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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Iona (VII) History

IONA was the first of a new, second generation of major car ferries completed in the 1970s for the Scottish Transport Group companies. She was also the first drive-through RO/RO ferry built for the fleet and in fact would be the only drive-through ship laid down for the Company until 1983. Fast and extremely versatile, she would enjoy a far-flung career and inaugurate more endloading linkspans than the rest of the fleet put together. For much of her career her galley was reputed to produce the best food in CalMac and her crews always praised her as an excellent sea boat.

But – very basic and distinctly soulless – she is remembered with very little affection by the Highland public and was assailed throughout her career for her cramped facilities and entire lack of character. There were also serious design faults which, when MCA regulations were ferociously tightened after the ESTONIA tragedy in the mid-1990s, hastened her demise from CalMac service. PIONEER, though no less Spartan and by most standards even more hideous in profile, was genuinely loved by the end of her CalMac career; few regretted the passing of IONA.

IONA's early career was thrown entirely askew because she was unable to operate on the route for which she was built. Islay and its satellites were not blessed by MacBrayne's car ferry revolution of 1964 and the Company quickly set about plans to build a fourth dual-purpose car ferry to replace the ageing 1939 mailboat LOCHIEL, which still chugged to Islay, Jura, Gigha and Colonsay from her pier high in the shallow reaches of West Loch Tarbert. Islanders, though – especially on Islay – were massively divided on what form a new car ferry service should take. Apart from the extremely unhelpful rivalry between Islay's competing ports, Port Ellen and Port Askaig, many thought the island was best served by an “overland” solution, using Jura as a stepping-stone between the shortest points from the Argyll mainland to Jura and from Jura to Port Askaig.

Early in 1968 the Secretary of State for Scotland, William Ross, finally dismissed the overland solution on the grounds of cost and authorised
MacBraynes to order the building of a large new car ferry for the Argyll Hebrides. The contract was awarded to the Ailsa yard on 10th December, at a cost of £740,000, and Argyll County Council was instructed to proceed with building suitable terminals; as a deep-drafted vessel was on the stocks at Ailsa, new facilities were required much further down West Loch Tarbert, and a site at Redhouse was identified. The new ferry was expected to enter service in the spring of 1970 and if the Redhouse terminal was not ready for use she would serve Port Askaig and Colonsay from Oban. (MacBraynes seemed happy to abandon Jura to Western Ferries – their bowloader SOUND OF GIGHA provided a frequent service at Feolin Ferry, across the narrows from Port Askaig - and it is not clear how the Company planned to look after Gigha.)

The County Council must be judged as the villain of the piece because in January 1969, after preliminary test-borings, the ruling fathers of Argyll gaily declared they would not, after all, proceed with works at Redhouse, abdicating on grounds of cost. They also had a powerful alibi – a private concern, Western Ferries Ltd., had started its own roll-on/roll-off ferry service to Islay, cheap and cheerful in the extreme but backed by powerful haulage interests in Port Askaig and Jura. Yet the Islay people still demanded a continued service by David MacBrayne Ltd. - whose well-crewed vessels had far better passenger facilities – despite this highly unhelpful competition. It was the start of a painful saga which would stalk the Company for a decade; Western Ferries were not slow to exploit a well-disposed press and taxpayers were readily roused to ire by the thought of public money being squandered in contest with private enterprise.

The new Scottish Transport Group had taken control of combined CSP and MacBraynes shipping services that New Year and so inherited the entire controversy. The tipping-point was the deep draft of the new ferry building at Troon. She could certainly not operate from MacBrayne's existing West Loch Tarbert pier. Nor in 1969 would either the Treasury, or public opinion, bear the heavy cost of building new facilities at Escart Bay – the latest site identified on the Kintyre peninsula – when they would all but duplicate Western Ferry's base at nearby Kennacraig.

STG bosses felt the route from Oban to Port Askaig and Colonsay was simply too long and so – in a turn of events that dumbfounded MacBraynes – the entire scheme was abandoned in August 1969. Instead, it was intimated, one of the pioneering Clyde car ferries would replace LOCHIEL at Islay the following spring; the hoist-loading ARRAN could, after all, use the existing piers and counter the Western Ferries enterprise at very little cost. And the new ferry building at Troon would, as a temporary quid pro quo, take up service on the Clyde for the CSP.

