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History in Depth

The 19th Century - Early Steamships 

The first ever seagoing steamship was Henry Bell’s Comet. A tiny 40 foot wooden ship, she commenced sailing between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh in 1812. As is often the case with pioneers of new technologies, she was quickly outclassed by superior rivals but Comet nevertheless achieved another first by being the first steamship to serve in the north west of Scotland when she commenced service from Glasgow to Fort William in 1819. She was not alone for long, though. Upon the opening of the Caledonian Canal in 1821, steamboat operators were able to give a service all the way to Inverness. 

This was the era before railways, motor vehicles and good roads and, in the first half of the 19th century, the steam ship was the mode of travel par excellence for passengers and freight to points on the mainland as much as to islands. It was also the era when Glasgow was expanding in the Industrial Revolution but in the days before town planning and environmental health regulations, it was not a pleasant place to be. The middle classes wanted to spend as little time in the city as possible. The steamship spawned the world’s first commuters: the well-to-do built themselves villas on the Clyde coast and the steamship made it possible for them to commute into Glasgow. Thus, places like Dunoon, Rothesay and Largs developed from sleepy hamlets. The great mass of the urban population, the workers, couldn’t afford this but once a year at the Glasgow Fair in July, even they had the opportunity to escape the factories and slums and sail “doon the watter” thanks to the steamship fleet. 

David MacBrayne – Swift Steamers and “All the Way” Steamers 

To begin with, steamships were run by a number of individual private operators (some owning just a single vessel) but by the mid 19th century those trading to the West Highlands and Islands had come under the control of Messrs G & J Burns. Wanting to concentrate on their operations elsewhere, Burns sold this part of their operation in 1851 to a partnership called David Hutcheson & Co composed of the eponymous Mr Hutcheson, his brother and the Burns brothers’ nephew, one David MacBrayne. The Hutchesons retired in 1879 after which MacBrayne carried on the business in his own name. 

Hutchesons’/MacBrayne’s made vast improvements to the services to the north west. These were divided into two categories. First there were the “swift steamers”. These were the maritime equivalent of express trains. They operated in a sort of relay up the west coast. One ship sailed from Glasgow to Ardrishaig from where passengers passed through the Crinan Canal to another ship waiting to take them on to Oban and Fort William. The next morning a ship would be waiting to take them on to Inverness through the Caledonian Canal. This route from Glasgow to Inverness via the canals was called “the Royal Route”. Alternatively, the traveller could board another swift steamer at Oban to carry him north west to Gairloch via Mull and Skye. In summer Hutchesons’/MacBrayne’s also stationed ships at Oban to take tourists on cruises to beauty spots such as Iona, Staffa and Glencoe. The other element of Hutchesons’/MacBrayne’s operation was the less glamorous “all the way” sailings. These carried cargoes along roughly the same routes as the swift steamers except the same ship travelled “all the way” at a more sedate pace and round the Mull of Kintyre instead of through the Crinan Canal. These sailings were also popular as cruises. It is significant that in the earliest years of Hutchesons’ operations, they only called at three islands (Bute, Mull and Skye) compared with today’s Calmac network in the era of the motor car and railway where all but three of their services are from the mainland to islands. However, Hutchesons’ soon added other islands to their ports of call on the “all the way” sailings, notably Lewis (1853) and Islay (1876). They also acquired a cargo service to Loch Fyne in 1857. 

Competition from Railways 

On the Clyde, smaller independent operators remained the order of the day for longer than in the north west but this began to change in the last quarter of the 19th century. This was the hey-day of the latest transport technology, railway building. For speed of travel of passengers from Glasgow to the Clyde coast, trains easily beat the sail down the river and the steamship operators understandably reacted with suspicion to railway developments. In the 1880’s there were three principal railway companies in Scotland, the Caledonian, the Glasgow and South Western (GSWR) and the North British (NBR). For the Clyde traffic, the GSWR and NBR with their railheads at Greenock and Craigendoran (near Helensburgh on the north bank) had the advantage over the Caledonian. But the latter company trumped its rivals in 1889 by extending its line a few miles down the firth to a new railhead at Gourock. The Caledonian was determined to offer its customers a better standard of onward travel by sea than was offered by the private operators and thus was born its shipping subsidiary, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company Ltd (CSP). It rapidly built up a fleet of the finest steamers, the Clyde had seen. The GSWR countered in 1891 by beginning its own shipping services with steamers the equal of the CSP’s. The NBR had been operating its own steamers in a modest way since the 1860’s but was forced to upgrade in the 1880’s to match the services offered by its rivals. 

