which, the 1953 MAIDs apart, consisted almost entirely of steamers. By the time Arran quit the Company's service, in 1979, the entire salt-water fleet of CalMac was motor-driven and all but one of the major units was, like herself, a drive-on car ferry.

Lord Hurcombe, then chairman of the British Transport Commission – the CSP had, in 1951, temporarily lost its identity - announced the construction of three “general purpose” Clyde ferries in his February 1951 speech. (They were part of his £1 million plan to modernise to Clyde fleet, which included the Maids.) As well as capacity for 500 passengers, livestock and general cargo, these practical vessels were to be fitted with electric hoists and side-ramps to allow the driving on and off of vehicles from conventional piers and at any state of tide. And they were to be motor-vessels; the CSP, thrilled to steam-engines to the very onset of the Second World War, could no longer afford the heavy cost of steam propulsion.

In fact the Company had been considering purpose-built car ferries as long ago as 1939; indeed, Appledore Ferguson still hold plans prepared for the CSP that year – one hoist-loading design bears vague resemblance, in her hull form, to the post-war Loch Seaforth; and another, with side-doors, anticipated such post-war South Coast ferries as Balmoral (1949).

Arran, first of the “general purpose” ships, was launched at Messrs Denny's Dumbarton yard, on Tuesday 22nd September 1953, by Mrs J L Harrington. Her husband bore a state-socialist title, Chief Officer (Marine and Administration) of British Railways (London.) And he, of course, made the speech. “Arran is more than another new ship. She is a novel ship and the embodiment of much ingenuity to cater not only for passengers and cargo but also for motor vehicles and containers. The beauty and grace of yesteryear does not take us far today. Even relative values have changed. Arran would cost as much as the combined price of Duchess of Montrose, Duchess of Hamilton, Marchioness of Lorne, Marchioness of Graham and Caledonia – five of the present Clyde fleet built between the wars...”

Picture: William Murdoch
ARRAN at Gourock in CSP livery


The Second World War had ended barely eight weeks previously; Arran would sail into the first months of the Thatcher government. Her blunt geographical name (and those of her sisters) reflected prosaic duties and their austere, utilitarian design. None of the “ABC” ferries could ever be mistaken for a pleasure steamer and, as far as her internal arrangements went, Arran (like her sisters) was the nearest the Company ever launched to a bus.

They were, naturally, to serve Arran, Bute and Cowal and the choice of names had another sub-text – t5he CSP had deliberately adopted the nomenclature of its late, below-stairs subsidiary, the Clyde & Campbeltown Shipping Company, for one of the main tasks of the new ferries was to bear cross-Clyde cargo previously entrusted to these glorified puffers. Indeed, the previous Arran of 1933 had just been rudely renamed Kildonan, to release the name for the car-carrier – Kildonan would be scrapped after the 1957 arrival of Glen Sannox.

Cars, not cargo, most visibly defined the Arran purpose. She could carry about 26 cars (or 47 head of cattle!) on her enclosed main deck, accessed by electric lift and side-ramps. Other elements of her design showed naivete and compromise. Aft of this, there was a cargo-hold, equipped with Samson posts and derricks; these would not only handle general cargo but extract her vehicles in the event of hoist failure. (In fact her lift would prove extremely reliable; and within months the mass of cargo was already been shipped within the belly of a lorry, or palletised and dumped on her hoist by forklift truck.) Likewise, too, her car-deck was fitted with the necessary fittings for the penning and shipment of livestock on the hoof; again, within a very short period most of it would be borne by motorised float.

Picture: J A Smith (Thanks to John MacLeod)
Arran in DMB livery with original car hoist in
position behind funnel, pictured at Colonsay on charter.


Arran passenger facilities were the Spartan side of basic, to match her businesslike profile and sternly plain funnel. On her original Class V certificate – for the Firth of Clyde – she could accommodate 650 passengers “in that section of the ship forward of the hoist and above the car deck,” writes Iain C MacArthur.. Most of the enclosed passenger deck is occupied by a large lounge and a tearoom with seating for 38. One companionway gives access to the car deck and to the bar situated below the car deck. An open deck forward at old promenade deck level is reserved for the electrical rope-handling equipment. Above the passenger deck is the boat or upper deck reached by a single narrow stairway. Raised above the level of this deck is the navigating bridge.” In contrast to the Maids, passengers are thus permitted to the forward extremity of the promenade deck and have an unobstructed view forward. Accommodation for the deck officers and purser is provided below the bridge while the engineers and crew have their cabins at the after end.”

It would not take long for traffic, and events, to confound elements of this design. Incredibly, the Company had expected the three new car ferries to maintain three routes – Gourock-Dunoon, Wemyss Bay-Rothesay and Fairlie/Ardrossan-Brodick, not to mention the odd run to Millport on Great Cumbrae – despite the inevitability of breakdown or the need for winter refit. It became rapidly apparent that a fourth, bigger and much better appointed ferry, expressly for the Arran run, was essential.

