Main Crossings Ullapool - Stornoway
Ullapool - Stornoway
Mainland - Lewis
Crossing Time:
2 Hour 45 Minutes
Regular Ship:
Isle of Lewis
Freight Ship:

1973: Iona / Clansman
1974: Clansman / Suilven
1975 - 1994: Suilven
1995: Suilven / Isle of Lewis
1996 - 2002: Isle of Lewis
2002 - 2013: Isle of Lewis / Muirneag (Freight)
2013 - Present: Isle of Lewis / Clipper Ranger (Freight)
2014 - Loch Seaforth (II)
Additional Ships:
Isle of Arran (Freight and relief duties) / Clansman (relief duties) / Hascosay (Freight)


 Terminal Facilities:
Ullapool: a single linkspan set at right angles to the shoreline, alongside the fisheries pier. The fisheries pier is also used for loading passengers.

Stornoway: a new purpose-built pier, marshalling area, linkspan and passenger gangway installed following the entry into service of the current ferry. This pier is located just away from the old terminal at the fish quay.
 Route History:
However you approach it, Ullapool comes as a surprise. From the south east you round a bend in the road and there it is, laid out across a bay in the side of Loch Broom and from the ferry, one minute you're sailing up Loch Broom then you round the headland and you're almost at the pier! Tucked neatly into a corner of Loch Broom, Ullapool is now the mainland port for the ferry serving Stornoway, across the Minch on the island of Lewis. The island has not always been served from Ullapool however, for before 1972 the sea crossing was by far longer a route to Mallaig via the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Sound of Sleat by the mail steamer Loch Seaforth.

The first car ferry service from Ullapool to Stornoway was given by the relatively new Iona, which had been built with Islay in mind but was unable to take over her intended run for various reasons. After a stint on the Clyde as Dunoon ferry, she was transferred to the Outer Isles run on 1st May 1972. Drive through facilities were not present at this point and so all vehicle loading was done using her hoist and side ramps - a time-consuming process when a full load was offering, especially at low tide due to the hydraulic having to push the hoist higher. Fortunately though this was just a temporary arrangement as linkspans were planned for Stornoway and Ullapool on the eastern side of Loch Broom, which was the nearest suitable port on the mainland to Stornoway, and therefore offered the shortest passage time. The new facilities were finished by early 1973 and Iona made her last run from Mallaig on 25th March of that year. The new route, from Ullapool to Stornoway saw the ferry berthing stern-in at Ullapool's linkspan which lay just adjacent to the fisheries pier. Stornoway still required the use of the vessel's hoist until 23rd May.
Sadly things with the new route did not get off to a wonderful start. The Stornoway linkspan broke down within weeks of coming into service, necessitating a return to hoist-loading by the Iona. By some good fortune, the planned replacement vessel, Clansman, was delayed in arriving. Had she been in service then she would not have been able to unload at all on Lewis. This good fortune was not to last though as the Iona herself broke down and required relieving by the Columba (which also caused major problems elsewhere in her absence).

The converted Clansman finally took over the run at the end of June 1973 however she too broke down and suffered problems with her bow visor in her first couple of days and the folk of Lewis were understandably fed up. Fortunately though a more permanent and reliable vessel was on order - one with a huge vehicle capacity thanks to mezzanine car decks as well as a passenger capacity for around 400.

Mallaig - Lewis steamer Loch Seaforth

Faithful servant SUILVEN in Loch Broom

The Suilven was by far the giant of the fleet when she took over the Lewis lifeline service. Capable of carrying a total of 120 cars on the two mezz decks, capacity problems were put well into the history books and Lewis had at last been given a reliable resident ferry. Indeed the new giant was to remain on her route for twenty years. Her service record was impressive and she would regularly venture out into the violent seas of the Minch in weather that would see her fleetmates tied up safely in other ports. The Suilven remained tied to the Stornoway crossing throughout almost her entire career and indeed only ever served on one route other than her own and that was from Oban to Craignure on Mull for a ten day period in the late 1980s while the Isle of Mull was carrying large passenger numbers to Lewis (her certificate being for more than double that of Suilven).

As with the majority of routes over the years, the Lewis run grew more and more popular and it became increasingly evident in the early 1990s that the Suilven was by now too small and too slow; taking as she did nearly four hours to cross the Minch. By this time as well her vehicle capacity had been to reduced to 85; her mezzanine decks no longer being used.

