Crossing Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Regular Ship: Loch Seaforth
Ullapool - Stornoway
Mainland - Lewis
Pre 1973: Mail run from Mallaig via Kyle of Lochalsh
1973: Iona / Clansman
1974: Clansman / Suilven
1975 - 1994: Suilven
1995: Suilven / Isle of Lewis
1996 - 2002: Isle of Lewis
2002 - 2013: Isle of Lewis / Muirneag (Freight)
2013 - Present: Isle of Lewis / Clipper Ranger (Freight)
2014 - Loch Seaforth (II)
Isle of Arran (Freight and relief duties) / Clansman (relief duties) / Hascosay (Freight)
Ullapool: a double width linkspan set at right angles to the shoreline, alongside the fisheries pier. The fisheries pier is also used for loading passengers and there is an airbridge walkway leading from the terminal to the gangway.
Stornoway: a new purpose-built pier, marshalling area, linkspan and passenger gangway installed following the entry into service of the current ferry. This pier is located just away from the old terminal at the fish quay.
However you approach it, Ullapool comes as a surprise. From the south east you round a bend in the road and there it is, laid out across a bay in the side of Loch Broom and from the ferry, one minute you're sailing up Loch Broom then you round the headland and you're almost at the pier! Tucked neatly into a corner of Loch Broom, Ullapool is now the mainland port for the ferry serving Stornoway, across the Minch on the island of Lewis. The island has not always been served from Ullapool however, for before 1972 the sea crossing was by far longer a route to Mallaig via the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Sound of Sleat by the mail steamer Loch Seaforth.
The first car ferry service to Stornoway was given by the relatively new Iona, which had been built with Islay in mind but was unable to take over her intended run for various reasons. After a stint on the Clyde as Dunoon ferry, she was transferred to the Outer Isles run on 1st May 1972. Drive through facilities were not present at this point and so all vehicle loading was done using her hoist and side ramps - a time-consuming process when a full load was offering, especially at low tide due to the hydraulic having to push the hoist higher. Fortunately though this was just a temporary arrangement as linkspans were planned for Stornoway and Ullapool on the eastern side of Loch Broom, which was the nearest suitable port on the mainland to Stornoway, and therefore offered the shortest passage time. The new facilities were finished by early 1973 and Iona made her last run from Mallaig on 25th March of that year. The new route, from Ullapool to Stornoway saw the ferry berthing stern-in at Ullapool's linkspan which lay just adjacent to the fisheries pier. Stornoway still required the use of the vessel's hoist until 23rd May.
Sadly things with the new route did not get off to a wonderful start. The Stornoway linkspan broke down within weeks of coming into service, necessitating a return to hoist-loading by the Iona. By some good fortune, the planned replacement vessel, Clansman, was delayed in arriving. Had she been in service then she would not have been able to unload at all on Lewis. This good fortune was not to last though as the Iona herself broke down and required relieving by the Columba (which also caused major problems elsewhere in her absence).
The converted Clansman finally took over the run at the end of June 1973 however she too broke down and suffered problems with her bow visor in her first couple of days and the folk of Lewis were understandably fed up. Fortunately though a more permanent and reliable vessel was on order - one with a huge vehicle capacity thanks to mezzanine car decks as well as a passenger capacity for around 400.
The Suilven was by far the giant of the fleet when she took over the Lewis lifeline service. Capable of carrying a total of 120 cars on the two mezz decks, capacity problems were put well into the history books and Lewis had at last been given a reliable resident ferry. Indeed the new giant was to remain on her route for twenty years. Her service record was impressive and she would regularly venture out into the violent seas of the Minch in weather that would see her fleetmates tied up safely in other ports. The Suilven remained tied to the Stornoway crossing throughout almost her entire career and indeed only ever served on one route other than her own and that was from Oban to Craignure on Mull for a ten day period in the late 1980s while the Isle of Mull was carrying large passenger numbers to Lewis (her certificate being for more than double that of Suilven).
As with the majority of routes over the years, the Lewis run grew more and more popular and it became increasingly evident in the early 1990s that the Suilven was by now too small and too slow; taking as she did nearly four hours to cross the Minch. By this time as well her vehicle capacity had been to reduced to 85; her mezzanine decks no longer being used.
