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KILBRANNAN was the first of a fleet of eight bow-loading ferries built for the STG
companies between 1972 and 1976. Described as the “Small Island Class”, these brilliantly designed little workhorses were intended to serve as lifeline vessels for assorted little Hebrides, and were named accordingly – with the unfortunate consequence, amidst the vagaries of Providence, that most of them seemed to end up operating wildly off-station. She herself spent twenty years in CalMac service – thirteen of them at Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides!
 

In fact their role in the fleet has proved to be much wider than this sole-provider-for-eighty-Teuchters-and-their-cows ambition. Several developed “back-door” services to major islands served by some other primary route – so successfully that they worked themselves out of a job as traffic swelled beyond their capacities; and they are also sufficiently versatile to be ideal for assorted, charted freight duties – able to beach practically anywhere and unload vehicles, building supplies or livestock, often in the remotest corners and miles from any road. Designed by Messrs Burnett Corless, the Small Island Class ferries were of such a standard that four remain in CalMac service to this day, even as they chug towards their fourth decade. Always superb seaboats, these Small Island Class survivors have been re-engined and may yet serve for many more years – as might their departed brethren in Ireland.

PICTURE:
Loading at Lochranza


Though KILBRANNAN, first of the line, entered service for the CSP and in Caley colours, she and her sisters were in fact a MacBrayne project. In the early Seventies, coming to grips with the new Scottish Transport Group administration, David MacBrayne Ltd's management were eager to commission purpose-built ferries and, despite the surplus of redundant side-loading vessels at Kyleakin after the commissioning of a new LOCHALSH in the spring of 1971, MacBraynes initially resisted pressure to find suitable duties for two ageing turntable ferries. They considered their design obsolete and ill-suited to heavy commercial loads. They preferred purpose-built ships, and – though they did eventually relent and find a permanent role for the 1957 LOCHALSH II at Scalpay – it was reported, in March 1971, that they had ordered “two 66-ft. bow-loading ferries from Hugh MacLean & Sons Ltd., Renfrew, at a total cost of £160,500.”

This seems to have been but speculation; early in April it was confirmed that James Lamont & Co. Ltd of Port Glasgow had in fact received the order, this time for “two MacBrayne ferryboats and these 75 ft. bowloaders were designed to carry four cars or one 25-ton vehicle,” writes Iain C MacArthur later that year. “Delivery was promised in May 1972 and the original intention was to place the vessels on the Sconser-Raasay and Fionnphort-Iona crossings...” Life proved rather more complicated; a landowner's intransigence delayed a Sconser-Raasay service until 1976, and Iona would find her hope of a car ferry service blocked by sentimentalists for even longer.

In February 1972, almost a year ahead of the formal merger but in a bid the better to co-ordinate certain operations of the two companies, Caledonian MacBrayne Services was formed and in fact became the registered owners of the two bowloaders nearing completion at Port Glasgow. KILBRANNAN was, however, launched on 19th May 1972 in the name of David MacBrayne Ltd., and her name reflected what were, by this point, her intended duties – to inaugurate a new car ferry service for Arran, across Kilbrannan Sound from Lochranza to Claonaig, near Skipness on the Kintyre peninsula. The service replaced an unsuccessful, ill-advertised Fairlie-Tarbert-Brodick run by COWAL in 1970 and 1971, and might also be regarded as the true successor of the Gourock-Ardrishaig leg of the “Royal Route”.

To general surprise among the steamer-loving fraternity, the KILBRANNAN – which finally opened the new service on 8th July 1972 – was quite an attractive little ship; certainly much easier on the eyes than CORUISK after her remodelling for bowloading service. The gantry mast over the bow ramp was well proportioned and there was even a tiny funnel aft of her bridge, with a lifeboat slung aft of that.. The passenger saloon offered cushioned seats and toilet facilities, and the car deck incorporated a turntable for the aid of nervous motorists who disliked reversing. (Crews, however, dislike using it and it seems to be seldom deployed on the surviving Small Island craft.)