In the north, MacBrayne’s reacted to the opening of railways to Strome Ferry (1875 – extended to Kyle of Lochalsh in 1897), Oban (1884), Fort William (1894) and Mallaig (1901) with suspicion to begin with as well. But the railways obtained the contracts to carry the mail to the Highlands and MacBrayne’s soon gained the contract to carry the mail from the railheads to the islands. Thus, MacBrayne’s added most of the Western Isles to their network and another class of service to the swift and all the way steamers, the mail steamers was born. Although the railway had taken over from the steam ship as the state of the art in transport technology in the second half of the 19th century, the net result of the railways was to feed more passengers to the coast for onward connection by steamer to coastal areas and the islands. 

At the turn of the 20th century, then, there were four dominant shipping companies on the west coast of Scotland – MacBrayne’s in the north west and the CSP, GSWR and NBR on the Clyde. MacBrayne’s had three categories of service: the all way steamers carrying cargo and passengers from Glasgow round the Mull of Kintyre to the mainland, islands and up the Caledonian Canal to Inverness; the swift steamers carrying passengers only rapidly from Glasgow via the Crinan Canal up the coast, to Mull and Skye and via the Caledonian Canal to Inverness; and the mail steamers carrying passengers and the mail and lighter cargoes from the railheads to the islands and remote parts of the mainland coast. The swift steamers only operated in summer, the other two categories throughout the year. On the Clyde, the railway shipping companies concentrated on passengers only and their services were divided into two main categories: the ferries for all the year round transport of passengers from the railheads to their destinations on the islands and west coast of the Firth of Clyde and the excursion steamers which operated in summer only to give pleasure cruises to the masses who flocked to the coast from the city on the trains (although pleasure sailings all the way from Glasgow remained a feature). 

The 20th Century 

The period from around the mid 1880’s to the First World War (1914-18), then, was something of hey-day for west coast Scottish shipping in terms of improvement and diversification of services. But conditions were different after the War. The 1920’s was a decade of economic depression, industrial unrest and rising costs against stagnant revenue. In 1923, Britain’s numerous private railway companies were forced to rationalise by amalgamating. The Caledonian and GSWR joined forces with English companies to become the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company (LMSR). Similarly, the NBR became part of the London & North Eastern Railway Company (LNER). As a result, the number of railway shipping companies on the Clyde was reduced from three to two. In the north west, MacBrayne’s (now owned by David MacBrayne junior since the death of his father, David senior in 1902) had to give up in 1928 when his company was taken over jointly by the LMSR and Coast Lines Ltd, a shipping company with numerous British coastal shipping subsidiaries. The name MacBrayne was retained but the new management promptly abandoned the swift steamer sailings and concentrated on the mail and cargo steamers from the railheads and Glasgow to the islands and remote coastal regions. 

After the retrenchment of the 1920’s, a more or less even keel had been established by the 1930’s thanks to Scottish west coast shipping having the financial power of national railway companies and government subsidy in the shape of the mail contracts behind them. The Second World War (1939-45) inevitably interrupted this and ushered in a new era in its aftermath. In 1947 the private railway companies were nationalised. This meant that the Clyde fleets of the LMSR and LNER were amalgamated (and traded as British Railways Clyde Shipping Services) and the half share of MacBrayne’s belonging to the LMSR came under state control. 

The 1950’s & 60’s – Car Ferries 

More significantly, these shipping companies began to the react after the War to the latest trend in transport technology – the motor vehicle. In the 1950’s, private car ownership was rising dramatically. More and more people were travelling and holidaying in them but, so far as crossing the water with one was concerned, a motor car was treated like any other bulky item of cargo. Cars had to be hoisted aboard MacBrayne’s mail and cargo steamers and stowed on the deck or in the hold where (especially on the mail steamers) there was limited space for them. On the Clyde, the steamers had no cranes so cars had to be driven on over makeshift planks on the rare occasions when the tide was such that the deck of the ship was about level with the pier. What was now required was ships custom built to load and transport motor vehicles efficiently. Thus was born the next generation of Scottish coastal passenger vessel: the car ferry. 

