The 'Small Island' class vessels
Over the last five decades, a large number of secondary (and indeed primary) routes have grown and developed into busy and heavily utilised crossings by vehicles and foot passengers alike. These examples of growth are in no small part due to the vessels that opened many of the routes in question – the eight members of what became known as the ‘Small Island’ Class ferries.
Based on old World War II landing craft, their design was very simple yet very effective. The ferries had a two-part folding ramp at the bow, an open plan car deck incorporating a small turntable immediately aft and a sheltered area of passenger accommodation at the stern, on top of which was positioned the wheelhouse. The main mast was positioned at the bow, above the ramp and the radar mast sat on top of the bridge, just forward of the small funnel and engine exhaust.
Loading of these little ferries was a relatively simple affair. Small slipways were constructed at their respective terminals. On approach to these slipways, the ramp would be lowered to the water (see the image below). The reason for this was to prevent the risk of the vessel becoming stranded on the slipway. Once the protection bar under the ramp contacted the slipway, the hydraulic rams would lower the forward section of the ramp onto the slipway, thus allowing cars and passengers to board or leave the vessel. The images below illustrate this process.
The first of this class of eight vessels, the little Kilbrannan was launched on 19th May 1972 and started her service career some weeks later on 8th July when she opened the new Lochranza – Claonaig route across the Kilbrannan Sound, separating Arran from Kintyre. Both the Kilbrannan and the next new addition, the Morvern, were found to be just a touch too short and as a result they could only carry four cars comfortably, five at a squeeze on their car decks. With this in mind, the remaining members of the fleet were increased in length by approximately five feet.
The ‘Island Class’ ferries were quick to prove their versatility. The vessels were readily interchangeable and were often found covering for each other and in many cases working in tandem to provide extra capacity. In addition to their regular duties, they have often been called upon to provide extra runs for commercial purposes due to their ability to load and discharge vehicles, goods and livestock at remote locations, not necessarily boasting the luxury of a slipway – a gently sloping stretch of beach or shingle would suffice!
The mini fleet were responsible for inaugurating several new services during their heyday. The Kilbrannan opened the new crossing from Kintyre to Arran, while a short while later her sister, the Morvern started a crossing from Fishnish, six miles north-west of Craignure on Mull, to a new slipway just inside the mouth of Lochaline, fifteen minutes sail across the Sound of Mull.
Both of these vessels were soon superseded by larger sisters, the Rhum and the Bruernish respectively, and the smaller ferries went on to pastures new. The Morvern went on to serve Lismore on a new crossing from Oban, take over the Scalpay service from the old turntable ferry Scalpay and finally in 1979 settle down on another new car ferry service form Fionnphort on the western tip of the Ross of Mull to the sacred isle that is Iona, although it was deemed necessary to restrict the vehicle service so that only islanders’ vehicles and those of necessary services would be carried.
Things were more settled for the Kilbrannan however. Following replacement at Lochranza, she spent some time as relief vessel, often backing up the Cumbrae ferries at busy periods before heading to the Outer Hebrides in 1977 when she took over the Scalpay service – a service she was to remain on for over a decade.
By the end of 1973 there were five members of the class: Kilbrannan, Morvern, Bruernish, Rhum and Coll; the Coll arriving on the scene as the new dedicated Lochaline ferry in November of that year, following a short spell relieving at Mallaig. Following displacement from the Lochaline service by the new Coll in late 1973, the Bruernish adopted the role of spare unit and also undertook charter workings until she was finally given her own long-term employment on yet another new route.
In 1979 Gigha could no longer be served by the Islay ferry due to the Iona being of too deep a draught. Bruernish was dispatched to Kennacraig where she took charge of a temporary service to Gigha before a new slipway and pier were constructed for her at Tayinloan, nearly twenty miles south of Kennacraig and only a twenty minute passage time from the island. Apart from overhauls, Bruernish seldom deviated from this crossing for nearly fifteen years.
There was a gap in construction of over a year before the second batch of ferries appeared in the local waters. The sixth ‘Island Class’ ferry was named Eigg and duly appeared in service in the early part of 1975 running from Portree on Skye to the island of Raasay. Again this was to be a short-term job. Vessel seven was launched in January 1976 and named Canna she replaced the Eigg on the Raasay service in April, opening the new Sconser slipway at the same time – a development that reduced the crossing time to just fifteen minutes and allowing a much more frequent service for the islanders.
The Canna was also only a temporary vessel, as upon entry of the final member of the class, Raasay, she too was sent for alternative employment and something of a cascade of vessels was seen. Eigg began her current career serving the islanders of Lismore whilst the Canna replaced the Coll on the Lochaline crossing.
The fleet of ‘Island Class’ ferries was now complete, just four years after it was first started. Through the rest of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s these little ferries worked hard on their respective routes and traffic built up quickly on some crossings. Perhaps the largest growth was seen on Canna’s Fishnish – Lochaline crossing where vehicles were frequently being left behind for the next sailing. Following the introduction of the first ‘Loch Class’ ferries in July 1986, Canna assumed the spare role, replaced on the Sound of Mull crossing by the Isle of Cumbrae; a vessel with three times the vehicle capacity.
