Main Crossings Tarbert (Loch Fyne) - Portavadie
Tarbert - Portavadie
Mainland - Mainland
Crossing Time:
25 Minutes
Regular Ship:
Isle of Cumbrae


1994: Bruernish / Rhum (Seasonal)
1995 - 1996: Rhum (Seasonal)
1997: Bruernish
1998: Bruernish / Loch Linnhe
1999 - Present: Isle of Cumbrae
Additional Ships:
Various members of the Island Class and Loch Class ferries on relief / winter duties.
 Terminal Facilities:
Tarbert (Loch Fyne): A small vehicle queuing area before the concrete slipway, sticking out into East Loch Tarbert. There is also a car park next to the slipway, with sufficient space for a dozen or so cars. For foot passengers there is a small shelter just up from the slipway. Nearby there is the village of Tarbert with various shops and supplies.

Portavadie: Very few facilities here. A Seasonal CalMac office with notices instructing passengers to purchase tickets on the ferry when not open. There are seven spaces in the vehicle queue and a bus stop just round the corner. No other facilities to be found at this terminal other than a small car park and an electronic sign giving ferry times and phone numbers.
 Route History:
The ferry across Loch Fyne had been wanted for several years before it actually materialised. Drivers wishing to get from Cowal to Kintyre or vice versa were faced with an arduous drive of around 80 miles around the top end of Loch Fyne - a drive that would often take over two hours. It was for this reason that the ferry was started initially on a trial season to see if there was potential for growth.
1994 saw the slipways completed adjacent to the sailing club in Tarbert and in a sheltered bay at Portavadie on the eastern shores of Loch Fyne, ten minutes drive from Tighnabruaich. The long awaited crossing became a reality and was a joint venture between CalMac and Argyll and the Isles Enterprise. Initially the route was in the hands of the little Rhum, whose capacity was for 6 cars.

To say the trial season was a success is an understatement. If anything the Rhum provided insufficient capacity and towards the end of the 1994 season, as word had spread about the new service, she began leaving cars behind as she set off from each terminal with a full load - quite an achievement for a service in its first year of operation.

The following two seasons also saw the Rhum taking the Loch Fyne service in her stride. Unfortunately though, because the service was only seasonal there was a limit as to how much growth could be achieved on the route. After a couple of seasons as a summer only service, it was decided to offer a limited timetable in the winter months as well. This in fact killed two birds with one stone and also allowed the winter ferry to do the tanker runs to Arran, instead of the Caledonian Isles. Several crossings would be offered across Loch Fyne during morning and late afternoon, whilst lunchtime saw the ferry cross from Tarbert to Lochranza, thus keeping the secondary route to Arran open in the winter as well. By this time the winter ferry was usually one of the 'Lochs' - often either Loch Linnhe or her sister Loch Striven.

Rhum approaching Tarbert

Loch Linnhe in East Loch Tarbert

Isle of Cumbrae approaching Portavadie

By the time the 1998 season kicked off it was clear that a new ferry was urgently required to take over the Loch Fyne crossing. Following the reintroduction of the Loch Alainn on the Clyde as opposed to her intended route in the Western Isles, a cascade of ferries took place. The Loch Linnhe had been displaced from the Cumbrae route by one of her three sister ships, the Loch Riddon and so she was free to displace the Bruernish, which had taken over the Portavadie run the previous season. The route was upgraded in two ways; firstly drivers could now drive straight on and off the ferry and secondly, the much needed extra capacity was available. Commercial traffic could now grow.

The Loch Linnhe was not to remain in charge for long though. Just one year later the Isle of Cumbrae was freed up from the Colintraive crossing and was placed on the Tarbert route, again increasing vehicle capacity from 12 to 18. The days were also longer, with more sailings in the timetable.

Picture: SoC Crew
Loch Riddon unloading traffic at Portavadie
Picture: SoC Crew
Winter relief ship Loch Tarbert crossing to Cowal

Since 1999 not much has changed on the Tarbert - Portavadie crossing. It is still operated by the Isle of Cumbrae during the summer timetable, and her place is taken in winter usually by the smaller Loch Riddon which is surplus to requirements at Cumbrae during this period. These two ships do not hold the monopoly on operating the service by any stretch of the imagination. The Loch Tarbert is a regular relief ship during the first few weeks of the winter, while there have been numerous other vessels dropping by to provide short-term cover in the past, such as Loch Alainn, Loch Dunvegan and Canna. Certainly in decent weather the ferry usually sails at least half full and for now drivers are virtually guaranteed a space on the sailing they arrive for. However, given how quickly the route has grown in the years it has been running, quite how long this remains the case is unknown. The Isle of Cumbrae does occasionally leave vehicles behind but on the whole she does manage most of the time, to clear all that is waiting for her.

Images from Ships of CalMac Collection

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