Lochalsh (II) / Scalpay (II)
Current / Last Route
Caledonian Steam Packet Co.
A previous vessel of same name serving on the Kyle station.
Ailsa Shipbuilding Co. Ltd, Troon
Gleniffer Engines Ltd., Glasgow
2 Oil 4SCSA 4 cyl 6” x 7”.
Hoist & Lifts:
1 x Vehicle Turntable
1957 - 1970: Kyle of Lochalsh - Kyleakin
1971 - 1977: Kyles Scalpay - Scalpay
This attractive turntable ferry had a complicated career – serving with both the CSP and David MacBrayne Ltd under different names and on different stations – and it avoids untold complication if we grant her two separate histories.
The 500-yard passage from Kyle of Lochalsh in Wester Ross to Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye was neither the oldest nor shortest crossing to the Misty Isle, but it was the most convenient – neither port was besieged by mountains, like Glenelg or Kylerhea, and the ferry became still more important once the railway to Strome from Inverness was extended to Kyle in 1898. Mighty piers were built and the once-tiny hamlet became a bustling community.
Till 1897 the respective County Councils of Inverness and Ross ran the sailing or rowboats on the Kyleakin passage but in that year the LMS Railway Co. Ltd took over the craft, leasing the operation to a succession of private individuals. The first motor-launch only took on the crossing in 1914 and did not even have a name. She towed cattle and vehicles across on floats as required. Another unnamed motor-boat came from Oban in 1916, and then another called the KYLE, which passed to David MacBrayne Ltd in 1938 when they took on the lease of the Kyleakin ferry (the LMS, of course, having acquired a 50% share in the Company.)
The launch SKYE was acquired in 1922 and stayed on the Kyleakin service till, in 1951, she was sold to a Greenock owner. She was joined in 1930 by the timber-hulled KYLEAKIN (I), the first of many tur5ntable ferries to serve the Isle of Skye. This ingenious device seems to have been invented at Ballachulish before the Great War; it allowed side-loading off concrete slipways at any state of tide, and the later turntable ferries could carry considerable loads. Another advantage was that motorists did not need to reverse off the pivoting vehicle-deck.
KYLEAKIN could only carry one car; the larger MOIL (1936), though still built of wood, could carry two. She was named after the romantic ruined castle that stands sentinel over Kyleakin's cove. In 1942 a steel-hulled turntable ferry was placed on the station: CUILLIN, built by Denny's of Dumbarton, could also take two cars.
On 1st January 1945 the LMS took full control of the Kyleakin ferry on expiry of the lease to David MacBrayne Ltd and management of this West Highland outposed passed to its wholly owned shipping subsidiary, the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd. (Even more remarkably, they maintained control after the advent of the Scottish Transport Group and up till 1973, while MacBraynes were forced from 1969 to withdraw entirely from the Clyde.)
By then the explosion in private car ownership and the rise of mass-tourism had turned the brisk Kyleakin ferry crossing into a licence to print money, and the CSP had mounting difficulty through the 50s and 60s in maintaining its car-carrying capacity.
LOCHALSH (I) arrived in June 1951 and – another Denny's product – was virtually a repeat of the wartime CUILLIN; none of these early car ferries boasted any covered passenger accommodation – quite a consideration in the excessive West Highland weather. But the Denny-built PORTREE (I), which took up the station in Easter 1952, was bigger and much more sophisticated; she could carry four cars, had an ample covered saloon for passengers – topped by two enclosed steering positions – and her Perkins diesels drove twin screws. She was a great success and, as traffic continued to expand, was joined by a Denny-built sister, BROADFORD (I) early in 1954.
Our subject – which would be the last turntable ferry in the CalMac empire – was ordered from Ailsa of Troon late in 1956 and was formally registered as a CSP vessel on 18th February 1957; the Company's name had just been revived in January, after almost a decade lost in the oblivion of the British Transport Commission. Though very similar in specification and profile to PORTREE and BROADFORD, the new LOCHALSH could carry six cars on her turntable and, of trimmer finish and better proportions, was quite a pleasing craft, proudly flying the restored CSP pennant from her neat foremast amidst a nicely flared bow.
