Monday, November 18, 2013

Calmac corporate history

The "Lord of the Isles" en route between Oban and Colonsay - picture credit Neil Roger

Caledonian MacBrayne is the name in big letters along the side of the ship but the small print on the back of your ticket says you're travelling with a company called Calmac Ferries Ltd (CFL).

And you may have noticed the new vessels for Raasay and Stornoway have been commissioned by something called Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL). You're less likely to be aware that the holding company for the Scottish Government's publicly owned ferry services is called David MacBrayne Ltd (DML).

All these new entities are a by-product of the compulsory EU tendering process a few years back, you'll be thinking. Correct and that explains why CFL was incorporated in 2006. But how come Companies House reveals that DML was incorporated in 1928 and CMAL as far back as 1889? That betrays a more venerable corporate history. Here it is.

Pioneered in 1819 by Henry Bell's "Comet", by the 1840s, the steamer services on the west coast of Scotland north of the Clyde had become consolidated in the hands of the Liverpool firm of G & J Burns. But in 1851 they sold their Scottish operations to a partnership between David Hutcheson, his brother Alexander and the Burns' nephew, David MacBrayne. These three traded in partnership as "David Hutcheson & Co" until 1878 when the Hutchesons retired. Thereafter MacBrayne continued the business in his own name. He took his sons into partnership with him in 1902 and the firm was incorporated as David MacBrayne Ltd in 1906.

It's David Hutcheson who's commemorated by the obelisk at the north end of Kerrera so prominent on the left as you steam out of Oban bay for Mull and islands beyond:-

The Waverley departing Oban past the Hutcheson Monument - photo credit Roy Tait
Meanwhile, down on the Firth of Clyde (where, with one exception, MacBraynes didn't operate), the steamer services to Dunoon, Rothesay and Arran etc. were in the hands of the three principal Scottish railway companies, the Caledonian (CR), the Glasgow and South Western (GSWR) and the North British (NBR).

In 1889, the CR incorporated a shipping subsidiary - the Caledonian Steam Packet Company Ltd (CSP) - to run steamers from its railheads at Gourock, Wemyss Bay and Ardrossan. In 1923, the CR and GSWR (along with other companies) merged to form the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMSR). The ex-GSWR ships were gradually absorbed into the CSP and adopted a common livery of black hull and buff funnel with black top.

Queen Mary II at Lochgoilhead in CSP livery - photo credit Douglas Campbell
At the same time, the NBR was absorbed into the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and continued to operate from its railhead at Craigendoran (closed now - was between Dumbarton and Helensburgh) under a livery of black hull with red, white and black funnel (like the Waverley - as she was the last ship ever ordered by the LNER, she reverted to their livery under heritage ownership.)

Back beyond the Crinan Canal, meanwhile, MacBraynes ceased trading in 1928. Their undertaking was rescued by a partnership between the LMSR and Coast Lines (a Liverpool coastal shipping company which had previously absorbed the Burns operation which originally spun out the Hutcheson/MacBrayne operation in 1851). This joint venture incorporated itself as David MacBrayne (1928) Ltd although the date in the name was soon dropped. (I'd guess the (1928) was included because the new MacBrayne company was registered at a time when the old one hadn't been wound up yet: Like ships, you can't have two companies with the same name.)

In terms of livery, the new incarnation of MacBrayne's briefly flirted in the early 1930s with a grey hull but soon reverted to the traditional black to accompany the red funnel with black top which had been a constant throughout their history:-

MV Lochfyne at Staffa in the short-lived early 30's grey livery
The next big date in the corporate history was 1948. That year, the LMSR and LNER railway companies were nationalised as part of British Railways (BR). The practical effect was that the LNER ships on the Clyde (including the then brand new Waverley) joined the CSP Clyde steamer and had their red white and black funnels repainted in buff and black top. MacBraynes became half state owned (i.e. the LMSR share which had passed to BR) and half privately owned (Coast Lines' half) and retained its red funnel with black top livery.

