Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Isle of Mull History

Isle of Mull was designed and built purely with the Oban – Craignure route in mind. Through the 1980s the relatively small Caledonia found it progressively harder to cope with all the traffic turning up for shipment, particularly during the summer holidays when her vehicle capacity of just 40 cars (equal to the Jupiter, Juno and Saturn on the Clyde) proved to be woefully inadequate, as did her passenger complement of 650. There was also something of a touch of irony also present on the Craignure crossing through the years as well. The Caledonia was the summer vessel, employed on the route between May and late September while the usual winter relief ship was the Glen Sannox, whose capacity of 55 cars and 1100 passengers completely eclipsed that of the summer counterpart, with the added feature that she had far more external deck space.

As the 1980s went on it was announced that a new vessel would be built specifically for the main Mull run, which is a very busy tourist route for most of the year. Isle of Mull was launched in December 1987 from Ferguson’s yard at Port Glasgow on the Clyde and took up her role as year-round Mull ferry the following spring – a move which allowed Caledonia to be sold off out of the fleet and relegated Glen Sannox to spare ferry.

The Isle of Mull was quite literally a giant when she was launched. Her totally enclosed car deck had ample room for over 70 cars once her crew had become familiar with her dimensions and layout (although her official capacity was 80). Large wagons and lorries were also no problem with 4.7 metres of headroom at the bow and stern ramps. To aid with balance, the car deck was split into two halves; the starboard side being marked out with three lanes for cars whereas the port side was divided into two wider lanes for buses and lorries etc. She was equipped with a bow visor, bow ramp and stern ramp. The bow ramp was of a two-part folded design shaped like an inverted ‘L’, the forward section of which would fold out flat upon contact with the linkspan. When raised and secured the main section would plug the access to the car deck and the forward section would sit horizontally, supported by a hydraulic ram beneath it.

In original pre-lengthening condition in 1988...

...and a few years later with the new section added

Above the cavernous car deck there were also two levels of accommodation which provided shelter and facilities for up to 1000 passengers; the first deck comprising the cafeteria areas at the bow with the main entrance concourse and shop immediately aft. Behind this were lounges down each side of the ship, between which were the toilets and information desk with the bar located at the stern. On the deck above could be found the observation lounge at the stern and then crew accommodation further forward, with external deck space stretching from the lounge to just short of the bridge on both port and starboard sides. Above the observation lounge the top deck was also available for passenger use, with seating arranged aft of the funnel, as was the area behind the lounge, above the bar. This relatively large amount of open deck space was one factor that made the Isle of Mull a popular ship with tourists and locals alike.

Picture: Stuart Cameron
At Craignure with the smaller Columba

When Isle of Mull entered service the problems of excess vehicle traffic simply evaporated and there was even space left over on the notoriously busy 1000 ex Oban and 1700 ex Craignure. She could complete the sailing in just under 40 minutes on a good day in favourable conditions, which was a marked improvement on the older and slower Caledonia. The only problem with the new vessel was that she was seriously overweight – by approximately 100 tons! The root of the problem lay in her design and in late autumn 1988 she was taken out of service for two weeks and sent to the Tees Dockyard in Middlesbrough for a drastic surgical implant…

Whilst languishing in a dry-dock she was sliced in two immediately forward of her funnel and a new section of hull (approximately 20 feet in length) was inserted before she was welded together once more and refloated. The new length of hull actually made the vessel better not only in terms vehicle capacity (taking it to around 80) but also in that she handled better at sea and her overall speed increased slightly. The new section of hull is best identified on the climb up from her car deck. Half way up there is a break in the stairs before the final climb up to the entrance concourse – this is the additional length of hull. Prior to its insertion there was just one steep set of stairs between the car deck and the passenger accommodation. Of course with her new length came additional work at her regular piers to accommodate this even larger ship. It is worth noting also that a curious feature of her design remained following her return to service... She was built with a slight list to port - something she still has to this day, although it is often hard to notice!

