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"Sail away with Caledonian MacBrayne" - The Scottish Region Annual Maritime Event, Tuesday 16 May 2006

The Scottish Region's Annual Maritime Event took the form of a trip on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry MV Caledonian Isles from Ardrossan to Brodick on the Isle of Arran and return. During the outward trip, Mr. Ian Fox, Caledonian Macbrayne's Regional Manager (Oban) gave a presentation on the history of the company and its operations today.

He began by looking at the present situation. Currently Caledonian MacBrayne operates to 48 ports and terminals in the West of Scotland and has 31 vessels operating on 26 routes. Last year the company carried 5.3 million passengers, 1.1 million cars, 93,000 commercial vehicles and 13,755 coaches.

The company's origins can be traced back to 1851 when David and Alexander Hutcheson, together with David MacBrayne set up a steamer company, David Hutcheson & Company to operate between Ardrishaig and Portree to Glasgow. In 1865 the company was awarded it's first mail contract and the company expanded it's network of services to the Hebrides with routes to Mull, Skye, Lewis and Stornoway. In the late 1870's the Hutchison brothers retired and David MacBrayne took over, renaming the company in his name. Under David MacBrayne, the company continued to expand and further routes were added, including those to Islay, Harris, Barra and North and South Uist.

The 1880's saw the railways influencing the company commencing with the opening of the line to Oban in 1880. This resulted in new services to the outer isles and sailing times being altered to link with the train services. By the 1890's the company had introduced new services operating from fort William and steam turbine powered ships had been introduced. In 1905 David MacBrayne retired at the age of 90, with his sons taking over the running of the business. The following year saw the introduction of the first bus service and in 1910 the last paddle steamer was ordered. However, the First World War brought major changed and there was a major decline in services resulting in a large number of ships being laid up and subsequently scrapped.

The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry d

The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry "Juno", one of the ships mentioned in Ian Fox's presentation, approaching Gourock.

© John G. Fender 2011

Following the war, road transport expanded rapidly, helped by the sale of surplus military vehicles to entrepreneurial operators and the fortunes of David MacBrayne continued to decline until the company was on the verge of insolvency. In 1928 the company was saved by the involvement of the LMS Railway and Coast Lines Ltd. resulting in the formation of a new company, David MacBrayne (1928) Ltd.

A major restructuring was undertaken, with new ships being commissioned to operate mail services, including the first diesel electric ship for the company. During this time government contracts underpinned the company and bus services were expanded and lorries added to the vehicle fleet to carry goods.

The Second World War again saw the reduction of services and a number of ships were requisitioned by the Admiralty for various operations. These were all painted in "Naval Grey". Some of these served as "block" ships at Scapa Flow. In 1948 the nationalisation of the railways meant that the LMS holding in the company was taken over by the government and at the same time the ships and services of McCallum, Orme & Co. were taken over. This company provided cargo services from Glasgow to the Isles.

A rationalisation of services followed, with some cargo services being replaced by lorries following improvements to the road network. Some passenger services were replaced by buses and in 1951 the bus fleet amounted to 112 vehicles covering some 7,200 miles a day. The 1950's saw additional mail contracts being awarded to the company and the introduction of multi-purpose ships. During this period, further rationalisation of services saw 20 ports being axed from the route network. In the 1960's, following the passing of the Highlands and Islands Shipping Act, more new ships were acquired and new piers and facilities built. Car ferry services were introduced using government finance. These services were Skye to the Outer Isles, Skye with the Mallaig and Mull with Oban and Morvern.

The Scottish transport Group was created on 1st January 1969 and this took over the company along with the Clyde based Caledonian Steam Packet Company and formed the Scottish Bus Group. The two shipping companies were then merged and renamed Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. A new head office was set up in Gourock. During the 1970's roll on - roll off operation was introduced with the "Clansman" being the first to be converted for this type of operation. New ships were also ordered, including the Juno, Jupiter and Saturn for operation on the Clyde. The last steam powered ship was retired in 1977. There were also improvements to port infrastructure with the introduction of linkspans to speed up loading and unloading. In 1990, the Secretary of State for Scotland became the sole owner of the company and ownership then passed to the Scottish Executive in 1999. Today the company operates a comprehensive network of routes to the islands and full details can be found on the company's website, www.calmac.co.uk.

A Royal Navy Sea King HAS 5 rescue helicopter hovering alongside the MV Caledonian Isles.d

A Royal Navy Sea King HAS 5 rescue helicopter hovering alongside the MV Caledonian Isles.

© John G. Fender 2011

During the return journey, the members were able to enjoy a superb buffet and had an opportunity to watch a training exercise undertaken by one of the Royal Navy's Search and Rescue Sea King helicopters from HMS Gannet. The exercise was the practice landing of a member of the search and rescue team on the stern of the ship. The pilot approached the ferry from the stern to one side and then matched his speed to that of the ferry.

Next the winchman began lowering the crew member who was going to land on the ferry and then the pilot of the helicopter manoeuvred until he was over the stern of the ferry. The crewman on the end of the winch cable was then lowered to the deck. All the time this was being undertaken, the ferry was travelling at it's service speed of around 15 knots and there was a fair wind and squally rain for the pilot to contend with as well.

After landing the crewman onto the ferry, the helicopter moved a short distance away before returning to pick up the crewman again and he was winched back into the helicopter. The photograph here shows the helicopter hovering with the crewman dangling underneath it on the end of the winch cable just before being manoeuvred onto the ferry deck.

The Scottish Region would like to thank Mr. Ian Fox and Mr. Robbie Brown of Caledonian MacBrayne for hosting the event, and Captain Campbell and the crew of the MV. Caledonian Isles for their assistance. Full details of all of Caledonian MacBraynes services, timetables and fares, together with details of their ships can be found on their website www.calmac.co.uk

Report by John Fender.

 

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