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The Inner Isles Mail Run (Stuart Cameron)


When I first came to know it in the sixties it was in the hands of the then relatively new 1955 Claymore - she was roughly the age that Lord of the Isles / Caledonian Isles is now. The service was operated as one long two day round trip leaving Oban and meandering to Tobermory, Arinagour, Coll and Scarinish, Tiree then through the Gunna Sound and out across the Sea of the Hebrides to Castlebay in Barra and Lochboisdale in South Uist. The Claymore was not a big ship by today's standards but she was a sturdy vessel and took most of what the Atlantic could throw at her. Her cargo space was up forward and worked by a derrick slung on a heavy samson post that also served as a sort of forward mast. Cargo was slung on and of in a way shown by one of David Ritchie's father's pictures - I have a similar one that I took on the North Pier at Oban in 1973. It shows a car being lifted aboard and I remember the worried look on the driver's face - still watching cars being slung off a pier was safer than watching cattle being slung off or onto a flit boat - but we won't go into that indelicate subject! Claymore's progress through the isles was purposeful but hardly hurried. I doubt if people for Castlebay would have the patience nowadays to put up with the significant stops at intermediate ports. Although its only 30 years since these practices ceased they seem ancient now. But the relaxed atmosphere of those days was a treasure that we didn't realise we had until it had gone. The arrival of the boat from the mainland is still an event on the islands these days but not nearly as much as it was then. Two things I distinctly remember about sailing on the Claymore of 1955 was her confusing system of passageways - odd for a relatively small ship - which confounded me in my efforts to reach the gangway - which was put out just forward of the superstructure and aft of the hatch to the cargo hold. Also, like many motor ships of the era she suffered from vibrations being sent through her structure from her machinery - engine mountings were not so sophisticated in those days. I remember watching a 'saw-toothed' smoke stream rising from a cigarette of a fellow passenger as we sat in the saloon - still she was not as bad as the Lochfyne which used to rattle her crockery and cutlery all the way from Gourock to Ardrishaig and back again.

A sail on the Claymore was a traditional affair. In a very short period of time a way of life that had been going on for a century and a half changed dramatically and rapidly.

The arrival of Iona on the scene heralded the death knell of the traditional Inner Isles Mail sailing. Car ferries offered faster more efficient turnaround at piers - initially using hoists then eventually through full RoRo facilities by installing linkspans at piers - although these were a long time coming to Coll and Tiree. However, roro car ferries are not particularly good at operating to 4 or 5 destinations on the one schedule because you have to try to organise the vehicles to be accessible at the pier to which they are destined. Ideally Roll on Roll off is point to point between two ports - even arranging the traffic for 2 destinations complicates the operation - for 4 it would have been a nightmare - so the Coll / Tiree and Castlebay / Lochboisdale services were divorced from each other in the early 70s and the old Inner Isles sailing so beloved of enthusiasts was confined to history.

These events conspired to bring about a real catastrophe which, much as I continue to love my visits to Oban and points west, is something from which, I believe, the area has never really recovered. I am referring to the withdrawal of the magnificent turbine steamer King George V from the Oban station that she had held since the mid 1930s. Sunday 15th September 1974, when I disembarked onto Oban Railway pier from the George at the end of her last ever sailing, was one of the saddest days I've ever experienced in my sailing life. Next day she left Oban for Greenock, never to return. That ship was magnificent in a way that is hard to imagine nowadays - her handsome good looks externally were more than matched by her fine internal wood panelling and fittings, the standard of cuisine and the appearance of the crew in their old style MacBrayne uniforms was unsurpassed. And the almost silent whine of her turbines as she sailed on 'Britain's Finest Coastal Excursion' (Oban to Iona circumnavigating Mull) was the 'pies de resistance'. The only experience that comes close to it these days are the sailings that I make on the Swiss lake steamers. I have heard that the KGV paid her way right to her final years which makes her loss all the more depressing. Had she survived the wilderness years, been tastefully restored and carefully marketed on an international basis she may have still been gracing Oban Bay and giving Scotland a major tourist boost to this day. Sadly, our maritime heritage was not saved in the spectacularly successful way that our railway heritage has (which explains my long standing support for the Waverley project).

Anyway, I digress too much. Introduction of the Clansman to the Mull run and Bute to the Armadale run (made possible by the appearance in 1974 of Jupiter, Juno, Pioneer - freeing Arran to return to the Clyde and Suilven )caused a major fleet realignment in 1975. To compensate - in a very diminished way - for the withdrawal of KGV the ferry Columba returned to Oban and combined sailings to Iona (only 2 days per week) with service runs to Colonsay and Coll / Tiree, Iona being based at Oban for the Barra and Uist services. So it continued for a few years - Clansman and Caledonia swapping places on the Mull / Arran services in 1976. Eventually. however, financial strictures made Calmac seek a reduction in the Oban based fleet from 3 to 2. The age old 'Finest Excursion' to Iona was consigned to history (except for Waverley's almost annual pilgrimage since 1982), Columba was sold for her transformation by George Prior Engineering at Gt Yarmouth into the highly expensive but highly successful Hebridean Princess - she has confounded all her doubters. The Coll/Tiree and Colonsay services were split and shared by the two Oban based ferries - by then the new Isle of Mull and the 1979 Claymore later succeeded by Lord of the Isles then Clansman.

Its only 30 years since I did my last old style Inner Isles Mail sailing but so much has changed since then I have to concentrate hard to remember how it was in the days of David MacBrayne Limited

Text: Stuart Cameron

Feature Updated:

9 June 2020

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