She joined the KYLEAKIN fleet in April 1957; the older LOCHALSH, renamed LOCHALSH II to clear way for the newcomer, was retained through the season, but when the larger ferries coped readily with the traffic offering she was returned to the BTC in the spring of 1959. LOCHALSH II ended up as a workboat on the Caledonian Canal, minus her turntable and boasting a crane, and served into the 1990s.
Her 6-car successor proved an extremely reliable ferry on the Kyleakin station and no one could have foreseen how demand would simply overwhelm these small side-loading craft as the 1960s progressed. The CSP had neither the capital nor, frankly, the vision to build the large modern vessels the station really needed and it took the advent of the STG to confront the realities of the station. (By 1969, the queues in high summer at Kyle could extend for a mile and more, and a 12-hour wait to cross was not uncommon.)
LOCHALSH in her turn was renamed LOCHALSH II early in 1970 as her name was required for one of the vast double-ended twins being built for Kyleakin. It was thought David MacBrayne Ltd might find a use for her and her surviving turntable sister, KYLEAKIN (II) “but these craft, with their turntables, were considered old-fashioned,” records Iain MacArthur, “and were unable to handle large heavy loads.”
The 1957 ferry became pretty marginal at Kyle once the 28-car KYLEAKIN (III) entered service in August 1970. The older KYLEAKIN – which had also been renamed – was sent on charter to relieve MacBrayne's ex-Ballachulish ferry SCALPAY at the eponymous, bustling island off the east coast of Harris in April 1970, and in April 1971 LOCHALSH II sailed north on the same duty. Overhaul revealed that the timber-hulled SCALPAY had reached the end of her useful like; the bigger, more powerful ex-Kyleakin ferry was a big success, and the transfer became permanent. LOCHALSH II duly passed into the MacBrayne fleet in October 1970, and emerged from a major refit at Shandon as SCALPAY (II).
At the end of April 1971 the wee Scalpay car ferry SCALPAY – the former Ballachulish ferry MAID OF GLENCOE – arrived at Shandon on the Gareloch for annual overhaul, after being relieved on her Harris station by the 1957 turntable ferry LOCHALSH II, specially chartered from the CSP. It rapidly emerged that the timber-hulled SCALPAY “was in a very poor state mechanically and structurally, and it was decided that her condition was such that it would not be worth the cost of overhauling her. She is still lying at Shandon,” continues the West Highland Club Newsletter of September 1971, “and it seems likely that she will meet the same fate as the LOCHBUIE and the LOCH AILORT i.e. go up in flames and smoke!
“The SCALPAY's place has been taken up by this former Skye ferry and as a result of her greater capacity traffic has shown a considerable increase on this route. She has recently shown a slight tendency to break down but she is due for overhaul on the Clyde in November when she will be relieved by the Glenelg ferry GLENMALLIE.”
LOCHALSH II (whose earlier history is profiled earlier on this CalMac fleet-list – was built as LOCHALSH by Ailsa of Troon early in 1957, replacing an earlier vessel of that name; after thirteen years of solid service she had been renamed LOCHALSH II to free the cognomen for one of the new double-enders being constructed for Kyleakin service. She now proved a popular ship on the Scalpay station; though “remote”, by mainland standards, and reached only by a truly awful road from Tarbert in Harris, Scalpay was (and remains) a densely populated and very wealthy island, with enterprising people and a vigorous fishing economy. The people of Scalpay enjoyed high living standards and car ownership was far higher than the Hebridean average of the day. With capacity for six cars (the old SCALPAY could only take four) and a comfortable, spacious saloon for schoolchildren and other foot-passengers, it came as little surprise when it emerged that LOCHALSH II was to be permanently transferred to David MacBrayne Ltd and the Scalpay station.
