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Main The Fleet Fleet Features Small Ferries: Kyles of Bute

A brief history of the Colintraive-Rhubodach car ferries across the Kyles of Bute run by the Bute Ferry Co...


There had been a passenger ferry across the Kyles for many years, and in 1929, the Government offered financial grants to Bute County Council to construct a road around the north end of Bute, and to establish a ferry for cars between Rhubodach, and Colintraive on the north shore of the East Kyle. Local suggestions were then put forward that a bridge should be built instead. The Marquess of Bute, who owned the ferry rights to the crossing, objected to building a new road, and with the general downturn in economics at the time, the project was quietly dropped.

New compulsory purchase powers enabled Bute CC to resume the project in 1938, and the road from Port Bannatyne to Rhubodach was duly improved. Argyll County Council planned to construct a slipway at Colintraive, with BCC agreeing to build the other slip, and the ferries, with the idea of operating them themselves. Plans were well underway when the Second War broke out, and again the project was shelved following the intervention of the Ministry of Transport.

At the end of the war, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to review ferry services in the UK, and a report published in June 1948 recommended:
"that a ferry for vehicles and passengers should be instituted to form a link between Route B8000 at Colintraive and Route B8000 at Rhubodach". The publication had one other effect - any proposed attempts to resurrect a crossing between Bute and Ardyne were effectively quashed, at least for the time being.
 
The Bute Ferry Company, with the Marquis of Bute at its helm as its principal shareholder, took over the operation of the existing small passenger ferry between Colintraive and Bute, and on 1st July 1950, an ex-military landing craft was trialled on the crossing. A few days later, on 13th July, the service commenced, carrying four cars at a time. The 'slips' were simply wire mesh laid on the beaches! Concrete slipways came at a later date.

The Bute Ferry Co planned to build turntable ferries similar to those found elsewhere on Scotland's west coast, but they never materialised. Instead, the service remained in the hands of a variety of ex-military vessels of various vintages.

In 1963, EILEAN BUIDHE was introduced. Being double-ended, she was the first drive-through ferry on the run, and the first to be purpose built. She is of particular interest as she was the first vessel built of plywood to receive a Passenger Certificate from the Board of Trade. Beleaguered with problems from the outset, she was taken back in hand by her builders, Dickie's of Tarbert, and fitted with waterjets in place of the original twin screws at each that that drove her. Her construction had allowed her to hog badly, causing the original propeller shafts to seize when carrying lorries. With her new propulsion, she could hardly move through the water, so her owners resorted to acquiring another ex-landing craft. EILEAN BUIDHE later, presumably at Gourock for annual slipping, was swamped in Cardwell Bay in October 1966. She was later raised and repaired, returning to service during the following summer.

 
 EILEAN MOR Approaching Colintraive 1954


EILEAN DHU (Moored) and DHUIRNISH (Loading)


Meanwhile, EILEAN DHU struggled but managed to maintain a service across the Kyles. The opportunity to purchase DHUIRNISH when she became available in spring 1967 was, therefore, quickly jumped at.

The Bute Ferry Co's last acquisition was DHUIRINISH, bought second-hand from Gardner's at Bonawe. Her original turntable was removed and she was fitted with a bow ramp. After DHUIRNISH entered service, she too joined the trend of Bute Ferry Co vessels sinking! During the fierce storm that swept across the west of Scotland on Sunday 14 January 1968, wreaking havoc in its path, DHUIRNISH was one of a number of vessels to suffer damage, and she sank at her moorings at Colintraive. EILEAN DHU took over the service at that point, DHUIRNISH being raised on 4 February and taken to the boatyard at Port Bannatyne for repairs that took until the early summer to complete. In March 1967, another vessel appeared on the crossing. This was none other than Eilean Sea Services' ISLE OF GIGHA, rebuilt after her tragic capsize off Islay the previous year. She didn't linger long in the Kyles, only operating there for a couple of weeks before returning to general tramping duties in the Western Isles.

