Sunday, November 1, 2009

West Tarbert Pier - Part 2

To recap, in the late 60s West Tarbert Pier's days semed to be numbered by the announcement in February 1968 of a ro-ro car ferry service to be operated by MacBrayne's from a new pier at Escart Bay a mile down the loch. But the outlook was altered somewhat by the commencement on 6 April 1968 of Western Ferries' new service from Kennacraig and MacBrayne's becoming fully nationalised under the umbrella of the Scottish Transport Group in July 1969: the STG also included the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSP) which operated the ferries on the Clyde.

In October 1969, the Government perfomed a volte face. Citing the changed circumstances of the amalgamation of MacBrayne's into the STG, the Escart Bay scheme was abandoned. Instead, MacBrayne's would continue to operate from WTP with a spare CSP hoist-loading car ferry. The ro-ro ferry which MacBrayne's had ordered for the new Islay service (and which was nearing completion) would be used elsewhere on the MacBrayne's/CSP network.

The 1939 steamer MV Lochiel sailed for Islay from WTP for the last time on 17 January 1970 and was replaced the following day by the CSP's first ever car ferry, the MV Arran of 1954.

Above - the Arran at WTP. Picture by kind permission of "hebrides"

In abandoning the Escart Bay scheme, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Government was toying with the idea of handing responsibility for the Islay services over to Western Ferries but wasn't quite able to take the plunge. As well as concerns about whether WF - whose services were rather more geared to freight traffic - could be trusted to have the long term staying power to provide a lifeline ferry service, there was no doubt an element of ideological hostility from a Labour (socialist) government to a private company intruding on the state's virtual monopoly over transport.

In November 1971, a new Conservative (centre right) government changed tack again and announced that MacBrayne's subsidy for serving Islay was to be withdrawn from March 1972. Instead, WF would be subsidised to extend their operations to Colonsay. Jura would now be served solely by WF's small vehicle ferry across the Sound of Islay from Port Askaig to Feolin which had begun in 1969: separate arrangements would be made for Gigha.

Above - WF's ferry from 1969 to 1976, the MV Sound of Jura at Kennacraig

What the government hadn't reckoned on, though, was the strength of local opposition to this move, particularly from Port Ellen which would be left without a ferry as WF would be sailing only to Port Askaig. After much debate, the government changed tack again and WTP was reprieved once more. In early 1973 - by which time, incidentally, MacBrayne's and the CSP had merged to form Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) - the Arran was converted to ro-ro and from April that year commenced sailing from WTP thrice daily but only to Port Ellen. Colonsay had been served from Oban since the beginning of 1973 as it still is to this day.

(Here I have to admit I'm not sure how Gigha was served in 1973 and early 1974 because calls there - once a day, three days a week - en route to Port Ellen don't appear in Calmac timetables again till summer 1974.)

It was in connection with the Arran commencing service as a stern loading ro-ro ferry in April 1973 that WTP was extended by the addition of the leg out into the loch perpendicular to the coast as seen in the Google Earth image below:-

The Arran now berthed along this new leg, bow-out, and lowered her stern ramp onto the old pier which had been modified by the addition of a concrete ramp being let into it: the tidal range in West Loch Tarbert is small so expensive adjustable shore ramp (linkspan) was not necessary and this is principally why WTP survived into the car ferry era. The Google Earth image shows how shallow the loch is at WTP and how little room for manouevre there is: before the leg was built, the ships had to be warped round with ropes (a sort of maritime equivalent of a three point turn) to point them outward for the return journey to Islay.

In August 1974, Calmac took delivery of a new and faster ship to operate the Islay services. Named Pioneer in memory of the paddle steamer which had served Islay from 1905 to 1940, she was deliberately designed with a shallow draught to be able to operate from WTP.

Above - the Pioneer heading up West Loch Tarbert on the front cover of a booklet published by Calmac to celebrate her retirement in 2003 (Copies still available via the Calmac website at £7.45 inc. p+p.)

As the 1970s progressed, it became clear there wasn't enough trade to support the sailings of both WF's and Calmac's ferries. Inevitably it was the smaller private company which suffered: in August 1976, they were forced to sell the Sound of Jura, the larger ship (pictured above) they had ordered in 1969 in the first flush of success, and revert to using their smaller original ship, the Sound of Islay. Then, in what could be viewed as a predatory move, Calmac bought WF's pier down the loch at Kennacraig in late 1977. The Pioneer gave the last sailing to Islay from WTP on 25 June 1978, thus closing more than 150 years of history.

The picture below (from John Newth's collection and used here with his kind permission) shows WF's Sound of Islay (left) and Calmac's Pioneer (right) together at Kennacraig. The expression "cuckoo in the nest" comes to mind:-

The deeper waters and greater room to manouevre at Kennacraig allowed Calmac at last to deploy to Islay the larger ship that had been ordered away back in 1968 in connection with the still-born Escart Bay scheme - the MV Iona - from February 1979. WF eventually gave up their Islay service in September 1981 whereupon Calmac resumed sailing to Port Askaig as well as Port Ellen - it was a saga of a private operator being slowly strangled to death by a state monopoly which just couldn't happen nowadays. (Comparisons of Laker against British Airways in the 1970s come to mind as well.)

West Tarbert Pier survived the departure of scheduled sailings to Islay in 1978 to become a busy fishing pier today run by Argyll and Bute Council. I'll conclude with some recent photographs by, respectively, Kevin McGroarty, "hebrides" and John Newth and all used here with their kind permission:-

Finally, I should record my own memory of WTP, the last time I was there. Easter 1975, when I was 11. It was the first time I ever boarded a Calmac ferry, the 06.30 departure of the Pioneer to Port Ellen. We'd stayed on the pier in our caravan overnight - great fun when you're 11 and a budding ferry enthusiast! This is your correspondent later that day.


  1. Hi Neil,

    I'm finding your blog a fascinating read! Very informative!

    Just wondering if you have any info on a vessel that I may like to use for the basis of a model on Port na Cailliche, it's a Macbrayne's vessel, S.S. Handa. I'm struggling to find any info on it, do you happen to know of any pictures, I've got one in a Christopher Uncles book but that's it and some more would be useful. I believe it was referred to as their 'Gladstone Bag' due to it's small size yet high payload.


  2. Thanks for you interest Tom. All I can add about the Handa is the mention of her in Duckworth & Langmuir - I've added a scan of the pic in D&L to my flickr photostream

    There are also two pics in Alistair Deayton's "MacBrayne Steamers" - one is a crop from a postcard also on my Flickr photostream

    Which C Uncles book are you seeing the Handa in? I couldn't find her in Lochaber, Skye or Wester Ross - are there other CU books now?


  3. Hi Neil,

    I'm not actually sure where I saw it now... I've had a look in the CU books that I've got (Lochaber, W. Ross and Skye), and the Arran book by Ken Hall and I couldn't see it, but it was only a quick flick through.

    From looking at the picture you posted I think it may be a tad small for what I had in mind, so I did a bit more digging about S.S. Hebrides and came across this plan: I think that will be much more elegant to have moored up at the pier.