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RHUM was the second of the lengthened Small Island Class ferries to be launched, and the last of them to sail in the colours of David MacBrayne Ltd. She was for many years the principal vessel on the Lochranza-Claonaig “back door” crossing to Arran, inaugurated by her elder sister KILBRANNAN in June 1972; but it was a summer-only crossing and ,every winter of her career, she was but a spare and stand-by vessel.

Nevertheless it was the little RHUM which in 1994 inaugurated the Tarbert-Portavadie ferry run and, in her very last months with the Company, she was stationed permanently on the Scalpay crossing and finally closed that 32-year service in December 1997.
 

RHUM was in fact the first Small Island Class ferry actually to be named after an island, if incorrectly spelled! For a full description of her design, machinery and capabilities, see the history of KILBRANNAN.

Launched on 23rd May 1973, RHUM ran trials off Skelmorlie, including a run or two between Largs and Cumbrae Slip, on 22nd June, and was photographed at Largs in her David MacBrayne livery. However, she had adopted a Caledonian MacBrayne funnel by the time she entered service on the Lochranza-Claonaig crossing on 28th June – relieving the KILBANNAN, as it first appeared, but in fact becoming the permanent vessel on that station. Each winter, however, she relieved around the network, and by the time she was finally superseded on the Kilbrannan Sound by the LOCHRANZA – which assumed the service on 16th April 1987 – the wee RHUM had visited almost all the islands served by her sisters, save Scalpay.

Picture: Gavin Stewart
Rhum on trials in the Clyde


In addition she was standby vessel at Kyle-Kyleakin and relieved at Tobermory-Mingary, Rhubodach to Colintraive and Largs to Cumbrae Slip; she also served on charter to Western Ferries Ltd, relieving SOUND OF GIGHA on the Feolin ferry crossing from Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura. In May 1982 RHUM enjoyed another striking charter, to Carradale on Kintyre, where the pier had been closed to passenger traffic since the Second World War.
 

Picture: John Newth
At Lochranza in her first few days service

At Lochranza she proved a victim of her own success – traffic built up on the crossing to the point where her vehicle capacity was overwhelmed, and indeed would overwhelm her successor; latterly RHUM had had to be backed up by another Small Island ferry, usually COLL – and from April 1987 RHUM was demoted fulltime to stand-by status. Her first duty was to relieve at Lismore, for MORVERN had broken at Iona and COLL – diverted to replace her – had been relieving EIGG for her own overhaul. After RHUM herself enjoyed refitting on the Clyde, she lay successively at Rothesay and then Greenock's East India Harbour before sailing north to Tobermory and spending the rest of that summer as West Highland spare vessel. In September she gave up one of her starter-motors to the EIGG; it was replaced a few days later. That winter she relieved once at Raasay and twice at Gigha, and in the spring of 1988 sailed to Lochranza from Gourock to ready the secondary Arran ferry crossing for LOCHRANZA's second bout of summer service – on this occasion RHUM arrived with the Lochranza moorings and the Claonaig waiting room!
 

Picture: Allan Comrie
Arriving at Lochranza

Picture: Allan Comrie
At Oban with the Arran behind


In the summer of 1988, RHUM lay at Rothesay as Clyde spare, but on 13th September sailed with building materials from Largs to Ailsa Craig, before berthing at Girvan overnight, sailing to Ailsa Craig and back the following day to unload some vast boulders. These runs made her the first of her class ever to sail south of the Mull of Kintyre.After a few more days of this she retired to Shandon for another rest. But RHUM was again activated in December 1988, sailing all the way to Eriskay in the Western Isles (with an overnight rest at Canna) and from 13th December she relieved the Comhairle nan Eilean bowloader EILEAN NA H-OIGE on the short, complicated tides-permitting roster from Eriskay to Ludaig on South Uist. RHUM proved quite a successful ship for the crossing but her mission was cut short by serious trouble in her port engine and by Thursday 22nd December she could continue in service no longer.

