Ships of the Fleet
HEBRIDES was the first David MacBrayne Ltd. car ferry; the first major car ferry in western Scotland north of Kintyre; and the first ship in the fleet with such hardware as stabilisers and a bow-thrust propellor. She was also the eldest of a near-identical trio of ships, the first such MacBrayne class since LOCHEARN and LOCHMOR of 1930 – and, more, being ordered and fitted out at the height of the Cold War, were all stealthily equipped to serve, in national emergency, as floating nuclear shelters for the great and good.
It was at the commissioning of LOCH ARKAIG on 14th April 1960 that the new General Manager of David MacBrayne Ltd, Mr C B Leith, announced the Company's far-sighted plans for three huge new vehicle-carrying ships to serve on various island routes. In this MacBrayne management were no doubt much influenced by the success of the CSP car ferries on the Clyde – and indeed the 1964 ferries owed something to the 1957 GLEN SANNOX (III).
But the new vessels also reflected the clear, realistic logic of the “short sea crossing”. The age of the automobile had arrived, and Mr Leith and his colleagues were anxious to adapt to a new order of shorter journeys by sea, passengers and freight travelling as far as possible by road. By the end of 1960 the routes for the car carriers had been announced: Uig in Skye to Tarbert (Harris) and Lochmaddy (North Uist); Oban to Craignure (Mull) and Lochaline (Morvern); and Mallaig to Armadale in Skye.
The new ships meant Uig pier had to be almost completely rebuilt – more, Craignure had to have a pier built in the first place, Tobermory and Salen being the traditional Mull ports. But the car ferries also spelled the end for such leisurely, outdated Hebridean routes as that run by LOCHMOR – by Small Isles to Lochboisdale, Lochmaddy, and Tarbert and home by Kyle, circuiting Skye twice a week in opposite directions – and many of MacBrayne's cargo calls. The Company also wanted to abolish the Kyle-Toscaig service and the Tobermory-Mingary crossing. MacBraynes did, in fact, shortly disentangle themselves from Toscaig; the Tobermory to Kilchoan link has survived through many adventures!
A fresh HEBRIDES arriving at Uig
By the end of 1961 – with the Company's contract secured for another ten years – it became clear that these would be the first vessels born of the Secretary of State for Scotland's newly granted powers to build and charter ships. In June 1962 it was announced that the (Conservative) Government had invited tenders for three 230-ft long vessels. Following technology originally dreamed up for aircraft carries and used with great success by the CSP Clyde car ferries of the Fifties, the new boats would load their fifty cars by on-board hydraulic lifts and side-ramps, allowing vehicles to drive on and off conventional piers at any state of tide – thus saving local authorities (and MacBraynes themselves) the expense of installing tide-adaptable linkspan ramps in the piers themselves.
At the time, slow hoist-loading by side-ramp (limiting vehickles to nothing bigger than the ships were wide and to nothing heavier than the hoist could freight) was confidently expected to handle all the traffic offering for many years to come. No one foresaw that the 1964 ferries would quickly be embarrassed by their own success.
The new ferries were expected to cost about £2 million in total; they would be built for the Secretary of State under his new powers, and chartered to David MacBrayne Ltd.
Sixteen British yards were invited to tender and the Secretary of State, Michael Noble, doughtily resisted Treasury attempts to reduce the new ships to two. In December 1962 it was announced that Hall, Russell & Co. Ltd. of Aberdeen had beaten off nine other shipyards to win the contract.
The 1964 car ferries might have been ugly, utilitarian craft that quite failed to capture the affection of the Highland public. In fact they emerged as veritable mini-liners - beautifully fitted ships of splendid design and most comfortable accomodation.
HEBRIDES – especially – taking up her service as a car ferry pioneer, would retire, over twenty years hence, as an institution. That was partly because she spent her entire career on the same route.
Yet there was also an indefinable magic about the ship herself and her warm-hearted crew. It is hard to imagine the return of any CalMac ferry today from her annual overhaul being hailed on the news pages of a local paper; but in her last winter the West Highland Free Press thus saluted the return of the “much-loved Heb”. In an editorial near the end, proprietor and Labour politician Brian Wilson would make a forlorn demand that she be preserved, somehow, in some West Highland role.
In the spirit of the times, construction of the vessels was delayed by a strike; but, on 20th November 1963, HEBRIDES (II) was launched by Mrs Michael Noble at Aberdeen. The name repeated that of a respected MacCallum, Orme & Co. Ltd 1898 steamer, which passed to David MacBrayne Ltd. in 1948 and finally retired in 1955. HEBRIDES (I) assisted at the evacuation of Soay and had previously taken part in that doleful duty at St Kilda. Near the end of her steaming a Stornoway Gazette columnist solemnly assured readers that, despite her venerable age, there was no truth in the rumour that HEBRIDES had fought in the Battle of Lepanto, “nor was Vasco da Gama ever captain of her.”