In fact it was the middle of October 1971 when the GLENMALLIE (built in 1959 and a younger if larger version of MAID OF GLENCOE) arrived at Scalpay and LOCHALSH II was free to sail to her birthplace at Troon for a major refit. As well as thorough overhaul of her engine, and the painting of her vehicle deck in MacBrayne green, her ramps were remodelled with angled ends – the slipways at Scalpay and Kyles Scalpay were both a little steeper and significantly narrower than the side-loading berths at Kyleakin. The work completed, MacBraynes formally purchased the craft from the CSP and she was re-named SCALPAY, her predecessor having been de-registered – though left to decompose as a Shandon pontoon, rather than melt with fervent heat.
(Why GLENMALLIE had been summoned to relieve her is an interesting question; the 1960 KYLEAKIN had served at Scalpay only the previous year and, renamed KYLEAKIN II, might readily have been chartered in turn from the CSP. Perhaps there was significant cost (though Kyleakin was nearer than GLENMALLIE's base on Kylerhea) or perhaps, with the double-enders having had an uncertain start at Skye, the CSP were reluctant to send another of their back-up ferries north.
The following summer, of course, KYLEAKIN II was rebuilt as a bowloading ferry and assigned to the Largs-Cumbrae Slip station, leaving her one-time Skye stable-mate as the last turntable ferry in the combined fleet. Because of the special terms of the Scalpay ferry – the STG paid only for insurance, overheads and ship depreciation, while its operators, the MacSween family, paid the running costs but kept all the revenue; a pattern later duplicated at Raasay – the SCALPAY was not transferred to Caledonian MacBrayne Holdings Ltd. in 1973. She thus became the last car ferry in the ownership of David MacBrayne Ltd. and was still on its books when she was sold.
For over five years SCALPAY rendered yeoman and generally reliable service at the Scalpay station. From January 1974 she began offering an extra Friday evening crossing if required. She would repair to Stornoway each October for overhaul – with GLENMALLIE chugging north on charter in her stead – and only had minor breakdowns; for two days in mid-August 1973; for a few more days at the end of September 1974 and more seriously from year's end to 9th January 1975, when one engine failed entirely and for a time she had to operate on one unit and in calm conditions only. That same month the cargo-boat LOCH CARRON dropped off an unnamed motor-launch at the Scalpay jetty, to be used as a tender or very limited extra passenger capacity; this craft had been lying unused at CalMac's Gourock terminal. With the advent of the now-loaders it was left to decay by the Scalpay slip, but survived on the shore until 1997.
Her turntable itself – being entirely of steel construction and very heavy; her predecessor at Scalpay had a timber vehicle-deck – was apt to seize and, with scant regard for prudence, her crew frequently resorted to chucking a bucket or two of seawater into its bearings to loosen things up! (Turntable ferries did require heavy maintenance in this regard.) SCALPAY's other disadvantages included the increasing difficulty of securing spares for her Gleniffer engines and the provblem of supplying the bottles of compressed air necessary to start them. (It was kept in a large red gas-cylinder atop her passenger saloon, hard by her starboard steering-position, and can be be clearly seen in photographs.) Compressed air had been easily obtained on the Kyleakin station, right on the end of the Inverness-Kyle railway; it was much more difficult to lay hands on it in the Western Isles of an emergency. (The late Angus 'Umag' MacSween, last of the original Scalpay ferry crew and the only man to serve on all six vessels stationed there, told me the greatest blessing of the “Small Island Class” ferries was their push-button electric start. It was Angus who took the RHUM on her final crossing in December 1997 when the Scalpay bridge finally opened to traffic; but he always referred to the second SCALPAY as “the LOCHALSH.”)
As the last turntable ferry in the fleet, though, Scalpay's car ferry service could seem very vulnerable amidst such incidents; and all the more vulnerable when press reports late in 1975 suggested the Glenelg-Kylerhea service might close, with the according disposal of GLENMALLIE, the most convenient vessel for charter. In November 1974 the STG had made overtures to Inverness County Council, seeking subsidy of the Scalpay service and remodelling of the slipways (in which case BRUERNISH or a sister bowloader could assume the station.) The County, though, would not entertain this.
