Crossing Time: 35 Minutes
Regular Ship: Loch Tarbert
Tobermory - Kilchoan
Mainland - Mull
1986 - 1997: Coll
1998: Eigg & Bruernish
1999 - 2006: Loch Linnhe / Raasay
2006 - 2016: Loch Linnhe
2017 - Present: Loch Tarbert
Various members of the Island Class and Loch Class ferries on relief duties.
Tobermory: Quite literally a widened slipway at the very end of the town. The slipway is adjacent to the main pier and lifeboat berth. Nearby there is a cafe on the upper floor of the terminal building, above the ticket and information office.
Kilchoan: Slipway and pier jutting out into the northern end of the Sound of Mull. There is a small vehicle marshalling and turning area as well as a passenger shelter and public toilets situated close by.
This crossing was, until the end of 1985 at least, in the care of one of the ex Iona Red Boats, the Applecross and had been previously referred to as the Tobermory - Mingary service. At the end of the 1985 season however, the Applecross was withdrawn and a replacement vessel was urgently required. This duty fell to one of the spare members of the versatile 'Island Class' ferries; the Coll being the chosen one. With the lack of slipway facilities at either Tobermory or Kilchoan, Coll was restricted to carrying passengers only. For this purpose her seating was increased by using portable semi-permanent seats attached to the car deck, much like those used on Morvern on the Iona service, a new and less steep passenger stairway leading up to the boarding point on the starboard side, adjacent to the bridge and the provision of a tarpaulin-covered area forward on the car deck, immediately behind the bow ramp.
Over the following 5 years the Coll had a relatively easy life, shuttling several time a day back and forth between Mull and Ardnamurchan and occasionally venturing into Loch Sunart on excursions or to the Small Isles on charter. It was perhaps inevitable from the outset that, at some point, a route with a car ferry operating it was going to become a vehicle service.
It was not until 1991 that slipways were constructed at the Coll's ports and the crossing became a car ferry service during the summer months. Tobermory was equipped with a slipway beyond the end of the main pier, adjacent to a new lifeboat berth, while that at Kilchoan was a simple and narrow stretch of concrete set just behind the stone pier, on the western side of Kilchoan Bay, facing east towrards the ruins of Mingary Castle.
The route continued to grow gradually and the number of sailings during the summer was gradually increased over time. In the summer of 1996 the Coll was replaced at Tobermory by her Oban-based sister Eigg. That summer proved to be a busy one and on many occasions in the height of the season, Bruernish was also required to carry out additional sailings. Eigg remained based in Tobermory through the 1997 and 1998 summers, but as demand grew on numerous routes simultaneously across the CalMac network, a major cascade of ferries took place between 1997 and 1999, which saw Loch Class ferries switching route like there was no tomorrow. The Kilchoan route was one of those which benefited from this redployment. Clyde movements freed up the 1986-built Loch Linnhe from the Tarbert - Portavadie run and she was switched to the Western Isles in time for the summer of 1999. Eigg was despatched back down to Oban and the Loch Linnhe took over the seasonal service, allowing drive-through operations for the first time. Kilchoan slipway had to be widened for the larger vessel.
Year round service had always been something of an intermittent affair. The mid 1990s saw this provided now and again as a trial, but it was to be the winter of 2003/4 before permanent year round service came to fruition. Loch Linnhe was required elsewhere in the network during the winter months as she was one of the main relief ships on the shorter routes. Demand was low enough during the winter months to enable an Island Class ferry to return to the fray once more – the service was more of a lifeline for the people of Kilchoan than anything else, to enable trips over to Tobermory for shopping etc. The vessel allocated to this off-peak service was the youngest of the Island Class; the 1976 built Raasay and she became the regular winter vessel from 30th October 2003, usually handing back to the larger ferry just in time for the summer timetable to commence in late March each year. Summer timetables saw 7 return sailings being offered for six days a week with Sunday services being provided in the high summer only. Winters saw three return sailings Monday to Saturday.
2006 saw a change in the winter deployment and Loch Linnhe was present for the majority of the winter, Loch Riddon having stepped up to be the main small Loch Class relief ship. Raasay could still be found on the route at various times, either during fleetmates’ overhauls or covering when Loch Linnhe was sent to cover a breakdown elsewhere.
The next change came about in 2016 when, following the introduction of RET fares across the CalMac network, traffic levels exploded as the Western Isles became the place to explore. The numbers of people using the Ardnamurchan route grew continually and often saw Loch Linnhe sailing full or short-shipping traffic. Elsewhere the newly built Catriona entered service on the Claonaig – Lochranza route, freeing up the Loch Tarbert. She duly moved round into the Western Isles and Tobermory became her new home from 2017. The winter of 2017/18 was the last to see the services of the Raasay – she followed her sisters to Ireland for further service shortly after and Loch Tarbert has been the year-round Kilchoan ferry since then.