1st March 1996
Liferafts and RIB
Current / Last Route
8th June 1996
A Loch on the Island of Berneray
McTay Marine, Bromborough
Schottel Pump Jet propulsion system
Hoist & Lifts:
1996 - 2003: Berneray - Leverburgh
2003 - 2007: Ardmhor - Eriskay
2007 - present: Relief Vessel
Mallaig - Small Isles / Largs - Cumbrae Slip / Claonaig - Lochranza / Oban - Lismore / Sconser - Raasay
For many years the only way of getting across the Harris to North Uist was by means of the Uig Triangle service, from Tarbert to Lochmaddy, often via Uig on Skye. Hebrides operated this route for 20 years before being replaced by the larger Hebridean Isles in 1985. However the journey between the two Outer Hebridean islands would take at least two hours (as many as four if the sailing was to be via Skye).
There was talk of a new service across the Sound of Harris for many years, and it was the mid 1990s before such a service became a reality. Trials were carried out using one of the versatile Island Class ferries in the early 1990s, operating from Otternish in North Uist to Leverburgh in the south of Harris. Following the successful completion of the trials and all the relative feasibility studies into the proposed new crossing, CalMac placed an order for a new Loch Class vessel which was to be introduced on the new route, which itself was to commence in time for the summer 1996 season. Due to the geography of the Sound of Harris – ie its lack of depth in many places – it was revealed that the new ferry would differ somewhat from the previous members of the Loch Class. Voith Schneider units, which gave these ferries a high degree of manoeuvrability, propelled earlier ships, however it was decided that these units would be at risk of damage in the very shallow waters. Instead, a water-jet propulsion system was to be adopted, thus eliminating the need for anything protruding below the bottom of the vessel’s hull.
The order for the new ferry was placed with McTay Marine on the Mersey and she gradually took shape prior to launching in March 1996. Her delivery voyage saw the new vessel, named Loch Bhrusda after a loch on North Uist, leave the Mersey following trials and venture up the Irish Sea and onto the Clyde where she was handed over to CalMac.
The Loch Bhrusda was built with a capacity of 18 cars and approximately 150 passengers, like the Isle of Cumbrae and Loch Tarbert, however her overall appearance was somewhat different to previous Loch Class ferries. Whilst the car and passenger accommodation was the same, with the passenger lounge down the starboard side of the ship, gone was the small red wheelhouse above the starboard side passenger lounge. The bridge was instead to be located above the car deck in the centre of the vessel. Her bulwarks on either side of the ship provided the height for the bridge, which gave her an altogether better view of the waters around her than the starboard bridge favoured previously. It was also her bulwarks that were to receive the attention of the painters, for it was these that were painted in the company colours.
After she was accepted into the fleet, the Loch Bhrusda underwent a series of berthing trials at Largs and Cumbrae Slip, to assess her suitability on that run, should she ever be required on there on relief duties at a future date. Although these were successful, it was noted at the time that she was somewhat awkward to handle - something attributed to her propulsion system. Following repairs to one of the flaps on her stern ramp, she set sail on the long journey to the Outer Hebrides via an overnight stop in Oban and opened the Sound of Harris crossing on 8th June with an 1820 return sailing to Leverburgh.
The new crossing took an hour to complete with the ferry sailing at about 10 knots between Leverburgh and Otternish, which was also the departure point for Berneray on the previously council-operated service. For the first couple of seasons the Loch Bhrusda also carried out sailings to the nearby island of Berneray as part of her timetable, although these were discontinued once the new causeway was completed, linking Berneray to Otternish on North Uist.
Because of the numerous reefs that litter that particular stretch of water, a specific route had to be marked out to ensure the ferry’s safe passage between North Uist and Harris. An additional condition laid down by the MCA was that the vessel could only proceed so long as at least the next two marker buoys were visible, and as a result, delays were experienced in poor visibility. Nevertheless the Loch Bhrusda settled down into her role well and by the end of the 1996 season it was obvious that the new route was a huge success. Vehicle reservations became a necessity and it was a regular occurrence for the Loch Bhrusda to sail with a full car deck, leaving behind those who had turned up on the off-chance of there being a space for them.
