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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Columba History

COLUMBA was the youngest of the 1964 ferries and would have the longest career with the company. While she never quite became an institution on the scale of HEBRIDES (largely because she was not identified lifelong with a particular route), she did establish the Mull car ferry service which became, and remains, one of CalMac's most lucrative. And she won an ardent following in her own right – largely in her latter role as a part-cruiseship – and is the only ship of the trio to remain, in highly regarded service, in West Highland waters.

COLUMBA was launched on 12th March 1964 at the Hall, Russell yard in Aberdeen, by Lady Craigton, whose husband was a Minister of State at the Scottish Office. There seemed to be a launch-jinx on the 1964 sisters; HEBRIDES's roll-down was delayed by a strike, and the launch of CLANSMAN by a damaged slipway. COLUMBA duly celebrated the occasion by lurching, owing to strong wind, and colliding with the starboard side of CLANSMAN. Happily, damage was slight.

After Greenock dry-docking and trials, COLUMBA took up an entirely service – from Oban in Argyll to Craignure on Mull, also serving the port of Lochaline on the Morvern coast. She thus relieved the 1930 veterans LOCHEARN and LOCHMOR who had kept the run warm for her and contended as best they could with all the cars. The pier at Craignure, not a historic MacBrayne port, had opened only in December 1963.

In herself, COLUMBA was indistinguishable from her sisters, save for tiny touches to her livery; there was a small Iona cross on the bow jackstaff, and the emblem was repeated on the lifebuoys on one side, balanced on the other by a David MacBrayne Ltd crossed-flags logo. At a subsequent overhaul in the Seventies, COLUMBA's observation lounge was adapted to create a special room for nursing mothers, and she could be told apart from HEBRIDES in other respects – COLUMBA did not have green lifeboat covers, and until very late in her career had only one radar-scanner on her foremast.
The new service was a huge success and, between coach-tours and Mull's burgeoning trade in day-trippers – the big attraction was Iona, available by “overland route” from Fionnphort, COLUMBA soon found herself rather toiling to handle the passenger-trade offering. She was in 1968 given additional buoyant seats to boost her passenger complement from 600 to 870. The Mull Games at Tobermory were a July highlight of the season and from 1969 the COLUMBA made special calls there for the occasion.

Her usual relief was CLANSMAN; and it was 1970, though, before COLUMBA first saw the Outer Isles – on cattle-runs, for which the 1964 sisters were extremely well-suited.

PICTURE: CalMac
In the Western Isles

By now her slow turn-round times were becoming an issue, and it was becoming less practical to include Lochaline on a “triangular” route, though the Mull- Morvern connection's potential as a dedicated ferry service was obvious. In a bid to accommodate traffic, COLUMBA was the first vessel to do something David MacBrayne Ltd had always refused to countenance – Sunday sailings, which started in 1972 and were combined with short cruises. There was some opposition to the innovation.

Actually, it would be her last year on the Mull station (with the Clyde ferry BUTE relieving her for the first time that autumn.) That winter COLUMBA herself relieved at Stornoway and for the 1973 season she took up the CLANSMAN's roster at Mallaig. The night sailings to Lochboisdale and Castlebay were only destined to last one year and through 1974 COLUMBA enjoyed an easy, not to say underwhelming, summer on a Mallaig-Armadale timetable. It came as little surprise when, on the withdrawal of the veteran KING GEORGE V, COLUMBA was restored to an Oban base.
She assumed not merely the Iona cruise schedule but also the Inner Hebridean calls of CLAYMORE, which had spent her last full season with the Company on an Oban to Coll, Tiree and Colonsay roster. COLUMBA's cleverly devised timetable saw her scheduled to serve Coll and Tiree four times a week, Colonsay three times and Iona twice. She also included, at first, Lochaline calls on the Coll/Tiree schedule and Tobermory till the end.

In another brainwave the Company took advantage of her fine sleeping facilities to offer “Mini Cruises”, with accommodation offered for two or three nights aboard COLUMBA as she sailed around Argyll. This was a great success and at the end of her first season in this new role COLUMBA had actually made a profit.