In many ways it could be argued that the coming of the ‘Loch Class’ ferries heralded the beginning of the end for some of the little bow-loaders. 1987 saw the Rhum follow in the footsteps of the Canna when she was replaced on the Lochranza crossing by the appropriately named Loch Ranza. Caledonian MacBrayne now had three spare vessels of a design that was by this time acknowledged as being too small for solo use on a growing number of crossings. As it was, these vessels were soon found new work; the Coll (spare since 1976) was assigned to the Tobermory – Kilchoan service although this was passenger only at first; the Canna and then Rhum both had spells of service at Iona, partnering the hard-pressed Morvern on a route that had seen passenger numbers rise sharply following the introduction of the new 1000 passenger capacity Isle of Mull on the service from Oban. The Canna went on to replace the smaller Kilbrannan on the Scalpay service from 1990 to 1997 whilst the Rhum opened yet another new route in 1994 from Tarbert on Loch Fyne to the tiny village of Portavadie on the eastern shore of the loch.
A new wave of ‘redundancies’ came in 1992 when the new Loch Buie and Loch Tarbert were introduced on the Iona and Lochranza routes respectively. These new arrivals signalled the end for the Morvern on the Iona run and for the Bruernish on the Gigha run (the 5 year old Loch Ranza was transferred from Arran on the Loch Tarbert’s arrival), although the Morvern did win a temporary reprieve when the new ferry damaged a propulsion unit on the Fionnphort slipway on her first day in service and was sent away for repairs. Ultimately though, the latest arrivals did spell the end for the Kilbrannan which was sold out of the fleet in 1992.
While all this was going on it appeared that there was demand for a car ferry service to Kilchoan from Tobermory, and once the necessary infrastructure was in place, the Coll duly obliged. Traffic grew on this service and it eventually became a full year-round service, upgraded from seasonal status. Things remained settled in the fleet for a couple of years, with two spare units: Morvern and Bruernish providing back up and cover where necessary.
There was only one obvious choice when it came to deciding which spare vessel was no longer required in 1995 and so it was that the Morvern, with her capacity of just four cars was sold out of the fleet and went to join her older sister in Ireland. The Coll and the Rhum, the latter having seen out the end of the Scalpay service, followed suit in the April 1998, leaving just four of the ‘Island Class’ ships in CalMac service as the new millennium dawned.
Bruernish saw increasingly less active service as she was designated as a spare vessel, spending time lying idle on the Clyde and at Oban at various points. Her only duties now involved occasional relief stints on the Lismore service while Eigg was away at Corpach for her overhauls, at Rathlin to cover for Canna or the odd spell covering on the Tobermory - Kilchoan route - even forming half of a two-ship service with Raasay for a brief spell when Loch Linnhe was called away to cover elsewhere. Such events were something of a rarity and Bruernish was put up for sale in the summer of 2006, departing from Scottish waters in September, bound for Ireland.
Canna was seldom seen in Scotland after taking over as the dedicated Ballycastle - Rathlin ferry and generally she only returned north for her annual pilgrimage to the slipway at Corpach, usually in the late summer. She left CalMac service on 1st July 2008 when her Rathlin service contract was passed to local operator Rathlin Ferries Ltd.
This left just Eigg and Raasay in service and they would remain so for nearly ten more seasons. Eigg continued as the Lismore ferry until 2013. Her services became surplus to requirements following the Loch Striven's arrival in Oban and she was retained as a back-up ferry. In truth she spent much of the time lying at the berth adjacent to Oban slipway and only ventured forth for occasional relief work on the Lismore run and a very brief spell on the winter Kilchoan service. Her passenger certificates were maintained up until her departure from the CalMac fleet in April 2018.
Raasay on the other hand saw far more action with CalMac following Bruernish's departure. She was the dedicated winter ferry on the Kilchoan service and also the relief ferry dispatched to Rathlin up until CalMac lost the contract to run the route. Up to 2008 Raasay was also the relief car ferry for the Small Isles while Lochnevis was away in the autumn, running a seemingly ad-hoc service and playing second fiddle to various chartered passenger launches, usually Ullin of Staffa. Raasay was also called upon to provide emergency relief cover on a number of occasions. This wasn't just restricted to the Lismore and Kilchoan services however, and in January 2009 she was called in to keep a frequent service running to Gigha following a spell of particularly stormy weather which rendered Tayinloan inaccessible for the larger Lochs. There was a very brief spell on the Port Askaig - Jura service - she was brought down from Tobermory for one day's work following a breakdown of the regular ferry. Raasay's final irregular bout of relief duty came in September 2017 when she was brought round to the Clyde and was pressed into service shuttling back forth between Tarbert and Portavadie whilst Isle of Cumbrae was suffering from mechanical woes. Her last passenger service came four months later, towards the end of January, serving Kilchoan. She was up for sale by this point and was handed over to her new owners on 28th February 2018.
