Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Bruernish History

BRUERNISH is now the oldest unit in the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet and the last ship to have worn the colours of David MacBrayne Ltd. She is one of the six “Small Island Class” ferries ordered in 1972, as KILBRANNAN and MORVERN neared completion – these six to be of slightly greater length, allowing each ferry to carry two additional cars of average size. The names originally proposed were BERNERA, ERISKAY, VATERSAY, SOAY, RAASAY and STAFFA; but all save RAASAY proved to be unavailable and BRUERNISH – one of three completed in 1973 – was duly launched without ceremony on 22nd March and named after a peninsula on Barra. For a full description of her design and capabilities, see the profile of KILBRANNAN.

She ran trials on 7th May 1973, after some delay due to a strike, and attained a respectable 8.8 knots. Her spell with a David MacBrayne funnel was brief, for on 17th May the new CalMac yellow circles and red lions were added. BRUERNISH left the Clyde early on 18th May duly made her first passenger sailing – from Fishnish to Lochaline – on 19th May 1973, carrying six or seven cars with comfort, and on several occasions (such as 14th June, when the relief Craignure ferry, BUTE, suffered a hoist failure and all traffic was diverted by Lochaline) actually squeezed in eight cars.

PICTURE: John Newth
Arriving at Lochaline at the start of her career

PICTURE: Forbes Hay
Making passage through the Crinan Canal

As well as this increased deadweight capacity the extra length also improved her seagoing qualities and put a little edge on her speed. It also made her a good deal more manoeuvrable and this had been especially apparent on her journey north as she negotiated the Crinan Canal. The new vessel's success was evident and she excelled herself on Tobermory Games Day - 19th July – when she bore 113 cars, two caravans and ten lorries across the Sound of Mull. (She paid for this the following day with ramp trouble, and had to return to the Clyde for her car deck to be reinforced at the ramp mountings.)

MORVERN relieved at Fishnish until the BRUERNISH could return on 4th August, and on 7th September BRUERNISH added a mildly heroic note to her history, going to the rescue of a fishing boat and towing her off the rocks near Lochaline Pier.When she assumed the winter timetable, it included a daily return sailing from Fishnish to Oban – this was for the regular chore of carrying a heavy MacBrayne lorry loaded with barrels, which could not travel by Craignure because of the weight-limit on a Mull bridge; besides, the Company had ended MacBrayne cargo calls at Tobermory from 1st October.

PICTURE: Jim Prentice
Early in her career with a full complement of passengers

On 14th October BRUERNISH also made her first visit to Lismore – conveying a load of cattle to Oban, where they trotted off by the new linkspan. But her sojourn on the new Sound of Mull crossing was brief – she was displaced by her younger sister COLL – and thereafter sank into the burdened round of relief duties, undertaking the Tobermory-Mingary service from 19th December, and then relieving briefly at Lochaline, Lismore etc. BRUERNISH did in fact spend most of her career as a spare vessel and is easily the most widely travelled of the Small Island Class ferries, granted abundant opportunity to show off the versatility of her design.

For most of the Seventies she wandered about relieving her expanding list of sisters and was generally rostered as spare/stand-by vessel in late summer. She spent two winters in that capacity at Kyleakin and, when work began on new terminals at Iona and Fionnphort in the late Seventies, BRUERNISH became the first MacBrayne ship for very many years to use the pier at Bunessan, lying there when she was not busy ferrying contractors' materials. In late 1976, and in two other spells until summer 1978, she was chartered for a period to Howard Doris Ltd., running a Kyle of Lochalsh-Toscaig service for construction workers. This ended on 6th May 1978 with the completion of that particular oil rig. On other occasions she has sailed to such remote and roadless occasions as Inverie on Lochnevis, unloading materials on the beach.

The only station with which BRUERNISH became identified for many years was the service to Gigha. The Company had actually briefly abandoned the island with the conversion of ARRAN to end-loading in the winter of 1972/73. With the commissioning of the PIONEER in August 1974, calls at Gigha resumed, the new ferry unloading goods and vehicles by crane. This was never a satisfactory solution and when IONA replaced PIONEER in February 1979 her deep draught precluded service to Gigha.