The ideal system for loading vehicles onto a ship is a vessel with a dedicated car deck which can be docked with a ramp – called a “linkspan” - the level of which can be adjusted to the level of the tide. This “roll on-roll off” – or Ro-Ro for short – system had been operation between Stranraer and Larne since 1939 and was introduced across the English Channel in 1951 but it involved investment not only in new ships but in alterations to the piers as well. The time was not yet ripe for the latter in Scotland where loads were much lower than on the busy North and English Channel routes so British Railways adopted another system. Instead of lowering the pier to the car deck, the car deck would be lifted to the level of the pier. This involved a ship equipped with a platform which could be raised and lowered with four or five vehicles at a time between the car deck and the pier. In 1954, BR inaugurated three such “hoist loading ferries” on its two busiest routes, Gourock to Dunoon and Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. These first three Scottish car ferries were sister ships called Arran, Bute and Cowal and were accordingly known as the “ABC class”. In 1957, a larger hoist loader, the Glen Sannox, was introduced on the run from Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran. 

In 1957 also, BR reawakened for its Clyde shipping services the name Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSP). This company had remained legally in existence but dormant as far as the public was concerned since the amalgamation of its owner, the Caledonian Railway Company, into the LMS Railway Company in 1923. 

Car ferries came to the Western Isles in 1964 when MacBrayne’s commissioned three sister hoist loaders (Columba, Hebrides and Clansman) to operate three new routes - from Oban to Craignure (Mull) and Lochaline (Morvern); from Uig (Skye) to Tarbert (Harris) and Lochmaddy (North Uist); and, in summer only, from Mallaig to Armadale (Skye). As Harris is joined to Lewis and North Uist to its southern neighbours Benbecula and South Uist by causeways, the benefits of a car ferry link to the mainland were brought at a stroke to virtually the whole of the Outer Hebrides via Skye with its frequent vehicle ferry (operated by the CSP since 1936) across the narrows at Kyle of Lochalsh and the new Mallaig to Armadale route in summer when tourist car travel was at its peak. These developments enabled MacBrayne’s to axe two of its “traditional” mail steamer routes – “the Outer Isles Mail” from Mallaig via Kyle round Skye to Harris and the Uists and from Oban to Tobermory calling en route at points in Mull and Morvern. 

The transport of people and goods by road continued to increase unabated at the expense the railways in the 1960’s, a decade when the railway network was being cut back by the closure of lines and stations. The logic of having the state owned coastal shipping services controlled by the state owned railway had disappeared so on 1st January 1969 ownership of the CSP and BR’s half share of MacBrayne’s was transferred to a new body, the Scottish Transport Group (STG), which had been set up to control the state owned bus and road haulage companies. Six months later, the STG also acquired the half share of MacBrayne’s owned by Coast Lines. 1970’s – Ro-Ro Ferries 

The STG’s priority was to introduce the benefits of car ferries to all the remaining islands and, moreover, to convert the car ferry services to Ro-Ro operations. The latter had become a priority for two reasons: first, hoist loading was slow and meant the ferries had difficulty keeping to the demanding schedules necessary to cope with the ever increasing demand. Secondly, not only had the transport of people by road increased dramatically in the post War era, so had the transport of goods. The hoist loading ferries were unable to cope with large articulated lorries. The STG’s ultimate goal, therefore, was a further refinement of Ro-Ro operations: “Drive Through”. This involved a ship with ramps off the car deck at bow and stern so that vehicles could drive straight off at the end of the voyage thus avoiding the delays and inconvenience (particularly for lorries) of having to turn or reverse on the car deck. In contrast, ferries with only one ramp were termed “end loaders”, these being sub-divided into “stern loaders” or “bow loaders” according to the position of the ramp. 