PICTURE: Allan Comire
Berthed at Coll in the early 80's

Off-season, the Mull winter ferry – usually GLEN SANNOX – adopted her Colonsay call, while Coll and Tiree were added to the Castlebay/Lochboisdale schedule. In winter COLUMBA became the regular relief on the Uig triangle and, till 1979, of IONA on the Outer Isles run. She also relieved at Mull and, in 1982, did a special Uig-Stornoway sailing at the end of the National Mod in Portree. In May 1983 she made a special sail from Stromeferry to Loch Kishorn and the Howard-Doris fabrication yard, carrying HRH The Prince of Wales (and assorted VIPS) on this wee cruise; the Prince was naming a new oil platform, Maureen.
Another charter saw her at Portree itself 1979 saw the first of her trips to St Kilda – a special overnight cruise which was a huge success and was repeated in 1980 – and her last years in service were marked by two “biographical” booklets – one a pictorial retrospective by the Company, and another by an ardent English admirer, Chris Balakarski. Plans for a third, by legendary MacBraynes expert James Aikman Smith, were sadly shelved. The mid80s saw COLUMBA acquire the new-look Caledonian MacBrayne slogan in vast white letters along her hull. It didn't suit her.

PICTURE: Stuart Cameron
Laid-up temporarily at Craignure

PICTURE: Stuart Cameron
With the new Isle of Mull in Oban 1988

From 1985 she was the last dedicated hoist-loading vessel in service – from 1978, the second-last – and COLUMBA, obsolete as she was, spent more and more of each winter in idle lay-up. She made the Company's last “Sacred Isle” cruise to Iona on 22nd September 1988 and it was a pity that bad weather cancelled what would have been her last scheduled sailing, on 1st October, to the great disappointment of a vast and gathered throng of admirers. So her career for the Company ended without rites or acknowledgement.

Yet it wasn't the end. Word that she had been sold to a new venture, Hebridean Island Cruises Ltd (of Skipton in Yorkshire!) attracted much knowing comment; even cynicism. Many proud Scottish ships – LOCHINVAR; JEANIE DEANS – had been acquired for similar schemes by well-intended amateurs; all had ended in tears.

The new concern, though, was certain it had identified a real high-end market for for luxury cruising in Scottish waters, offering food, accommodation and services of the highest quality for limited numbers of the sort of clientele who didn't need to ask the price. At the close of her 1988 season COLUMBA was bought, dry-docked, shot-blasted, and extensively rebuilt, emerging with elegant new dark-blue livery, gold beading and slightly retweaked, sleeker lines. At first she retained her hoist, ramps and some garage space; removal of all this a decade ago enhanced her appearance still further.

The luxury of her refurbished accommodation was beyond description – she is the Balmoral Hotel at sea - and happy (predominately... mature) passengers pay four or even five-figure sums for “7 to 14 night cruises in the atmosphere of a country house hotel at sea”, replete with haute cuisine and in the company of informed, urbane guides.
 
The 'Princess' has been retro-fitted with an updated Steering system. The original brass wheel remains, but has been enhanced by the fitting of an essentially electro-hydraulic system. This has the big advantage of an AutoPilot, and also a 'tiller' - not unlike those used on the more modern ships today. On the rudder theme - in conjunction with the fitting of the above system, the ship was fitted with two slave rudders, fitted immediately aft of the props - just where you need them. These rudders are driven by the original C/L rudder. This makes the ship VERY manoeuvrable, particularly important when at slow speed, making a world of difference.

HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, as she emerged in 1989, rapidly confounded the prophets of doom. The venture has been a resounding success and she has seen further rebuilding, with magnificent new staterooms and reception areas; her culture is one of old-world service and gracious living, and HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS now holds the coveted Berlitz Five Star Award for cruise-ships. She can be seen in the picture (right) on her inaugural visit to Glasgow in October 1989 after conversion to HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS coming up under the Eriskine Bridge. Her side ramps were later removed in the winter of 1992.

Her itinerary in the early years extended up and down the West Highlands and Islands and, since 1996, she has gone much further afield – Orkney, Shetland, Ireland, and even the fjords of Norway.

PICTURE: Paul Strathdee
Hebridean Princess still with her side ramps

PICTURE: John Newth
Hebridean Princess in current livery

In 1998 HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS was sold to the Greenock-based Altnamara Shipping. This did not affect her management or cruise schedule. She remains as elegant, luxurious and (for most of us) as unattainable as ever; still, though her hoist and side-ramps vanished in a 1990s rebuild, the bell of her ship's telegraph still rings, at her old ferry haunts, as evocatively as ever.

Text thanks to John MacLeod & Captain A MacLellan (C)





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