It was all very unfair, and hard for MacBrayne officials to swallow; the Company had, especially in the 1960s, shown much more professionalism and flair than the CSP. For their pains, it would be two years before the state-of-the-art ferry on the stocks at Troon would enter MacBrayne service and almost a decade before she would be permanently stationed at Islay.

IONA was launched, in brilliant sunshine, on 22nd January 1970 and named by Mrs P M Thomas, whose husband Patrick was Chairman of the Scottish Transport Group. The new vessel thus acquired a historic MacBrayne name which – though conserved carefully for Company use by a succession of wee Iona launches – had last been borne by the celebrated paddler of 1863, finally scrapped in 1935 at the splendid old age of 72. Otherwise the ship bore not the least resemblance to that much-loved steamer.

The car ferry's fitting out took longer than expected, owing to delays by subcontractors, and rather than the week or two confidently expected for proving runs before the start of the Clyde summer timetable, IONA finally set sail just a day before it began. She was still missing a plate-glass window in in her lounge, due to a glaziers' strike; and assorted saloon fittings, such as a clock and pictures.
 
The new IONA eventually ran trials on Monday 25th May from 11.30 am to 9 pm. After two days for adjustments at Troon there were more trials from 8.30 am on Thursday 28th, and the new ship attained a remarkably high speed on the Skelmorlie measured mile – 17.51 knots. At 7.45 pm that day she was handed over to MacBraynes and left Troon at 8.30 the following morning for Gourock. At 18.10 that same evening, Friday 29th May, she left Gourock under the command of Captain Archie Downie on her first public sailing – to Dunoon and in the service of the CSP. IONA thus displaced CLANSMAN – on charter from MacBraynes until the newcomer was ready for service; CLANSMAN was at last free to dash to Mallaig for the Armadale service – and assumed the Gourock-Dunoon crossing with BUTE as her consort. Only four days later the MacBrayne red on IONA's apology for a funnel was painted yellow.

Picture: Stuart Little
IONA passing BUTE off Gourock early in her career.


IONA was emphatically a car ferry and positively bristled with ramps – her high bow incorporated a bow visor and, aft, she flaunted a low stern with stern-ramp, behind her hoist and side-ramps – originally intended for Colonsay. The hoist could handle loads of 27.5 tons – greater capacity than the 1964 MacBrayne ferries – and, like theirs, incorporated two turntables. Traffic for the hoist was marshalled not by sliding trellis gates, as on the pioneering car carriers, but by automatic barriers – similar to those used in commercial car-parks. The car deck itself was the height of two decks; it could take vehicles up to 16 ½ feet in height and was specially strengthened to carry 32-ton loads. IONA could take 47 large cars or, records G E Langmuir, 11 30-ft vehicles and seven cars.
 
IONA bore four large lifeboats and two nicely raked masts. Her tiny funnel, though, was a dummy – the bridge-controlled engines (another Company first) vented through twin exhausts immediately forward of her lift, and these also incorporated the hoist-control cabins - and housed the vessel's battery room. It looked distinctly silly. She was ten feet longer than HEBRIDES and her sisters, and of greater draft if of slightly less beam; but her twin rudders gave her greater manoeuvrability. She enjoyed a bow-thrust unit and retracting stabilisers; a thruster was now standard for a major car ferry, but the stabilisers were not operational while she remained on Clyde service.

Picture: Billy Murdoch
IONA's profile view as launched.


Her vehicle facilities certainly impressed; IONA's passenger accommodation, though, compared very poorly with the 1964 ships. For a start, there wasn't much of it and no one could describe her saloons as spacious. There was a full-width lounge, with seating for 101 passengers, forward on the boat deck. It was quite pleasantly decorated, with seats upholstered in shades of violet and blue: by the end of her career these had been recovered in sick-coloured vinyl. However, seated passengers enjoyed but poor views – her high bows obstructed the outlook forward and in event winter-boarding seemed to cover those windows almost all rear round.

Aft of this, a deckhouse held a cafeteria for 97 passengers. Below the boat deck and on either side of the car deck – but raised 8 ½ feet above that level – were two “gallery” decks, incorporating gangway entrances for use at high tide, and her officer's berths. IONA's grim smoke-room/bar was situated below the car deck – at least Clyde commuters were used to this by now and could seat fifty people; on this lower deck, too, were the quarters for her crew.

