1st April 1974
19th August 2004
Current / Last Route
14th August 1974
Scottish Transport Group (STG)
Mrs William Ross, The Wife Of The Then Scottish Secretary of State
A 1905 paddle steamer on Islay run of the same name
Robb Caledon Ship Builders Ltd, Leith
Mirrlees Blackstone Diesels (Stockport) each 1700 S.H.P
Oil Engines, Geared Drive
Hoist & Lifts:
2 x 3½ ton Hiab Cranes removed In 1978 and replaced by two side loading ramps. Later had a vehicle hoist added then removed and fixed side ramps fitted again.
1974 - 1977: West Loch Tarbert - Gigha - Islay
1978 - 1979: Kennacraig - Gigha - Islay
1979 - 1989: Mallaig - Armadale (summer) / Relief vessel (winter)
1981: Oban - Cragnure, Oban - Lochboisdale / Castlebay
1980's: Oban - Lochaline, Tobermory, Coll / Tiree
1986: Uig - Tarbert - Lochmaddy
1988: Oban - Colonsay. Mallaig - Castlebay (Summer)
1998: Western Isles
1999 - 2001: Wemyss Bay - Rothesay. Upper Clyde Relief
2001: Upper Clyde Relief. Mallaig - Armadale
All too soon, this workhorse of the CalMac fleet slipped into the 'Past Ships' section. Built, some say too late for her lifetime, she has proved to be one of the company's most popular ships to ever serve in the fleet...
After her launch at Robb Caledon Ship Builder Ltd in Leith she visited CalMac's headquarters in Gourock before setting sail for her home station, Port Ellen on Islay. After showing her flags at the ports she was to serve she took VIP's up to Oban on a cruise, before entering service on 14th August 1974.
Pioneer was built to replace the smaller Arran that operated between West Loch Tarbert and Port Ellen (Islay) she was designed to be the longest vessel to turn this far up the loch. Her name revived that of a MacBrayne paddle steamer that had served Islay from 1905 to 1939 and was the last paddle steamer to operate in the Western Isles. The new ferry’s assigned summer services saw her operating three return sailings daily from West Loch Tarbert to Port Ellen with one calla day each way at Gigha’s South Pier (where her two cranes were needed the most at this small pier!)
On the 26th of June 1978 the Pioneer’s mainland base was moved three miles and down the West Loch to the former Western Ferries terminal at Kennacraig, where the pier here had been specially extended to accommodate her. During the 70s, rival private operator Western Ferries had been serving Port Askaig, however following their cessation of services, Pioneer. The following year one of the Island Class ferries, BRUERNISH began a sailing between Kennacraig and Gigha pier so the Pioneer’s calls were no longer required and she was able to sail direct for Islay. She was only to be on this run for a short spell however as she was replaced by the larger IONA in February 1979. Pioneer then made a return to Leith for a bit of surgery.
When she arrived back from her overhaul Pioneer looked very different. Her two cranes had been removed and she had sprouted two side-loading ramps, connected to a large car hoist just aft of her funnels. This new addition was required in readiness for Pioneer’s next assignment, where linkspans were not yet installed. In the summer of 1979 she replaced the former Clyde ferry Bute on the seasonal Mallaig – Armadale crossing. Other modifications during her Leith overhaul saw her bridge deck extended and her bridge wings were clipped so they wouldn’t be an obstruction preventing hoist loading at low tide. The tidal range in Mallaig and Armadale was far greater at these locations and even the Bute before her had had to have her hoist range extended vertically.
Pioneer operated to a full schedule in the summer but as a spare vessel in the winter. From September to May each year she had spells on the Kilcreggan and Dunoon services, spent her Christmas / New Year holidays helping out the Caledonia at Arran with passenger runs from Largs (not required after the arrival of Isle of Arran in 1984) while Easter saw service with Saturn at Rothesay. She would relieve Iona on the Islay run and also on the Small Isles run for the tiny Lochmor’s overhaul - to this day Pioneer remains the largest ship to have sailed on that service. Her winter relief duties tended to follow the same pattern through the 1980s, with routine stints on the above routes but she saw brief periods all over the west coast and only the Ullapool – Stornoway route eluded her. Livestock runs also formed part of her duties and in that capacity she found herself making calls at various piers, some of which she would otherwise not call at on regular ferry crossings, like Largs, Lochaline and Craighouse.
