Main Fleet Features Island Class

Over the last three decades, a large number of secondary (and indeed primary) routes have grown and developed into busy and heavily utilised crossings by vehicles and foot passengers alike. These examples of growth are in no small part due to the vessels that opened many of the routes in question – the eight members of what became known as the ‘Small Island’ Class ferries.

Based on old World War II landing craft, their design was very simple yet very effective. The ferries had a two-part folding ramp at the bow, an open plan car deck incorporating a small turntable immediately aft and a sheltered area of passenger accommodation at the stern, on top of which was positioned the wheelhouse. The main mast was positioned at the bow, above the ramp and the radar mast sat on top of the bridge, just forward of the small funnel and engine exhaust.

Picture: Conway MacCulloch
Kilbrannan sitting at Lochranza

Loading of these little ferries was a relatively simple affair. Small slipways were constructed at their respective terminals. On approach to these slipways, the ramp would be lowered to the water (see the image below). The reason for this was to prevent the risk of the vessel becoming stranded on the slipway. Once the protection bar under the ramp contacted the slipway, the hydraulic rams would lower the forward section of the ramp onto the slipway, thus allowing cars and passengers to board or leave the vessel. The images below illustrate this process.

Picture: SoC CrewPicture: SoC CrewPicture: SoC Crew
Raasay arriving at Tobermory Slipway while on winter duties in February 2004

The first of this class of eight vessels, the little Kilbrannan was launched on 19th May 1972 and started her service career some weeks later on 8th July when she opened the new Lochranza – Claonaig route across the Kilbrannan Sound, separating Arran from Kintyre. Both the Kilbrannan and the next new addition, the Morvern, were found to be just a touch too short and as a result they could only carry four cars comfortably, five at a squeeze on their car decks. With this in mind, the remaining members of the fleet were increased in length by approximately five feet.

The ‘Island Class’ ferries were quick to prove their versatility. The vessels were readily interchangeable and were often found covering for each other and in many cases working in tandem to provide extra capacity. In addition to their regular duties, they have often been called upon to provide extra runs for commercial purposes due to their ability to load and discharge vehicles, goods and livestock at remote locations, not necessarily boasting the luxury of a slipway – a gently sloping stretch of beach or shingle would suffice!

Picture: SoC Crew
Morvern arriving on Iona

Rhum arriving at Lochranza

The mini fleet were responsible for inaugurating several new services during their heyday. The Kilbrannan opened the new crossing from Kintyre to Arran, while a short while later her sister, the Morvern started a crossing from Fishnish, six miles north-west of Craignure on Mull, to a new slipway just inside the mouth of Lochaline, fifteen minutes sail across the Sound of Mull.

Both of these vessels were soon superseded by larger sisters, the Rhum and the Bruernish respectively, and the smaller ferries went on to pastures new. The Morvern went on to serve Lismore on a new crossing from Oban, take over the Scalpay service from the old turntable ferry Scalpay and finally in 1979 settle down on another new car ferry service form Fionnphort on the western tip of the Ross of Mull to the sacred isle that is Iona, although it was deemed necessary to restrict the vehicle service so that only islanders’ vehicles and those of necessary services would be carried. 

Things were more settled for the Kilbrannan however. Following replacement at Lochranza, she spent some time as relief vessel, often backing up the Cumbrae ferries at busy periods before heading to the Outer Hebrides in 1977 when she took over the Scalpay service – a service she was to remain on for over a decade.

Picture: Malcolm McNeill
Canna and Coll together at Fishnish

Coll in service with Largs on the Cumbrae route

By the end of 1973 there were five members of the class: Kilbrannan, Morvern, Bruernish, Rhum and Coll; the Coll arriving on the scene as the new dedicated Lochaline ferry in November of that year, following a short spell relieving at Mallaig. Following displacement from the Lochaline service by the new Coll in late 1973, the Bruernish adopted the role of spare unit and also undertook charter workings until she was finally given her own long-term employment on yet another new route.

Eigg unloading at Lismore

In 1979 Gigha could no longer be served by the Islay ferry due to the Iona being of too deep a draught. Bruernish was dispatched to Kennacraig where she took charge of a temporary service to Gigha before a new slipway and pier were constructed for her at Tayinloan, nearly twenty miles south of Kennacraig and only a twenty minute passage time from the island. Apart from overhauls, Bruernish seldom deviated from this crossing for nearly fifteen years.

There was a gap in construction of over a year before the second batch of ferries appeared in the local waters. The sixth ‘Island Class’ ferry was named Eigg and duly appeared in service in the early part of 1975 running from Portree on Skye to the island of Raasay. Again this was to be a short-term job. Vessel seven was launched in January 1976 and named Canna she replaced the Eigg on the Raasay service in April, opening the new Sconser slipway at the same time – a development that reduced the crossing time to just fifteen minutes and allowing a much more frequent service for the islanders.

Raasay lying at Sconser

The Canna was also only a temporary vessel, as upon entry of the final member of the class, Raasay, she too was sent for alternative employment and something of a cascade of vessels was seen. Eigg began her current career serving the islanders of Lismore whilst the Canna replaced the Coll on the Lochaline crossing.