For their length, too, in 1953 many actually thought the new ferries were too beamy. It would become apparent that, being side-loading car ferries, they were not nearly beamy enough and were readily embarrassed by long or heavy loads; Arran could not ship anything bigger than 30 feet long, and could certainly not carry the 32-ton lorries allowed on British roads by the end of her working life. As the redundancy of the new vessel's cargo-handling gear became obvious, it was removed in their 1958 overhaul. The hold was plated over and a tripod mainmast replaced the Samson posts. This allowed the aft section of the promenade deck, as well as the main deck area of the former cargo hold, to be used for vehicles and increased the car-capacity of Arran and her sisters to 34.

This was just as well, for weight of motorised traffic had utterly exceeded expectation. Where the BTC had anticipated hundreds, they were carrying thousands of cars. Ten thousand cars would use the Gourock-Dunoon service within six months of its inauguration – on one July 1954 day Cowal alone freighted 297 cars. (In the whole of July 1953, just a year before, only 58 vehicles were borne over the fifth – largely by planks and paddle steamer!) Car traffic continued almost exponentially to increase, into and through the 1960s, and the slow hoist-loading operation of these pioneer ferries – all the slower at an extremely low tide - became a manifest nuisance.

Against the irritation, the astonishing skill and despatch with which their crew soon learned to handle cars was a treat to behold; and the car-carrying culture eventually took a grip of the Clyde. In pre-war days, the fare for a car had been determined by its weight; even when Arran entered service, the criterion – still more illogical – was the vehicle's horsepower. Fares were slashed with the advent of the new ferries – and a return ticket introduced, at 1 ½ times the single fare – but even that seemed to be a faintly dangerous innovation. It was after the 1958 season before CSP officials grasped that length was a much better rule for its vehicular fare-structure; in 1960, with a distinct flash of imagination, they even brought in a special fare for the Mini.

With sturdy British Polar Engines, twin rudders and brisk 15-knot speed, the new ships were fast, readily manoeuvred and utterly reliable. In time they had only one nagging difficulty – leaky decks – and they were so strongly built that two would end up in the Hebrides, on seriously exposed routes and – in Bute's case, at least, with minimal modification.

"It cannot denied,” Iain MacArthur writes, with characteristic honesty, “that once more passengers were sampling the amenities of the three new car ferries, one or two complaints began to make themselves heard. The backless seats on the limited open deck space, the bus-like rows of benches in the lounge (Arran lounge was dubbed the 'dockers' mission'), the tiny cramped tearoom and the considerable vibration all seemed to be the favourite sources of discomfort. When anything approaching the complement was being carried, one luckless passenger rightly claimed that the narrow alleyway leading to the tearoom was a solid mass of jostling people endeavouring to move in three directions. These complaints were not without some justification, but to offset that rather gloomy picture it must be remembered that the time taken on the passage from Gourock was a mere twenty minutes. No longer was the passenger accommodation encumbered by crews and cargo; no longer were there through draughts in the saloons while the steamer was under way and – possibly most important – no longer were winter services carried out by steamers with hardly a vestige of heat below deck.”

Arran ran her trials on 17th December 1953; her two British Polar Atlas diesel engines produced a top speed of 15.64 knots. (She had to detour from this outing to help another Denny product, the 1934 paddler Caledonia, which had broken down off Innellan on her morning run to Wemyss Bay.) The car ferry was in fact the last Clyde vessel to be launched at Denny's celebrated Dumbarton yard, though they would build the anachronistic Claymore in 1955. She was, however, towed to the Ailsa yard at Troon for fitting out; and, at £260,000, cost a little more than her younger sisters.

Iain McCrorie has left a warm memoir of the new car ferry's first day in service.

“Monday 4th January 1954 was fine... The 12.10 pm run [from Gourock to Dunoon] was to be taken by Arran and she was busy loading cars and passengers at Berth A. The Dunoon folk had turned out in force to witness her arrival – there were no pier dues on this occasion – and cheered loudly as she approached. Lord Inverclyde, representing the Scottish Tourist Board, cut a white ribbon to allow the first car, driven by the Secretary of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club, to pass from the ship on to the pier. The car ferry era had begun.

“Arran's outward appearance, especially her two protruding Samson posts, suggested that she was a cargo carrier but once inside one realised that she catered also for passengers in her lounge with upholstered bus-type seating, in her small but cosy bar, and in her tearoom which actually did provide lunches and high teas during the first season.