Such was the success of the new ferry that a further order was placed with McTay Marine in 2002 for delivery of a much larger ferry to replace the Loch Bhrusda the following season. The new Loch Portain arrived on the scene in early summer 2003 and the Loch Bhrusda then moved south along the Outer Isles to the Sound of Barra where she found the Loch Linnhe awaiting her arrival. This was another new route in the Calmac network, sailing from Ardmhor on the northern side of Barra on the forty minute sailing to the Isle of Eriskay, itself linked by causeway to neighbouring South Uist.
Upon the arrival of Loch Bhrusda, the Loch Linnhe retreated to Tobermory where she resumed her own duties, allowing the new arrival to take over the four or five daily return sailings from Ardmhor to Eriskay. Right from the start of this new route reservations for vehicles were required, having seen how popular the Sound of Harris route had become in a very short time. Unlike her previous role up at Berneray, this new route was not the only way of getting across the Sound of Barra. The established route from Castlebay to Lochboisdale, on the Oban ferry, was retained and thus relieved the Loch Bhrusda of some of the traffic, at least initially.
In 2006 the Loch Bhrusda was only 10 years old and had already fallen victim to her own success once in that time, being displaced from the Sound of Harris and with the announcement of the new Loch Shira for the Cumbrae route, it was revealed that she was to be replaced once again on the Sound of Barra run, this time by the larger Loch Alainn in the following year. The larger vessel came up for berthing trials early in the spring and then arrived in June to take up residence, relegating Loch Bhrusda to the role of spare vessel. She made her way to the Clyde via Lochaline and Campbeltown and she assumed her new lifestyle. Within weeks she was called upon to carry out relief service on the Cumbrae crossing for 5 days in July, relieving the Loch Shira which required maintenance and then for 4 days in August on the Lochranza - Claonaig run in place of the Loch Tarbert. Her new role was split into two parts; in the summer she was to be based at Fairlie, Sandbank or Rosneath available for relief work at short notice, while in winter she would return to Eriskay and the Sound of Harris to cover for overhauls.
Her life as the small fleet spare unit has led to a much more varied lifestyle than was envisaged for her. 2008 saw her replace Raasay as the Small Isles overhaul relief ferry - she carried out berthing trials in the September of that year and remained at Mallaig to cover for the Lochnevis. She didn't sail on any particular timetable and her duties were dictated by demand for freight on the four islands. Information wasn't very forthcoming from the Mallaig office at that time and Loch Bhrusda's timetable would only be announced a day or two in advance. Her running partner on the Small Isles turn was the chartered Ullin of Staffa (running to the standard timetable for passengers).
Further spells of relief cover arose all over the network, from Largs and Lochranza in the south right up to Raasay in the north, and that was in addition to her regular overhaul reliefs at the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra. She was even chartered at one point to provide a private commuter service from Loch Creran to Glensanda while regular boats Lady Morvern and Lady Iona were unavailable.
2016 saw Loch Bhrusda returning to scheduled full service. It was brought about by a new set of schedules following the start of the year-round Mallaig - Lochboisdale service and redeployment of the Lochinvar to the Mallaig - Armadale service. Loch Bhrusda was assigned to the 2016 Mallaig - Armadale service, mainly to provide extra cover in the event that Lord of the Isles didn't make it in from Uist on occasions, however she was often called upon to provide extra sailings at short notice. The following seasons saw Loch Bhrusda remain closely allied to Mallaig for the same reasons, however she also saw spells of service on the Oban - Lismore and Sconser - Raasay services as well. In November 2019 CalMac advertised a weekly commercial-only service from Oban - Fishnish whilst the Lochaline service was running as passenger only, however the Loch Bhrusda was otherwise engaged on the Sound of Barra at the time, so her first service call at Fishnish never happened.