So the BRUERNISH was draughted in and on 5th February began a regular Kennacraig - Gigha roster; a crane was installed on the island pier for defreighting her vehicles. It was but a short-term expedient; she could not yet provide a RO/RO service to the island; the crossing was far too long (the timetable allowed two hours, though BRUERNISH could normally shave ten minutes off that); Gigha Pier afforded limited shelter in spring gales – BRUERNISH had often to fly in the night for better anchorage in West Loch Tarbert; and she was only certificated for 36 passengers on this auxiliary crossing.

So works proceeded on the construction of suitable slipways at Gigha (at Ardminish) and at Tayinloan, a convenient cove directly opposite on the Kintyre coast, so that she could finally operate a suitable car ferry service. In the event, BRUERNISH was absent for Clyde overhaul when the Tayinloan - Gigha service was at last inaugurated – opened by her sister COLL on Monday 10th November 1980 – but happily took up the much more convenient passage when she returned on the 14th. The crossing took only twenty minutes and she was at first timetabled to give four return trips a day with an extra double-run on Mondays. She enjoyed a substantial berth at Tayinloan, but the Ardminish facilities consisted only of the bare slipway and she had to lie overnight at a mooring buoy – sometimes dashing to it in the day if conditions became lively between her duties.

BRUERNISH served Gigha, most reliably, for thirteen years, but on 13th September 1992 finally quit for her annual overhaul at Ardmaleish; the RHUM served Gigha until the 26th, and on that date the LOCH RANZA arrived as the new permanent vessel on the Gigha service. BRUERNISH, refloated on 14th October, was once again a jobbing bowloader, and duly celebrated her return to life as a gipsy rover with a charter to Holy Isle on the 26th, collecting cattle and ponies. On 28th October she bore workers to service a navigation light in West Loch Tarbert and then sailed to Fionnphort, where she was employed in works to the new pier being built for the LOCH BUIE. She lay as spare vessel at Tobermory for some days, relieved at Gigha in November, made a livestock run from Canna to Kilchoan on the 28th, relieved at Raasay... relieved at Lismore... relieved again at Gigha... and that was just her first winter.

Later exotic outings have included Calve Island in the Sound of Mull, Rubh na Gall lighthouse and Ardlussa. On 29th May 1995 she made a special sailing in the Sound of Barra, to Ardveenish and in her first sighting of the headland for which she was named, bearing Comhairle nan Eilean officials eager to evaluate the potential for an Eriskay-Barra car ferry service once an Eriskay causeway to South Uist was built. She continued to relieve generally around the CalMac network – Kyle; Kilchoan; Largs; Lismore etc. etc. - and only the Scalpay ferry service (finally closed in December 1997) – was denied the toils of Bruernish, though in 1995 she came within days of being despatched there as relief ship. Gourock substituted RAASAY at almost the last minute.

PICTURE: Patrick Cheshire
Involved in construction works with a mobile crane aboard

Taking over relief Iona duties from the Loch Buie

On 16th December 1996 the BRUERNISH became the Ballycastle - Rathlin ferry and was the first CalMac ship to carry vehicles to the island, serving Rathlin for some months and presiding over the route's adoption as an official CalMac service on 2nd April 1997. When the CANNA arrived on 22nd April as the dedicated vessel, BRUERNISH sailed to the Clyde and became in her own part the dedicated Tarbert-Portavadie ferry – though not for long. BRUERNISH survived the passing of KILBRANNAN and MORVERN, and survived too the purge of COLL and RHUM in 1997; a tribute to her condition and the care and attention she had enjoyed at Gigha for thirteen years.

She spent the summer of 1998 as the Lismore ferry until displaced in October by RAASAY; BRUERNISH then, in turn, relieved at Rathlin and Raasay.

