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The Highland Line: marking 50 years of car ferries to the Hebrides

Sailings to and from the island of Lewis were seriously disrupted earlier this week after the CalMac ferry Isle of Lewis broke down again.

It meant motorists had to drive from Lewis to Harris to get the ferry to Skye and then onwards to the mainland.

That was before that old warhorse, the Isle of Arran, dragged herself up from the two vessel Islay service to relieve the build up of traffic in Stornoway for a couple of days.

But the 30-year-old Arran is significantly slower and smaller, so levels of frustration with the Stornoway to Ullapool service were growing on Lewis.

But it all served as a reminder that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first car ferries coming to the Hebridean routes with the introduction of "the triplets" - the Columba, the Hebrides and the Clansman . This was still in the David MacBrayne era, and before the merger with the Caledonian Steam Packet company's operation on the Clyde to create Caledonian MacBrayne.

Capable of carrying 50 cars, and 600 passengers, the new ferries revolutionised services to the islands by the speed with which they could load and unload vehicles and livestock

Their side lifts with turntables could bring several cars down to the car deck at a time. This would be seen as a laughably slow operation today when we have become so used to the speed with which the roll-on-roll-off (RoRo) ferries load and unload. But compared to what had gone before, it was slickness itself.

Prior to that, cars were lifted on to the forward deck of the likes of the Claymore and Loch Seaforth one at a time by a derrick. They were then secured before the next one was lifted on, with the process being undertaken in reverse when the vessel arrived at its destination.

Also the capacity was transformed. The Claymore could carry only a dozen cars on its service to Tiree, Coll and Barra. The old Loch Seaforth meanwhile had space for 16 on its Mallaig-Kyle of Lochalsh-Stornoway run.

The three new car ferries were give three routes they became closely identified with over their 20 odd years of service.

Ian McCrorie, the esteemed ferry historian, records that the Hebrides, the Heb, began on April 15 to operate a new triangular route between Uig in Skye across to Lochmaddy in North Uist and Tarbert on Harris.

The second sister, the Clansman, entered service on June 5 between Mallaig and Armadale on Skye's Sleat peninsula

The Columba was to serve on the Mull-Oban service starting on July 30. But before then a new pier had to be built at Craignure.

Previously, only passengers got on or off at Craignure. The ships serving Mull , such as the the Lochearn, would slow down or stop off Craignure and a motor flit boat - "a red boat" - would come out with passengers and take those landing to the old pier.

It was the same for the Claymore at Coll as the Katie Morag books testify, till a new pier was built in 1967. The Loch Seaforth had a similar operation at Applecross until a direct service to Kyle was introduced in 1956 using a converted fishing vessel, renamed the Loch Toscaig.

It wasn't until 2004 that that these 'flit boats' stopped operating at the Small Isles of Eigg, Muck and Rum where harbour improvements were completed at a cost of £16.5 million. This allowed the new £8 million CalMac ferry, Lochnevis, to land vehicles and passengers on the islands for the first time.

Pre-1964, people with cars heading to Mull were taken on up the Sound of Mull to Salen or Tobermory,

Some time before the new pier opened at Craignure , two Mull men lost their lives, as they went out in a storm to bail the red boat. The news stunned and pained island communities.

This blogger was sitting in a croft house on Iona when the news came through of the tragedy. The real cost of living in the islands was writ large.

The Columba, still sailing at the luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess, also used to call at Lochaline on the Morvern peninsula. This was until 1973 when a small bow loading ferry, the Morvern, was introduced to start a shuttle service across the Sound of Mull between Lochaline and Fishnish, the closest point on Mull, between Craignure and Salen.

A third car ferry route to Mull was introduced later. This was when the respected MD of CalMac, the late Colin Paterson, replaced the passenger service between Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and Tobermory, with a small car ferry, providing a stunning crossing.

But it all started with the triplets 50 years ago. They have largely been forgotten as new replacement ferries have come and gone.

The next to arrive will be the new £42m super ferry, also called the Loch Seaforth after a poll, and will operate on the Stornoway to Ullapool route. She was launched last month in Germany, by Mrs Joan Murray, the eldest daughter of the late Captain John Smith, who was skipper of the previous Loch Seaforth which came out of service in 1972.

It will be capable of operating 24 hours a day and will have a capacity for up to 700 passengers and 143 cars or 20 commercial vehicles. It is scheduled to go into operation later in the summer and is planned to complete four return journeys every 24 hours.

So perhaps Lewis has seen the last of the Isle of Arran.

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