HEBRIDES (II), the car ferry, duly inaugurated the new Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy service on 15th April 1964 and scarcely forsook it for the rest of her career. As the North Ford causeway had just opened in 1960 – linking North Uist to Benbecula and South Uist; the South Ford had been bridged during the war – her exceptionally well planned service meant that almost the entire Western Isles archipelago was now served by a drive-on car ferry. That same day, 15th April, the old Outer Isles mail run from Mallaig ceased, and LOCHMOR assumed the Mallaig-Armadale service until the second car carrier was ready.
With a gross tonnage initially of 2,104 HEBRIDES was the largest ship ever built to that date for David MacBrayne Ltd. (Later regulations would exclude the car deck space from GT calculation.) She could carry 600 passengers in summer; 400 in winter; more, there was excellent sleeping accomodation, below the car deck, for 51.
The car deck could accomodate fifty cars, including a small area forward of the hoist, and the vehicle space could be readily adapted for the carriage of cattle. Height clearance at the hoist end was eleven feet; further astern, to clear the engines, there was some ramping and the headroom was reduced to eight feet six inches. The vehicle hoist was powered by four hydraulic rams, one at each corner, built by McTaggart, Scott & Co. Ltd.; this hoist could lift 24 tons at a rate of 25 feet a minute, and the side-ramps - raised and lowered by cables on pulleys – were interlocked so that only one could be lowered at a time. (This safety feature may have been built in after an appalling accident on one of the CSP Kyleakin turntable ferries a year or two before; a wretched Skye minister drove onto one end of the vehicle deck and plunged into the sea from the other, and two women and a baby were drowned.)
The neat control-cabins for the hoist sat immediately astern; the hoist platform itself included two manually operated turntables made by Francis Theakston (1933) Ltd., each fourteen feet in diameter, and another of identical size was at the stern end of the vehicle deck. These greatly aided the swift loading and discharge of vehicles and indeed if pier space permitted – as it never would at Tarbert or Uig – hoist-loading ferries could ship and unload cars simultaneously. The hoist could carry five cars at a time but in practice it proved quicker to operate with four, on account of time lost in arranging vehicles. Those who were small boys at the time still vividly recall the eerie hydraulic howl of this vehicle lift – resonating wailing through a dimly tungsten-lit car deck whose lowering ceiling writhed with pipes and tubes like a submarine!
HEBRIDES was powerful, too, by the standards of her time. G E Langmuir gleefully records that her main engines were “Crossley Bros. Type HRP 8/47 turbo-charged, two-stroke cycle, trunk-piston, airless injection, port scavenging type; the service speed was fourteen knots.” (In 1979, at the hight of the Iranian oil crisis, her service speed and that of certain other major vessels was deliberately lowered – surely the nadir of CalMac fortunes.) The Crossley engines made an incredible racket and hearing-protection was essential down below.
HEBRIDES also had stabilisers – another first; they were supplied by Denny, Brown – and, too, a Brown Bros. bow-thrust propellor to help her berth at piers. This, too, was an innovation; though her most famous master – Captain James Hodgson – once dryly observed that the advantage of the distinctly underpowered bow-thrust plant was “psychological only.”
Facilities aboard HEBRIDES for passengers won widespread praise – and also criticism from those who thought it unduly lavish, despite the dearth of decent Hebridean hotel accomodation in the early Sixties – or indeed the trade HEBRIDES would quickly generate. There was a bright, neatly designed cafeteria /restaurant, aft on the enclosed upper deck served by a substantial galley and pantry. Forward on the upper deck was a characterful lounge-bar a spacious lobby separated bar and cafeteria and also contained the neat little shop and pursers' office.
The promenade deck was enclosed forward to provide a beautifully fitted observation lounge with comfortable armchairs. It also boasted, on a special mahogany presentation-stand, the bell of the 1898 HEBRIDES, presented to the new ship by Lord Strathcona. There was ample open deck-space aft of this lounge; the fat cheerful funnel and two lifeboats stood on the boat-deck, with the bridge forward and yet more open space for passengers aft.
With all this enclosed accommodation the 1964 ferries exceeded, for capacity and comfort, even GLEN SANNOX; in their basic profile some homage to CLAYMORE (1955) was evident.
Throughout the ship there was fine attention to detail – the observation lounge boasted little writing desks; a rather commanding passenger staircase swept from the upper deck lobby to the open area of the promenade deck; little brass ashtrays did service even in the gents; mahogany handrails ran along passenger corridors, for those bouncier crossings – and so on. There was an additional little “gunport” high-tide embarking deck semi-enclosed forward on the upper deck and reached from the lobby, a sheltered and private spot for passengers clever enough to find it. Most crew were accomodated behind the garage space.