In a bid to economise – and most unusually for a big MacBrayne ship – the new ferry had no sleeping accommodation for passengers. She was nevertheless granted a Class V certificate for 581 passengers, though the Islay station did not require a passenger capacity greater than 400 on a Class III. Designed to Lloyd's Class + 100A1, for service in exposed Western Isles waters (or the Clyde, downfirth) IONA had BoT IIA and III Certificates for 160 and 403 passengers in winter and summer respectively.

There was more single-berth officer accommodation on IONA's navigating bridge deck. The new ferry's machinery certainly impressed. The Denny-Brown retractable stabilisers complimented the diesel-driven 3-ton bow-thrust controllable-pitch propeller, and her main machinery consisted of twin Paxman engines each driving a fixed-pitch propeller through a gear; this, noted Mr Langmuir, gives propeller speed of 300 rpm, compared with the engine speed of 900 rpm, and a speed of 16 knots at 80 per cent continuous rating. Control can be had from the consoles in the engine-room, in the wheelhouse, in the bridge wings, or at the aft end of the navigation bridge deck, for astern working.”

Her normal service speed proved to be just over 15 knots, with something useful in reserve. IONA was in fact the first ship in the Company's history to have her screws powered via geared transmission, instead of direct drive, but these gearboxes were to be a regular source of trouble throughout her career. She had, in fact, two serious design faults. The first was trivial, but annoyed a host of travellers over the years: IONA boasted very little open deck space for passengers, and what little there was was pretty cluttered with mooring bitts and so on. She was the Company's first vessel without traditional teak decking and, as years went by and paint encrusted, her composite decking hosted an annoying number of puddles.

Much more serious was her bow-visor; it was an extraordinary design, raised not on a hinge but by an odd racking system. The visor wasn't even watertight and, when regulations were tightened so fiercely late in her career, the IONA's sphere of passenger-carrying operation became very limited. In addition the bow-ramp was so foolishly designed – several sections, coiling back into the vehicle deck like a dragon's turn – that it consumed several car spaces.

Indeed, there was to be no shortage of trouble in these early months; even schedules had been deliberately eased for the newcomer on the Dunoon service – there were still no linkspans at either port and CLANSMAN, with her 50-car capacity, had always struggled to keep to the traditional 20-minute turnround times. IONA was leniently scheduled on the service, providing eight return crossings daily through the week and six on Sundays, with 45 minutes allowed for most of her turnrounds.

As early as 30th May, on only her second day in service, the IONA had to be despatched to Troon for repairs to her starboard ramp, which she had damaged at Dunoon the previous day. Hoist repairs took a whole day and she did not return till Monday 1st June – GLEN SANNOX had dashed to relieve her and the two vessels briefly consorted one another. On 2nd June, IONA was again out of service – her forward capstan needed repairs. Later in June her bow-thrust unit gave up the ghost; by this time Clyde traffic was such that IONA could not be granted any more time off, and she had to operate without it until able to retreat to dock in October. (It broke down again four days later.) Her automatic steering failed as soon as she left Gourock on 1st November – by now IONA was doing special once-weekly Gourock-Brodick runs, in the absence of the new CALEDONIA, to collect long commercial vehicles beyond the capabilities of GLEN SANNOX – and after sailing in helpless circles she finally managed to berth back at Gourock, with all the greater difficulty as her capstans seized their moment to break down too.

All this was duly fixed; then, on Wednesday 11th November, IONA suffered the first of what was going to be a regular crisis in her career, the failure of her (starboard) gearbox. She lay out of action for two days at Gourock while repairs were effected, but then managed to complete 1970 without incident; indeed, she remained almost constantly on the Gourock-Dunoon station until November 1971, apart from occasional assistance at Arran. The shallow waters around Wemyss Bay precluded her use on the Rothesay station.

The real problem was that she was operating a service for which she was not built and by means – a side-loading hoist – which had never been intended as her primary mode of operation. Nevertheless Iain C MacArthur quite fairly describes her architect's failure to add a turntable at the forward end of her car deck as a “careless omission”, and this made the management of on-board traffic – especially long vehicles and trailers – all the more difficult. Between that blunder, and her unfortunate run of mechanical breakdown – no doubt exacerbated by all her hi-tech equipment, beyond the experience of CSP officers – IONA struggled to keep to her timetable. Once she was able to end-load at Gourock – she hanselled the new linkspan on 26th July 1971 – matters considerably improved, but as she had still to hoistload at Dunoon she was unable to freight the 32-ton vehicles for which she had been designed.

