Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Loch Alainn History

Since 1986 the ex Clyde ferry Isle of Cumbrae had been in charge of the secondary route to the island of Mull, operating from Lochaline in Morvern to the basic terminal at Fishnish on the island. To say her employment on this route is a huge understatement and for several seasons it was clear that a larger ferry would eventually be needed.

The order was placed with the Buckie Shipyard and on 4th April 1997 the result was launched. The vessel was unnamed initially but was named Loch Aline two weeks later. Shortly afterwards she was renamed as her original choice was unavailable and the newest addition to the Calmac fleet became Loch Alainn – the Gaelic version of her previous name.


Picture: SoC Crew
Arriving at Fishnish in summer 1997

Her design was essentially a larger version of the 1996-built Loch Bhrusda and indeed she bore more than a passing resemblance to the Sound of Harris ferry. She was slightly wider than the Isle of Cumbrae which she was to replace and could carry up to 24 cars on her vehicle deck, in 4 lanes of 6 cars. Passenger accommodation can be found down the starboard length of the hull with a lounge at car deck level and an open deck with seating directly above. The bridge was suspended over the car deck, as with Loch Bhrusda and in keeping with the rest of the fleet, the raised bulwarks on either side of the hull were painted in the familiar red, black and yellow.

The new Loch Alainn entered service initially on the Colintraive – Rhubodach route, releasing Loch Riddon to move to Largs. She was only in the Kyles of Bute for a short while before she moved up to the Sound of Mull to take over her intended route. Isle of Cumbrae duly moved south and took the Loch Alainn’s place at Colintraive.

Loch Alainn did not have such a good time on the Fishnish – Lochaline crossing. It was soon discovered that with her slightly deeper draught, low tides on Mull could be a grounding hazard so her approaches to the slipway had to be very careful and she mainly berthed on the northern corner of the slipway. As with her predecessor, the new ship sailed ‘in reverse’ to Lochaline due to the angle of the slipway there.

In addition to the low tide problems at Fishnish, it was also discovered that her ramps were not best suited to the slipways and modifications were carried out soon after her arrival. Three weeks later however all these teething troubles paled into insignificance when she broke down with a serious failure in her Cummins engine, requiring the attention of fitters on the Clyde and a dry dock. There was no alternative to her being towed in her stricken state from Lochaline to the Clyde. Loch Dunvegan and then Loch Fyne replaced the Loch Alainn on the Mull crossing and she has never been back since.

Loch Alainn did not see service again until the end of February 1998 when her repairs were completed and she was reassigned to a new role on the Clyde. She entered service on the Colintraive service on 25th February and then moved to Largs in order to take over as the main vessel serving Cumbrae from 14th May. She was partnered by Loch Riddon through the summer and would serve on her own during the winters, apart from her overhauls of course.

Picture: SoC Crew
Crossing to Cumbrae Slip

Picture: SoC Crew
Passing running-mate Loch Riddon

The initial teething troubles continued to plague her however. For example on 16th September 1998, just over a year since her major failure, she lost all power and required the assistance of the local lifeboat as well as a navy helicopter. Fellow fleetmate Pioneer was also in the vicinity and was called in to assist if required. But this was not as serious as what was to occur just a few months later. In mid January 1999, with the Loch Alainn still less than two years old, she lost steering power whilst on the approach to Largs slipway. Unfortunately she was blown into the pier at Largs and required further time off for repairs to superficial damage.

Passing Bruernish at Largs

The turn of the millennium seemed to signal a change in Loch Alainn's fortunes. She appeared to suffer far fewer mishaps and settled down well into her new role as the main Cumbrae ferry. Occasionally she would be kept off service by low tides, but more often than not her partner vessel; Loch Riddon would step in if available.

Overhauls were usually taken in December or January and she would be relieved by either Isle of Cumbrae or Loch Tarbert. The rest of the year saw her employed as the main vessel at Largs. There however one or two notable breaks from the routine. For example a landslide on the A83 to the north of Tarbert meant that an emergency service was required on the Tarbert - Portavadie route. The regular vessel, Isle of Cumbrae was far too small to cater for the swollen levels of traffic and one of the solutions adopted was to send the Loch Alainn round to carry out  a 24-hour service across Loch Fyne until the larger Loch Dunvegan was sent to assist.

After eight years in charge of the Cumbrae route, it was revealed in 2006 that the Loch Alainn was to be redeployed for the following season. The reason for this was the imminent arrival of the new Loch Shira, under construction at Port Glasgow. With this in mind, Loch Alainn was sent out into the Western Isles in early spring 2007. Her destination was the Sound of Barra where she spent a day undergoing berthing trials at Ardmhor and Eriskay, running past her smaller sibling, Loch Bhrusda. Later on in the year she was due to replace the smaller vessel and bring a much-needed increase in capacity on the route. In the meantime though, she returned to Largs after an absence of 5 days (4 of which were spent in transit and only 1 actually going through the berthing trials) and resumed the Cumbrae roster, taking over from the Isle of Cumbrae.

It was to be June before the Loch Shira eventually entered service and Loch Alainn duly stepped aside and went up to the wires at Gourock for standby duties while the new vessel settled in. She wasn't required as the larger ferry was settling in very well and so the new Western Isles ferry was sent round to Ardmaleish on Bute for minor adjustments prior to sailing for Eriskay. Her delivery voyage wasn't uneventful - she proceeded via the Sounds of Islay and Iona and passed safely through the Gunna Sound before a problem developed with her radar system and she was forced to turn back for repairs. She entered the Sound of Mull and made for an overnight berth at Craignure, where engineers were sent across on the Isle of Mull. Repairs were successfully carried out overnight and the journey to Eriskay resumed early the following morning.

Picture: SoC Crew
Arriving at Largs in May 2007

Picture: Ronnie MacNeill
Her first departure for Eriskay

Picture: SoC
Back on the Kyles of Bute while on relief

Picture: Ronnie MacNeill
Lying off Ardmhor while on trials in Feb 2007

Her new home was reached early in the afternoon and she wasted no time in taking over from the Loch Bhrusda. Her new role commenced at 1545 when she sailed for Eriskay. This new role is a summer-only one, for in the winter months Loch Alainn is now employed as a relief vessel and will see service on the Colintraive - Rhubodach, Largs - Cumbrae Slip and Lochaline - Fishnish routes as her fleetmates recieve their own overhauls. Her place at Barra will be taken by the Loch Bhrusda and the Loch Tarbert in her absence.

Loch Alainn settled in well on her new route. In her first two months of service in the Outer Hebrides she was noted as not suffering at the hands of the weather or technical disruption. No doubt her greater capacity will see her employed in this role for a long time yet.

Text thanks to SoC Crew (C)

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