KILBRANNAN – and her immediate sister MORVERN, second of the class to completed – proved to have but one fault: she was just a little too small – in overall length 69 feet, in fact, not 75. She could comfortably carry five small cars – even six, at a pinch, and with some determined work by her crew – but the rest of the fleet were build five feet longer, significantly increasing their vehicle capacity. It was also decided to reposition the younger vessels' lifeboats to free the bridge deck for passenger use. (Under modern MCA regulations it is now out of bounds to the public.)

R G Brand, Superintendent Engineer for Caledonian MacBrayne services, includes a splendid (if underpunctuated) summary of the new ship in his article for the September 1972 newsletter of the West Highland Steamer Club, though he was not then aware of the decision to lengthen. How many cars she could carry, too, is evidently a matter of – well, how long is a car?

Seven small car ferries of the Burnett Corless type are on order from James Lamont & Co. at Port Glasgow and the first of these is due for delivery in the near future. Their length between perpendiculars is to be 63' while the breadth is 21' and the moulded depth 6' 10 ¾”. The vehicle deck will be fitted with a turntable and the width of this deck in way of the ramp is approximately 12' so that they will be able to carry four cars or one lorry. The design draft amidships is 3' 9”. They are of course bowloaders with a saloon aft, wheelhouse, small funnel and lifeboat being above the latter. The prototype was handed over to Caledonian MacBrayne Services earlier this summer, being named KILBRANNAN.

“Naturally as the first of a series of vessels there are one or two minor problems to be ironed out but, in general, the vessel seems to be most successful from the operating point of view. Sea trials were carried out on Thursday 15th June, the weather being almost perfect -one of the few good days we had that month.Trials commenced at 9.30 am when the vessel left Port Glasgow to carry out compass adjusting at the Tail of the Bank. Following the compass adjusting she was run at full speed and manoeuvring trials were carried out. At full speed the vessel can turn in less than twice her own length and the angling heel while this operation was being carried out was less than five degrees. On completion of manoeuvring and emergency steering trials she then proceeded to Largs to carry out ramp testing on the Largs/Cumbrae run. These again were successful, except for the fact that the ramp was slightly slow in operation. This we were able to correct by making minor adjustments. Even following these adjustments the ramp on the KILBRANNAN class will be slower in operation than say the CORUISK since the KILBRANNAN is basically designed to conform to Class IIA requirements. One of these insists that the forward ramp constitutes a watertight seal and this, of course, entails the ramp being much heavier and more rigid in construction than the vessels which have only Class V or VI requirements. On completion of ramp testing the vessel carried out several runs on the Skelmorlie measured mile and averaged 8.8 knots over four runs. On the whole the trials were most successful. The vessel handles very well and should prove an excellent sea boat for operating anywhere on the west coast. She is bridge controlled and the wheelhouse is small and compact and indeed at one point it seemed impossible to get all the equipment into the wheelhouse. As always, however, it was all right on the day and all the equipment was installed and functioned perfectly.

“She is powered by twin Bergius Kelvin engines, type RS.6 each developing 150 SHP at 1500 RPM. The engines are intended for either electric start or hand start and are freshwater cooled. On the forward side of the engine a drive take-off is arranged for bilge pumps from each engine. The hydraulic pumps for the ramp are also engine-driven. To comply with Class IIZ requirements we also have a diesel-driven battery-charging unit which is independent of the main engines and provides a 'first start' facility if the ship was ever completely shut down. In addition to this each main engine has its own battery charger and these are arranged to float over the battery system continually while the vessel is in operation. The vessel has a three-ton bunker capacity which gives her an adequate operating range for any service on the west coast. She is also fitted with a hydraulic anchor windlass at the after end giving her a facility for kedging off should this ever be necessary and, again to comply with IIA requirements, she carries a motor-driven lifeboat at the after end.

“On the whole the vessel is most successful and her sisters should prove a useful and welcome addition to some of the more outlying areas on the west coast.”