And that design bore scarcely any resemblance to a previous Ailsa car ferry like GLEN SANNOX – only thirteen years before – or even the 1964 trio of MacBrayne car carriers. The most obvious influence on the darkly utilitarian IONA was her intended rival SOUND OF JURA, built in Norway for Western Ferries in 1968 – the first drive-through ferry in west coast waters and of frankly ghastly appearance.
 

After IONA's own overhaul, she had two bursts of Clyde relief early in 1972 – Ardrossan to Brodick, and back on the Dunoon station – and was at last released from CSP charter. On 4th April 1972 her funnel was painted MacBrayne red and IONA set sail for the Western Isles.

She began MacBrayne service on the Port Askaig and Colonsay run for which, after all, she had been built – but from Oban, not West Loch Tarbert. From 1st May she displaced the ageing LOCH SEAFORTH as Stornoway mailboat, and IONA duly offered a car-carrying service thereafter to Kyle of Lochalsh and Mallaig. This was to be but a temporary expedient as Ullapool had now been designated the most suitable mainland port; though lacking a rail connection, the passage to Ullapool was a shorter crossing and much more convenient for drivers, especially with its relative proximity to Inverness. The change was just as well, for IONA's basic passenger facilities – and lack of sleeping berths – were ill-fitted for the very long sailing to the West Highland railheads.

Picture: Allan Comrie
Leaving Kyle of Lochalsh for Stornoway


A new terminal and linkspan were finally completed at Ullapool and these were inaugurated by IONA on 26th March 1973; the very old Stornoway service to Mallaig and Kyle passed into history. IONA still had to hoistload at Stornoway as the Lewis linkspan took another two months to complete; it finally opened on 23rd May, and thereafter the IONA (and, indeed, her successors) bowloaded at Stornoway and sternloaded at Ullapool. She was now, of course, part of the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet – all the MacBrayne car ferries, bar the second SCALPAY, passed into CalMac on 1st January 1973 – but her wee funnel was never adorned by Caley lions.

In fact Caledonian MacBrayne, though operating and advertising all passenger services, at first only owned the pleasure steamers: the car ferries were transferred to Caledonian MacBrayne Holdings Ltd. (the former Arran Piers Ltd.) and David MacBrayne Ltd. still owned the SCALPAY and assorted passenger and cargo-boats, continuing to operate the surviving cargo service to Stornoway, and certain loss-making passenger runs, such as Tobermory-Mingary and Mallaig-Small Isles. The plan was that David MacBrayne Ltd. would run any service requiring a subsidy, with CalMac operating on profitable lines. It proved to be a pipe dream and everything was integrated under Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd in 1980; David MacBrayne Ltd. survives on paper only, with two Directors, no ships, no services and no function.

She was not a popular Lewis mailboat - “The facilities on the IONA for vehicles are good, but her passenger accommodation is indifferent,” sniffed Francis Thompson in 1973 – but from 13th June IONA was enmired in difficulties that proved, to this day, to be the most humiliating episode in CalMac history.

Problems began on 13th June 1973 when the Stornoway linkspan broke down. IONA had to hoistload, again, for three days; there was great relief that the converted CLANSMAN's entry to service had been held up, as she would have been unable to load vehicle traffic at all. The ramp had only been repaired for five days when on 22nd June IONA herself broke down, and for several days offered but deplorable service, sailing at 10 knots on one engine. (A passenger-carrying ship would not now be allowed to leave Stornoway or Ullapool on only one engine.) Naturally, her arrivals and departures soon bore no recognisable relation to her timetable.

On Tuesday 27th June, in a bid to end this ordeal, COLUMBA was at lunchtime dispatched from Mallaig to relieve her. She left Ullapool with a load of vehicles that evening – 3 ¼ hours late – but, forced to hoistload at both ends, had no hope of maintaining the timetable either. COLUMBA's absence caused much difficulty on other routes – Lochboisdale traffic was diverted via Uig, and the LOCH ARKAIG had to make extra calls at Armadale – and she had to sail back to her own schedule on Friday 29th June, IONA still undergone repairs at Stornoway and still out of service.