“I remember hurrying down to Gourock Pier on that first day as fast as my bike could take me as soon as the school bell sounded at four o'clock. I was fascinated by the novel and efficient way in which cars were loaded and unloaded. Each time the lift came up or down it carried a load of anything up to five cars, and so cars waiting to go on board did not have to stand by till all the cars on board had come ashore. A one-way system operated below with the help of a turntable at the forward end of the garage, and I soon realised that this meant that the first car on board the ferry was also the first off. On the lift itself there were also two large turntables which were hand or foot operated. Two or three seamen grabbed the front and rear of the cars and with a stepping movement of the foot propelled the turntable around.

“Motor traffic – cars, lorries and even buses – was building up and by the end of January Arran had carried over 400 vehicles between Gourock and Dunoon. In the corresponding period in 1953, five cars had made the journey. By 23rd March 2,000 vehicles had used the service and a lucky driver was presented with a free ticket. It was fortunate, with the demand for car transport much greater than the CSP Co. had ever anticipated, that the second car ferry Cowal was able to be in service before the Easter weekend of 1954.”

For fifteen years little disturbed the service of Arran. She devoted herself largely to the Upper Clyde – Gourock to Dunoon; Wemyss Bay to Rothesay and and Wemyss Bay (or, on occasion, Largs) to Millport. She had fleetingly been envisioned as an Arran car ferry and she did relieve on that run from time to time. Apart from her 1958 surgery, the only changes were to her livery – adopting the new colours in 1965 (monastral blue hull with chocolate boot-topping and Caley lions on her funnel).

But the advent of the Scottish Transport Group, and the convergence of CSP operations with those of David MacBrayne Ltd, brought dramatic career change. Islay (and associated services to Jura, Gigha and Colonsay) had no part in the MacBrayne car ferry scheme of 1964 and the Company's repeated attempts, through the Sixties, to introduce drive-on ferry operations were once and again stymied partly because of the internal feuding on Islay – there was ferocious rivalry between her ports, Port Ellen and Port Askaig) and partly because of the cowardly ineptitude of Argyll County Council.

A book might be written about the Islay stramash – and, indeed, Andrew Wilson eventually did – which finally coalesced around two rival schemes: serving Islay by an overland route via Jura (with quick ferry crossings from the Argyll mainland to Jura and from Jura to Islay) or a direct car ferry service from a nearer point on Kintyre than MacBrayne's distant pier near the head of West Loch Tarbert. In the late Sixties a private concern, Western Ferries Ltd, did start such a direct car ferry service, on cheap-and-cheerful lines in happy collusion with an Islay carrier and borrowing heavily from Norwegian principles of ferry operation – end-loading vessels that were very basic and very reliable, from still cheaper and alarmingly flimsy linkspans. MacBraynes were still bogged down in increasingly hopeless political discussions about hi-tech purpose-built new ferry terminals; and the row was further complicated by the Press, who blew the whole Western Ferries enterprise into a David v. Goliath struggle and questioned the need for additional public spending on State-owned operations.
 
The STG quickly resolved to cut this Gordian knot by replacing the worn-out mailboat Lochiel (1939) with a spare CSP side-loader, which had the additional advantage that, as a hoist-loading ferry, she could use the existing piers. It was a short-term expedient only – the STG hoped that eventually Western Ferries might be absorbed into its operations, or some new strategy might come up – but the ship quickly identified for the switch was Arran. The CSP would be compensated for her loss by the new MacBrayne car ferry then building at Troon – a modern, swift end-loading ferry which MacBraynes had anticipated as their secret weapon on the Islay station.
Arran at West Loch Tarbert in the Summer of 1970

Arran quit the Dunoon service on Saturday 8th November 1969 and repaired to Greenock's East India Graving Dock for an a £40,000 refit, under Lamont's. The tearoom was converted to a full-blown cafeteria/restaurant and for the first time acquired a proper galley with full cooking facilities. The observation lounge was refurbished too; 128 new seats were refurbished for passengers, though its area was reduced in size as additional cabins had to be provided for an enlarged Class V certificate crew.

Though she was not much smaller than Lochiel, the modified Arran still only won a certificate for 360 passengers – and even that only once she had been fitted with watertight doors forward of her hoist and additional life rafts around the after deck house. Her side ramps were also remodelled, the better to fit local piers.

Arran was actually transferred to the ownership of David MacBrayne Ltd in December, but quietly returned to CSP ownership three months later when the Companies agreed on charter terms. (This was probably done lest the STG fail to win the then-current capital investment grant from the Government, which would have been imperilled by a change of ownership.) Nevertheless Arran was duly painted in MacBrayne livery; red funnel (a rather lighter shade than CalMac use today), white masts and green metal decking. The Caley lions were discarded and Arran ran Clyde trials in mid-January 1970, before sallying forth as the first CSP vessel ever to serve in the Hebrides, assuming the West Loch Tarbert-Islay roster later that month.

