Crossing Time: 45 Minutes
Regular Ship: Isle of Mull
Oban - Craignure
Mainland - Isle of Mull
1964 - 1972: Columba
1973 - 1974: Iona / Glen Sannox / Clansman
1975: Clansman / Glen Sannox
1976 - 1988: Caledonia / Glen Sannox
1988 - 2016: Isle of Mull
2016 - Present: Isle of Mull / Coruisk (Summer only)
Lord of the Isles / Clansman / Hebridean Isles / Isle of Arran (relief duties or additional sailings).
Oban: 3 storey terminal building with ticket office, waiting area and toilets. Two linkspans, raised walkways linking terminal building to boarding points. Large vehicle marshalling area.
Craignure: A single linkspan, hydraulically operated from an overhead gantry, fixed passenger gangway, only height-adjustable, an extensive car marshalling area and a passenger shelter stretching along the pier.
The Oban - Craignure route is one of the busiest in the CalMac network today. Its current route’s origins date back to 1964 when the new Columba was introduced on the Sound Mull route, from Oban to Craignure and Lochaline. The pier at Craignure was newly constructed for this ferry, sticking out into the bay at right angles to the shoreline. This replaced the old stone pier dating back to 1894. At Oban, the Columba loaded her cars by means of a hoist, directly from the quayside, usually from the North Pier. Drive through operation was introduced in 1973 when a new linkspan was installed at the Railway Pier in Oban. This facility enabled not only the Mull timetable to be sped up, but also that of the long haul service out to Lochboisdale on South Uist. From 1973 to 1974, Mull was serviced by three different ships: Iona, Glen sannox and, when Craignure duly received its linkspan and the route became truly drive-through, the newly converted Clansman. Events conspired to take this ferry away from Mull and in 1976 she switched places with the Arran ferry Caledonia.
For the next 12 years, Mull was served in summer by the Caledonia and in winter (usually from late September through to mid May) by the old favourite Glen sannox. The people of Mull actually preferred the Sannox and would rather have had her as the year-round vessel, despite the fact she had no bow visor and could only load with her stern ramp at either port. This was not an option though as the versatile Glen Sannox was required elsewhere as a relief ship during the summer months and did indeed visit Islay, Arran and other Clyde ports on a regular basis in the summer. This arrangement continued until the summer traffic built up to such levels that the Caledonia simply could not transport the numbers of passengers that required shipment. 1987 was her final year on the Craignure route as her replacement was due in service the following spring. When the Glen Sannox took over in autumn 1987, the redundant vessel was placed on the sale list and headed for the dock.
The new ferry duly entered service in 1988 just in time for the summer season. The Isle of Mull was something of a giant; with double the car capacity of her predecessor and a passenger certificate for up to 1000 with a crew of 28. At a stroke the capacity problems associated with her predecessor were a thing of the past, and at the time of writing (August 2007) the Isle of Mull is still the regular Mull ferry after almost two full decades, providing up to eight return sailings a day in the summer months.
When the Isle of Mull first entered service she was also expected to serve Colonsay as well as Mull. This practise continued until 2002 and she would sail twice a week in summer, on Monday and Friday evenings, to Colonsay while in winter she would also fit in a third sailing on Wednesdays.
2002 saw a major shake-up of services operated from Oban. Under a new experiment, one made possible with the new Hebrides sending the Hebridean Isles down to Islay, the Isle of Arran was dispatched to Oban to provide additional services to Colonsay, Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist. This enabled the Isle of Mull to concentrate solely on serving Craignure and several additional sailings were offered each week at the times she would have previously sailed for Colonsay. This practise continued the following year although the additional vessel was Lord of the Isles, as Isle of Arran was by this time second vessel at Islay. Indeed the timetables were changed slightly and Lord of the Isles provided three sailings to Mull herself, in addition to those provided by the regular vessel. One of these sailings formed part of a cruise via the Sound of Kerrera past Gylen Castle and across to Craignure, making a close pass underneath Duart Castle. Although it did not appear in the main timetables, the 1500 ex Oban did indeed convey cars to Mull and brought traffic back at 1600. This cruise was pulled from the timetables in 2006.
With more vessels being based in Oban it was perhaps inevitable that there would be some switching of vessels, according to demand. Indeed usually three or four times a year the Isle of Mull would be allowed to 'stretch her legs' and continue out beyond Craignure to such exotic locations as Tiree and even Barra. On such occasions the Clansman or Lord of the Isles would step in and keep the link to Mull open, but in general though when one is waiting at Craignure, 99% of the time it is the Isle of Mull that appears from behind the miniature railway station.
There have been those who have felt the need to voice concerns on the Isle of Mull's abilities to cope with the traffic requiring shipment. Indeed her passage time was increased by a whole minute, although for the majority of the time she is able to complete the crossing in between 40 - 45 minutes.
Her timetable was also tweaked to eliminate late running during the high summer periods in 2007. The 2006 summer saw her running about 20 minutes late by the time it came to loading for the 1600 ex Oban and this was causing problems for those passengers returning from Mull to get the connecting train to Glasgow. The morning sailings were therefore moved forward by 5 or 10 minutes to give extra loading time. This did not, however, address the question of the Isle of Mull's capacity and there was speculation for several years in the late 2000s that Mull may receive a solution similar to that granted to Arran - a second vessel at peak times. This eventually became a reality in 2016 when a series of vessel redeployments came about. The relatively new Lochinvar was displaced from the Tarbert – Portavadie service (her place being re-taken by the veteran Isle of Cumbrae) and sent north to Mallaig, freeing up the Coruisk to move down to Mull and a newly daily routine consisting of 5 return sailings from Craignure to Oban.
The new partnership of Isle of Mull and Coruisk provides ten sailings a day from each port. Isle of Mull operates 5 return trips from Oban and Coruisk operates 5 return trips from Craignure. The sailing times are advertised as 50 minutes for Isle of Mull and 55 minutes for Coruisk, however in practise the ‘Mull’ usually manages 45 minutes and Coruisk not much more. The Coruisk’s move to Mull was something of a controversial move at the time, not least on the Isle of Skye. For the first couple of years there was no end of criticism levelled at the company for taking away what Skye residents regarded as ‘their’ ship. Likewise the Mull folk quickly took to Coruisk and the improved timetable she could offer – it was now possible for islanders to commute to jobs in Oban daily; the first sailing from Craignure arriving in time for a 0900 start. The last sailing back to Mull wasn’t until 2005. Furious demands from Skye to return Coruisk from Mull were denounced with equal ferocity from Mull – a very real rivalry now existed between the two islands.
During the winter months under the new regime, Mull reverted to a single vessel service albeit on a greatly improved timetable. Gone were the days of one morning and one afternoon sailing a day. The minimum offering was 3 sailings on a Sunday and anything between 4 and 6 return sailing on different days midweek. Looking to the future, now that a two-ship service to Mull has become established, it is very hard to see how a return to a single ship could ever be justified by the operators other than at time of emergency and such a reduction certainly wouldn’t be accepted by the island community. There are even calls for the two ship service to be made permanent rather than seasonal, though for the time being Coruisk remains committed to the Clyde relief circuit.
In the longer term there will be changes. For some time it has been known that the Glen Sannox, currently still under construction will (eventually) displace Caledonian Isles and the Isle of Arran will become spare again. Likewise the current plan is for Hebrides to be replaced by the second of the dual-fuel newbuilds at Uig. Both the Isle of Arran and Hebrides have been rumoured to be destined for Mull. When will the changes happen? Pass me the crystal ball…..