The fleet of ‘Island Class’ ferries was now complete, just four years after it was first started. Through the rest of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s these little ferries worked hard on their respective routes and traffic built up quickly on some crossings. Perhaps the largest growth was seen on Canna’s Fishnish – Lochaline crossing where vehicles were frequently being left behind for the next sailing. Following the introduction of the first ‘Loch Class’ ferries in July 1986, Canna assumed the spare role, replaced on the Sound of Mull crossing by the Isle of Cumbrae; a vessel with three times the vehicle capacity.

Coll arriving at Oban

In many ways it could be argued that the coming of the ‘Loch Class’ ferries heralded the beginning of the end for some of the little bow-loaders. 1987 saw the Rhum follow in the footsteps of the Canna when she was replaced on the Lochranza crossing by the appropriately named Loch Ranza. Caledonian MacBrayne now had three spare vessels of a design that was by this time acknowledged as being too small for solo use on a growing number of crossings. As it was, these vessels were soon found new work; the Coll (spare since 1976) was assigned to the Tobermory – Kilchoan service although this was passenger only at first; the Canna and then Rhum both had spells of service at Iona, partnering the hard-pressed Morvern on a route that had seen passenger numbers rise sharply following the introduction of the new 1000 passenger capacity Isle of Mull on the service from Oban. The Canna went on to replace the smaller Kilbrannan on the Scalpay service from 1990 to 1997 whilst the Rhum opened yet another new route in 1994 from Tarbert on Loch Fyne to the tiny village of Portavadie on the eastern shore of the loch.

Canna lowering her ramp at Fishnish in 1983

A new wave of ‘redundancies’ came in 1992 when the new Loch Buie and Loch Tarbert were introduced on the Iona and Lochranza routes respectively. These new arrivals signalled the end for the Morvern on the Iona run and for the Bruernish on the Gigha run (the 5 year old Loch Ranza was transferred from Arran on the Loch Tarbert’s arrival), although the Morvern did win a temporary reprieve when the new ferry damaged a propulsion unit on the Fionnphort slipway on her first day in service and was sent away for repairs. Ultimately though, the latest arrivals did spell the end for the Kilbrannan which was sold out of the fleet in 1992.

While all this was going on it appeared that there was demand for a car ferry service to Kilchoan from Tobermory, and once the necessary infrastructure was in place, the Coll duly obliged. Traffic grew on this service and it eventually became a full year-round service, upgraded from seasonal status. Things remained settled in the fleet for a couple of years, with two spare units: Morvern and Bruernish providing back up and cover where necessary.

Raasay in her new colour, approaching Kilchoan
There was only one obvious choice when it came to deciding which spare vessel was no longer required in 1995 and so it was that the Morvern, with her capacity of just four cars was sold out of the fleet and went to join her older sister in Ireland. The Coll and the Rhum, the latter having seen out the end of the Scalpay service, followed suit in the spring of 1998, leaving just four of the ‘Island Class’ ships in CalMac service.

The situation remains the same today with the Eigg still on the Lismore run, the Canna on the Rathlin service (which she has operated since being replaced at Scalpay in 1997), the Raasay on the winter Kilchoan run and spare in summer (having been replaced by Loch Striven at Raasay in 1997) and the Bruernish as a general spare unit. Incidentally, at the time of writing, the Bruernish now has the dubious honour of being the oldest vessel in the CalMac fleet. 

The concept of the ‘Island Class’ ferries was a very straightforward one; agile bow-loading ferries, capable of reaching remote locations due to their shallow draughts and being able to load and unload their cargoes from small slipways or even just stretches of beach on a suitable gradient with very little risk of becoming stranded. The basic principle lives on and thrives in the CalMac fleet today with many of the shorter routes being operated by vessels, albeit double-ended and larger in size, that still load their vehicles from the same simple slipways, using the same folding ramp design, onto open plan car-decks.

No one knows how much longer these four little workhorses will remain in CalMac service. Their capacities are very small compared to the rest of the fleet, but somehow they have survived around thirty years of service on a variety of routes. Not bad when you consider that twenty years is generally regarded as the useful life of most ferries…

Bruernish approaching Largs

It is a testament to these ships that so many of the routes they once served have gone on the grow in terms of the level of traffic using them and also the new vessels that were built or transferred to take on the crossings that these little bow-loaders could no longer handle. Their versatility remains all that it was. Their simple loading arrangements consisting of just a simple slipway mean that they can still called into service easily to cover for larger vessels’ overhauls or in emergencies when extra capacity is needed – no matter how much or how little! A lot is owed to the ‘Island Class’ ferries. A summary of the current/last routes operated by these vessels can be seen below:



Kyles Scalpay - Scalpay
Relief Duties
Spare Vessel
Kyles Scalpay - Scalpay
Oban - Lismore
Oban - Lismore
Ballycastle - Rathlin
Spare / Winter: Tobermory - Kilchoan
Sold for service in Ireland in 1992, renamed Arainn Mhor
Sold for further service in Ireland in 1995
Sold for further service in Ireland in 2006
Sold for further service in Ireland in 1998
Sold for further service in Ireland in 1998
Operated under charter by another company from 01/07/08

Eigg and Lord Of The Isles at Oban, September 2004

Raasay on relief duties in November 2004

Photos by Ships of CalMac & Conway MacCulloch, Malcolm McNeill, Patrick Cheshire, G. E. Langmuir

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