It was a timetable of distinctly optimistic complexity. Arran was based at West Loch Tarbert and gave two weekday return sailings daily, one each to Port Ellen and Port Askaig. There were also calls to Craighouse on Jura, and to Gigha; in addition, she sailed three times a week to Colonsay. Rocks in the vicinity of Craighouse Pier added a tidal element to the Jura calls – Arran in fact maintained what was to prove the Company's last timetabled service to that island – and the cumbersome nature of hoist loading didn't help her timekeeping either.. (The schedule was erased from October 1970.) In May, Arran spectacularly ran aground at Port Askaig, and was out of service for three weeks. Islay was abandoned to the tender mercies of Western Ferries in the absence of any possible relief-ship.

In the autumn of 1972 the STG tried desperately to abandon the Islay station, and David MacBrayne Ltd duly intimated its intention to close the service. Permission was denied – after a stushie that still makes good reading for those with an interest in West Highland parish-pump politics - as the folk of Islay belatedly realised the merits of MacBrayne operations and the relative comfort of Arran (Western Ferries catering facilities were limited to on-board sweets machines.) But the STG did emerge with permission for a leaner, trimmer service and, allowed to eliminate Colonsay, Gigha and Jura from the timetable, swept Arran to the Clyde for some radical surgery.

She emerged in April 1973 in the glories of the new CalMac colour-scheme and of very modern appearance – converted to a neat stern-loading ferry. Her hoist and side-ramps were gone and all the superstructure aft of them; a stern ramp had sprouted
, and the crew accommodation formerly found in that area was transferred to her below-decks bar. (The bar in town was displaced to the lounge. One cannot expect the people of Islay to last two hours at sea without a bar.) So Arran, suitably reshaped, assumed a new lean mean timetable – three double crossings a day between modified at terminals at Port Ellen and West Loch Tarbert. Port Askaig was ceded, for the moment, to Western Ferries, and the tides in West Loch Tarbert are so slight her berth didn't even need a linkspan; she stern loaded off a mild concrete slope.)

The rebuild had cost a cool £100,000. Yet Arran's new Islay career was brief and, when Pioneer took over the service on 14th August 1974, the Founding Mother of Company car ferries was relegated to spare vessel, relieving regularly on both the Clyde and the Western Isles. In her 1975 overhaul she acquired a side-ramp, starboard, so she could relieve at Dunoon; and she was in service throughout the winter, chiefly on the Oban-Mull-Colonsay roster but also serving, for short spells, at Mallaig-Small Isles and at Islay. She spent her final summers at Gourock, on stand-by, and was frequently employed freighting gas-tankers to Rothesay, tides permitting. (Gas-tankers were not, in those days, permitted on passenger-carrying services.)

Arran made her last CalMac sailing, from Tiree to Tobermory for the Mull Highland Games, on 19th July 1979. She (and Bute) had effectively been replaced by the new Claymore, whose advent left the Pioneer free for Clyde relief throughout the winter; Columba had been free for winter relief since 1973 and Glen Sannox, her Clyde cruising career already ebbing, was free all year round for any emergency outing. But it shows the desperation of STG resources in the 70s when so much money was spent refitting, and later radically altering, a boat with only a few years of useful life remaining.

The tough old Arran was then laid up in the East India Harbour, Greenock, and offered for sale. A deal was brokered to Phetouris of Greece in 1980, but this fell through, and it was the autumn of 1981 – by which point she was looking distinctly tatty – before the Company finally disposed of their pioneer car carrier.

Arran was finally sold to Orisot Ltd on 2nd September 1981 for use as a floating restaurant-cum-nightclub – the enterprise was owned by TV personality Eamonn Andrews – and left under tow for Dublin later that month, by the tug Ardneil.
 
Berthed on the Irish capital's River Liffety, she was built up aft over the former car deck, and also acquired a helicopter pad. (The former Clyde ferry can be briefly glimpsed in the 1983 hit-movie Educating Rita, filmed in Dublin.) All this work cost £750,000 but, in 1983, the enterprise was abandoned. In December 1986 the sometime ARRAN was towed to Salford Quays, Manchester, and renamed Resolution for a similar venture. (One writer, Colin J Smith, asserts it was Revolution.) The name was never registered, whatever it was, and the increasingly forlorn vessel was finally broken up in January 1993.


Arran on the River Liffety


It was in May 1979 that the present writer, from Kilcreggan Pier, enjoyed his only sighting of this useful little ship, in the last weeks of her life and sailing from Gourock to Dunoon as she had done for the first time over a quarter-century before. Irony, though, abounds at the last; Arran, herald of the car ferry dawn, and scrapped these eleven years past, boldly took over that same Gourock-Dunoon service – on 4th January day of 1954 – from the paddle steamer Waverley.

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)


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