KILBRANNAN – which, to complete a picture of entire confusion, sailed till 1974 with a yellow and black CSP funnel - was not, in fact, destined long to operate on the station for which she was named. In any event the new Lochranza-Claonaig crossing was, and remains, a summer service only (if supplemented of late by Tarbert-Lochranza sailings offseason by the Portavadie ferry). When the larger RHUM was commissioned on the service on 28th June 1973, KILBRANNAN was left thereafter for some years as relief and back-up vessel on the Largs-Cumbrae Slip route. As her capacity was actually smaller than the converted LARGS or CORUISK – each of which which could easily load nine cars – one assumes she did most of her Cumbrae sailings when one of the regular vessels was away for refit, or when weather conditions were too challenging for these less formidably fashioned ferries.

She saw a little West Highland relief between 1974 and 1977 but it was in the summer of the latter year, after relieving briefly on the Lochaline-Fishnish station, that she finally found a starring role, taking over the Scalpay-Kyles Scalpay service on 2nd June and exchanging crews with MORVERN, which had held the fort at Scalpay since January during the route's conversion from side to endloading operation. At the time there was nothing to indicate that KILBRANNAN had permanently assumed duty in Scalpay and many thought MORVERN might return after her annual overhaul.
 

In fact KILBRANNAN would remain at Scalpay – and on the Outer Hebridean side of the Minch until 1990, settling into a comfortable routine – generally nine return sailings daily in summer; six in winter - and, under the proud maintenance of the MacSween family, easily the best kept and tended of all the Small Island ferries. Her capacity was not, until perhaps the late 1980s, an issue on the Scalpay crossing; the passage was extremely short – for some bizarre reason it was always advertised as a 10-minute voyage; it took barely three – and very large vehicles seldom attempted the dubious Tarbert-Kyles Scalpay road. When many cars offered for the timetabled run she shuttled back and forth until they were all across.

Each year she sailed to Stornoway for DTI survey and overhaul, spending three or four weeks at Fleming's slip on Goat Island and until 1986 generally relieved by the CORUISK. When weather conditions – usually an easterly gale – made the Sound of Scalpay excessively fraught, she operated an auxiliary service from Scalpay's North Harbour (where a basic emergency slip was specially built for her in 1982) to Tarbert, loading off the MORVERN's former temporary slip if tidal conditions permitted – or, from 1986, the new Tarbert linkspan.

To Tarbert, too, she generally repaired once a fortnight for fuel-bunkering – always on a Wednesday afternoon, her timetable omitting the 1400 Scalpay return sailing that day. Life was not always dull for KILBRANNAN, though; she usually made one or two annual sheep-runs to the tiny East Loch Tarbert island of Rossay, and other extra-curricular activities occasionally enlivened things – a photograph survives of her delivering heavy goods to the bottom of her skipper's garden! She was the only one of the Small Island Class ferries not to acquire “Caledonian MacBrayne” lettering in time for the 1985 season, and it is doubtful if her crew – who took great pride in the appearance of all their ferries – ever relished it.

PICTURE: Fladda (SoC Forum)
Arriving at Stornoway for overhaul

PICTURE: Fladda (SoC Forum)
Lying at Stornoway pier


In the late Eighties she started to enjoy relief by larger sisters such as RHUM, and by 1990 there were increasing murmurs that the KILBRANNAN was still stationed at Scalpay, with several larger Small Island ferries now spare after the commissioning of the LOCH-class vessels in 1986. The matter was exacerbated in 1989 when new deadweight regulations were introduced in the wake of the Zeebrugge disaster and the DTI ordered a reduction in KILBRANNAN's total permitted axleweight load during her spring survey.

CANNA duly relieved KILBRANNAN in January 1990 and on the latter's return from overhaul on 20th March the two actually operated a two-ship Scalpay ferry for much of the afternoon as traffic was extremely heavy – the only occasion this ever happened in the 32-year history of the service, if one excepts the nameless launch that used to assist the chartered GLENMALLIE.

