Main Fleet Features Loading Methods

The age of the motorcar presented a challenge to those who depended on ships to get from A to B. Today the majority of ferries you see load their cargoes via ramps at either end of the vessel’s car deck, from movable linkspans attached by a hinge to the pier. This method of loading, however, has not always been the method used, certainly on the west coast of Scotland and throughout the Western Isles. In the days before Caledonian MacBrayne’s formation, there were two ways of loading vehicles onto the ferries that plied between the various ports.

The first predominant way of loading cars and vans was by using the cranes that were fitted to the foredeck of the old mail boats. Originally the cranes were used to load large loads of cargo, mail and general supplies which needed transporting to often remote communities. Drivers would position their cars on large net slings laid out on the pier side, which were in turn hooked up to the vessel. Once correctly positioned and with the driver safely out of the way, the crane would lift the car in the net from the pier and across to the small open deck area. Once safely landed the driver would return to his or her car and park it safely and conveniently on the deck. Needless to say, this method of loading was time-consuming and as cars became more and more numerous on the west coast, a more speedy solution was required.

Change eventually appeared in the 1950s when 3 revolutionary new car ferries were introduced into service on the Clyde. Arran, Bute and Cowal had specific decks intended solely for vehicles, as opposed to the older steamers which just had small open decks that could take the odd few cars here and there. Loading was by means of a hoist.

A hoist is essentially a vehicle lift - a section of the car deck that can be raised and lowered from deck level to the height of the pier – irrespective of the tide. To board the vessel, drivers drove from the pier, across the ferry’s side ramp which bridged the gap from the pier and onto the lift. Once the lift was full, the side ramp would be raised and the platform would then descend to the car deck level, where vehicles could then be parked in the ‘garage’ area.

Claymore lifting a heavy load at Tiree*

In the 1950s, the Arran and her sisters brought about a revolution in ferry travel. So much was the demand for transport to the Isle of Arran that a further new vessel, this time considerably larger, was introduced. The Glen Sannox was a hugely popular ferry during her 32 years in service. Like the three earlier ferries, known as the ABC ferries, the Glen Sannox was equipped with a vehicle hoist and two side ramps which enabled her to carry greater numbers of vehicles from the mainland to Brodick on Arran.

Columba loading cars to descend to the car deck*

It can be argued that the success of these vessels heralded the dawn of a huge modernisation programme throughout the west coast of Scotland. The Western Isles began to see this improvement in the early 1960s when three new ferries were built to serve MacBrayne’s (although under the ownership of the Government). The Hebrides, Clansman and Columba were identical sisters, each carrying approximately 50 cars and again using hoists to load vehicles from the piers they were to use, down to their car decks. The routes that saw the benefits were the Uig – Tarbert – Lochmaddy triangle, Mallaig – Armadale and the Oban – Craignure – Lochaline runs.

Hoist loading became a familiar sight, especially after the introduction of the Iona in 1970. Indeed this method of loading was still in regular use as recently as 1994. But as early as the late 60s it became apparent that loading by hoist was still too time-consuming on increasingly busy routes. The hoists themselves were not without their problems either. Sailings would often run very late due to firstly the inability to load more than four or six cars at once, and secondly the fact that the lifts would sometimes jam for one reason or another.

Elsewhere in the UK, this was not the case because ferries used special linkspans to load cars straight into the car deck, alleviating the need to match the car deck height with that of the pier. A linkspan is effectively a ramp that is attached to the pier at one end and is suspended above the water at the other. The height above the water is controlled either by hydraulic rams or cables under the control of an operator, who adjusts the height according to the tide. The aim of all this is to have the linkspan suspended at the roughly same height above the water as that of the car deck on whichever ferry happens to be docking at the time. All that is then needed is for a ramp to be lowered, bridging the gap between the ferry and the linkspan. The photos below show this process taking place at Oban as the Isle of Mull completed the docking process.

Isle Of Mull 'in position' at Oban linkspan with her stern ramp being lowered

It was 1970 before such advances were made on the Clyde and in the Western Isles, when Ardrossan were fitted with drive through facilities. The linkspans were installed to accommodate the ‘new’ ferry assigned to the route, the Caledonia (formerly known as the Stena Baltica). In some ways it can be argued that Caledonia began the second wave of changes. She was of drive through design, with an enclosed open-plan car deck, bow visor and bow and stern ramps. She is seen here discharging at Craignure in the 1980s, towards the end of her Scottish career.