She limped from her berth at Haun on Eriskay early on Christmas Eve, collected a spare part at Lochboisdale, and spent two days at Lochmaddy sheltering from a gale, and then had to turn back from attempting passage to Stornoway on Tuesday 27th December when her starboard engine came out in sympathy. She finally reached the Lewis port on Thursday 29th, calling briefly at Scalpay that morning. After further repairs and trials, she returned to Scalpay on Thursday 26th January 1989 to relieve the KILBRANNAN.
 

Picture: SoC Crew
Lying at Tobermory's new slipway

KILBRANNAN's overhaul was a leisurely affair and it was 14th April 1989 before RHUM was free to cross the Minch and relieve once more at Lismore. The EIGG returned on the 24th and RHUM spent that summer lying idle on the Clyde, until a breakdown of LOCHALSH at Kyleakin in August forced some juggling of the double-enders and the RHUM was despatched as back-up to Largs. She also spent an unexpected spell at Lochranza and later that month enjoyed more outings to Ailsa Craig. That winter, RHUM relieved at Iona, Jura (again on charter) and Gigha, as well as ferrying some Portakabins from Mallaig to Tobermory. In the summers of 1990 and 1991 she served as back-up to MORVERN at Iona; the smaller vessel found it increasingly difficult to handle all the traffic offering, for the advent of the new and vast ISLE OF MULL had served to expand the coach-tour market. August saw RHUM pay her first visit to CANNA (to collect some plant, including a JCB) and on Monday 13th finally landed at Rum, the island for which she was named. Later she relieved at Lismore – then briefly at Kilchoan – and so on, and so forth; RHUM obediently earned her crust, lying otherwise at Shandon or Rothesay or Tobermory, but less and less employed as new double-ended ferries were commissioned through the Nineties.
 


In September 1991 RHUM made a livestock run to Eigg and in December she lost a propeller while relieving at Gigha, and had to crawl to Oban on one engine; the MORVERN broke down in the Crinan Canal as she chugged to her aid and the island was denied a car ferry service for several days. RHUM relieved again at Scalpay in January 1992 – her fourth successive visit – and yet again lost a propeller. Fortunately both CANNA and RAASAY were in Stornoway for overhaul and divers were sent to Kyles Scalpay with a spare screw; they might have left their wetsuits at home, for they arrived to find CANNA turned about and beached, bottom bare, on the slipway by her resourceful crew.

She saw further relief at Jura, Fishinish, Gigha, Iona etc. and in the spring of 1994 was chartered to the contractors building the new Skye Bridge, though she had only been at Kyleakin for a few days when she was pressed into service to assist the ISLE OF CUMBRAE, LOCH DUNVEGAN having broken down following grounding on the Skye slipway and damaging a Voith-Schneider unit. The COLL arrived as Skye back-up on 25th March 1994 and RHUM was then free to shuttle between the contractors' private slips – at Kyleakin and the Plock of Kyle – and the bridgeworks.

Picture: Ewan MacKerchar
Unloading onto a beach on Iona


That summer she opened a new CalMac service, across Loch Fyne from Tarbert to Portavadie, running trials on Tuesday 5th July 1994 and taking about twenty-five minutes on passage. The route had originally been proposed for experimental opening in 1993 – and had been anticipated by Iain c MacArthur as long before as 1971 – and no one was sure how successful the shortcut crossing might prove. RHUM finally opened the service on Thursday 7th July, making hourly crossings from Tarbert from 8 am to 7 pm – eleven double runs daily, including Sundays. On her first run she took two cars and one pedestrian and by the close of play that Thursday she had borne 100 passengers and thirty cars. The following day she briefly grounded at very low tide, just beyond the end of of the Portavadie slip, and thereafter sailed with a wary eye on the tide until the rocks were removed. A bulge then appeared across the Portavadie slipway itself and on 17th July the RHUM grounded for three hours on that! “Nonetheless,” reported the West Highland Steamer Club newsletter, “the service proved an instant success, particularly with traffic travelling to Tarbert, and six cars per trip were not unusual – certainly on Saturdays.” The service was formally opened on Thursday 28th July and it was reported that RHUM had, in three weeks, already carried 4,350 passengers and 957 cars.

