Waverley to the Western Isles 2014

Words and pictures by Martin Longhurst

(Except where stated)


The paddler at Inverie


Waverley started her 2014 season on Friday 23 May, leaving Glasgow Pacific Quay at 1000 for Kilcreggan, Dunoon and Rothesay for time ashore. There was a good crowd on board to witness the tug Biter push the paddler's bow round to the west before she put on steam to head downstream.

The sun did make an effort to shine but the day was mainly overcast. There are number of crew changes including a new Chief Engineer and a new Chief Steward.

 Andy Panter, a familiar face on the Balmoral, was Chief Officer for the first couple of days until Robin Wall took over. A new approach to catering was being trialled and Chief Executive Kath O'Neill was on board to oversee the implementation of the new arrangements. The catering manager Lucy Morley was working hard as well.  The intention is to increase profitability by reducing wastage and rationalising the number of lines.  The most obvious changes to the passengers are booked hot meals, generally with a choice of three dishes, and making sandwiches on board. As with all new initiatives, it will take time to get things right and to decide whether to continue them.

We saw Island Princess at Kilcreggan on her ferry run to Gourock and the various Argyll Ferries and Western Ferries vessels  criss-crossing the Firth.

The normal Friday schedule was followed giving an early finish (by Waverley standards) at 1730.

Saturday was a little less busy and a little less sunny.  Today the steamer was bound for Tigbnabruaich calling at Greenock, Helensburgh, Dunoon and Rothesay. There were good pick-ups along the voyage, however. We spent our time ashore at Tighnabruaich drinking Fyne Ales in the sun on the lawn of the Westpark Hotel. Meanwhile, the steamer headed out into the western Kyle for a committal service. We had been lucky to stay dry but there was light rain for our arrival back at Glasgow.

Unfortunately Sunday's sail to Lochranza started under leaden skies and a heavy shower. Eventually this passed after Greenock but we continued to experience sunshine and showers for the rest of the day. Nevertheless there reasonable numbers from Greenock and Largs.  Many people left us at Rothesay before we commenced our circumnavigation of Bute.

After rounding Ardlamont Point, we headed west into a shower before docking at Lochranza. While we were alongside, the ferry Loch Tarbert arrived from Claonaig. Fortunately the sun came out for the short non-landing cruise across to view Skipness Castle on Kintyre.

The return voyage was uneventful and berthed at Glasgow Pacific Quay just a few minutes late.

Monday 26 May saw Waverley departing Glasgow for Helenburgh, Largs and Dunoon for a cruise up Loch Long. There were fewer on board than the previous day but this was hardly surprising given the forecast of rain all day.  In reality, we again encountered only sunshine and showers. The small cruise ship Silver Explorer was moored at Greenock Container Terminal.

The calls at the intermediate piers produced middling numbers of passengers, with just under 300 on board for the cruise.

It was noticeable that many found different ways home rather than stay on the Waverley until her return to the Science Centre at 2030.

The following day saw an early departure at 0700 which marked the start of the Western Isles season. The paddler picked up more passengers at Greenock at 0840 before heading direct for Lochranza on the Isle of Arran. Here two passengers got off and two got on. As Campbeltown pier is not available in 2014, the next call today was at Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay. We rounded the Mull of Kintyre on a smooth sea under sunny skies with distant views of the Northern Irish coast. The island port was reached at 1500 and passengers were given half an hour ashore, apparently long enough to spend 15 on a dram of Islay whisky!

The last part of the voyage was marred by rain, which drenched everyone on the way to their digs in Oban, after our arrival at 2015.

Wednesday dawned grey and light rain accompanied the steamer all along the Sound of Mull after she sailed from Oban for Armadale. Passing Tobermory, we observed the cruise ship Marco Polo at anchor.

Turning north after rounding Ardnamurchan Point, the rain stopped and the sun came out. As if to celebrate, we were briefly joined by a pod of dolphins. Alasdair Black saw the steam from The Jacobite train through his binoculars.