Where was EILEAN BUIDHE at this time? I have (so far) been unable to locate her whereabouts, but given her reputation for unreliability it seems likely that she was at some boatyard for mechanical repairs. (This is pure speculation!)
 
1969 started off quietly enough, but in mid-March, the gremlins struck the company again when not just one, but two of the company's fleet were caught again by stormy weather, and sunk. EILEAN BUIDHE - the double-ender - was refloated two or three days later and patched up, returning to service in the last week of the month. An Admiralty vessel raised her compatriot EILEAN DHU, which was taken to Port Bannatyne and repaired, resuming her ferry duties in early summer. The third member of the fleet, DHUIRNISH, escaped damage this time, because she was at Gourock having her annual overhaul. Following a pretty disastrous spring, the company announced in the summertime that they would be building a new ferry capable of taking 11 cars at a time. It would, however, be a bow-loader, which invoked a certain amount of criticism from the local authorities.


DHUIRNISH at Millport

At the very end of 1969 came the announcement that the Caledonian Steam Packet Co Ltd was to take over the operation of the service. Purchased for 35,000 the CSP wanted to integrate the service with their other Clyde routes, providing a 'back door' route to Bute in addition to their main Wemyss Bay-Rothesay crossing. Soon two former Skye ferries were placed on the crossing. These were rebuilt with bow ramps (PORTREE and BROADFORD), and the last three ferries belonging to the old company were disposed of.

With this plan in effect, PORTREE arrived in February 1970 at Lamont's, Port Glasgow, for her conversion to make her suitable for the Rhubodach ferry service. During a three-month transformation, her builders removed the side ramps and fitted a new bow ramp, also placing her wheelhouses at the stern. Given new engines at the same time, PORTREE did a few trial crossings in May, entering service on Friday 22. This move allowed the relegation of DHUIRNISH from principal ferry to spare boat. Following a major overhaul, her return to the fleet in the late summer permitted the disposal of EILEAN DHU, which was sold to Roy Ritchie at Gourock. It appears that EILEAN BUIDHE remained at Colintraive, lying on the beach beside the remains of earlier BFC vessels, which had been slowly rotting away. She too was offered for sale, and was purchased at the end of the year by Geoff Spearman at Kames, who removed the hulk early in 1971.

The success of PORTREE on the service prompted a similar conversion to be carried out on her younger sister BROADFORD, which was also done by Lamont's. Her career on the Kyles of Bute commenced in mid-June, and this allowed PORTREE to have her overhaul and annual survey, which took a month or so. With two refurbished ferries on the crossing, the CSP was now able to get rid of the last of the old order, and DHUIRNISH was sold to Robert Beattie, moving to Kames Bay on Wednesday 4 August. His plans for a commercial service between Port Bannatyne and Ardyne came to fruition on Saturday 21 August, but the following day was the last day of the short-lived venture. Peter Kaye, who owned Little Cumbrae Island, acquired DHUIRNISH the following month.

Bute Ferry Co Car Ferry Fleetlist:
 
 SHIP  SERVICE YEARS / CAR CAPACITY  NOTES
EILEAN MOR
EILEAN FRAOICH (I)
EILEAN FRAOICH (II)
EILEAN BUIDHE
EILEAN DHU
DHUIRNISH
1950-68, 4 cars
1950-57, 2 cars
1957-63, 4 cars
1963-70, 6 cars
1965-70, 4 cars
1967-71, 6 cars
renamed EILEAN MHOR in 1964




 
The last three above all passed to the Caledonian SP Co Ltd in 1969.

Text thanks to John Newth, Pictures; DHUIRNISH thanks to Conway MacCulloch, EILEAN MOR thanks to Malcolm Wray.

Info from 'Clyde River and Other Steamers' (Duckworth & Langmuir), 'The Piers and Ferries of Bute' (Ian Maclagan), 'Ferry Tales of Argyll and the Isles' (Walter Weyndling).


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