“The success story continued over the next few weeks,” the WHSC report continues, “and on 25th August the Oban Times reported that twenty cars had turned up for one of her sailings, meaning that fourteen had to be left behind. A Company spokesman was quoted as saying that 'If we had a bigger boat to put on, we would.' In her first two months she carried some 3,500 vehicles and 15,000 passengers... Her service is scheduled to finish on 3rd October according to the timetable, but in fact she is to continue in service until Saturday 15th October – to coincide with the Mod at Dunoon.” It was all a spectacular success for the Tarbert-Portavadie crossing and reflected well on the wee RHUM, already in her 21st year of service.

She closed the passage for the season on the stated Saturday – completing all her runs even on 6th October, when she was plagued by cylinder head trouble – and the final figures for the new route in its three months of operation were 18,813 passengers and 4,563 cars. Plans for a winter Tarbert-Portavadie-Lochranza-Claonaig service, however, hit an unforeseen snag – the Tarbert Harbour authorities, in a singularly crass decision, refused permission for a LOCH-class ferry to berth in the inner harbour. At first it seemed they might at least allow the RHUM to do so – and she was scheduled to take up such duties on 21st November, when even that option was denied and CalMac were forced to forgo a winter timetable for the time being.
 

Picture: SoC Crew
Arriving at Tarbert, Loch Fyne

RHUM instead assisted that late October at Fishnish, relieved at Kilchoan (on an winter timetable), paid what was becoming almost an annual visit to Eigg, and lay at Rothesay before again relieving at Jura. In December 1994 RHUM sailed north to relieve at Raasay; March 1995 brought another stint at Jura, and then RHUM did the usual pre-season jaunt with Lochranza moorings before resuming the Tarbert-Portavadie schedule on Good Friday 14th April 1995. At first she offered a six-day service, with (oddly) no Tuesday sailings scheduled – though in the event she did sail on Tuesday 30th May, for Tarbert Regatta; and 6th June, in connection with a day of powerboat races there. But RHUM was in full service through July and August and the crossing was even busier than in the summer of 1994 – on one day, Saturday 12th August, she had to carry 93 cars and 350 passengers; and cars were left behind on many sailings. Only in September was she a little beset by fog and mechanical troubles.


On Friday 3rd November 1995 LOCH STRIVEN took over the service and RHUM was free to relieve at Kilchoan (with the usual run to Eigg, on 15th December) until the winter service ceased on 30th December. RHUM then lay at the Tobermory buoy as spare vessel until EIGG arrived to assume that role on Wednesday 17th January 1996; RHUM was making for the Crinan Canal when she diverted to Jura to relieve SOUND OF GIGHA in emergency for one day.
 

After her annual overhaul, at Shandon, RHUM returned to Port Askaig on 2nd March and after repairs to a protesting engine gave her regular bout of relief on the Jura service. Late in March she took up the Tobermory-Kilchoan service and in fact no less than four Small Island vessels – BRUERNISH, COLL and EIGG were the others – served Kilchoan that winter. RHUM later briefly relieved LOCH BUIE at Iona and, in early April, sailed to Portavadie for another summer of duty there. It was another very successful season and it was obvious that a larger vessel was required for full-time duty by the time LOCH STRIVEN relieved the RHUM on Tuesday 29th October 1996. RHUM repaired to Oban as relief ferry to Lismore and, on the return of COLL, gave a feeding-stuffs run to Canna on Friday 6th December, diverting to rescue a fishing boat in distress. She spent a weekend at Mallaig and then lay up at Tobermory till near year's end, stirring to sail for the Clyde on 27th December. After annual overhaul at Shandon, RHUM spent some unexpected days at Fionnphort-Iona before relieving the SOUND OF GIGHA as usual at Jura in February 1997.