The concept of the ‘Island Class’ ferries was a very straightforward one; agile bow-loading ferries, capable of reaching remote locations due to their shallow draughts and being able to load and unload their cargoes from small slipways or even just stretches of beach on a suitable gradient with very little risk of becoming stranded. The basic principle lives on and thrives in the CalMac fleet today with many of the shorter routes being operated by vessels, albeit double-ended and larger in size, that still load their vehicles from the same simple slipways, using the same folding ramp design, onto open plan car-decks.
The Island Class proved their worth in Scottish Waters. Whilst their capacities were very small compared to the rest of the fleet, they became a familiar site right around the west coast for over 45 years - not bad when you consider that twenty years is generally regarded as the useful life of most ferries… It is a testament to these ships that so many of the routes they once served have gone on the grow in terms of the level of traffic using them and also the new vessels that were built or transferred to take on the crossings that these little bow-loaders could no longer handle. Their versatility remains all that it was. Their simple loading arrangements consisting of just a simple slipway meant that they could be called into service easily to cover for larger vessels’ overhauls or in emergencies when extra capacity was needed – no matter how much or how little! A lot is owed to the ‘Island Class’ ferries following their decades of service.
But that was not the end of the story for these little workhorses. All eight are still in service to this day:
Kilbrannan is now the Clew Bay Queen, serving Clare Island, Co. Mayo. She was initially moved to Arranmore Island when she parted company with CalMac and operated for several years as the Arainn Mhor. She now sports an attractive blue and white livery and provides a regular service between Roonagh on the mainland and Clare Island.
Morvern was also pressed into service at Arranmore in partnership with her elder sister. Following the arrival of Rhum and Coll she was sold on for further service and became the Bere Island ferry along with former Outer Hebrides ferry Eilean na h'Oige. In 2009, looking somewhat dilapidated, she was brought back to Arranmore and extensively refurbished, ready to commence the latest chapter in her career. Looking resplendent in a bright blue and white livery, she replaced Bruernish on the Burtonport - Arranmore service, based on the island and sailing in competition with Rhum and Coll. She turned 40 years old in 2013 and was treated by her new owners to a 4m extension, in a similar operation to that carried out on Isle of Mull in 1988, albeit on a smaller scale. She sails on proudly, now rapidly approaching her 50th anniversary.
Bruernish became a workboat based on Clare Island when she first left Scotland and to an extent disappeared off the radar. She underwent a thorough refurbishment ready for being leased in 2008 to Arranmore Fast Ferries and became the first car ferry to operate on their island-based service, competing with 'mainland' company Arranmore Ferries' Rhum and Coll. She was returned to Clare Island when replaced by the Morvern in 2009. She has resumed life as a workboat once more.
Rhum moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1998 and has operated on the Burtonport - Arranmore service ever since. She carries a bright red livery with white mainmast. She is the main ferry on the route, backed up by Coll.
Coll went to Arranmore at the same time as Rhum and has been used as a back-up ferry on the same route, also providing extra sailings when demand has required. She has also seen service at Rathlin on charter to Rathlin Island Ferries, to allow Canna to be overhauled. For several summers Coll was deployed on the company's second route, linking Buncrana and Rathmullan on Lough Swilly during the peak summer from June to September, before she was replaced by the purpose-built Spirit of Lough Swilly. She now provides a cargo service to Tory Island and continues as back-up ferry to Arranmore.
Eigg was the last of her class to leave Scotland, in April 2018 and sailed for Clare Island where she joined the eldest of her sisters, Kilbrannan - now sailing as Clew Bay Queen. She has been used as a dive support vessel and workboat in and around the Westport and Clare Island area under the ownership of Brian O'Grady's Clare Island Ferry Company and is available for charters anywhere in UK and Irish waters.
Canna remained at Rathlin after she stopped sailing under the CalMac banner. She was operated instead by Rathlin Ferries and ran unchanged other than a repainted funnel and a different company name down the side of her hull. She was replaced in 2016 by the stumpy Spirit of Rathlin and afterwards moved to Burtonport where she underwent a lengthy overhaul and refurbishment, later completed at Killybegs. She had been bought by the owners of Morvern and was delivered back to Burtonport at the end of February 2020 in the same bright blue and white livery as her lengthened sister and now serves as the back up vessel in the fleet.
Raasay was handed over to her new owners at Sandbank at the end of February 2018 and made for shelter at Rothesay. A lengthy overhaul then followed at Ardmaleish and she left the Clyde in May of that year, making for Inishbofin Island where she has become the island's cargo ferry. She now carries a bright red paint scheme, similar to that of Arranmore counterparts Rhum and Coll, and sails several times a week. She is available for charters on other days.
Text from SoC Crew