Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Caledonian Isles History

Although the island of Arran had only received a new ferry back in 1984 in the shape of the appropriately-named Isle of Arran, by the turn of the decade it was clear that she was becoming too small for her role. At the start of the 1990s it was announced that another new vessel was to be built for the fleet. The newcomer was destined for the Ardrossan – Brodick route.

The order went to an English shipyard; Richard’s of Lowestoft in Suffolk. Construction was eventually completed in May 1993 and the vessel was sent down the slipway and into the harbour on 25th of that month. At this stage her hull was painted black and her company name was carried proudly for all to see, however her upper superstructure remained unfinished.

Picture: SoC Crew
Launch Day at Lowestoft

At Brodick with Pioneer

The new Arran ferry was named Caledonian Isles; again in-keeping with the then company policy that all  new major units of the fleet incorporate the word ‘Isle’ or ‘Isles’ somewhere in their name. In reality there is no such place as the Caledonian Isles and many Arran folk would have preferred the new ferry to reflect the route’s long affinity with the name Glen Sannox – the previous Glen having left the fleet some four years earlier. But policy was policy and the new ship underwent fitting out at the Suffolk yard through June and July 1993.

Once completed, the Caledonian Isles left the inner harbour of Lowestoft and negotiated the narrow gap through the raised road bridge before passing out into the North Sea and the start of her delivery voyage round to the waters of the Clyde. Her arrival at Gourock signified the arrival of what, at the time, was the largest vessel in the fleet. She simply dwarfed the streakers as she made her way up the Firth to Gourock. In fact she was to become the largest Clyde vessel in history.

To look at, it was immediately apparent which vessel she had been modelled on – the very popular Isle of Mull of five years previously. Caledonian Isles incorporated a fully enclosed car deck, at either end of which were the watertight ramps. The bow ramp was, like on the Isle of Mull, folded into two sections, the main section sealing the car deck and the forward section held in a horizontal position at the height of the roof of the car deck. As it was lowered, the loose fingers would be the first contact with the linkspan and then the whole thing would flatten out to form the bridge between the ship and the linkspan.

Picture: SoC Crew
Exhibit A: Isle of Mull
Picture: SoC Crew
Exhibit B: Caledonian Isles (spot the difference)

One major difference with the new vessel’s car deck was that she also incorporated a set of mezzanine decks, one down each side of the central casing. Each of these were divided into three sections and could be moved up and down to their deployed or stowed positions. When deployed, the end section of each deck would be lowered at an angle so as to act as the access ramp to the deck. Once loaded, the ramp section would then be lifted flat to allow the main deck below to fill. Another difference on the car deck was that the casing was positioned in the centre of the ship – Isle of Mull had hers offset to port, allowing two lanes of cars down the port side while the starboard could either carry three lanes of cars or two lanes of commercial vehicles. Caledonian Isles’ centrally positioned casing meant that would only be able to carry one lane of commercial vehicles down each side of the car deck, with room (only just) also for a lane of small cars. Of course if the mezzanine decks were deployed then this was irrelevant as there was insufficient height to accommodate lorries etc apart from at the bow or stern.

Upstairs in the passenger accommodation, the basic layout was similar to that onboard the Mull ship. Forward of the main entrance square was the cafeteria. From here there were stairways on each side of the ship leading upstairs to the observation lounge and also to the outside deck. There was also another stairway leading upstairs to the open deck from the entrance square on the port side. Aft of the entrance there were lounges down either side of the central casing and toilet blocks and further to wards the stern lay the shop and bar lounge.

The next deck up was almost exclusively for the crew, with the exception of the observation lounge right at the bow. (It has to be said that the name ‘observation lounge’ is something of a contradiction in terms due to the fact that once seated, it is impossible to see anything out of the windows which are small and several inches above the eyeline of the majority of passengers) Also on this level is an open deck which extends right around the vessel, including forward of the observation lounge and overlooking the bow – something of a rare feature but welcomed by passengers on the crossing over to Arran.

The upper deck was, apart from the bridge, totally open and incorporated plastic red seating towards the stern and around the huge red funnel. Also on this level could be found the four enclosed lifeboats – 2 larger and 2 smaller boats mounted on davits.

Picture: SoC Crew
At Ardrossan with her relief, Isle of Arran
Picture: SoC Crew
Heading out of Brodick Bay

Following a ‘showing of the flag’ at Gourock, the Caledonian Isles headed down to Ardrossan and Brodick where she conducted berthing trials at her home terminals. Due to her immense size, her terminals had to be modified with new passenger gangways mounted on large A-frames so as to be raised to the necessary levels at high tides.

With all in order the new ferry replaced the Isle of Arran on the route on 25th August 1993. Her predecessor remained there for a few days in case of teething troubles before leaving for the Western Isles and the Islay run.

Picture: SoC Crew
Berthed at Gourock with a diverted sailing

Her annual overhauls have been the only time she has spent away from the Arran run – she has yet to serve on any other route in the Calmac network – and during these two week periods (usually in early January each year) she has been relieved by a number of vessels over the years including Iona, Isle of Arran, Lord of the Isles, Claymore and more recently the Clansman of 1998. One interesting change came in December 2007 when Isle of Mull became the relief ferry in her first ever Clyde spell of duty.

During the remaining 50 weeks of the year the Caledonian Isles plies the Clyde on her 55 minute crossing to Arran several times a day. The summer months see the vessel berthed at Ardrossan overnight and performing five or six return sailings a day whilst during the winter season she spends each night at Brodick before doing usually four return crossings to the mainland. She is berthed at Brodick overnight in the winter months as the weather sometimes rules out berthing at Ardrossan. In strong winds Ardrossan can be too difficult to get into or away from and in such conditions, or with such forecasts it is safer for the master to divert the vessel to Gourock – two hours sail to the north.

With demand for the crossing to Arran seemingly ever-increasing, and faced with the threat of competition from a private operator, Calmac decided to enhance the Arran route and relieve some of the capacity pressure of the Caledonian Isles, the smaller Saturn was deployed on the route during the high summer in 2005 (having been freed from Upper Firth work by the new Bute). Initially an experiment, this additional vessel was confirmed in October 2005 as being on the Arran route for another, longer stint during the summer of 2006.

Picture: SoC Crew
Heading back from Arran

A couple of years ago there were murmurings that due to demand and capacity problems elsewhere in the network, the Isle of Lewis may be replaced by an even larger ship for the Stornoway route at some point. The rumoured plan was then to transfer the Isle of Lewis to the Arran crossing, thus replacing the Caledonian Isles. There was speculation that she might have been transferred to the Oban – Craignure crossing to either partner or replace the Isle of Mull, although nothing more was to become of it. Instead the company chartered the freight ship Muirneag to partner the Isle of Lewis and things on the Clyde stayed as they were for a time.
Picture: SoC Crew
Approaching Brodick
Picture: SoC Crew
With Saturn off Brodick

For now it would appear that the Caledonian Isles will remain tied to the one route. Rather than replacement by a larger vessel it would appear that, as with the Isle of Lewis up in the north west, the solution to growing capacity is to redeploy and double up on ships to increase carrying capacity. It is for this reason that Saturn was upgraded to give her a Class III certificate for the more exposed Ardrossan to Brodick route. With the Saturn now on the scene as well, it seems unlikely that the Caledonian Isles will be moved any time soon.

Text thanks to SoC Crew (C)

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