Picture: SoC Crew
ISLE OF LEWIS lying at Stornoway

Picture: SoC Crew
Freight ship MUIRNEAG in the Minch

The giant ISLE OF LEWIS was her purpose built replacement, arriving on the scene in mid 1995. She was a much faster vessel, capable of 18 knots and could complete the crossing in as little as 2 hours 45 minutes - almost a full hour off the sailing time. Her capacity was huge as well as she incorporated full width mezz decks. A new timetable was also drawn up for the new ship and this improvement had many beneficial effects for islanders and tourists alike. For the first time, Lewis became a realistic option for a day trip by public transport from places such as Inverness and the surrounding area. Normally the ferry would make two return trips from Lewis but in the high summer she would run a tighter timetable on certain days and allow a third return to be run. ISLE OF LEWIS was large enough to convey all the freight and private vehicles offering and she was able to run unaided for the first few years of her career.
In recent years however, freight traffic has grown to such an extent that it has been necessary to run a second vessel on the route at off peak hours and overnight in order to take the strain off the ISLE OF LEWIS. This was originally started by a rival private operator using the vessel Taygran Trader, however the freight hauliers were not convinced about the new company's credentials and stuck to using the ISLE OF LEWIS. This was just as well because the rival operator soon folded and the vessel was impounded for non-payment of dues, among other mounting debts. In response to this highlighted need for extra capacity, CalMac brought in a second vessel of their own to take additional freight runs. At first the spare unit fleet's spare unit was used, the Isle of Arran, until a longer term ship could be found. For a while the Northlink vessel Hascosay was employed, prior to commencing her own duties in he Northern Isles. A gap was left to be filled once more and a further new vessel was required. This was in fact a vessel brought in on charter, the freight ship MUIRNEAG.

Picture: SoC Crew
ISLE OF LEWIS arriving in Ullapool

Since the start of this two ship service, Lewis has been served well although the MUIRNEAG has earned herself the rather unflattering nickname of 'Olympic Torch' - so called because it never goes out (a reference to the increased frequency of Atlantic storms pounding the Minch and preventing the vessel from sailing). Despite this level of service there is increasing disquiet among regular users of the route, with calls for an even larger vessel. A consultation was carried out, asking participants for their views on three options; one involving continuation of the current service, one involving a single and much larger vessel to cater for all traffic and the final option involving two medium sized vessels (roughly equivalent in size to the Hebrides or Clansman). The results are being analysed at the time of writing, however it is unlikely that there will be any significant change in the service in the near future.
Update March 2013:
After extensive research into possible replacements to ISLE OF LEWIS and MUIRNEAG, CMAL has announced that both vessels will be replaced by one large vessel in 2014. ISLE OF LEWIS will remain to partner the new vessel for a period of time to make sure she settles into the route well. Named LOCH SEAFORTH she will enter service early in 2014. Other rejected plans were two smaller vessels operating in tandem to one another and higher speed vessels. The LOCH SEAFORTH will be able to run 24hrs a day allowing freight to be shipped overnight as currently done using the MUIRNEAG thus saving a second ship. She will also be much more fuel efficient, quieter, faster and more reliable to the current ISLE OF LEWIS.

Picture: CMAL
Artist impression of LOCH SEAFORTH (II)

Update September 2013:
After almost exactly 11 years on charter, the Lewis freight ship MUIRNEAG was replaced with the much larger CLIPPER RANGER. The former having a safety certificate due to expire and her owners un willing to pay for the aging ships renewal. The larger vessel was chartered as a stop gap before the LOCH SEAFORTH arrives in 2014 upon which she will take up both passenger and freight roles alone. MUIRNEAG was duly retired from charter duties, her lions on her funnels removed and sat at Arnish near Stornoway allowing her successor to take up her role. CLIPPER RANGER arrived at Ullapool for ramp trials on Thursday 19th September and proceeded directly to Stornoway - both of wish were successful.
Picture: CMAL
ISLE OF LEWIS passing MURINEAG at Arnish.
Picture: CMAL
CLIPPER RANGER's first arrival at Stornoway

Images from Ships of CalMac Collection, CMAL, Guido Blokland, Mark Nicolson

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