And so it continued throughout the 1970s, following the formation of Caledonian MacBrayne, through to the mid 1990s. Hoist loading was slowly but surely phased out as more of these linkspans became operational and further new ferries were brought into use as a result. Some existing ferries were even converted to drive thgouth operation in order to fit in with these new changes. The Glen Sannox for example received a stern ramp so as to be able to load vehicles more easily; the Arran was also radically altered and given a rather large stern ramp as well as a small starboard side ramp. Likewise the little Maid of Cumbrae had a large portion of her passenger accommodation removed to make way for space to carry up to 15 cars and was also given stern and side ramps like the Jupiter, but by far the most drastic conversion was that of the 1964 ferry Clansman which had the hoist and side ramps removed, the bow lengthened, a visor cut and bow and stern ramps inserted. Upon her return to service she looked very different to her sisters Hebrides and Columba.

Caledonia discharging at Craignure in 1982

The Clyde was free of hoist loading upon the introduction of the Saturn on the Wemyss Bay – Rothesay crossing in 1978. Oban, the starting point of many different routes and home to countless vessels over the years, received a linkspan in 1973 which greatly improved the turnround times on the Mull and Lochboisdale crossings.

Juno undergoing ramp repairs at Gourock

Despite the wave of conversions to drive-through operation, there were still some vessels constructed with hoists incorporated into their designs. The Pioneer (1974) had a hoist fitted in 1979 when she moved from Islay to Mallaig; the Claymore of 1978 had a hoist fitted for her duties at Barra, as well as a stern ramp for linkspan use at Lochboisdale and Oban; the Hebridean Isles was built with a hoist so as to provide all-round flexibility after her ‘home’ ports were converted and the last vessel to be built with this feature, Lord of the Isles in 1989 was done so with Coll, Tiree and again Barra in mind.

By the start of the 1980s there were only a handful of ports left using hoist loading operations: Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Castlebay, Mallaig, Armadale, Uig, Tarbert and Lochmaddy. Islay had been drive through since the arrival of the converted Arran and subsequently the new Pioneer. Attention was turned to the Uig Triangle services, which had for 20 years been served by the faithful old Hebrides. As part of the new regime, linkspans were installed at all three points of the triangle, in readiness for the new Selby-built Hebridean Isles. In fact the new ferry was ready way before the new terminal facilities and so she began her career on relief duties on other routes.

Hebridean Isles using Oban linkspan

Colonsay received its linkspan in 1988 to coincide with the arrival of the new Isle of Mull whose roster included the new Colonsay service in addition to her commitments to Mull, and Barra finally received a linkspan the following year, shortly after Lord of the Isles joined the fleet. By 1990 there were only Coll, Tiree, Mallaig and Armadale still relying on hoist loading. Coll and Tiree were granted theirs in 1992, thus eliminating hoist loading from Lord of the Isles normal duties and the crossing from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye was finally converted in April 1994, allowing the aging Iona to use her bow and stern ramps and offer several more crossings with reduced turnround times.

Since then hoist loading has all but become a thing of the past. The only times it is seen now is when linkspans are in need of essential repairs and maintenance. With this in mind, there are now only two ferries in the Calmac fleet with hoists; the Hebridean Isles and the Lord of the Isles. No major units of the fleet built since 1989 have had a hoist fitted at launch. Pioneer had hers stripped in favour of ordinary fixed side ramps in 1989 so she could operate alongside Juno, Jupiter and Saturn on the Dunoon and Rothesay crossings, which require vessels to have side loading capabilities due to the piers at Dunoon and Rothesay having had their linkspans fitted into the face of the pier.

We are used to the relatively quick turnarounds that the ferries can achieve now – as little as five minutes to unload and reload on the Gourock – Dunoon crossing for example – and it is hard to imagine a scene where the ferry would be at the pier for upwards of an hour while cars are being lowered four at a time by lift down onto the car deck. Since drive through was introduced on the west coast of Scotland, barring the odd ramp failure or linkspan being out of service for maintenance, things have moved forward at a steady rate. As traffic was moved more speedily and efficiently, demand grew and eventually larger ferries were needed. And no doubt this trend will continue into the future.


In November 2004 the linkspan at Castlebay on Barra was closed for maintenance work. Consequently all sailings had to be handled by Lord of the Isles, equipped as she is with her vehicle hoist so as to unload cars and light vans at Castlebay. The photos below show the hoist loading process being carried out...

With vehicles positioned on the hoist platform, the alarms sound and the lift rises from car deck level to that of the pier.

The four hydraulic rams push upwards and the hoist continues up until it reaches the height of the pier.

As the hoist platform reaches the correct height the port side ramp is lowered to allow unloading.

With the ramp down onto the pier the vehicles on the ferry's hoist can now disembark.

The cars are of the boat, the ramp is raised and the hoist is lowered again ready for the next load.

The process begins again and more vehicles are positioned on the hoist platform ready for lifting.

Photos taken by SoC Crew

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