The giant Isle of Lewis was her purpose built replacement, arriving on the scene in mid-1995 after launching from Fergusons at Port Glasgow. She was a much faster vessel, capable of 18 knots and could complete the crossing in as little as 2 hours 45 minutes - some 45 minutes less than her predecessor. Her capacity was huge as well as she incorporated full width mezz decks. A new timetable was also drawn up for the new ship and this improvement had many beneficial effects for islanders and tourists alike. For the first time, Lewis became a realistic option for a day trip by public transport from places such as Inverness and the surrounding area. Normally the ferry would make two return trips from Lewis but in the high summer she would run a tighter timetable on certain days and allow a third return to be run. Isle of Lewis was large enough to convey all the freight and private vehicles offering and she was able to run unaided for the first few years of her career.
As time went on, freight traffic continued to grow to the extent that it became necessary to run a second vessel on the route at off peak hours and overnight in order to take the strain off the daytime passenger services. This was originally started by a rival private operator using the vessel Taygran Trader, however the freight hauliers were not convinced about the new company's credentials and stuck to using the Isle of Lewis. This was just as well because the rival operator soon folded and the vessel was impounded for non-payment of dues, among other mounting debts. In response to this highlighted need for extra capacity, CalMac brought in a second vessel of their own to undertake additional freight runs. At first the spare unit fleet's spare unit was used, the Isle of Arran, until a longer term ship could be found. For a while the Northlink vessel Hascosay was employed, prior to commencing her own duties in the Northern Isles. A gap was left to be filled once more and a further new vessel was required. This came in the shape of the freight ship Belard, renamed Muirneag for her new role.
The freight sailings would normally leave Stornoway shortly before midnight, six nights a week and return from Ullapool around 0430. Since the start of this two ship service, Lewis has been served well although the Muirneag earned herself the rather unflattering nickname of 'Olympic Torch' (so called because it never goes out - a reference to the increased frequency of Atlantic storms pounding the Minch and preventing the vessel from sailing). Despite this level of service there was increasing disquiet among regular users of the route, with calls for an even larger vessel. A consultation was carried out, asking participants for their views on three options; one involving continuation of the current service, one involving a single and much larger vessel to cater for all traffic and the final option involving two medium sized vessels (roughly equivalent in size to the Hebrides or Clansman). The overwhelming public view was that a two-ship service was preferable and there was considerable lobbying from Lewis for this, however the powers-that-be naturally knew better and chose to ignore the calls for two smaller ships. Instead it was announced that one large ship was to be built and this would undertake two daily sailings plus an overnight freight sailing - the Lewis community and freight hauliers were up in arms! In the short term, to counter the reliability issues encountered with Muirneag her charter was terminated and she was replaced by the larger Clipper Ranger, chartered from Seatruck Ferries as a direct replacement on the overnight freight run from September 2013.
The new ship was ordered from the Flensburger yard over in Germany and was due in 2014. The new giant was to offer capacity for 143 cars – an increase of 20 over the Isle of Lewis. The designs also called for an open plan car deck to maximise the use of the space. Full length mezz decks were also to be provided. However with the overall reduction in sailings by the new ship over the course of the year (no third passenger sailing in high season) it was calculated that even with the larger ship Lewis was being given less of a service provision than with the Isle of Lewis.
As with other recent newbuilds, a public competition was run to choose the name of the new ship; the choices being Callanish/Cape Wrath/Loch Broom/Loch Seaforth/Loch Ewe. Callanish would have fitted in with the trend set by the Islay ferry Finlaggan, however the folk of Lewis looked to the past in their choice for the future and the name Loch Seaforth was revived. The new ship took shape and a remarkable pace over in Germany, her hull being constructed under cover and her superstructure built separately and craned into position after the launch. Fitting out and trials followed and the new Loch Seaforth eventually took up service on the Stornoway run, first on the overnight freight sailing on 11th February 2014, following with the daytime passenger sailings two days later. Isle of Lewis remained on hand through the summer to provide extra sailings, occasionally taking the main schedule whenever teething problems arose on the Loch Seaforth. She also undertook sailings when Ullapool linkspan was replaced the following winter. While the Loch Seaforth took scheduled passenger sailings to Ullapool, Isle of Lewis ran on a vehicle service to Uig in Skye; something that required a daily changing timetable as she could only berth around high water.
Isle of Lewis has returned to her namesake isle each year to provide overhaul relief, running on the scheduled passenger timetable. Hebridean Isles usually appears too, taking the overnight freight sailings and supplementing these with extra daytime runs as required.