In achieving this goal, the state shipping concerns had been somewhat stung when in 1968 a private company, Western Ferries, beat them to introducing Ro-Ro operations with a stern loading ferry to Islay, an island which had missed out on MacBrayne’s “car ferry revolution” four years earlier and was continuing to be served by a “traditional” mail steamer. MacBrayne’s responded later in the same year by ordering a drive through ferry to serve Islay. However when this ship – the Iona – which was also equipped with a hoist, appeared in early 1970, she was unable to take up her intended route due to legal wrangles with the authorities over the provision of piers to accommodate her. Instead, MacBrayne’s borrowed the CSP’s inaugural ABC class hoist loading car ferry Arran to serve Islay as a stop-gap and the Iona was lent to the CSP in her place. 

The Islay episode demonstrated two things – first that the provision of Ro-Ro services was not going to be achieved overnight due to the need to negotiate with the various owners of the piers to provide the link spans necessary to facilitate them. Nevertheless early progress was made: drive through operations were introduced by the CSP in May 1970 between Ardrossan and Brodick (Arran) with a second hand ship (Caledonia) bought from Sweden and between Gourock and Dunoon in March 1972 (with MacBrayne’s Iona). The other thing demonstrated was the possibility of interchange of vessels between the two fleets. It seemed sensible to amalgamate them and this happened on 1st January 1973 when the CSP changed its name to Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd and MacBrayne’s ships were transferred to the re-named company. 

An early priority for the STG which Calmac inherited was the route to the biggest town in the Western Isles, Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Until 1972 this busy route had been served from the railheads at Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh by the traditional mail steamer Loch Seaforth. From May that year the Iona offered a hoist loading car ferry service but the Stornoway route was radically re-cast from March 1973 when the mainland terminus was moved to Ullapool. With link spans having been installed there and at Stornoway, the Iona was able to inaugurate the first drive through service in the Western Isles. Rather like the stationing of the car ferry to the southern Outer Hebrides at Uig in 1964, the move to Ullapool was another dramatic demonstration of the dwindling significance of railway connections in the 60’s and 70’s – Ullapool is not a railhead but that factor was overridden by the fact that it is much closer to Stornoway. Passengers could now just as easily get to the port of embarkation by road. 

These trends were repeated throughout the 1970’s. Regular car ferry services were introduced to the remaining islands without them and frequencies increased. Two of the earlier hoist loading car ferries (Arran and Glen Sannox) were converted to stern loading and the Clansman was even converted to drive through. Drive through to Skye at Kyle was introduced in 1970. Ro-Ro operations were introduced to Mull and Islay in 1973 (these services being upgraded to drive through in 1975 and 1979 respectively); to South Uist and Barra in 1974 and to Rothesay in 1977. The last traditional mail steamer service ceased in 1975. The following year, the last scheduled cargo service ceased. The growth of transport of goods by road since the Second World War had led to MacBrayne’s progressively pruning the number of ports its cargo services called at and the number of cargo ships in its fleet. The fleet of five modern cargo vessels in the mid 1950’s had been reduced to just one in the mid 70’s. But with the spread of Ro-Ro ferry operations to most of the major islands allowing the transport of the largest loads by articulated lorry, even she had become redundant by 1976 and was sold. On the Clyde, Calmac had disposed of all but one of its passenger only vessels by 1978. 

The Decline of the Excursion Steamers 

In 1960, the CSP maintained a fleet of seven ships dedicated primarily to offering summer only excursion sailings. MacBrayne’s also had one (King George V) stationed at Oban offering cruises to Iona and Staffa. But the 1960’s was also the decade when yet another transport technology was revolutionising travel patterns: the jet liner was bringing holidays in the Mediterranean within the reach of more people. Between the airliner and the private car, fewer and fewer were holidaying on the traditional pattern of going “doon the water” to Clyde coast resorts like Dunoon and Rothesay. Moreover, by the 1960’s the excursion steamer fleet was getting elderly. Consisting of steamships averaging about 30 years old, they were becoming costly to maintain compared with the more modern diesel car and passenger ferries. As most spent the winter months idle laid up in harbour, they were an expensive luxury and in view of the declining trade, the shipping companies resolved not to replace them when they came to the end of their useful lives. As a result, by the time Calmac came into existence in 1973, the excursion steamer fleet had been halved to four ships – Waverley, Queen Mary II, King George V and Maid of the Loch. The Waverley was withdrawn after the 1973 season (the story of how she was “sold” for a nominal £1 to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society who have kept her running ever since is well known) and the King George V the following year. 

To be continued...

Text thanks to John MacLeod 

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