CANNA sailed south later that day, but returned on Friday 8th June – Gourock had finally decided this busy Scalpay station needed a bigger boat. After thirteen years' service KILBRANNAN would prove, in fact, to be the longest-serving of all Scalpay ferries and indeed had lasted longer than the combined contribution of all the turntable boats. But her capacity was now a serious embarrassment – especially after the 1989 restrictions – and she was never again to enjoy a settled home; in fact, she spent most of her last two years laid up in reserve on the Clyde.

Her voyage south from Scalpay was complicated by engine trouble but later that month, on 24th June, she abandoned Shandon lay-up to enjoy a new errand for her class – a sail from Campbeltown to Sanda Island, bearing a tractor. She left her Gareloch berth again on 19th August to make her first appearance on the Largs-Cumbrae Slip service since 1977 – LOCH LINNHE was at Ardmaleish for repairs – and had a long outing in January 1991, first to carry vehicles from Kyle of Lochalsh to South Rona (north of Raasay) and then to free RAASAY herself for similar duties by assuming the Raasay-Sconser roster for two days, before one more call to Rona. Then KILBRANNAN headed south again to test the new car ferry slipway at Kilchoan (as the Mingary call was now termed.)

After that she lay at the Bendoran mooring off Fionnphort in Mull, as back-up for MORVERN (the Easter traffic otherwise being too heavy for either small ferry, operating alone, as they were only certified for 50 passengers in winter.) On Sunday 14th April 1991 KILBRANNAN duly inaugurated the new Tobermory slipway, loading a car, and then sailed for Oban to assist the COLL (relieving on the Lismore station in the absence of Eigg. She had to relieve at Lismore again in May – returning hastily from Shandon – when EIGG needed rudder repairs – and on 13th June KILBRANNAN was summoned yet again from the Gareloch to make the longest voyage of her CalMac career, sailing to Burtonport in Ireland to relieve a very similar bowloader, the MISNEACH, which operated from Burtonmore to Arranmore island, County Donegal (not to be confused with the Aran Islands, off County Clare.)

It was not only her longest sail ever but earned this brave little ferry a worthwhile place in CalMac history – the first Company vessel to operate outside Scotland.

This charter finished on 16th August 1991 and KILBRANNAN left for home and Largs several days later, promptly carrying out another charter the following day – a bulldozer to Wee Cumbrae, on 20th August. She then enjoyed three month's rest at Shandon before sailing to Mull and Iona on 14th November, to relieve at Fionnphort-Iona into the New Year. It speaks volumes for the conditions those little ferries contend with that, on the night of Sunday 24th November, KILBRANNN's inflatable dinghy was blown away by a gale – and later recovered on the west side of Tiree.

KILBRANNAN spent some days in January 1992 bearing workers to service navigation lights in West Loch Tarbert and then to replace the hauling-off wires at Kennacraig. She was overhauled at Renfrew later in January – when her mast was painted a “rather lurid shade of yellow” - and, though refloated in March, in fact lay at Renfrew for some weeks. She was despatched on rather a pointless voyage to Iona on 13th April – again to back up MORVERN for heavy Easter traffic – but had to circle right round Mull and return to Oban to receive repairs on her steering mechanism.She did finally achieve three weeks as Iona reserve, followed by emergency service at Lochaline-Fishinish on 9th May – her final call at Lochaline, at 5.15 pm, was her last passenger sailing for Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd., for her sale had been negotiated and she now returned (by Crinan, Rothesay and Gourock) to Renfrew.

These duties in the early Nineties give some indication of the versatility and sturdiness of a Small Island Class ferry.

KILBRANNAN, no doubt on the back of her success under charter, was sold to Mr Cornelius Bonner of Aranmore and was formally handed over, at Renfrew, on Friday 5th June 1992, leaving the Clyde for Ireland later that day. Renamed ARAINN MHOR, she has served Aranmore ever since – and, since 1998, in familiar company having been joined by RHUM and COLL– with a shortened mast and a gay red livery.

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)

Other Articles of Interest:
Fleet Feature: Island Class


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