Uig - Tarbert (Harris) / Lochmaddy
Skye - Harris - North Uist
Currently in Operation
1hr 45 minutes
1963 - 1983: Hebrides
1984: Hebrides / Columba
1985: Columba / Hebridean Isles
1986 - 1999: Hebridean Isles
2000 - Present: Hebrides
Lord of the Isles / Clansman / Finlaggan / Pioneer / Iona / Claymore (relief duties or additional sailings).
Uig: Ferry berth is located at the end of the long pier which projects out into Uig Bay. Vehicle queuing area is back on the land, giving around a half mile drive from the lanes to the ferry for traffic waiting to board.
Tarbert (Harris): Linkspan set along the face of the pier in East Loch Tarbert. Passenger loading ramp located on the face of the pier. Close by is the information office and facilities such as waiting room, toilets and ticket office etc. Vehicle waiting area is also located adjacent to this.
Lochmaddy: Linkspan and passenger gangway on the face of the pier. Information office and vehicle waiting areas located adjacent to this.
For many years the northern Outer Hebrides were served by traditional mail steamer from Mallaig to Stornoway. Things all changed in 1963 when the first of three revolutionary new ferries were introduced into service. Operating out of Uig on the Isle of Skye, the Hebrides commenced a twenty year career as the dedicated ferry on what became known as the ‘Uig Triangle’. Her ports of call were Lochmaddy in North Uist and Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.
The new ferry brought for the first time substantial vehicle capacity and all of a sudden the islands became readily accessible for motorists. Vehicles were loaded by the same means as had been introduced on the Clyde ferry routes almost ten years previously – by hoist and side ramps. This was a time-consuming loading process and often involved the vessel being tied to the pier for upwards of an hour at a time, however the Hebrides was a reliable servant, only rarely missing a day's work.
The Hebrides became a much-loved ferry during her time on the Triangle. She served faithfully from her introduction in 1963 until her eventual withdrawal at the end of the 1984 season. The only times she usually deviated from her designated crossing would be for her annual overhaul, at which time she would often be relieved by her sister Columba. In fact it was the Columba that kept the routes open in the winter of 1984/5 before the new Hebridean Isles was able to relieve her in 1985.
With the new ferry came a radical shake up of the Uig – Tarbert / Lochmaddy services. For the first time ever, drive-through operation was a reality on the crossings with the Hebridean Isles using her stern ramp at Uig’s long and sometimes exposed pier; and her visor and bow ramp at Tarbert and Lochmaddy. It was a fairly long process to get the piers upgraded and the new ferry was actually completed well before the piers were at a stage where she could actually start using them and so went off on a winter of relief duties at Stornoway and Mull. It was to be the spring of 1986 before she was able to enter service, and even then she still had to use her vehicle hoist at Uig, until such time as the linkspan and berthing dolphin were finished. As a result there were delays, with the blame for these being laid firmly on Uig pier. However things change dramatically upon completion and opening of Uig linkspan and once she settled into her new career, the Hebridean Isles brought about vast improvements in both the frequency of services and also levels of passenger comfort. One thing that did not change however, was the absence of Sunday sailings. A sizeable portion of the residents of the islands were, and are to this day strongly opposed to ferry crossings being provided on Sundays for religious reasons.
Sundays aside, the Hebridean Isles continued to ply her way across the Minch on a day to day basis, usually giving one return crossing to Harris and then one return crossing to North Uist or vice-versa each day. As with the majority of routes over time, traffic levels grew although the growth observed at Uig was far greater than elsewhere. Perhaps the biggest single event that could have contributed to this on the Uig crossings took place in October 1995 when the infamous Skye Bridge joined the island to the mainland once and for all. 1996 saw another change take place when the new Sound of Harris ferry, Loch Bhrusda entered service, linking Berneray and Harris directly on a shorter service. This had an impact on the Hebridean Isles' daily routine. As it was no longer necessary to sail direct from Lochmaddy to Tarbert, the triangle was split into two separate routes operated by the one ship out of Uig.
As traffic demand grew as the end of the millennium approached, it became inevitable that a new and larger capacity ferry would be brought in, as has been the routine procedure for years in this situation. In 2000 the Queen sent the third vessel to carry the age old name Hebrides down the slipway at Ferguson’s yard in Port Glasgow and into the Clyde. Broadly based on Devon-built Clansman from a couple of years earlier and incorporating several design improvements, the new ship underwent trials on the Clyde and then carried out berthing trials on the 'Triangle' before entering service. At this point, the Hebridean Isles left for pastures new at Islay. Hebrides quickly took her place as the flagship of the fleet and has concentrated the majority of her career to date on the service from Skye to the Outer Hebrides.
Upon Hebrides' arrival the timetable was completely redesigned to take into account her greater speed. In a typical day she would normally carry out six sailings, starting at either Lochmaddy or Tarbert and finishing at the other, with all sailings going via Uig. Her passage time was around 1 hour 40 minutes on each leg of the triangle and with a capacity identical to that of Clansman, she had no problem coping with the traffic available. Over time she gained a reputation for putting to sea in winds that would see other vessels remain firmly tied up and the residents of Uist and Harris quickly took her to their hearts.
The Hebrides would usually only leave her home route once each year when she would make for one of the shipyards in either Aberdeen, on the Clyde, Forth or the Mersey in order to undergo her annual overhaul. Relief ships over the years have varied. Iona would often appear in the winters in the 1980s and 90s, while more recently the Clansman and Finlaggan have appeared - even a two ship relief service provided by Isle of Arran and Hebridean Isles has been seen more than once.
As popular as she is on the route, Hebrides is earmarked for replacement. The original plan was for one of the dual-fuelled Port Glasgow newbuilds (Hull 802) to be a direct replacement for Hebrides, however in 2023 it was announced that there would in fact be two new ferries for the Uig routes, splitting the North Uist and Harris timetables into separate routes.
Part of the preparation work for the new ferries has involved major construction work at all three harbours. Lochmaddy pier has been fruther lengthened. Tarbert has seen a new pier and extended marshalling area built (all while maintaining the timetabled services) and Uig has seen two periods of closure to allow a new protective breakwater, installation of a new linkspan, new fendering and an enlarged marshalling area. During the Uig closures the Hebrides sailed exclusively from Lochmaddy to Ullapool, with Tarbert sailings being cancelled.
The newbuilds, to be named Claymore and Lochmor, are currently under construction in Turkey and at the time of writing (December 2023) they are expected to be in service in the summer and autumn of 2025 respectively.
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