Growing up, John MacDonald loved the sight of the ferries as they cruised into the harbour alongside his North Uist home.

The bustle of the vehicles, livestock loaded on board, tourists rolling in and locals heading for new lives were all signs of a world far away from the smallness of Lochmaddy.

Even better, when the captain invited him up to the bridge, there was often a small treat to take away, maybe a ferry company pen or even better, a picture postcard.

The simple youthful pleasures kickstarted a remarkable devotion to collect everything related to the ferries that he could get his hands on.

The Herald: The collection includes 300 posters and timetablesThe collection includes 300 posters and timetables (Image: John MacDonald)

Now John’s remarkable collection  has ballooned to be the world’s largest of its kind. 

And, at a time when Scotland's west coast ferries are under increasing scrutiny, it's shone light on just how different sailing to the isles once was. 

From beautifully designed notepads for travellers to pen letters home, to posh silverware in the dining rooms and stylish posters inviting passengers to explore the beauty of the isles, the collection spans the days of the steamer company David MacBrayne and the foundations of today's CalMac services, through an age when passengers travelled in style. 

Usually stuffed into every spare space in his Lochmaddy home, selected items from John's huge collection have been put on display for the first time, offering a glimpse into an era of ferry travel that some passengers today might well yearn to see return.

His collection includes informative posters and colourful pennants, and letters penned by ferry travellers while enjoying the views from their private cabins. Often detailing the delights of their journey, their letters would be collected in person by a ferry steward who, to save them the legwork, would post the letters for them. 

While dining room items spotlight the comforts that passengers enjoyed: rather than expected to queue for snacks and meals, they were served at beautifully laid tables, with crisp linen, smart crockery and wine delivered classy carafes.

John's collection also includes dozens of miniature trucks and buses adorned with ferry company livery which would have been a familiar sight to ferry passengers, and more than 80  beautifully handcrafted models of much-loved vessels that ploughed regular routes around the islands.

Often items in his collection were mass produced in their day but because of their ‘throwaway’ nature they have become rare examples of a particular point in Scotland’s transport history.


The Herald: Ferry timetables were published in travel books packed with detail about the islandsFerry timetables were published in travel books packed with detail about the islands (Image: John MacDonald)

Such as tickets, information pamphlets, highly detailed maps detailing ferry destinations and even where passengers could locate their traditional clan lands. Among his items are editions of the CalMac Gazette, an annual news sheet which proudly trumpeted the company's successes.

Some items were rescued from being thrown away or destroyed, and show how the ferries played a crucial role in supporting life on the islands.

Such as David MacBrayne smartly bound books of timetables which served as a ‘rough guide’ of their day. Packed with vital information for visitors even down the names of hotel owners, they offered directions to places to visit and tips on how to get the most from a stay.

But most striking is the attention to detail ferry operators paid to everyday items in order to ensure travellers journeyed in style: available for their use was beautifully decorated headed notepaper, and  smart tableware branded with the ferry name for diners and silverware.

Along with stylish posters showing idyllic island life – he has 300 posters and timetables going back to 1850 - it all hints at a golden era when the journey to the isles was as important as the destination.

Among John’s more unusual items is a letter written on board one ferry by a golfer who had spent a very satisfactory holiday on Islay in early August 1914.

The Herald: Ferry passengers were given beautifully decorated notepaper to write their lettersFerry passengers were given beautifully decorated notepaper to write their letters (Image: John MacDonald)

In it, he expresses mild surprise at the lack of men spotted on the islands and the number of women working hard in the fields: war duty had already called many men away.

John’s collection includes another relic of a different kind of war: three charts with row upon row of silhouette images of Russian vessels.

A throwback to the Cold War, they reveal a hidden side to the ferry operators role. They were distributed to the most senior ferry staff in secret as part of ‘Operation Hornbeam’, an effort to gather information on enemy warships, merchant ships and submarines that might be operating in British waters.

Most would end up being destroyed. As a result, John’s collection is believed to be the only ones left in existence.

John, who has been gathering ferry-related items for more than 50 years, says he hopes one day his material might find its way into a museum telling the story of Scotland’s west coast ferries.

The Herald: CalMac advertising poster showed an idyllic version of island lifeCalMac advertising poster showed an idyllic version of island life (Image: John MacDonald)

And, he adds, he’s still collecting.

“As a kid I would watch the boat coming in, whether it was calm or windy, it would arrive.

“In those days, the crew would let you go on board and show you around. It made you feel like it was something magical.

“I’d be given things like a pen or something from the boat, and I’d keep it.”

He adds: “The ferries are part of the history of the islands and of Scotland’s transport history.

“I think it’s incredible that there isn’t a permanent exhibition somewhere to tell their story.”

Some items reflect the unique impact CalMac and ferries have in island life. The collection includes a silver angler’s cup once awarded to North Uist woman who netted the biggest fish of the year.

The Herald: The collection includes more than 80 model vessels, including this one of MV ClaymoreThe collection includes more than 80 model vessels, including this one of MV Claymore (Image: John MacDonald)

It was presented by David MacBrayne in recognition of the Lochboisdale community’s help when MV Claymore swerved to avoid a fishing boat, leading to damage and its passengers having to be helped ashore.

A model of MV Claymore is among the dozens of models John has gathered down the years, most  built by a man in Belgium who shares his love for the ferry service.

Accompanying his exhibits at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy’s museum and arts centre are reminiscences provided by local people. Many talk passionately about what the ferries mean to them, with emotional memories of waving loved ones away either to school, university or work work and the joy of their return.

John was among those to do just that. Having yearned to work for Caledonian MacBrayne as a youngster, he ended up leaving North Uist for a job in Glasgow.

The Herald: Posters gave travellers all the information they needed to plan their ferry tripPosters gave travellers all the information they needed to plan their ferry trip (Image: John MacDonald)

He returned 18 years ago and now works as for Caledonian MacBrayne as a port assistant at Lochmaddy.

Fiona Galbraith, Area Operations Manager (Hebrides) for CalMac, said: “John is an extremely dedicated member of the Lochmaddy team, he always puts a smile on people’s faces and is a fantastic asset to CalMac.

 “His amazing, museum-quality collection of memorabilia is breath-taking and takes you on a fascinating walk through the history of CalMac and David MacBrayne.

“I would highly recommend a visit to this exhibition, which is testament to John’s love of ferries as well as CalMac.”