Picture: SoC Crew
Loading at Portavadie


RHUM's swansong at Scalpay surprised many; it was a backhanded compliment to the MacSween family, who had maintained CANNA to such a high standard that by 1997 she was the smartest and best-maintained of the Small Island bowloaders. Accordingly, CANNA was the ferry identified for permanent service on the Ballycastle-Rathlin roster – CalMac's latest, newest route – and RHUM was fingered as her replacement.

She quit Port Askaig at last on Saturday 8th March and headed north by Tobermory, Lochmaddy and Berneray. From Monday 10th RHUM (rather improbably) relieved the new LOCH BHRUSDA on the equally new Sound of Harris passage – though the original relief chosen for the purpose, EIGG, would have been no better suited. Nevertheless the little RHUM coped manfully until the EIGG arrived on 15th March; the HEBRIDEAN ISLES did some extra Tarbert-Lochmaddy runs in the light of their very limited capacity for vehicles.

The MacSweens could not hide their disgust at RHUM's condition when she arrived at Scalpay late on Saturday 15th; she was battered, dented and filthy – a sore contrast to the immaculate and much-missed CANNA. But she nevertheless assumed the Scalpay-Kyles Scalpay timetable and looked very much smarter after a week or two of energetic care and cleaning. As well as the usual fortnightly trips to Tarbert for bunkering, RHUM did many extra sailings in connection with work on the Scalpay bridge, taking ominous shape behind her as she shuttled back and forth across the channel.

The main span was laid on Monday 9th June 1997 and by the onset of winter a good many Scalpay residents were (unofficially) walking across it while the RHUM was laid up for the night! The new bridge, practically complete, was finally opened to traffic at 11 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday 16th December – the simple ceremony consisting of the local dignitary, and Deputy Lord Lieutenant, Mr John Murdo Morrison, driving across the new bridge in a pre-war Austin and bearing as lady passenger the Isle of Scalpay's oldest resident, 102-year old Mrs Chrissie Morrison. (A much trumped official opening was held in September 1998, the guest of honour being the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Be it noted that Mrs Morrison politely declined to meet him; and that she is still alive in May 2004, still lives by herself, still makes her own scones and – at the splendid age of a hundred and eight – is now the oldest person in the Western Isles.)

So RHUM closed the Scalpay ferry, making the last run from Kyles Scalpay at 11.15 that Tuesday morning, before cruising in circles below the new bridge. At half past two that same afternoon, a relief crew having arrived, she set sail for Oban and took up the Lismore service the following day. On Saturday 20th December she did a special run to Craignure with six cars for which the relief ferry, LORD OF THE ISLES, had lacked sufficient space. RHUM saw out her final days with the Company on this Oban-Lismore roster and Thursday 15th January 1998 was her last in CalMac passenger service. She and COLL had been identified for disposal after the distinctly political twist of fate restored ex-Skye ferries LOCH FYNE and LOCH DUNVEGAN to active service after two years in Tory-enforced Clyde lay-up.

After some brief maintenance duties at Fionnphort, on 16th January, and escorting the stricken LOCH BUIE from Tobermory to Oban on the 17th (the Iona ferry had bashed a propulsion unit), RHUM, COLL and LOCH BUIE sailed in mournful convoy to Campbeltown, reaching the Clyde Firth of Clyde port at 0745 on the morning of Sabbath 18th. LOCH BUIE proceeded to Troon for repairs; COLL and RHUM lay awaiting an uncertain future.

 

Picture: William Murdoch
With Coll in her new career in Ireland

Both vessels were sold to Mr Cornelius Bonner on Tuesday 14th April 1998 and left Campbeltown for Ireland on Friday 17th; Mr Bonner and associates had already acquired KILBRANNAN and MORVERN, several years before, and fully appreciated the worth of these reliable and well designed little ferries. Registered in the name of Arranmore Island Ferry Services, RHUM and COLL partner the former KILBRANNAN – now ARAINN MHOR – on the 20-minute passage from Burtonport in County Donegal to Leabgarrow on Arranmore Island. There are eight crossings daily in summer and five in winter; only one ferry is usually in use at any given time.

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)


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