The newly rebuilt CLANSMAN (two months late) was due to reach Ullapool and take the evening run that night. In fact, CLANSMAN did not arrive until lunchtime on Saturday 30th June, and sailed an hour later – the first departure from Ullapool since Thursday, where feelings were now running quite high: there were still no facilities whatever for waiting passengers. On passage, CLANSMAN promptly developed an electrical fault. She had difficulty berthing in Stornoway and then had serious problems with her bow-visor. The first car was not unloaded until 7.45 am on Sabbath morning, almost 24 hours after her arrival at Ullapool. By now CLANSMAN had completely broken down and there was no ferry sailing from Stornoway on Saturday: she and IONA lay uselessly by the quayside, a calamitous advertisement for the newly merged Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd.

1973 had proved a dreadful year for the Company, stalked by delays, breakdown, and even shipwreck (LOCH SEAFORTH had foundered at Tiree in March; and the MORVERN briefly sank in the Crinan Canal); and Stornoway proved such a crisis point – for CLANSMAN was plagued by mechanical troubles that summer that the management seriously investigated the possibility of putting veteran turbine steamer KING GEORGE V on the Ullapool crossing, in the absence of any conceivable alternative.
 

It was 11th July before IONA's port engine was repaired and she could proceed to Oban; it broke down again in the Sound of Mull, and it was Friday 13th July before the fault was definitively fixed. For the rest of that season, IONA was Oban-Craignure ferry and opened the new Oban linkspan on on 15t5h October. But she had still not found a permanent role. On 29th April 1974 she started a new fast “Marine Motorway” service from Oban to Castlebay and Lochboisdale, inaugurating a Lochboisdale linkspan that July and berthing there overnight. The 1955 CLAYMORE took over Coll, Tiree and Colonsay duties for that season; IONA added Coll and Tiree to her winter roster thereafter, with COLUMBA serving these small Inner Hebrides every summer from 1975. IONA's winter timetable also included a non-landing call at Tobermory. She had still, of course, to use her lift at Barra, Coll and Tiree.

Picture:
IONA entering Oban Bay mid 70's
from the Outer Isles.


Even without Coll and Tiree, the sail from Oban to Barra and South Uist was still a long one and, with very early morning departures, IONA's lack of sleeping berths was greatly criticised. And so her 1975 refit saw considerable reinvention. A new deckhouse was added to her upper deck, aft of the officers' accommodation and incorporating eight double cabins. There were many other minor improvements – such as the installation of a crane by her hoist for flitboat duties at Tobermory, or as emergency dictated - but the most striking was the demise of her silly little funnel. Instead IONA's exhausts were lengthened six feet and painted in CalMac colours.
 
This passage from Oban to the Outer Isles remains the longest in the CalMac roster – all the longer when calls at Coll or Tiree are scheduled, and can never have been very much fun on such a cramped and ill-fitted ship as IONA. It is doubtful if anyone has ever described her in such viciously funny terms as the novelist Allan Campbell McLean, who devoured IONA in his column for the West Highland Free Press on 6th June 1975. (Mr McLean, who died in 1989, is best remembered for such classic boys' romps as The Hill of the Red Fox; this glorious hatchet-job was reprinted, by permission of Free Press director Brian Wilson, in the West Highland Steamer Club newsletter of October 1975.)

Picture: Brian Hargreaves
IONA later in her career at Coll.


“The day of the family amphibious saloon has not yet come. We are spared the sight of tourists – yachting caps at a jaunty angle – driving off the end of the pier at Ullapool and setting course for Stornoway. The seaways are happily free of the omnivorous car, which is devouring all that is best in the urban environment, and increasingly fouling the countryside.

Vandals – disguised as your friendly local councillor – connive in the urban destruction by sanctioning the construction of multi-storied car parks in town centres. These monstrous concrete mausoleums – invariably disfiguring the centre, no matter how small and attractive the town – only succeed in adding to the already chaotic traffic congestion. Henry Ford thought he was liberating the peasants when his mass-produced Model T rolled off the first primitive assembly lines. In fact, he was shackling Western man in servitude to the car. Even naval architects have fallen under its baleful influence, as anyone who has travelled aboard the IONA can testify.

