Saturday, January 15, 2011

Connel Ferry

Local roadsigns ...

... and the Ordnance Survey ...

... both refer to it simply as "Connel" so it's pleasing to note that Scotrail and Railtrack still stubbornly refer to the last stop on the line to Oban as "Connel Ferry".

This is because, when the railway to Oban was built in 1880, there was a ferry here across the narrows of Loch Etive and not much else except an inn where the present day Oyster Inn now stands.

Extract from the ordnance Survey 25 inch scale map - note that it shows no detail of the north side of the loch because it was in a different parish from the south side.
On the beach opposite the Oyster Inn, the remains of the ferry slipway shown on the map above can still be seen:-

The narrowness of the mouth of Loch Etive and sunken rocks combine to produce a strong tidal stream, today called the Falls of Lora (but interesting to note marked on the 1870s OS map as "Falls of Connell") and when the tide is flowing at its fastest, the narrows look more like a turbulent river than an arm of the sea.

Picture credit - James T M Towill
The falls are just upstream (to the right when looking from the south side) of the ferry but must nevertheless have produced a boisterous crossing at times. One traveller recorded in 1797:-

"Leaving Dunstaffage, we crossed the narrow mouth of Loch Etive by what is called the Connel ferry. The tide rushes through this channel with such rapidity, that it sometimes forms a cascade of six feet. The ferry, in consequence, is frequently dangerous and always requires the cautious management of an experienced boatman The old pilot who conducted us over, with our horses had attended the ferry upwards of sixty years, and the management of it has been in the same family, handed from father to son for three hundred years. The mode by which we crossed it, reminded me of the rivers in Piedmont, the passage over which is exactly the same. The boat is launched from one side of the river, and intrusted to the torrent which carries it with great rapidity down the stream, the men all the while tugging at the oars, till at last it reaches the opposite side a considerable way lower down. By constant practice, the ferrymen are dexterous enough to reach generally the same point, where there is a sort of quay for landing; but this is not always the case, nor was it so when we crossed over. Sometimes the eddies are violent enough to turn the boat round, by which they lose the command of her, for a few seconds, and you are then hurried somewhat lower down the stream. Notwithstanding the perilous nature of the stream itself, the uncertainty of the old crazy boat they use, frequently thronged with passengers and terrified horses, who betray great uneasiness in passing I heard of no instance in which an accident had been fatal to any one." 

Connel from the west before the bridge
Having been transformed once in 1880 by the arrival of the railway to Oban, the scene at Connel Ferry was transformed again in 1903 by the construction of a bridge over the Falls of Lora to carry a branch line north to Ballachulish.

Connel Bridge from the east - picture credit Wikipedia

At first, the bridge was exclusively for use by trains and the ferry survived alongside it as can be seen on the 1906 OS one inch map:-

In 1909, a special carriage was adapted to carry a single car across the bridge and then, in 1914, a roadway was added so that vehicles could cross the bridge on payment of a toll. This, I think, would have marked the end of the ferry. Marie Weir's book Ferries in Scotland suggests the ferry continued until the railway line across the bridge was closed and the vehicle toll lifted in 1966 but I'm pretty certain she's mistaking the Connel Ferry with the Bonawe Ferry across Loch Etive at Taynuilt which - it is my understanding - continued as a car ferry until finally put out of business by the lifting of the vehicle tolls on the Connel Bridge five miles west. This is corroborated by the fact that the 1927 OS one inch map no longer indicates a ferry at Connel:-

So now the ferry is only recalled in the name of the railway station and the aptly named Ferryman's Bar of the Oyster Inn.

OS six inch map, 1871 - before the railway and bridge.


  1. Wow, very interesting. I think you've just gained a new blog reader!

  2. Do you know the origin of the name Connel's Ferry ? was it because the family who operated were called Connel's ?

    1. The name is actually Connel (not Connel's) Ferry. I understand it's a Gaelic word meaning whirlpool which is obviously a reference to the Falls of Lora.