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| CALEDONIAN MACBRAYNE, the present operators of the West Highland steamers, is the largest operator of passenger vessels flying the Red Ensign and currently boasts 28 ships in service on the Clyde and in the Hebrides. It has a proud history of service to the communities and islands of the West and it is no exaggeration to say that the whole fabric of island life is dependent on the services provided by the Company.
The Company can trace its history back to 1851. At that time the bulk of ships trading to the Islands were owned by the Burns Brothers of Glasgow who also had extensive interests in Irish Sea shipping and were early backers of the Cunard Line. In that year they decided to divest themselves of their Hebridean vessels to concentrate instead on their other interests. They effectively gave the fleet to their chief clerk David Hutchinson (to whom the monument on Kerrera is dedicated) on the understanding that, upon his retiral, it should pass to their nephew David MacBrayne. This duly happened in 1878 and the famous shipping line was born.
From its inception the Company rapidly became the main carrier on the West Highland routes and provided both passenger and freight services to most islands firstly from Glasgow and then from the railheads at Oban, Mallaig, Kyle of Lochalsh and Strome Ferry as each was opened, with Kyle superceding Strome Ferry upon its completion. The vessels operated by them were a mixed bag suited to the very different traffic carried in different areas and ranged from the mighty COLUMBA of 1878 which was a floating palace designed to carry the Victorian and Edwardian Aristocracy from Glasgow to Ardrishaig en route to their shooting lodges in the Highlands to the small CYGNET which carried cargo, mail, livestock and passengers in extreme discomfort from Oban to Barra and South Uist. Both became the stuff of legends although comments about the latter, particularly in rough weather, were not always repeatable!
As times have changed so the Company has evolved to meet changing conditions and demands As the Twentieth century began the focus gradually changed from being a freight carrier that also had provision for passengers to that of a Company that provided excellent facilities for passengers while also meeting the cargo needs of the Islands. The same process of change can also be seen with the gradual movement away from the romantic steam paddle steamers to the economically more suited motor vessel and MacBrayne was one of the earliest operators of such vessels prior to the Great War.
As with all facets of human life there have been ups and downs and one of the worst of the latter occurred in 1928 when, in the dreadful economic conditions of the post Great War era, the Company effectively became bankrupt and intimated to the Post Office that it would not seek a renewal of its Mail Contract. As no alternative operator could be found the Company was reformed with ownership divided between Coast Lines and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.
The new owners immediately set about rebuilding the ancient fleet and such notable vessels as LOCHFYNE(1931), LOCHNEVIS(1934) and LOCHIEL(1939) were added. All were motor vessels in the interests of economy and more followed after the Second World War with the building of LOCH SEAFORTH in 1947 and CLAYMORE in 1955.
To cater for the ever rising number of motor vehicles desiring passage three purpose-built vessels were added to the fleet in 1964. Named HEBRIDES, CLANSMAN and COLUMBA they brought modern facilities to the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy, Mallaig-Armadale and Oban-Craignure-Lochaline routes.
In 1948 the shares in the Company owned by the LMS passed to the British Transport Commission thus partially nationalising it. In 1970 the remaining 50% passed into State ownership and, in 1973, it was joined with the other State owned shipping company, the Clyde based Caledonian Steam Packet Company, to form CALEDONIAN MACBRAYNE. Since then the fleet has been totally rebuilt, existing routes have been converted to drive-through operation and new routes have been added. Notable vessels such as ISLE OF LEWIS, LORD OF THE ISLES, ISLE OF MULL and CLANSMAN have joined the fleet to operate on the major routes while the LOCHS, such as LOCH LINNHE, LOCH BUIE, LOCH FYNE and LOCH BHRUSDA have been introduced on the minor routes, utilising beach built slipways. The Company has even moved from its traditional Scottish base into 'foreign' waters and now operates the service from Ballycastle to Rathlin under contract to the Ulster authorities.
The islands of the West are the land of Tir Nan Og (the land of eternal youth) and are deserving of a visit by all who appreciate natural beauty and culture interwoven by a lifestyle more relaxed than most are now used to. For all travellers the ships of CALEDONIAN MACBRAYNE provide an essential and most enjoyable introduction to this magical land.
Full details of all CALEDONIAN MACBRAYNE sailings can be obtained from their website at www.calmac.co.uk.
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