“A comparatively recent addition to the CalMac fleet, the IONA is a floating car-park, expressly designed for the comfort and convenience of the automobile. In the eyes of her designer, human freight was clearly a secondary – if not a minor – consideration.

“Seating and promenade space on deck is virtually non-existent. The arrangement in what is laughingly labelled the observation lounge is of so uncompromisingly bleak a nature that it might have been lifted straight from a Victorian House of Correction. In keeping with the reformatory atmosphere, on the day I crossed from Tiree to Oban aboard the IONA
the shutters remained firmly in place on the for'ard windows. A drab expanse of shuttered windows does little to enhance a long sea journey. Of course it may have been part of a none too subtle plot to drive the disgruntled passenger to the bar.

“The smoke-room/bar, deep in the bowels of the ship, has all the charm, colour and gaiety and warmth of a public lavatory. On the other hand, it could have been a faithful replica of the traditional old-tyme Glasgow drinking den.

“What a joy then to board an older vessel, the HEBRIDES, and travel in comfort to Tarbert by way of Lochmaddy. The HEBRIDES is everything that the IONA is not. There is every facility for the human passenger – on deck and below deck – and the relaxed, pleasant service that one remembers from earlier days when CalMac was simply MacBrayne.

“Given such an admirably equipped and well-run vessel, it is curious that CalMac should go to such extraordinary lengths to confuse the travelling public as to her whereabouts on any given day. The essence of a good timetable, designed to cultivate custom, is a simple regularity. 'Simple' is the last word that could be used to describe the incredibly complicated timetable of the HEBRIDES. I defy anyone to commit it to memory, even after an intensive study.

“Obviously, this convoluted schedule was devised by a malevolent dwarf with a grudge against humanity and a mad passion for cars. He wants the HEBRIDES withdrawn from service and replaced by an austere floating car-park, and has hit upon a beautifully simple solution – a timetable of such baffling complexity that CalMac returns on the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy run will suffer such a drastic fall that the service will be discontinued.

“CalMac should scrap the existing schedule and replace it with a sensible timetable. As for the malevolent dwarf, I have the perfect solution for him. He should be given a CalMac cardboard cup and plastic knife, and banished to the smoke-room of the IONA.”

MacLean was quite kind in ascribing the bar to the “bowels” of IONA. In his jolly Away With the Ferries (1999), Stuart Craig suggests the facility lay in the vessel's rectum.
 

IONA completed five seasons on the Oban-Castlebay/Lochboisdale service, but proved increasingly too small, especially with the heavy year-round Army traffic to Uist bases via Lochboisdale. She was at length liberated by two events in 1978: the commissioning of a new CLAYMORE at year's end (with greater capacity and beam) and the Scottish Transport Group's purchase of Western Ferries' Kennacraig facilities in October; PIONEER had, in fact, been using the port since June. The IONA was at last free to assume the Islay service, which she did on 15th February 1979.

Picture: Allan Comrie
IONA Turning to berth at Lochboisdale June 1978.


At first she gave three return runs daily between Kennacraig and Port Ellen, with two on Sundays. From 24th October 1979, she was able to use the newly extended pier at Port Askaig as well, and gave two calls weekly during the winter. The Company had not timetabled a Port Askaig service since ARRAN's withdrawal for conversion in 1972. At the end of September 1981 Western Ferries finally abandoned their Islay service, though retaining SOUND OF GIGHA on Feolin Ferry. Locals duly petitioned CalMac for more calls to Port Askaig, which were duly granted, at the expense of Port Ellen.

From the start of the 1985 summer timetable IONA lay overnight at the latter port, rather than at Kennacraig, in a bid to placate Port Ellen's inhabitants – though the arrangement was not continued in 1986. Islay is a difficult service and, despite providing excellent new facilities at Port Ellen (in 1981) and Kennacraig (in 1983) CalMac were constantly re-inventing IONA's duties in a bid to keep as many people as happy as possible.
 

Picture: Allan Comrie
IONA hoist loading at Armadale

Picture: Stewart Mungin
In East India Harbour for repairs


Each winter IONA relieved CLAYMORE at her old haunts from OBAN (her own relief was at first PIONEER, and later GLEN SANNOX) and usually had her own refit in February or March – sometimes at Govan, but more usually in Greenock. Losing her crane in 1983 – and a silly Perspex canopy on her limited passengers' open deck space - she was extensively refurbished in 1984, with passenger lounges reupholstered and redecorated and the “Caledonian MacBrayne” lettering painted on her hull. She continued to be bothered with mechanical trouble – usually her gearboxes – but herself helped out in emergencies; in 1982 she spent two months on the Barra/South Uist run after CLAYMORE's serious grounding that year – spending her first week sailing to Lochmaddy, as the stranded vessel was blocking Lochboisdale pier – and two days assisting at Arran.

