Main Crossings Kennacraig - Port Ellen / Port Askaig
  Kennacraig - Port Ellen / Port Askaig
Mainland - Islay
Crossing Time:
2 hours 20 minutes
Regular Ships:
Hebridean Isles / Finlaggan


Pre-1970: Lochiel
1970 - 1973: Arran
1974: Arran / Pioneer
1975 - 1978: Pioneer
1979: Pioneer / Iona
1980 - 1988: Iona
1989: Iona / Claymore
1990 - 1992: Claymore
1993: Claymore / Isle of Arran
1994 - 2000: Isle of Arran
2001 - 2011: Hebridean Isles / Isle of Arran
2011 - Present: Hebridean Isles / Finlaggan
Additional Ships:
Glen Sannox / Lord of the Isles

JUMP ON A VIRTUAL CROSSING (Kennacraig - Port Askaig)
JUMP ON A VIRTUAL CROSSING (Port Ellen - Kennacraig)
 Terminal Facilities:
Kennacraig: Terminal built on an island sticking out into West Loch Tarbert, joined to the mainland by causeway. Two ferry berths, one with adjustable linkspan, the other with just a concrete ramp. Passenger gangway lies between the two berths. Extensive vehicle queuing area adjacent to linkspan with terminal offices and facilities close by. There is ample parking space elsewhere on the 'island'.

Port Ellen: Linkspan and passenger gangway facilities located at the pier, as are the terminal office, vehicle queuing area and public facilities. On the other side of the pier is a concrete ramp that acts as a high tide linkspan.

Port Askaig: Marshalling area set back into the hillside behind the pier. New linkspan, roundhead and Jura ferry berth. New octagonal terminal office under construction.
 Route History:
At the dawn of the car ferry era on Islay there was much activity and rivalry. Until the latter years of the 1960s Islay was served by mail steamer, operated by MacBraynes - forerunner of today's CalMac. Other Clyde and Western Isles routes had been granted car ferries many years before, yet Islay had somehow been left behind. A private operator saw this as an opportunity that they could take advantage of - and they did. Western Ferries began operating a shorter sea crossing from Kennacraig in West Loch Tarbert to Port Askaig in the Sound of Islay. The vessel employed was a simple stern-loading car ferry which used simple loading ramps - that at Kennacraig still existing today.

The rival service was hugely popular with drivers and soon won a significant share of the traffic. This was the kick-start that MacBraynes (and latterly CalMac) needed to modernise the Islay route. In 1970 the Arran was transferred to Islay to provide a hoist-loading service and when it was clear that this was not a success more drastic action was taken - she was converted to a stern loading vessel with an open car deck; huge chunks of superstructure having been removed.
Picture: Hector Neill
Relief ship Glen Sannox loading at Kennacraig

lt was in 1974 that CalMac (as it now was known) started to win back Islay traffic when the Pioneer was introduced. Running to Port Ellen in the south of Islay and calling at Gigha on the way, her introduction was a massively harmful move to the rival operator who had, only a few years before, ordered a new and purpose built vessel. Over the next five years the Pioneer became well established on the route until when, in 1979, she was replaced by the deeper-draughted Iona - herself intended for Islay some ten years previously. The Iona took over the route and occupied the former Western Ferries terminal at Kennacraig. She also provided a service to both ports on Islay; Port Ellen and Port Askaig. The larger ferry was to remain on duty for a further ten years before the next replacement arrived.

Picture: Patrick Cheshire
Iona in the Sound of Islay

Claymore leaving Port Askaig for Kennacraig

The 1980s saw the introduction of no fewer than eight new ferries entering service for CalMac. The final one of these, Lord of the Isles started a cascade of ships which led to the improvement of several routes. Claymore was displaced from the Outer Isles crossing by the new and faster ferry and became the Islay ship in Spring 1989. Although only a stern-loading vessel she had a more spacious car deck and did not present a height limit unlike her predecessor.

It was not until 1993 that Islay's ferry service became a truly drive-through affair. With the introduction of the Caledonian Isles on the Arran crossing, the Isle of Arran was freed up to take over the services to Port Askaig and Port Ellen. She used her bow visor and ramp at Kennacraig's linkspan and loaded via her stern ramp at the two island terminals. 

Hebridean Isles passing Port Ellen lighthouse

Picture: SoC Crew
Both ferries off West Loch Tarbert

The Isle of Arran brought with her not only enhanced passenger comfort and larger capacity (for 76 cars per sailing) but also allowed a faster turnaround time at each port. Gone were the days of vehicles reversing on or off - instead they could now drive straight through. 

2001 saw the Islay service taken over by the Hebridean Isles which had just been displaced at Uig. She was a much more modern looking ferry than the Isle of Arran and has been on the Islay routes for three years now. Isle of Arran still serves on the route however. For the last couple of years CalMac have operated a two ship service from Kennacraig during the high summer periods, giving twice the number of sailings and also allowing the island to be served as normal on summer Wednesdays when the main ferry ventures north to Oban via Colonsay.

The Islay scene continues to change rapidly. Since the start of the two-ship service in 2003, traffic volumes have continued to skyrocket, with many sailings leaving upwards of 10 cars on the standby lists each time. There had been speculation for several years which hinted at a new replacement ferry. This started out as rumours but then the announcement came that a new vessel (more than likely to be named Pioneer after the last vessel to be built specifically with Islay in mind) was to be built with a view to having her in service for 2011. The long term plan was for a continued two-ship service, using the new ship and the Hebridean Isles all year round. Time will tell if and when this happens.

Images from Ships of CalMac Collection

All material on this site Ships of CalMac 2001 - 2017, unless otherwise stated.
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