In March 1999 she relieved, on charter, the new Argyll & Bute Council ferry EILEAN DHIURA on her passage from Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura; in April, BRUERNISH opened the Tobermory-Kilchoan car ferry service for the season, keeping it warm for LOCH LINNHE, which finally became the Kilchoan ferry on 30th April 1999. The following day saw BRUERNISH stake more new territory with a livestock sailing from Tobermory to Kilchoan, Muck and Eigg. (She landed a bull at Muck, which also – in the course of that single day – enjoyed a visit from LOCHMOR and its very first call by the paddle-steamer WAVERLEY.) That summer saw BRUERNISH on more livestock runs to the Small Isles, alternating with RAASAY for a month as Lismore ferry (with occasional calls to Kerrera) and, with the return of EIGG after a significant rebuild, a final division of duties as regional spare vessels – RAASAY was stationed at Oban in that capacity, and BRUERNISH at Portavadie on the Clyde, from 11th July 1999.
BRUERNISH was overhauled by Timbacraft of Shandon in September 1999 and duly donned the new Small Island Class livery, with the black paint on her hull being carried several strakes higher, to the top of her bulwarks and just under her saloon portholes. It made her “Caledonian MacBrayne” - first added in 1985 and now white on black – much more conspicuous, but many feel the surviving Lamont bow-loaders look rather less attractive. 2000 passed with general Clyde relief duties – and her annual spell at Rathlin – though BRUERNISH was hauled north in July as back-up vessel at Lochaline, and did another Small Isles cattle run in August; but she had an uncharacteristically long run of idleness that winter, lying at Shandon from 10th November 2000 to late June 2001 – and that was only for emergency relief's at Portavadie and Cumbrae Slip. She also undertook trials at Dunoon to ascertain her suitability for emergency passenger service from Gourock, but made no West Highland sailings at all in 2001. She was nevertheless overhauled as usual in September – acquiring the (additional) Gaelic form of her name, BRUTHAIRNIS, on her superstructure, along with the Company's website address; a somewhat heavy initiative in Calmac's self-conscious new Gaelic policy – and sailed south to relieve CANNA at Rathlin.

Carrying the new livery, leaving Tobermory

2002 was likewise a quiet year and, Rathlin apart, BRUERNISH did not leave the Clyde once. She was however despatched to Oban in April 2003 as RAASAY had had to be transferred to the Kilchoan service, LOCH LINNHE being needed to the Western Isles to operate the new Sound of Barra service until the commissioning of the new LOCH PORTAIN released LOCH BHRUSDA for that duty. BRUERNISH had an easy summer of it at Oban until the chronic troubles of the new CORUISK caused a reshuffling of assorted double-enders, whereupon BRUERNISH had to assume the Tobermory-Kilchoan crossing on Tuesday 26th August, serving till 3rd September. In January 2004 she ended some months of inactivity when she relieved her sister EIGG on the Oban-Lismore station.
Entering Oban Bay while on Lismore relief
PICTURE: Iain McPherson
With Raasay at Tobermory

BRUERNISH's role became increasingly sparse from 2004 onwards and by this time she now spent most of her time at the spare berth in Oban, providing back up on the Lismore route and occasionally the Kilchoan crossing. One such occasion  was in summer 2005 when she relieved for the LOCH LINNHE which was in turn relieving for the LOCH BUIE at Fionnphort. On this occasion she was actually joined at Tobermory by the RAASAY and the they operated a two-ship service - a very rare event nowadays. It is times like these that prove the versatility and continued usefulness of these little ferries.
The final chapter in this story came in 2006. For several weeks in February and March, BRUERNISH took charge of the Oban - Lismore service once more while EIGG was relieving at Jura. She was assisted by the spare Loch Class vessel ISLE OF CUMBRAE which was based at Craignure, while she had her engine upgraded at the south pier. The larger ship spent several days in service on the Lismore run while BRUERNISH had her maintenance carried out, but otherwise would cross the Firth of Lorn to Oban and take the Lismore sailings on days when high vehicles were booked on (regulations dictating that BRUERNISH's bridge was too low to maintain forward visibility). With the regular vessel back from her overhaul, BRUERNISH spent the rest of the summer tied up at the spare berth in Oban. The next time she came to life was on the first day under new ownership, having been sold on Monday 25th September to new owners in Ireland. On Tuesday 26th September the oldest vessel in the fleet left Oban for the last time as she started her journey south to start her new life at Clare Island.

Lying at Oban's south pier

By the time of her final departure, she was one of a select and very small band of car ferries to have attained thirty years in service - GLEN SANNOX and JUPITER being two others in this club– in fact she had been in service longer than any other recent car ferry, having beaten GLEN SANNOX's record of just over 32 years back in June 2005. Quite a claim to fame for such a little vessel!

Text thanks to John MacLeod & SoC Crew (C)

Other Articles of Interest:

Fleet Feature: Island Class

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