Current / Last Route
Ballachulish Ferry Co. Ltd.
Scalpay is a small island off Harris (Western Isles).
James Noble (Fraserburgh) Ltd
Hoist & Lifts:
1 x Vehicle Turntable
1956 - 1965: Pre-MacBraynes Service at Ballachulish
1965 - 1970: Kyles Scalpay - Scalpay
Historically, David MacBrayne Ltd had not provided services to the tiniest or most sparsely populated Hebridean islands within ready rowing distance of neighbouring communities. By the Thirties, however, the little island of Scalpay, off the east coast of North Harris, enjoyed regular calls from the Outer Isles mailboat LOCHMOR.
There was a good deepwater harbour, with pier – though she only tied alongside if she had cargo to unload – and in fact, tiny and barren as it was, Scalpay supported a substantial population with a bustling community and even a respected shipping line, Roderick Cunningham (Scalpay) Ltd, who puffered coal and bottled gas over a large area of the British coast and, on occasion, even to the Continent.
Because of the island's striking situation – Scalpay's highest point offers views over most of the Minch coast and down the entire Outer Hebrides island chain – she acquired one of the very first lighthouses in the West Highlands – Eilean Glas, built in 1788 – though in fact the island was practically unpopulated until the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Scalpay had, even in 1964, few cars – and, until the Sixties, not even tarred roads – but the Scalpaich are legendary seamen and most families were happy to arrange their own marine transport.
The demise of LOCHMOR and the advent of the “Uig triangle” car ferry, however, left Scalpay bereft of a MacBraynes link. For the time being a basic passenger service from the island to Tarbert was run by various fishing vessels – CATRIONA and MOREA being the regulars – while the Company negotiated with Inverness County Council with a view to providing a car ferry service.
Concrete slipways were built at convenient coves on the uninhabited north-eastern coast of the island and Kyles Scalpay on the Harris mainland, only a few hundred yards over a narrow strait (which, nevertheless, enjoyed serious tides and was entirely open to the Minch from the east.) And a small second-hand vessel was acquired, the redundant Ballachulish ferryboat MAID OF GLENCOE (II), built for the Ballachulish Ferry Co. Ltd. in 1956 by James Noble (Fraserburgh) Ltd. After a thorough refit by Timbacraft Ltd at Shandon, and finished in the red hull with blue boot-top of MacBraynes small craft, SCALPAY inaugurated the Scalpay-Kyles Scalpay car ferry link in May 1965. The servioce was advertised as “frequent” - later, it was timetabled to an hourly basis, with a two-hour break for lunch and a three-hour break on Wednesdays for re-fuelling at Tarbert – and, bizarrely, till its end in 1997 the passage was billed as “10 minutes”; in fact, it seldom took four.
SCALPAY was the first turntable ferry in the MacBraynes fleet. The ingenious turntable design seems to have been invented at Ballachulish around the time of Great War. At its most primitive, the revolving vehicle platform could be fitted to a conventional launch of generous beam; it certainly allowed side-loading off a stone or concrete slip at any state of tide. Another advantage was that drivers did not need to reverse. The disadvantages were that – despite the sophistication of the last turntable ferries of the Sixties and Seventies- they could not handle very long or heavy loads; and the design was not entirely safe; there were several accidents and in the worst, at Kyleakin in the early Sixties when a minister misjudged his gears and drove right off, two women and an infant drowned.
Nevertheless turntable ferries became a thorough part of the West Highland scene and at their peak such vessels served at Cuan Ferry (for the Isle of Luing); Loch Etive (near Bonawe); Ballachulish; Corran; Kylerhea; Dornie; Kyle of Lochalsh; Strome and Kylescu – not to mention Kessock on the east coast. Today only the GLENACHULISH (1969), last of the Basllachulish vessels, is still in service, at the privately owned, seasonal Skye ferry service across the Kylerhea straits.
MAID OF GLENCOE had been the second of a superior turntable design at Ballachulish – pioneered by APPIN CHIEF (1955) and could carry four cars on her turntable. She was, however, timber-hulled and only of single-screw propulsion; and she had no covered accommodation for passengers. Unusually, her name was not borne on her bows but painted, unhelpfully, at the stern and out of sight.
The new service had opened against much local opposition but some proved a great succes. Such was the Scalpay rush to acquire cars that within a year the comprehensive Harris bus service to Kyles Scalpay – specially laid on – was pathetically redundant. SCALPAY headed to Stornoway for annual refit and, in 1966 and 1967, the fishing-vessels stood in for the duration. On the latter occasion, though, there was vociferous complaint at Scalpay's denial of car ferry service for an entire month, and in 1968 and 1969 her former consort APPIN CHIEF – now in service at Kykrhea – was chartered to relieve.
Merged operations with the CSP, following the Company's acquisition by the Scottish Transport Group, made available their Kyleakin fleet and in April 1970 the KYLEAKIN II(1960), a 6-car vessel of powerful twin-screw design, allowed SCALPAY off for overhaul, followed the following spring by her near-identical consort LOCHALSH II (1957).
That was to allow SCALPAY to head all the way back to Shandon for quinquennial survey and a major overhaul. It became rapidly apparent that she was unfit for further service and essential repairs were beyond economic cost, especially as two larger and better turntable ferries were going spare at Kyleakin. She was accordingly taken over by Timbacraft Ltd on 1st November 1971 and her hull was stripped for use as a floating pontoon, the engines being scrapped.