Entering Oban Bay

The new Isle of Mull wasn’t just confined to plying back and forth between Oban and Craignure though. In addition to this (her main duty) she was also to take on the role of providing the link between the mainland and the island of Colonsay, which the Columba had previously done. A new linkspan was installed at Scalasaig where the Mull would berth bow-in on Monday and Friday evenings after her scheduled Craignure sailings were complete.

Sailings in winter were greatly reduced from the summer timetable, and a Colonsay sailing would be fitted in between a morning and afternoon trip to Craignure on three days a week (incidentally, in summer Colonsay was also served on Wednesdays by Claymore on her sailings to and from Kennacraig).

Arriving at Craignure

Into the 1990s the Isle of Mull remained on the Mull crossing for the majority of the time, although she did see service at Ullapool in winter on relief duties for the Suilven and following the introduction of Lord of the Isles in 1989, shes did sometimes take sailings to Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist when the need arose. Her own overhauls were usually taken care of in late November or February when the Iona, or more recently the Isle of Arran would look after the Mull duties for that couple of weeks each year.

Towards the end of the 1990s the ships went through quite a cosmetic change internally. Her cafeteria was redecorated and the serving area was modified – a move which went down very well with her passengers and has since set the standard for the rest of the fleet. The shop was moved from its broom cupboard-like position near the bar on the port side to a much more prominent position in the entrance concourse and she received new seating covers etc, all of which boosted her appearance to the passenger’s eye.

At the turn of the millennium she was still to be found in Oban, although her fleetmate had changed for the larger Clansman back in 1998. Whilst still on Mull duties, she found herself being switched with the larger ferry more often than when it had been Lord of the Isles. She was also perhaps showing her age by this time as well. Her passage time was no longer advertised at 40 minutes – it had been lengthened to 45. There were also some fundamental changes to her timetable during the summer, with the early sailing being brought forward to allow more time for loading passengers for the 1000 sailing. On Saturdays too, her timetable was slowed down to allow more time for loading on each sailing.

In more recent years there has been much more flexibility on the Mull crossing. Whilst Isle of Mull does handle the majority of Craignure sailings, a fair amount of them are now actually scheduled to be carried out by the Lord of the Isles, although granted, some of these are extra sailings.
This may all change again though in years to come, depending on the outcome of the process surrounding the Mallaig - Lochboisdale - Barra consultation. One of the proposals calls for Lord of the Isles to leave Oban once again and take over the 'new' route and with Clansman's duties being rearranged, Isle of Mull would once again become the sole vessel for Craignure with room for additional sailings in the winter months. At the moment though, this is by no means certain.

December 2007 saw a major first for her. Following her annual overhaul in Garvel she headed down the Clyde to Arran and took over the service from Ardrossan to Brodick from Caledonian Isles and took her first ever sailing as a Clyde ferry. (You can see a set of photos of Isle of Mull in this role here). Unfortunately things did not go according to plan and within days of relieving the regular vessel, a spell of particularly foul weather set in and Isle of Mull saw herself forsaking Ardrossan in favour of Gourock on numerous occasions. The tight turn in Ardrossan harbour, coupled with her lack of bow thrust in comparison to Clansman and Caledonian Isles, meant that in high winds she found it even more difficult to get in than normal. She spent three weeks or so endearing herself to the residents of Arran before she was released to return to the Western Isles, passing via the Sound of Islay.

Entering Ardrossan harbour

Lying at Oban's new linkspan

Passing Lismore lighhouse

The Mull has now been the mainstay of the Oban – Craignure crossing for almost 20 years now. Whilst she is still a popular vessel with both passengers and crew alike, there is a question of how much longer it will be before she succumbs to the inevitable and requires replacement. There are those who believes she is getting too small for the job as it is, and there are those who are against a larger ferry due to the infrastructure on the island itself. One thing is for sure though, with no hint of a replacement mentioned to date, Isle of Mull will surely serve for some years yet.

Text thanks to SoC Crew (C)

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