WAVERLEY IN THE WESTERN ISLES 1998
On Friday 1 May the Waverley set out from Glasgow on what is likely to be the last visit to the Western Isles this side of the Millennium. Shortly after 7am the Waverley pulled away from Anderson Quay to recreate in essence what was known as the Royal Route from Glasgow to Oban. However Waverley would round the Mull of Kintyre rather than the traditional route to Ardrishaig where the connection would have been made by the Crinan Canal to Crinan itself for the onward journey to Oban. It was nearly 120 years since the legendary MacBrayne steamer Columba took up the service. Having set off at 7am on 1 July 1878 the steamer would continue on this route for 60 years. Passengers were treated to an image of the Clyde at its most placid with little wind and sunshine illuminating the deserted shipyards, their idle cranes reflecting in the still waters. At Greenock the keen eyed spotted the MV Isle of Lewis at Garvel Drydock receiving repairs to damage sustained earlier in the week. Later that day we would see the resultant reshuffle of the Calmac fleet at Oban. At Largs a few more joined and we set off via the south of Arran to Campbeltown. After Campbeltown we headed around the Mull of Kintyre in uncharacteristically calm seas. However, there was the slightest hint of an Atlantic swell. The next call was Port Ellen on Islay where short time ashore was allowed to comply with the MSA regulations. A few passengers headed to the local hostelries to sample some of the famed Islay Malt Whiskies. The shoreline on the approach to Port Ellen includes the distilleries of Lagavuilin, Bowmore and Laphroaig. Other passengers scrambled for photographs at this slightly more unusual calling point. The harbour at Port Ellen is narrow and lined with rocks from which Waverley must emerge astern which is difficult at the best of times. However suitable winds and the skill of Captain Gellatley ensured an impeccable departure making it look an everyday event. The sail up the coast of Islay, Jura, past the Gulf of Corryvreckan up towards Oban was magnificent in the evening sunlight. It is hardly surprising that so many enthusiasts are drawn to the sails in this area, as it is by far the most scenic. The Waverley slipped into Oban Bay and berthed at the North Pier on time at 20.15 some thirteen and a quarter hours after leaving Glasgow. Many passengers headed for the bus home but the lucky ones stayed on in Oban to continue the Western Isles experience.
Next morning the good weather continued with sunshine and light winds. The Calmac sailings to Criagnure were entrusted to the Pioneer and Pentolina b. With the Isle of Mull deputising for the Isle of Lewis, Pioneer had sailed round from the Clyde. More interestingly Calmac had chartered Pentolina b which was formerly the Iona, built for David MacBrayne back in 1970. Fittingly the Iona the last boat built for MacBraynes was to be seen in Oban bay wearing the David Macbrayne colours for the first time in its career. At 10am Waverley sailed from Oban bay in the direction of the Sound of Mull. In the distance one could catch a glimpse of the last winter snow on the summits of the distant Munro's. Another displaced Calmac vessel was stationed at Lochailine-Fishnish, the former Skye ferry Loch Fyne. Waverley swept into Tobermory bay to add its own dash of colour to this most picturesque of villages. Sadly after over 140 years Tobermory has lost its direct boat link to Oban, Coll and Tiree. Calls at Tobermory were originally scheduled on the mail run to the outer isles, the main road not having not been built on Mull. Therefore the calls by Waverley could be some of the last by a ship of this size. The pier retains its art deco buildings built by MacBraynes. Many of the villagers joined the afternoon cruise past the Rhun a Ghal lighthouse to Staffa on the West side of Mull. The sail followed in the footsteps of the legendary Turbine Steamer King George V which sailed from Oban until 1974. Excursions to actually land at Staffa continued until the early 70's. Unfortunately Waverley is unable to stop and instead sails around the mystical island. The cliffs looked particularly magnificent in the sunlight. Unfortunately time did not allow the advertised sailing to Loch na Keal on the return to Tobermory. On the return MV Lord of the Isles was spotted outward bound to Barra and Lochboisdale. At Oban that evening the Waverley was joined by another well-known boat around British shores, the sail training schooner Sir Malcolm Miller. Waverley then headed for Fort William but not after a few difficulties manoeuvring in Oban bay caused by the wind being in the wrong direction. Waverley set a cracking pace up Loch Linnhe as the sun set over the mountains of Morvern. As we steamed through the Corran narrows the lights of Fort William were not far away. The arrival at Fort William always causes a stir as a restaurant has been built on the pier. Little do the diners realise that a monkeys fist could land in their dinner at any moment. Fort William was busy for the weekend as it was hosting motorcycle trials but there was plenty of room in the pubs for Waverley's passengers and crew to enjoy an evening ashore.