In 1957, BR revived the "Caledonian Steam Packet Company" brand, the company having been very much in the background (small print on the back of the ticket) as far as the public was concerned since 1923 after which the branding had simply been LMSR then BR Clyde Coast Steamer Services:

Another livery change took place in 1965. That was the year most BR ships (including the cross Channel, Irish and Isle of Wight ferries) adopted a red (previously yellow) funnel with black top adorned with the familiar BR double arrow logo. Their hulls were also changed from black to "monastral blue". But on the Clyde, while the CSP fleet adopted the new hull colour, in a nod to the company's individual history within the state railway empire, it was allowed to keep its buff funnel but now adorned instead with a rather small red lion rampant.

CSP car ferry MV Cowal (1954) en route from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay in the 1965 "monastral blue" livery. Photo credit Rod Lightbody

The next big date was 1969. By the late 60s, the rationale for having state shipping operations under the control of state railway operations was becoming less and less obvious considering how many passengers were now joining the ships from road transport rather than trains - many were even now driving their own cars aboard ships specially designed for the purpose, the new-fangled "car ferry". In Scotland, the solution adopted was that the CSP was transferred from BR to the state bus services quango, the Scottish Transport Group. In consequence, the blue hulls were repainted black but the red lion on the buff funnel was retained.

The STG also acquired BR's 50% shareholding in MacBrayne's and, in July 1969, bought Coast Lines' share as well so that, for the first time in the company's near 120 year history, it was wholly state owned. No change in their perennial colour scheme of black hull and red funnel with black top, however.

MacBrayne's Clansman pulls away from Armadale for Mallaig in the early 70s - photo credit Tom

With the Clyde and Western Isles services now both under the same management, the next logical step was for MacBraynes and the CSP to merge and this happened on 1st January 1973. In corporate terms, what happened was that the Caledonian Steam Packet Company Ltd (incorporated 1889) changed its name to Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd and David MacBrayne Ltd (inc. 1928) transferred its assets (the ships and the piers) to that company. The merged corporate livery involved the CSP red lion being placed on a yellow disc on the red funnel of MacBraynes.

Calmac colours applied to the funnel of the first ever Scottish car ferry, the CSP's MV Arran of 1954 - photo credit Arnie Furniss
Except the merger was not as complete as generally believed. 1973 was in the middle of the transition from the traditional pattern of separate fleets of mail steamers and cargo vessels to all-purpose ro-ro ferries and in fact it was only the latter which transferred to the merged Calmac. David MacBrayne Ltd (DMB) continued a separate existence post 1/1/73 with five of their older ships - the Loch Arkaig (1942), Lochdunvegan (1946), Loch Seaforth (1947), Loch Carron (1951) and Claymore (1955), none of which ever sported a lion on its funnel. The intention was that Calmac would be financially self sustaining on the car ferry routes to the bigger islands while DMB would continue - at least in the medium term - to serve "thinner" routes to smaller islands such as Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Raasay and the Small Isles on a subsidised basis. You can read about this in Parliament here. Of course, the dream of financial viability never came to pass, even on the major routes. I don't know exactly when DMB finally went out of business and the whole operation was formally taken over by Calmac but I would guess the mid/late 70s after all of the islands (bar the Small Isles) were being served by car ferries (1974) and the last cargo service ceased (1976).

MacBrayne's last cargo ship, MV Loch Carron (1951) leaves Oban in the early 70s - picture credit syntax
In the following decade, the 1980s, the bus companies which formed the bulk of the Scottish Transport Group's operation were privatised leaving just the perennially unprofitable Calmac in state ownership. Hence, the shares in the company were transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1990 in order that the STG could be wound up. The shareholding transferred to the Scottish Government upon devolution in 1999.

Orkney & Shetland - Northlink

The services to Orkney and Shetland had been operated by P&O and its antecedent companies (including Coast Lines which had owned a half share in MacBrayne's 1928-69 and was taken over by P&O in 1971) for over a century until October 2002 when they were beaten in a tender for the subsidy by a joint venture between Calmac and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Branded "Northlink", the Calmac/RBS JV was incorporated as a new company called Northlink Orkney and Shetland Ferries Ltd (company number SC212342). This contract ran into trouble - I mustn't digress into why, but the net upshot was that it was re-tendered early. This time, Calmac (on its own without RBS) was the sole bidder and regained the contract which commenced in July 2006. The corporate vehicle for the new contract was a company originally incorporated in 1949 under the name Arran Piers Ltd (APL) by the Duke of Montrose as owner of the island. It was taken over by the CSP in 1969 in order to upgrade Brodick and Lochranza piers for ro-ro ferry operations. On the merger of the CSP with MacBraynes in 1973, APL was renamed Caledonian MacBrayne Holdings Ltd. It was again renamed Northlink Ferries Ltd (company number SC027370) in May 2006 in order to be the vehicle for Calmac's Orkney and Shetland Northlink branded services.