Soon we saw the ferry Coruisk leaving Mallaig for Armadale, running a little behind schedule. As we had to follow her into Armadale Pier, speed was reduced. A French cruise ship Le Boreal was anchored off.

After our passenger exchange had been completed, Waverley steamed for Mallaig, again having to wait for Coruisk to clear the berth. There was great excitement as she passed by because Jean McGowan waved to us with her red and pink silk scarf and these are the photos she took:


After Mallaig we headed for Inverie, the location of the Old Forge, the most remote pub on the British mainland. 45 minutes ashore were given here, with passengers taking the chance to buy a beer, coffee or ice cream.

Following Inverie, the steamer returned to Armadale and Malliag before heading north to Kyle of Lochalsh for the night, arriving on time at 1900.

Thursday 29 May saw the mighty paddler leave Kyle at 1000 for Portree and Gairloch and a cruise towards Loch Torridon. There was a good number of people on board as she departed from Kyle and passed under the Skye Bridge. Conditions were dry but the sky was grey and there was little wind.

Soon we reached the southern tip of the Isle of Raasay and started passing up its western coast. We passed the new electric hybrid ferry Hallaig as she crossed from Raasay to Skye.

The pier at Portree had been unavailable for the last few years but we were able to call again this year. Now we set out on the first paddle steamer voyage between Portree and Gairloch since 1914, probably also the first passenger ship sailing since 1939, apart from the ill-fated operation by MV Spirit of Skye in 2004. (Although Waverley visited Gairloch in 2012, she did not call at Portree.)

It was quite misty but we were able to see the Isle of Harris at one point, although quite faintly. The pier at Gairloch is very substantial and sees use by cruise ships. About 200 joined at the remote mainland port, giving a total on board of just over 500 for the cruise which turned at the mouth of Loch Torridon.

Those going ashore at Gairloch reported that an excellent locally brewed mild ale was available.

The return voyage to Kyle was uneventful, the steamer swinging to berth starboard side to, just before 2000.

On Friday, Waverley headed north once again, this time heading for Raasay Pier and Portree to sail round the Isle of Raasay. For the second day running the day started sunny but soon clouded over. It was, however, calm and dry. A large proportion of Raasay's population joined the ship, including all 8 primary school pupils, giving a total on board of roughly 450.

Waverley going astern from Portree Pier by Douglas McGowan

Gradually the number on board dwindled as each pier was revisited. The paddler then started her positioning voyage to Oban by steaming to Tobermory to spend the night alongside the pier. Some 66 hardy souls were aboard for this segment and we were rewarded by superb views of the Kylerea Narrows, the Small Isles and, in the distance, Coll and Tiree. The steamer tied up promptly at 2120 and her passengers dispersed to various bed and breakfast establishments all over Tobermory.

However, the early departure at 0730 meant that few could take breakfast ashore. Fortunately there were still sufficient stores on board to provide cooked breakfasts, despite the high demand for catering over the previous few days.

The first part of the voyage to Oban took place in bright sunlight but half way along the Sound of Mull a thick bank of fog was encountered necessitating a reduction in speed.

A good crowd joined the ship at Oban's North Pier, including a coach load from Glasgow. Soon we were heading back into the fog, emerging into the sun again at Lochaline. From then on, good progress was made with excellent visibility, Tiree again being seen in the extreme distance.

Coruisk was running late again but Waverley was permitted to berth at Armadale on time although the ferry had been due to berth first. 15 minutes of passenger exchange ensued before our on time departure for Inverie. We were given 30 minutes ashore at the Knoydart village, just long enough to get to the Post Office for an ice cream. Captain O'Brian then reversed course for a perfect sail back to Armadale and Oban, arriving at 2110.