On Sunday morning the weather was remarkably, sunny again. The steamer pulled away from Fort William with over 200 passengers seeking an alternative route to Oban or an afternoon touring various lochs. At Oban more passengers joined for what was to become easily the busiest day this season. The Waverley made its way through Loch Shuna, Loch Craignish, Loch Melfort and Loch Crinan before heading for the Gulf of Corryvreckan. The gulf, famed for its whirlpool whipped up by the strong currents running between Jura and Scarba was disappointingly calm despite increasing winds. By the time Fort William was reached that evening it had clouded over and the weather did not look promising for the visit to Iona the following day. That evening at Oban there were no less that six current or former members of the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet, Pioneer, Lord of the Isles, Pentolina b (ex Iona), Waverley and two of the Island class vessels, perhaps the largest gathering for many years?
Next morning the weather was not particularly promising but by the time we reached Iona having rounded the south of Mull via Oban the sun was shining. Waverley was again following in the path of the steamer King George V which called at Iona until 1974. Shortly after anchoring in Martyrs Bay to the south of the ferry jetty the first of the launches came alongside to transfer passengers ashore. Always a tricky operation at the best of times the organisation was impeccable and passengers were ashore for about one and a half hours. It was on Iona in AD563 that St Columba landed bringing Christianity to Scotland. Iona Abbey and Monastery founded in the 13th century by Reginald, son of Somerland, King of the Isles is one of the highlights of this small 'mystic' isle. The buildings dominate the east side of the island and a photograph of the Waverley at anchor behind them is a must. In the small graveyard beside the Abbey can be found the grave of the late Rt. Hon. John Smith MP, QC, former leader of the Labour. The Sound of Iona is always known as a difficult place to unload passengers by launch as the water is very shallow and the sound open to the prevailing wind. Passengers still ashore were shocked to see Waverley appear to sail away but in fact was only moving to a more suitable anchorage north of the abbey. Few people cared about the late departure from Iona, a truly special island. As we sailed back around the south of Mull the weather deteriorated but the paddler successfully dodged the showers. In the distance passing the Garvellachs was the Pioneer heading towards Colonsay. Back at Oban many passengers returned by coach to Glasgow but others stayed to enjoy what food and drink Oban had to offer.
Sadly the last day of the short trip to the Western Isles was soon upon us. At 9am on May 5 Waverley backed away from the pier and gave three long sonorous blasts on the whistle. Only a small number of passengers were aboard for what could have potentially been a rough voyage back around the Mull of Kintyre to Ayr. Again, the Waverley returned to Port Ellen on Islay. In the village a small remembrance ceremony took place for the former Islay mail boat, Lochiel which served the island in the 1950's and 60's. In a small park a mast had been erected and a few artefacts from the boat had been collected together for display, including the builders plate, life belt and capstan. An enthusiast hoisted aloft the ships name pennant on the mast. Whilst alongside the crew took the opportunity of fitting the storm shutters over the saloon windows as that evening after dropping passengers at Ayr the Waverley was due to set sail for Weymouth. Fortunately the rough seas of the Mull of Kintyre did not materialise and in fact the weather cleared to allow excellent views of the Northern Irish coast. After a brief call at Campbeltown the sail to Ayr was a formality. After some difficulty turning in the harbour Waverley berthed on the south side where the coach to Glasgow awaited.
evening having re-fuelled the Waverley left Ayr and turned south for Weymouth,
and that, as they say, is another story…..