The two-berth staterooms boasted en suite facilities. After she took up Channel Isles service, in the autumn of her life, one writer for Ships Monthly would in 1988 enthuse over features that even by 1964 were generally obsolete – the warm teak decking; the big funnel passengers could snuggle up against; and such navigational gems as the engine-room telegraph, whose tingling bell still echoes in memory.
In fact HEBRIDES had seriously up-to-date features besides – Decca Marine Radar, Marconi Echo Sounder; wireless telegraphy and radio telephone. Later in life she acquired two radar scanners on her foremost, which made it easier to distinguish her from COLUMBA. (Additionally, ferry fans noted that the topmost plating on the superstructure of HEBRIDES was painted red; that of COLUMBA, green. Latterly, too, the hoist-ram of HEBRIDES were painted buff; those of COLUMBA a light blue. The arrangement of windows was slightly different too. So the informed could readily distinguish the sisters.)
Further details can be found elsewhere on this website of how, in doubtful secrecy, the 1964 ferries were fitted as floating nuclear bunkers. The most visible sign was the great guillotine-style vertically sliding MacGregor watertight doors that could seal off the car deck, immediately aft of the hoist. (The car deck was additionally screened by slisding trellis gates while the hoist was in operation.) Latterly these watertight doors were seldom lowered and served only to obscure the view forward from the bar. Happily, none of the 1964 ferries would ever required to save the Tory Goverment from Soviet nuclear holocaust.
The new ships did, in fact, introduce a neater MacBrayne livery. All the metal decking was green rather than the traditional brown or dark red and their metal masts, until 1973, were white. So, until the Seventies, were their hoist-rams. The red of their funnels also varied a good deal in shade through that first decade! The final, darker shade was settled on in 1973 when all the MacBrayne car ferries (save IONA, with her first apology for a funnel) acquired Caley lions.) HEBRIDES was spared the indignity, in 1984, of “Caledonian MacBrayne” in great white letters in her hull, and managed even to retire with a white waterline.
Like the rest of the fleet, though, in 1980 she had to adopt the new Caledonian MacBrayne house-flag, a boring repeat of the funnel-colours. The original hast comnpromise of 1973 – dark blue pennant with the crosses of Ireland and Scotland (the Hutcheson.MacBrayne flag) and the red lion rampant on yellow disc (the CSP element) was ditched after complaints to the Lord Lyon King of Arms by the Earl of Wemyss, whose standard the initial CalMac houseflag too closely resembled.
HEBRIDES and her sisters, cherished as they became, were not perfect. By modern standards crew
accommodation was cramped and some aspects of crew escape in emergency positively dangerous. Retired officers privately agree that the design was inherently top-heavy and certainly the present writer can recall that latterly at least one 1964 ferry sailed with a permanent list! Survivors from the bridge on one appalling Minch crossing remember a roll so dreadful they thought HEBRIDES was about to capsize.
Hoist-loading, too, was already dated even by 1964 and by the end of the Seventies the inability of HEBRIDES and COLUMBA to handle the heaviest, longest vehicles permitted on British roads was a serious embarrassment. There was another unfortunate lapse in foresight. The hoist of these ferries sat in a well, with the result that neither ramp could be lowered unless the lift was slightly raised, thus frustrating full roll-on-roll-off operation even at the highest of tides – and tides at Tarbert, with a five-metre range, would frequently have permitted this. (It also scuppered one 1971 suggestion, the installation of cheaper side-loading linkspans into the face of mainland piers like Oban to speed the loading of the MacBrayne car-carriers.
The worst design failure of all – inexplicable, in twin-screw ships – was that only one rudder was fitted. Even more oddly, it was never rectified on HEBRIDES or COLUMBA. Their architects may have believed the bow-thrust propellor would suffice for close manoeuvering. In fact the poor steerage greatly hampered their handling – to this day HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS (ex COLUMBA) takes an endless age to berth, especially coming in astern. When CLANSMAN underwent such awful surgery in 1973 she would be fitted with twin rudders as a matter of course.
Registration of the 1964 ferries was complicated and reflected their financing (and, perhaps, possibility of their deployment in national emergency.) They were nominally owned by the Secretary of State for Scotland and were on long-term charter to the Company. Accordingly they were registered in Leith. With the advent of Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd., on 1st January 1973, port of registry was changed to Glasgow and
ownership successively to David MacBrayne Ltd. (in October 1973); to Caledonian MacBrayne Holdings Ltd. (in April 1974) and to Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd., simpliciter, in 1980.
