Crossing Time: 10 Minutes
Regular Ship: Loch Buie
Fionnphort - Iona
Mull - Iona
Pre 1979: Red Boats
1979 - 1988: Morvern
1989 - 1991: Morvern & Canna / Rhum
1992: Morvern & Rhum / Loch Buie
1993 - Present: Loch Buie
Various members of the Island Class and Loch Class ferries on relief duties.
Fionnphort: Terminal consists of a pier and steep slipway. Portakabin ticket and information office, although there is a cafe nearby which provides shelter for passengers in inclement weather.
Iona: Slipway and pier jutting out into the Sound of Iona. There is a passenger queuing area along the slipway, although no shelter in wet weather. Toilet and refreshment facilities are located nearby in the village.
Prior to 1979 the ferry to Iona was traditionally operated by a flotilla of small launches. These little craft were known collectively as the ‘Red Boats’ and for years they shuttled back and forth between Fionnphort, on the western tip of the Isle of Mull, across the shallow Sound of Iona to the jetty on the sacred island. In addition to this duty, the Red Boats also served as tenders to the visiting cruise vessels such as King George V and subsequently the Columba.
Following the introduction of the Island Class ferries during the early to mid 1970s, it was only a matter of time before Iona was granted its own car ferry service, and in 1979 Calmac obliged by placing the redundant Morvern on the route. A new slipway had been constructed on Iona to accommodate the new vessel whereas Fionnphort saw a new slipway and pier built to provide a landing point. Overnight berthing was located in a channel known as the Bull Hole, situated between Fionnphort and Kintra.
The new ferry had a capacity of 4 cars, although from the outset it was agreed that only islanders’ vehicles and essential commercial vehicles should be allowed on the island. The Morvern was of a deeper draught than the craft she replaced and as a result had to detour to the south of the sand bank which lies in the middle of the Sound of Iona. At low tides she often had to go quite far down the Sound before crossing to the far side and coming back up, parallel to the shoreline. This of course was a problem the previous vessels did not suffer from.
Following in her predecessors’ footsteps, the new ferry also carried out tendering duties to the Columba every week during the summer in addition to carrying the hundreds of tourists over to Iona, although from 1989 onwards she was able to concentrate all her time on the main crossing – just as well as the new Isle of Mull on the route from Oban had just been introduced and her passenger complement of 1000 meant the Iona crossing was more accessible to more people.
Such was the growth in passenger traffic on the Iona route, CalMac had little option but to have a second ferry on station. This duty fell first to the Canna, displaced from Lochaline in 1986 and latterly the Rhum. In 1992 however, the inevitable solution was adopted a new and much larger ferry was built. The new Loch Buie could carry as many passengers in one crossing as the two smaller vessels could carry between them, and although there was space on her car deck for 10 cars, again this was reserved only for essential supply vehicles and those of the islanders.
Barring an incident early in her career when she had a close encounter with Fionnphort slipway, damaging a Voith Schneider unit in the process, the Loch Buie settled in very well and earned herself a reputation of being a generally reliable ferry on what was an increasingly busy tourist route. With a passenger certificate in the summer months for up to 250 passengers, the ferry could cope with all the tourists the coaches could throw at her. In the winter months her passenger limit was reduced to 50, however this was rarely a problem. There was one feature of her route which could occasionally cause problems. The Sound of Iona lies in such a position that a strong southerly or south-westerly wind could whip up an impressive swell due to the shallow nature of the water there. Loch Buie, with her higher sides than the Island Class ferry which she replaced, was more susceptible to disruption.
On an increasing number of occasions each winter the service would operate on an 'Amber Alert' status whereby potential passengers were warned that their return journey may not run due to weather-related disruption.
The Loch Buie has now been on the Iona route for nearly 30 years and regularly sails with a full load of passengers during the summer. In winter she is relieved by the other smaller Loch Class vessels, with Loch Tarbert the usual candidate nowadays.