Calmac's northern incarnation - MV Hamnavoe departs Stromness in Orkney for Scrabster - picture credit Premysl Fojtu
2006 was also the year tendering came to the west coast. In preparation, Calmac was divided into two entities - a company to own the ships and associated shore infrastructure ("Vesco") and another company ("Opsco") consisting essentially of Calmac's management and staff to operate them on charter from Vesco.

In corporate terms, Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd (originally incorporated in 1889 as the Caledonian Steam Packet Company Limited and which changed its name in 1973 upon the merger with MacBraynes) became the Vesco and changed its name to Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL). The Opsco was a new company called Calmac Ferries Ltd (CFL - company number SC302282). The separation took effect in October 2006 with the intention that private companies would, in due course, be able to bid against CFL for the subsidy to operate CMAL's ships. In the event, however, none did at a tendering exercise carried out in 2006/07 so the operation continues to be wholly state owned with CFL having a contract running from 1 October 2007 to 30 September 2013, since extended to 2016.

In actual fact, there were two other Calmac Opscos incorporated in 2006. Cowal Ferries Ltd (Company no. SC306519) was formed to operate the Gourock to Dunoon service. This route was treated as a special case due to being the only one in the Calmac network subject to private sector competition in the shape of Western Ferries. Nobody - not even Cowal Ferries Ltd! - bid for this service in 2006/07 so CoFL were simply ordered by the Scottish Government to carry on the route on a subsidised basis.  The third Opsco was Rathlin Ferries Ltd (Company no. SC306518) incorporated to run the Ballycastle-Rathlin service with subsidy from the Northern Ireland Executive.

Western Ferries and Calmac (Cowal Ferries Ltd) share the same water between Inverclyde and Cowal - photo credit Stuart MacMahon

Also in 2006, David MacBrayne Ltd (DMB - incorporated 1928 but dormant since the late 70s) was re-awakened to act as the holding company for Northlink Ferries Ltd and the three Calmac Opscos, Calmac, Cowal and Rathlin Ferries Ltd. Note that DMB does not hold CMAL which is held directly by the Scottish Government.

CMAL also owns the Caledonian MacBrayne/Calmac brand and licenses this to CFL. CMAL is also the sole shareholder in a dormant company called Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd (company number SC308636) incorporated in 2006 solely to hold that name so no-one else could have it.

Below is a somewhat artless graphic of the structure as at the end of 2007:-

It only remains to update on developments since then:-

* Rathlin Ferries Ltd lost its contract in 2008 (although the current operator continues to charter CMAL's MV Canna).

* The European Commission wasn't happy with the way the Gourock-Dunoon tender had been handled so - to cut a long story short - it was re-tendered in 2011. It was won by another new DMB subsidiary (i.e. Calmac Opsco), Argyll Ferries Ltd (company number SC391762) which took over the route on a passenger only basis on 30 June 2011. AFL does not use the Calmac brand and just to show how illogical these things are, its two vessels are owned by DMB rather than CMAL as you'd expect.

* Northlink Ferries Ltd lost its contract to Serco in July 2012. They continue to trade under the Northlink brand (I don't know who that belongs to) with the same fleet (which doesn't belong to CMAL either - a bank, I think but mustn't digress into that now).

Calmac's houseflag on MV Lochmor at Rum in the early 1990s
This must be the dullest blog I've ever written so I'll finish it with a timeline:-

1851 - David and Alexander Hutcheson and David MacBrayne go into partnership as David Hutcheson & Co.

1878 - Hutchesons retire and David MacBrayne continues the business in his own name.

1889 - Caledonian Steam Packet Company Ltd (CSP) incorporated as a subsidiary of the Caledonian Railway.

