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The Glenelg-Skye Ferry" by Jo Crawford General Manager, Isle of Skye Ferry Community Interest Company: Monday 7 March 2022

Jo Crawford, General Manager of the Skye Ferry Community Interest Company told us that at just 800 metres in width the narrow strait separating Kylerhea on Skye from Glenelg in Wester Ross is the closest that the island gets to the mainland.It was here that drovers historically swam their cattle, which would have to be at slack water since the tidal race can be as strong as 12 knots.

Glenelg's Bernera Barracks were built in 1717-23 to house 120 soldiers in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rising. They mirror those at Ruthven except that here Historic Environment Scotland are planning no restoration. There has been a ferry for hundreds of years. In recent centuries using slipways designed by the great engineer Thomas Telford. His cattle ramp at Glenelg is the last of its kind, and the lighthouse which sits there now was originally at naturalist Gavin Maxwell's home on the islet of Sandaig, from where it was dismantles and moved to its present location, serving as a tourist information point and retail outlet with an honesty box. There were drovers' inns on both sides of the narrows, but when the cattle weren't pounding the cobbles things could turn very quiet - even now you can sometimes hear conversations on the other side of the water.

Built by the Ailsa shipyard at Troon in 1969, the MV Glenachulish was destined for Ballachulish, where she worked until replaced by a road bridge in 1975 - a photo of her final crossing shows skipper Peter Mackenzie, whose granddaughter came many years later to visit bringing his cap and other artefacts. After spells at Kylesku and Cromarty, she was acquired in 1982 for Glenelg by Murdo Mackenzie, who later sold the business to Roddy MacLeod. Fearing that removal of the tolls on the Skye Bridge in 2004 would render her no longer viable, he put it up for sale and, recognising that without the ferry, Glenelg would be much less visited and a kind of dead end, the vessel was acquired, after much perseverance and dedicated work, by the Isle of Skye Ferry Community Interest Company who in 2013 had her original turntable removed for the first time in 44 years, to discover that only half-a-dozen bearings required to be replaced.

Claimed be the last operating turntable ferry in the world, she represents a magically simple Scottish invention which has no need of hydraulics to do her job and use of the turntable enables cars to board at any state of the tide. In April 2014 the slipway at Glenelg was repaired to make it fit for purpose, and then the creation of a charity, separate from the company, allowed fundraising for further restoration, including a return to the original livery, which had echoes of the Ballachulish route's owner so was relaunched by Cameron of Locheil. In 2015 the original Kelvin T6 engine was overhauled with care taken to retain its distinctive deep-throated rumble. In early 2017 the original wheelhouse was removed and a new one lowered into position: this work took place at the Kishorn boatyard where she spends each winter, her return being greeted by some of the 230 residents of Glenelg as a sign that summer is on its way.

Once she is back, the little community which throughout the winter has been quite insular becomes again on a through route and gets in the mood to party. Where Boswell and Johnson came, now there are many and varied visitors who come to use the unique ferry as part of their journey. The original bell has been rehoused to greet motoring groups and vintage car clubs. Peter Davidson and Christopher Timothy came to film Vintage Road Trips Great and Small for the BBC, and other visitors have included the Hairy Bikers, Hazel Irvine, Ewan McGregor, the late Charles Kennedy, Alex Salmond and Dougie Vipond with Landward. Passing ships who share the narrows with the MV Glenachulish have included the Paddle Steamer Waverley and the Hebridean Princess, the Flying Dutchman and in her day the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Stars can be local too: Izzy Law first volunteered as a rope hand when she was ten, making three appearances on The One Show, and in 2018 became the vessel's first female skipper. As well as hugely experienced skippers and crew, an ongoing commitment to training local people means that a crew can be mustered who are all under thirty, but in 2019 the Glenachulish turned 50 and is now registered as a National Historic Ship. The National Transport Trust has designated the route as a site of transport heritage, and a Red Wheel for that purpose has been installed for unveiling later in the year on the Shore Station, which has been built above the Glenelg slipway to accommodate offices, a shop, cafe and toilets.

Taking only half-a-dozen vehicles at a time, the vessel is limited to a six-month season since she cannot safely operate on dark evenings. On the short crossing visitors can enjoy the sight of otters, dolphins, porpoise, whales and the reintroduced sea-eagle. People without a car can book travel from the bus stop at Shiel Bridge by phoning the local bus users' group at 24 hours' notice. Lockdown prevented operation in 2020, but with the boom in staycations 2021 was the busiest ever, which surely augurs well for the future.

You can find full informaiton on the ferry at:

Report by John Yellowlees and Jo Crawford.


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