Sunday, November 26, 2017

Mallaig - the Road to the Isles Ferry

I was dimly aware that in the past I've seen small grainy pictures of a rather primitive looking car ferry that operated between Mallaig and Armadale on Skye in the 1930s so tonight I was fascinated to find a series of excellent high quality pictures of it in 1938 posted on Flickr by Graham West (click all pictures to enlarge).

Loading at Armadale - picture credit Graham West

Loading at Mallaig - picture credit Graham West

In the picture above, the tanks on cartwheels on the pier on the left I believe are fuel bowsers to serve the fishing fleet. Note also the steamer at the end of the Railway Pier in the background. I'm struggling a bit to ID her - 1938 is too late for MacBrayne's Claymore (decommissioned 1931) or Lochbroom (ditto 1937). So I wonder if it could be MacCallum Orme's Hebrides or Dunara Castle although somehow I don't associate them with Mallaig as that was really MacBrayne territory. Anyway, here's another one of the ferry being hauled over to the Fishery Pier:- 

At Mallaig - picture credit Graham West

I assumed at first she must have been a barge towed across the Sound of Sleat by a motor boat but this article refers to her having a propellor. And is that a fuel tank and exhaust pipe on the foredeck (clearer on the first picture at Armadale)? So perhaps there was an engine forward causing her to be down at the bow when unloaded as seen above and counter-balanced by cars when loaded aft? Note the lifting rudder against the transom. I assume she can only have operated in the calmest of conditions (how on earth was that stern gate kept watertight?) and it's curious there's no mention of her in Duckworth & Langmuir to give technical data - she must be the only vessel ever to have operated on the west coast not mentioned in D&L! (EDIT - see comment by Roy below.)

That article also tells us this curious ferry was called - very appropriately and cleverly - Road to the Isles and she was designed and operated by a partnership between local boat builder John Henderson and engineer Angus MacIntyre. There are further details of the operation in its entry in the 1937 edition of AA's Guide to Ferries (I'd kill to see a full copy of that!) you can see on the Countrybus website here. There's a discrepancy between these two sources about dates with the article saying the service began in the 1920s and Countrybus saying it was 1932.

At Mallaig - picture credit Graham West

In these last two pictures, Road to the Isles appears to be being manoeuvred around Mallaig harbour by a combination of punting and warping rather than any engine of her own. Anyway, note the sign in the last photo pointing to the right suggesting the normal loading point was on the east side of the bay (roughly where the marina is today) as seen in the Countrybus link and the article rather than by the Fishery Pier as in the pictures above.

I assume Road to the Isles was not recommissioned after the War and it was not until 1964 that another drive on-drive off car ferry between Mallaig and Armadale was introduced by MacBrayne's with the Clansman. The other sign in the picture above, pointing left, is indicating a foot ferry to Armadale by a more traditional motor vessel called Ossianic operated by Alexander MacLennan (Mallaig) Ltd. She also operated the Knoydart and Loch Nevis mail service. I don't know what she looked like but she was replaced the year following these photos (i.e. in 1939) by a new vessel called Blaven seen in the foreground in the picture below with the Clansman in the background. (In between is the Small Isles and Portree steamer, MV Loch Arkaig.)

Picture credit David Taylor

At the risk of digressing further off topic, I'll leave you with two other of Graham's pictures taken at Mallaig on this occasion in 1938 of crossing the Sound of Sleat on the Road to the Isles in seriously driech weather and this time I'm surer of my ground on the steamer depicted - it's MacBrayne's SS Lochness, built 1929 and the last steam ship they ever commissioned, which until 1947 was the Stornoway mail steamer with calls at Glenelg, Kyle of Lochalsh and Applecross. I wonder why the gun was being loaded:-

SS Lochness at Mallaig - picture credit Graham West

SS Lochness at Mallaig - picture credit Graham West

Finding these smashing period pictures on Flickr quite made my day! If anyone can add any detail or corrections about the Road to the Isles ferry, then please leave a comment.


  1. Yet another fascinating article Neil. Thank you.

    I was equally surprised to discover the existence of “Road to the Isles” during a visit to the Mallaig Heritage Centre. They hold a number items relating to the ferry including pictures on the first day of operation, letters and invoices for landing in Armadale and even a builder’s drawing. I recall the plan showing a small engine forward driving a ducted propeller midships. This would explain the timber-covered ‘wedge’ running down the car deck.

    Some of these items can be viewed on-line at - search 'all' for 'Road to the Isles' - though unfortunately not all. For those you’ll have to visit Mallaig again :-)

  2. Hi Neil
    Great stuff as usual.
    My best guess at the steamer at the Railway Pier would be Hebrides, and next nearest would be Clydesdale, though that's even less likely at Mallaig. I don't think the lifeboat positions are right for Dunara Castle, though such features do change.
    All the best
    John Kemplen