HEBRIDES sailed on the “Uig triangle” all her good MacBrayne days. Though thirled to this service, 1967 saw her briefly relieve on both the Stornoway and Mull stations and she assisted at Brodick on the Clyde, for the first of several brief occasions, in 1973. Her most exciting adventure fell in July 1981 when she had to retreat to the Clyde after losing her rudder in East Loch Tarbert. (Divers searched and searched, but it lies there to this day.) COLUMBA headed north to relieve her – she in return being replaced by GLEN SANNOX and the Mallaig-Armadale ferry being cancelled emntirely so that PIONEER could back up at Islay; the Castlebay/Lochboisdale ferry CLAYMORE (III) was in dock after a bad accident, as usual. When HEBRIDES emerged she served for a few days in the stead of COLUMBA, sailing to Coll and Tiree and doing an Iona cruise or two.
March 1981 saw the only significant change in her appearance when new lighting regulations required the installation of a spindly foremast, forward of her hoist. Previously the light had been slung on a cable. HEBRIDES also made several livestock runs – usually scheduled around her positioning-runs south for annual overhaul – to Barra, Tiree and Colonsay.
Her celebrated crew lent the ship rather a family atmosphere and a night in certain Tarbert or Lochmaddy haunts of conviviality will still yield good stories. Inevitably hoist-loading led to delay at the height of summer traffic; but 1972 saw HEBRIDES granted an easier roster and the advent of the Ullapool-Stornoway car ferry service in 1973 relieved her of much Lewis traffic.
Despite the limitations of the hoist, the late 1970s gave her one laugh over the fully enclosed SUILVEN – HEBRIDES was the only vessel suitably for carrying that rare visitor over the Minch, a double-decker bus. Another noted passenger – in 1980 – was Hercules the Bear! Borne to Uist to film a toilet-paper commercial, the very tame, very thick grizzly bear escaped and for some weeks till his safe recovery captured Britain's imagination.
In her very first season, HEBRIDES carried 11,100 vehicles – nothing today; sensational then. She berthed in Tarbert and Lochmaddy on successive weekday nights but made Tarbert her home port and berthed there all weekend. She did not see the advent of Sabbath sailings to North Uist. She was relieved by her sister CLANSMAN until 1972 and by COLUMBA thereafter.
HEBRIDES attained an astonishing reputation for reliability and in 1977 Iain McCrorie could record that she “has often ventured out of port to cross the Minch in the teeth of a gale while her consorts were safely tied up in harbour.” Once or twice in her career she touched a rock – East Loch Tarbert can be treacherous – and had to be repaired by divers the following day. The worst mishap – when a relieving skipper sailed her determinedly towards Stockinish, rather than Tarbert, by mistake and would have piled her onto the notorious Bogha Bhocaig reef – was averted when Captain Hodgeson, off-duty and returning from vacation, spotted the imminent calamity and sprinted to the bridge. The nastiest accident, in the spring of 1982, saw a little girl badly injured after crawling under her raised hoist during passage; but this was in no way the fault of the ship's crew.
HEBRIDES was sold in 1985 to Torbay Seaways for service between Torquay and the Channel Isles; the company had previously acquired the drive-through CLANSMAN for the new service, but could not secure planning consent for a Torquay linkspan. An on-board ceilidh made the best of the last night HEBRIDES lay at Lochmaddy and similar cheer – and tears – saw her last night at Tarbert. Radio Highland hosted a live broadcast aboard her during her last night at Uig. She headed south and left Greenock on Friday, 22nd November, taking up her new duties in 1986 under the name DEVONIUN.
She was little altered in external appearance apart from a dark blue funnel and the legend, TORBAY SEAWAYS, on her hull. DEVONIUN, characterful as she was, soon became most popular. Later she acquired a dark blue hull. She was sold on in 1994 to Falcon Marine of Monrovia, Liberia and, renamed ILLYRIA, commenced sailing in the Adriatric between Italy and Greece – the Balkans crisis making the tourist drive through onetime Yugoslavia impossible. Later in the decade she crossed the Atlantic – the first MacBrayne vessel ever to do so – and was in 1998 sailing out of Kingston, on the island of St Vincent in the Grenadines.
The most beloved CalMac car ferry of all time is now, sadly, laid up and her future in serious doubt.
HEBRIDES sailing as DEVONIUM...
...and later as ILLYRIA in Brindisi
Sad news in the latest (April 2004) newsletter of the West Highland Steamer Club: it reports news on Clydesite that "HEBRIDES of 1964... was... sold for demolition by Falcon Marine Inc. (Perco Marine Inc.), St Vincent and the Grenadines, to Huzur Gemi Sokum Ltd., Turkey, and arrived Aliaga in tow on 31/7/2003. She had been laid up in a damaged condition for some years."
Text thanks to John
MacLeod © Pictures; Neil King Collection, apart from ILLYRIA belonging to
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