Wednesday, October 28, 2009

West Tarbert Pier - Part 1

Nowadays, the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferries to Islay leave from Kennacraig Pier about half way down West Loch Tarbert in Kintyre.

But until 1978, they sailed from a pier three miles further up the loch, almost at its head, called West Tarbert Pier (WTP).

Originally built in 1825 when steam ship services to Islay were first established, WTP was deliberately placed right at the head of the loch to make it as close as possible by coach to East Tarbert and connection with steamers to Glasgow via Loch Fyne and the Kyles of Bute - this was in the era when travel by coastal steamer was infinitely preferable to travel overland.

The picture above shows WTP approaching from East Tarbert. It also shows how the main road from Tarbert to Campbeltown - the A83 now - used to run along the shore past the pier. Later (I'm not sure when but 1940s-50s I think), the road was re-routed inland (as shown on the map above) with the old road remaining as a dead end at WTP.

The ship at the pier in that picture is MacBrayne's paddle steamer Glencoe which served the Islay route from WTP from 1876 to 1905. She was succeeded by another paddle steamer called the Pioneer which operated until 1939:-

The earliest timetable for the Islay service I have is for 1884. It shows the steamer left Glasgow at 7.00am and reached East Tarbert at 11.45am. Coaches were on hand to convey passengers and their luggage to WTP for the Islay steamer. This left at 12.40pm and arrived at Port Ellen (Port Askaig on Fridays) on Islay at 3.40pm via a call at Gigha. 8 hours 40 minutes from Glasgow to Islay - not bad going for 1884. Today, the same journey (by Citylink coach from Glasgow to Kennacraig as the steamer service to East Tarbert was discontinued in 1970) takes about 6 hours 30 minutes. 

By the 1930s, the sailings to Islay from WTP had been re-jigged: Port Ellen and Port Askaig now received equal billing with sailings to each port on alternate days. Gigha was now only called at on Port Ellen days but Port Askaig days included a call at Jura (Craighouse) and - from 1949 - Colonsay.

In 1939, the Pioneer was succeeded by the MV Lochiel which served Islay until 1970. She is seen below at WTP in the 1960s:-

In the 1960s, WTP faced an uncertain future. By 1964, the bigger islands off the west coast of Scotland - Bute, Arran, Mull and the Outer Hebrides - were being served by car ferries. These were, however, "hoist loading" ferries. That meant that, instead of driving straight onto the car deck down a ramp as you do today, cars drove 4 or 5 at a time onto a platform on the ship which was hoisted slowly from the car deck to pier level and back down again. It was cumbersome and slow (and useless for HGVs) but, even so, Islay had been left out of this "car ferry revolution" and continued meanwhile to rely on cars being lifted aboard the Lochiel by crane.

The Government was presented with two alternative proposals for Islay. One was to upgrade the existing steamer services from West Loch Tarbert to a car ferry service. The other was the radically different so-called "Overland Route" which involved using Jura as a stepping stone to Islay via new, shorter car ferry routes from Keills in Argyll to Lagg in Jura and from Feolin on Jura to Port Askaig. (This had, in fact, been the original route to Islay until the development of steamship services in the second quarter of the 19th century replaced it with the route to WTP.)

Either option would likely have spelt the end for WTP as, even if upgrading the existing services had been adopted rather than the Overland Route, a new generation of car ferry would have required a new terminal because the head of West Loch Tarbert is shallow around WTP as can be seen below.

In February 1968, the Government rejected the Overland Route on grounds of cost. As well as new ferries, it would have involved upgrading more than 30 miles (50km) of single track roads to Keills and on Jura at an overall cost of £3.2m. Instead, the Government preferred to spend £1.1m on a new ro-ro car ferry to operate from a new pier at Escart Bay, about a mile down the loch from WTP. This would serve Port Askaig, Colonsay and Port Ellen. Jura would be served by a new ferry across the Sound of Islay to Feolin instead of the traditional call at Craighouse en route to Port Askaig and Gigha would have its own independent ferry. This option could also be delivered much more quickly than the Overland Route and within the predicted remaining life of the Lochiel.

MacBrayne's went ahead and ordered the new ship but the shallow waters of West Loch Tarbert were muddied in 1968/69 by two factors: In April 1968, a private company, Western Ferries Ltd, began to operate a ro-ro ferry to Port Askaig from their new pier at Kennacraig. And in July 1969, MacBrayne's was nationalised under the umbrella of the Scottish Transport Group which also included the Caledonian Steam Packet Company Ltd which ran the ferry services on the Clyde. All bets were off - to be continued ...

The Lochiel at WTP as pictured in MacBrayne's 1960 summer timetable.


  1. Very informative as usual Neil. One question though, when was Gigha North pier used? I always thought the Islay steamer used the North. I am probably wrong though!

  2. Thanks Rob. As far as I know, there has only ever been one pier at Gigha, the one at the south end (not the slipway the modern ferry from Tayinloan calls at) and the Islay steamer called there on Port Ellen days. The 1884 t/t mentions Gigha "South End" on PE days and "North End" on the P Askaig day but I'd be almost certain these were ferries rather than piers.

  3. western Ferries built a floating link pier at the North end of Gigha around 69 which was serviced by the 'sound of Jura' and was a request call where you raised a large ball on a pole to indicate your request. Flashing of car headlights was often required when no-one on the boat noticed the ball was up.

  4. I remember our old / ancient Zephyr Zodiac being hoisted aboard the Islay steamer in the early 60's from West Loch Tarbet Pier, via crane with net bags under each wheel and watching the rather large flakes of rust flutter down. (I remember my mother moving aside to stand by a newer car to pretend that the old charabang wasn't ours). Broke the prop shaft of that car in Tiree - but that's another story. Thanks for this blog, it's gratifying to know that not everything has to vanish from existence once living memory has ended.

  5. PS.
    Not anonymous. Brian Anderton. 52yrs and stilk driven to the Western Isles every year - having infected our two teenage sons with the love of the Isles.

  6. - - - driven to get to the Western Isles - - -.