In April 1986 she made her first of several appearances on the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy service, after COLUMBA was whipped away for repairs – IONA celebrated her first arrival at Tarbert, that Monday lunchtime, by a hoist-failure which delayed departure. She was not around to inaugurate more new linkspans that spring, but she did relieve HEBRIDEAN ISLES for an overhaul.

In May 1989 IONA was once again displaced by CLAYMORE – cascading to the Islay station on the commissioning of LORD OF THE ISLES – and she herself took over the Mallaig to Armadale service, as PIONEER was largely relegated to the role of back-up on the Clyde following the disposal of GLEN SANNOX. For the first time in sixteen years IONA was once again on a purely hoist-loading route; on 1st April 1994, however, she opened linkspans at Mallaig and Armadale, and routine hoist-loading operations passed into Company history. With the passing of GLEN SANNOX and KEPPEL she was now the oldest major unit in the CalMac fleet.

She was a great success at Armadale and achieved a remarkable 94% increase in car traffic and 78% increase in passenger figures. She also in assorted seasons offered a varying routine of weekend sailings from Mallaig to Castlebay, Lochboisdale and (less successfully) to Tobermory on Mull. In winter she relieved widely throughout the fleet. IONA also on occasion was chartered for special cruises – to such exotic haunts as Tarbert Loch Fyne, Canna and even Tighnabruaich – and she did eventually do some runs from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay; she remains the only vessel to have bow-loaded at Wemyss Bay.

But she was knocking on; she was increasingly unacceptable on the longest ferry crossings and considerations of deadweight and buoyancy soon demanded massive works of alteration if she were to remain in CalMac year-round service. It was not deemed worth it and with the arrival of a new CLANSMAN in 1998, LORD OF THE ISLES would be free to take over the Mallaig-Armadale run. IONA was accordingly placed on the sale list and she was formally sold, during the 1997 season, by a company called Pentland Ferries – newly reformed and eager to revive a Pentland Firth car ferry service from Gills Bay in Caithness to Burwick or St Margaret's Hope on Orkney. (This had been disastrously attempted by the well-intended Orkney Ferries in 1989, using a badly designed new ferry between quite unsuitable terminals and at the loss of millions of pounds in public money – hugely humiliating Orkney Islands Council, which squandered vast sums in subsidising the ill-planned venture.)

IONA saw out her last days of CalMac service at Armadale, finishing on Saturday 25th October 1997. On Thursday 23rd the lions were removed from her funnels and work began on painting out the Company's name.

She left Mallaig at midnight that Saturday to be delivered to her new owners, duly arriving at St Margaret's Hope at noon the following day. After berthing trials she was left with a skeleton watch until sale formalities were completed that November.
 

In fact it would be several seasons before PENTALINA B – as she has been renamed – could take up the Gills Bay-Orkney service; she was, however, well maintained and the seasonal service -b with much learned from the debacle of 1989 – has been a great success. And the former Iona, now in plain red and black funnels and minus her hoist, did have an unexpected CalMac swansong: caught out in the summer of 1998 when the ISLE OF LEWIS sustained a major breakdown and the new CLANSMAN was still not ready for service, Caledonian MacBrayne saw nothing for it but to charter the PENTALINA B. Accordingly the ISLE OF MULL dashed to Stornoway and the PENTALINA B sailed south to maintain the Oban-Craignure service for just under three weeks, in partnership with PIONEER. She has not since served in West Highland waters. “Throughout her life she was never looked upon as being a 'star', concluded a scribe for the West Highland Steamer Club, “but rather was an efficient workhorse that undertook efficiently all that was asked of her and so proved herself to be a most worthy unit of the fleet.” In truth, IONA was a small and rather ugly ferry with a dodgy gearbox, an adequate rather than outstanding ship which never inspired affection wherever she served.

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)

Picture:
PENTALINA B and PIONEER working at Craignure.


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