1923 - CSP and Glasgow & South Western Railway steamer fleets merged into the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMSR) fleet.

1928 - MacBrayne family cedes control to new company, David MacBrayne Ltd (DMB) jointly owned by the LMSR and Coast Lines.

1948 - LMSR and LNER railways and their respective steamer fleets (including 50% share of DMB) nationalised as British Railways (BR).

1949 - Arran Piers Ltd (APL) incorporated.

1957 - CSP brand revived for BR Clyde steamer services.

1965 - CSP livery changed to "monastral blue" hull and red lion rampant added to buff funnel.

1969 - CSP and BR's 50% share of DMB transferred from BR to Scottish Transport Group. STG also acquires Coast Lines 50% share of DMB. CSP livery reverts to black hull. CSP takes over APL.

1973 - CSP and DMB merge to form Calmac. CSP (inc. 1889) changes its name to Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd (Calmac). APL changes name to Caledonian MacBrayne Holdings Ltd.

late 1970s - residual independent DMB services integrated with Calmac.

1990 - STG privatised and wound up - shareholding in Calmac and (dormant) DMB passes to Secretary of State for Scotland (to Scottish Government in 1999).

2002 - Calmac in partnership with Royal Bank of Scotland takes over Orkney & Shetland services branded as Northlink (Northlink Orkney and Shetland Ferries Ltd incorporated.)

2006 - Northlink Ferries Ltd (NFL - ex Caledonian MacBrayne Holdings Ltd, ex Arran Piers Ltd) takes over O&S contract.

2006 - Calmac changes name to Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL). Its operations hived off to new operating companies (Opscos) Calmac Ferries Ltd (CFL), Cowal Ferries Ltd (Gourock-Dunoon) and Rathlin Ferries Ltd (RFL).

2006 - DMB (inc. 1928) revived to act as holding company for Opscos NFL, CFL, CoFL and RFL. 

2008 - RFL loses Rathlin contract.

2011 - Cowal Ferries Ltd's Gourock-Dunoon contract transferred to new DMB subsidiary, Argyll Ferries Ltd.

2012 - DMB subsidiary NFL loses Orkney & Shetland contract to Serco (which continues to trade under Northlink brand with same leased ships.)

2013 - CFL's contract extended to 2016.

The Waverley in 1973 - her first and last year in Calmac livery - phot credit Hugh Spicer


  1. Not the least bit dull to me and my anorak Neil. Trusadh on BBC Alba broadcast a 60 minute documentary a couple of weeks ago called, translated from the Gaelic, 'Donald and the Cargo Boats'. It was accurately described as "the story of the Calmac cargo boats and their place amongst the Islanders of the Scottish west coast." MV Loch Carron naturally featured heavily.

  2. The previous commentator has beaten me to my preferred self-description as a W. Highland - this is far from dull and this Macbraynes/Higland "geek" finds it all compelling reading. The trouble with geeks is that we are pedants but it it is with good will that I point out that until the Loch Seaforth (Mk 1, 1947), Macbbrayne's "Loch" ships were tilted as one word - so it should be "Lochcarron" above.
    I am still making my way through your blog pages with that mixture of pleasure and nostalgic ache, familiar to anyone who knew the North West Highland seaboard from the 1940s on.

  3. Callum, Duckworth & Langmuir (whom one ought to hesitate before doubting on this subject) render Loch Carron as two words. It's my understanding that, in the 1940s and 50s, the "rule" was that, if it was a loch which had not been used as a name before (e.g. Seaforth, Carron, Arkaig) then it was two words but if it was a new ship with a previously used loch name, then it continued to be one word (e.g. Lochdunvegan). Open to correction on that, however.

  4. It seems that I have to stand (or rather, crouch over my keyboard) corrected. As you imply, it would be a brave man who contradicted D&L on these matters. My theory - and that is really all it was - seemed sound enough on the examples I could be certain of; "Loch Carron" throws it out, of course. I had noted that the 1st and 2nd Lochdunvegans were named as one word but of course the 1st (1891) would have preceded any "rule". I was on board the 2nd "Lochdunvegan" as the guest of my crew-member uncle and given the grand tour, noting her signage and instrument labelling in the original Norwegian and delighting in the speaking tubes from the bridge to the engine room.