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
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:
SERVICE YEARS / CAR CAPACITY
EILEAN FRAOICH (I)
EILEAN FRAOICH (II)
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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