CalMac continued to press in 1975 for conversion of the Scalpay run to endloading and were countered by a bright idea from the ranks of the newly formed Comhairle nan Eilean (Western Isles Islands Council, late in September; might the local authority not acquire the three 6-car turntable ferries about to be made redundant by the opening of the Ballachulish bridge? One could be kept as back-up vessel for Scalpay and the Comhairle would investigate the suitability of the others for service to Eriskay, Berneray or Vatersay.
Unfortunately nothing seems to have come of this; GLEN DUROR (1961) and GLEN LOY (1964) all passed with their 1969 Troon-built sister GLENACHULISH to Highland Regional Council when the Ballachulish bridge opened that Christmas, but only the GLENACHULISH saw further service, surviving at Kylerhea to this day and the last turntable ferry in operation. In the absence of a locally based relief, SCALPAY was doomed and in the autumn of 1976 the Council did at last reach agreement with Caledonian MacBrayne. Work began on a temporary slipway at Tarbert – about fifteen to twenty minute's sail from Scalpay – as reconstruction of the Kyles slip would close that tiny port entirely for the time being. Another temporary slip was laid by the existing terminal at Scalpay, there being more room in that cove – Port na Geiltean - and easier access to the road.
Accordingly the Company's last turntable ferry was not overhauled in October 1975 and a three-month extension was obtained on SCALPAY's passenger certificate. She gave her last Scalpay-Kyles Scalpay sailings on 12th January 1977 and that day the MORVERN arrived from Greenock (via Crinan, Oban, Mallaig and Portree) to replace her. SCALPAY was then beached in a remote bay on Scalpay's South Harbour – high and dry at low tide – to await her fate.
But she was not quite done yet; in early July SCALPAY was granted the kiss of life, and born on the 7th to Stornoway for DTI survey and a rush overhaul. She was again to be chartered, this time by Highland Regional Council for the Corran ferry service across the narrows of Loch Linnhe, about nine miles south of Fort William. The GLENN MHOR of 1964 – herself a six-car turntable ferry – was at Crinan for prolonged repairs and her 1974 consort LOCHABER, even with her 9-car capacity, could not cope alone with peak traffic.
SCALPAY duly operated from 14th July on the five-minute passage from Onich to Ardgour, but was disabled by her old friend – turntable breakdown – on the 16th, Glasgow Fair Saturday, with lengthy queues amassing on the Onich side as a result. Repairs were effected and, though definitely ailing and looking very forlorn and rusted after so long without a proper overhaul, she managed to help out at peak periods until. GLEANN MHOR at last returned in the first week of August. “However, “ the WHSC newsletter records, “she celebrated her return by promptly breaking down, son the SCALPAY was called into service again but equally promptly 'came out' in sympathy. With one engine out of action, the EIGG was sent to tow her from Ardgour to Lochaline on Sunday 7th August. There she was moored at the buoy in Miodar Bay alongside the MORVERN.” (The latter had only seen a few months on the Scalpay station before being succeeded permanent by the KILBRANNAN, a matter of happenstance rather than calculated policy.)
SCALPAY never saw service again and the guilty engine was never fixed. She lay at Lochaline until May 1978 and was then towed to Crinan, managing through the canal on one engine before being towed on to Shandon, where she eked out her last days for the Company as an increasingly derelict craft, useful only as a source of spares for the LARGS. In November 1979 she was sold for just £200 to the Ardmaleish Boat Building Co. of Bute, and was towed to her new owners' yard before being berthed inside Rothesay harbour. (As they usually overhauled LARGS, it no doubt saved them the trouble of driving dozens of miles for a Gleniffer nut.)
The Company's last turntable ferry, stripped of her vehicle deck and steering-positions, ended her days as a barge on the Ayrshire coast, being employed first in Ardrossan harbour (with the dredger HOLLAND V) and later at Troon and Ayr. She was photographed at Ayr Harbour by Colin J. Smith in 1988, and it is just possible the hulk still survives somewhere along that coastline.
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