The Western Isles season is always very popular with enthusiasts, with many spending the whole time on board the paddler. This year we were joined by possibly the furthest travelled 'nutter' (unless you know different) who is Barbara Tabor, a Texan from Sequim, Washington State, USA. Of course, you all know that Sequin is across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, British Columbia. Helen Dewar knitted her some red, white and black hand warmers.



Sunday's sail was quite short leaving Oban at 1230 for the traditional Four Lochs cruise. Despite a bad weather forecast there were more than 450 on board. The departure from Oban was complicated by the presence of the large cruise ship Astor anchored in the middle of the bay. The usual astern departure was impossible so the bow was pushed round by the Kerrera ferry boat so the steamer could go ahead to leave on her southerly heading.

The tidal pattern meant it was better to transit the Gulf of Corryvreckan before steaming round the Four Lochs. The Gulf was quiet as we went through although there strange patterns on the surface of the water. Peter and Geoffrey did a roaring trade in maps of the cruising area, with extra supplies being printed in the Purser's Office.

The steamer arrived back at North Pier shortly after 1800. All passengers had to leave the vessel while she was prepared for her evening Ceilidh and Castles Cruise which departed at 1930. The music was provided by the well-known band TrailWest. A carefully crafted course had been devised passing six castles, including those at Ardtornish and Achadoon. This involved passing down the Sound of Kerrera, crossing to the Sound of Mull and finally part way up the west coast of Lismore. About 250 were on board.

Monday's cruise took the paddler to the sacred Isle of Iona - not the scared isle, as Erin in the Glasgow Office had typed on the day's timetable. We departed at 1130 and enjoyed a good passage along the southern coast of Mull and anchored in the Sound of Iona at 1230. Unfortunately there was just too much swell to effect a safe transfer to the landing boat Ossian of Staffa. So Captain O'Brian had to announce to the disappointed passengers that a cruise Round Mull would be substituted. A close pass of Staffa was given, with the basalt columns around Fingall's Cave clearly visible.

Special arrangements were in force for our return to Oban as the small cruise ship Lord of the Glens had already booked the North Pier. Therefore she had to leave her berth briefly to allow Waverley to disembark her passengers before retiring to anchor off Craignure, close by the Hebridean Princess.

Lord of the Glens again had to clear the berth to allow Waverley to pick up her passengers for the final day of the Western Isles season. This took the steamer to Port Ellen, Tarbert (whence round trip passengers disembarked for their coach return) and finally Largs.

The first part of the voyage was characterised by sunshine and showers. Shortly after clearing the Sound of Kerrera the Lord of the Isles passed inbound from Colonsay. Thanks are due to Derek Brown and Ken Darroch who had sold over 1,800 Grand Draw tickets.

We were due to call at Port Ellen at 1330 but as we were approaching the port, it was announced that it would not be possible to call as the rope handlers had all gone to funeral. So course was set for the Mull of Kintyre.

There were excellent views of the Northern Irish coast and Rathlin Island between rain showers. The Mull was rounded in the warmth of the sun as we coincided with what wind there was. Soon Sanda Island came into sight with Ailsa Craig and the Ayrshire coast beyond.

Campbeltown Loch slipped by as we headed north up the Kilbrannan Sound. Suddenly the steamer started zig-zagging as the emergency steering gear was tested. It was announced that Waverley was running about 75 minutes ahead of time with arrival at Tarbert now expected to be 1745.

In the event, this was achieved and our Oban passengers left to join their Dodds of Troon coach. As the crow flies, we were now 33 nautical miles from Oban but had steamed about 135 nautical miles. Some thought this might be Waverley's longest non-stop voyage in passenger service.

After all had gone ashore, we were soon under way on the final leg to Largs, where we arrived in time for people to catch the 1945 bus to Greenock or the 1952 train to Glasgow Central.

Just before our final arrival, Purser Tony Gamblin read out a message of thanks from the passengers to Captain O'Brian, the officers and crew for the series of fantastic Western Isles trips.

For more photographs of the trip see my Flickr album.


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