Crossing Time: 2 hours 20 Minutes
Regular Ship: Finlaggan / Hebridean Isles
Kennacraig - Port Ellen / Port Askaig
Mainland - Islay
1970 - 1973: Arran
1974: Arran / Pioneer
1975 - 1978: Pioneer
1979: Pioneer / Iona
1980 - 1988: Iona
1989: Iona / Claymore
1990 - 1992: Claymore
1993: Claymore / Isle of Arran
1994 - 2000: Isle of Arran
2001 - 2011: Hebridean Isles / Isle of Arran
2011 - Present: Hebridean Isles / Finlaggan
Glen Sannox / Lord of the Isles
Kennacraig: Terminal built on an island sticking out into West Loch Tarbert, joined to the mainland by causeway. Two ferry berths, one with adjustable linkspan, the other with just a concrete ramp. Passenger gangway lies between the two berths. Extensive vehicle queuing area adjacent to linkspan with terminal offices and facilities close by. There is ample parking space elsewhere on the 'island'.
Port Ellen: Linkspan and passenger gangway facilities located at the pier, as are the terminal office, vehicle queuing area and public facilities. On the other side of the pier is a concrete ramp that acts as a high tide linkspan.
Port Askaig: Marshalling area set back into the hillside behind the pier. New linkspan, roundhead and Jura ferry berth. New octagonal terminal office and berth opened in 2009.
At the dawn of the car ferry era on Islay there was much activity and rivalry. Until the latter years of the 1960s Islay was served by mail steamer, operated by MacBraynes - forerunner of today's CalMac. Other Clyde and Western Isles routes had been granted car ferries many years before, yet Islay had somehow been left behind. A private operator saw this as an opportunity that they could take advantage of - and they did. Western Ferries began operating a shorter sea crossing from Kennacraig in West Loch Tarbert to Port Askaig in the Sound of Islay. The vessel employed was a simple stern-loading car ferry which used simple loading ramps - that at Kennacraig still existing today.
The rival service was hugely popular with drivers and soon won a significant share of the traffic. This was the kick-start that MacBraynes (and latterly CalMac) needed to modernise the Islay route. In 1970 the Arran was transferred to Islay to provide a hoist-loading service and when it was clear that this was not a success more drastic action was taken - she was converted to a stern loading vessel with an open car deck; huge chunks of superstructure having been removed.
lt was in 1974 that CalMac (as it now was known) started to win back Islay traffic when the Pioneer was introduced. Running to Port Ellen in the south of Islay and calling at Gigha on the way, her introduction was a massively harmful move to the rival operator who had, only a few years before, ordered a new and purpose built vessel. Over the next five years the Pioneer became well established on the route until when, in 1979, she was replaced by the deeper-draughted Iona - herself intended for Islay some ten years previously. The Iona took over the route and occupied the former Western Ferries terminal at Kennacraig. She also provided a service to both ports on Islay; Port Ellen and Port Askaig. The larger ferry was to remain on duty for a further ten years before the next replacement arrived.
The 1980s saw the introduction of no fewer than eight new ferries entering service for CalMac. The final one of these, Lord of the Isles started a cascade of ships which led to the improvement of several routes. Claymore was displaced from the Outer Isles crossing by the new and faster ferry and became the Islay ship in Spring 1989. Although only a stern-loading vessel she had a more spacious car deck and did not present a height restriction unlike her predecessor.
It was not until 1993 that Islay's ferry service became a truly drive-through affair. With the introduction of the Caledonian Isles on the Arran crossing, the Isle of Arran was freed up to take over the services to Port Askaig and Port Ellen. She used her bow visor and ramp at Kennacraig's linkspan and loaded via her stern ramp at the two island terminals. Isle of Arran brought with her not only enhanced passenger comfort and larger capacity (for 72 cars per sailing) but also allowed a faster turnaround time at each port. Gone were the days of vehicles reversing on or off - instead they could now drive straight through.
Isle of Arran ran the Islay service until 2001. Her regular timetable saw her taking a morning run to Port Ellen and an afternoon trip to Port Askaig and on certain days undertaking an evening trip as well. Wednesdays saw the ship continue to Claymore’s long haul from Kennacraig to Port Askaig, Colonsay and on up to Oban before retracing her steps and reaching her home port late at night. Things continued this way until 2001 when the Hebridean Isles arrived to take over, having herself been replaced on the Uig triangle by the new Hebrides.
Initially Hebridean Isles was by herself however from 2003 onwards Islay was deemed to be busy enough to warrant a second ferry and Isle of Arran returned to the fray after a spending a summer running out of Oban. The two-ship service saw sailings from Kennacraig at 0700, 0945, 1300 and 1800, from Port Ellen at 0700, 0945 and 1800 and from Port Askaig at 1530. On Wednesdays it was now Hebridean Isles that made her way up to Oban while Isle of Arran took the daytime Islay sailings.
As ever, traffic continued to grow and it came as no surprise when the announcement came that Islay was to receive a new ship. The order was placed with the Remontowa yard in Gdansk, Poland following the successful construction of the new generation of Rothesay ferries, Bute and Argyle in 2005 and 2007 respectively. The new ship was to replace Isle of Arran and run in partnership with Hebridean Isles and her design allowed for significant improvements in deadweight capacity and overall car deck space. Finlaggan was launched on 30th June 2010; her name having been chosen in a public vote some months earlier.
Her introduction was marred with technical troubles centred on her bow ramp and clam doors and a spell operating as a stern-loader was the order of the day. The problems were rectified on a trip to Birkenhead and the new ship settled in remarkably well thereafter. Initially Finlaggan was able to run at full speed for the full length of the route, however complaints about her wash within West Loch Tarbert soon saw a 12 knot speed limit introduced and her new crossing times were only 10 minutes faster than those of the Hebridean Isles.
Almost a decade on and little has changed other than the provision of an extra afternoon sailing from Port Ellen to Kennacraig and back, leaving Islay at 1230 and Kennacraig at 1515. Finlaggan and Hebridean Isles still share the duties and come the winter months the Isle of Arran puts in an appearance for a few weeks to cover while is away getting spruced up. The future will see Islay getting a further new ferry in the form a passenger freight ferry. At the time of writing (April 2020) things are only in the design stage, but the new ship is apparently to be loosely based on Finlaggan. Interesting times ahead – will we finally see a new Pioneer heading down the West Loch?
Text thanks to John MacLeod and updated by Ships of CalMac
Dhuirnish approaching Rhubodach
Dhuirnish and Eilean Buidhe
Bruernish and Dhuirinish, Inchmarnock, 1985
Dhuirnish laid up at Port Bannatyne