Pioneer’s wanderings were not limited to just the winter months and there were a great many occasions when she would be called in at short notice to provide emergency cover; Craignure, Colonsay, Barra, Tiree, Tarbert – just about anywhere. Charters cropped up now and again too and this further increased Pioneer’s lengthy list of destinations which such places like Campbeltown, Iona and Fort William.
1989 saw Pioneer stepping aside from the seasonal Armadale route and for the second time in her career it was the larger Iona that replaced her. Her next career move was one that spelled the end for the much-loved Glen Sannox, assisting on the Upper Clyde routes. For this role she no longer required a vehicle hoist so on her next overhaul this was removed and fixed side ramps were fitted in its place, thus allowing her to use the linkspans set into the faces of the piers at Dunoon and Rothesay. Pioneer’s main summer duty during the 1990s was the schedule known as the 1A roster – this involved providing morning and evening commuter runs to Dunoon as well as serving Kilcreggan on occasion. Between the commuter runs she would provide extra sailings on the Wemyss Bay – Rothesay route, partnering Juno, Jupiter or Saturn, depending on their rotations.
In the mid 1990s however Pioneer became much more closely tied to the Bute crossing as demand dictated a two-ships service on a permanent basis. Her running mate continued to change on a regular basis, as the three Streakers were rotated between the Bute, Dunoon and 1A schedules. In the summer of 1995 Pioneer was given the chance to venture a little further afield when she opened up a link between Rothesay and Brodick. She would leave Rothesay upon the arrival of the 1A ship in the morning on certain days of the week and return to release the 1A Streaker to go back to Dunoon in time for commuter runs to Gourock. She would call in at Largs on both the outward and return sailings to pick up and set down passengers. While advertised as part of the company’s Clyde cruises and providing a pleasant and unusual day out for the people of Bute and Largs, the service wasn’t a huge success – loadings were never really that great and the inter-island link was discontinued after 1998.
1998 also saw Pioneer pressed into emergency service on the busy Oban – Craignure route. A failure further north had called the Isle of Mull away and Pioneer was paired with the former Iona (by then renamed Pentalina B and chartered in from Pentland Ferries) to run a shuttle service to keep traffic moving on the busy tourist route.
Pioneer’s supposed last day in service on the Clyde came on Friday the 24th January 2003 when she left Rothesay and headed to the James Watt Dock in Glasgow for a brief overhaul, following which she made for Skye to take over the route Armadale route once more, keeping the route open in readiness for the new Coruisk. Pioneer should have handed over to the new ship and then retired, however due to technical difficulties the Coruisk had to make several trips to fitters for repairs. This resulted in the Pioneer staying at Mallaig much longer than anticipated. A specially arranged two day cruise for the public to join her on a sentimental voyage from her home in the Western Isles to the Clyde via Oban had to be cancelled to cover for her stricken fleet mate. She returned to the Clyde empty and tired from her extra stints - something by now she was well used to. Not all was lost however and CalMac decided to arrange a special farewell cruise in August 2003 for all those whose cruise was cancelled, to take them out on one last memorable final sailing from Gourock to the Kyle's of Bute and back - a fantastic day out for all who made it. She was packed to the boards with supporters, people who wanted to say goodbye to their favourite ship as well as trippers who wanted to remember her Clyde cruising days.
On the 1st November 2003 however she unexpectedly made a return north to Mallaig to perform her very last final day of service with CalMac when she covered on the Small Isles roster, her crew leaving a lasting mark of graffiti on the rocks to mark her last visit – something of a tradition on Canna. When she arrived back in Mallaig after the sailing, the new Lochnevis awaited her and Pioneer duly loaded crew cars and headed for Gourock and from there she moved to Greenock’s James Watt Dock - her final resting place with the company.
CalMac Managing Director Lawrie Sinclair said: “MV Pioneer has completed her distinguished period of service in the CalMac fleet and I can confirm that we have put in place the arrangements to maintain the name for possible future use. While MV Pioneer may be departing these shores, she will always have a place in our history and she had many friends and admirers on the West Coast.”
The star of books named after her, BBC films and people’s hearts, Pioneer embarked on another chapter of her successful and highly faithful career in the waters off western Africa. She was bought for service with Corlett Line and was renamed Brenda Corlett, after the new owner’s wife. She was bought by an operator who intended to use her to serve the islands of Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea, straddling the Equator and in a debranded state, devoid of yellow discs and red lions, she left the James Watt Dock just before the end of 2004, sailing down the Clyde for the last time.
It was with sadness that we learned in early 2020 that Brenda Corlett had been severely damaged by a cargo fire that previous year. Although it was hoped that she would be repaired and returned to service, this claim did seem highly questionable.