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Western Isles, Scotland
Ferry services in the western isles of north Britain are dominated by the state-owned Caledonian-MacBrayne company which was formed by merging the Scottish Transport Group's Western Isles and Clyde ferry interests. The MacBrayne name was synonymous with transport to and from the many scattered islands off the UK's north west coast, of which Syke, Mull, Iona, Harris and Lewis are just some of the better-known.

Steam navigation commenced in 1819 when Henry Bell's PS Comet, which had pioneered British steamboating on the Clyde, opened up a service from Glasgow to Oban and Fort William via the Crinan Canal.

Most main islands are now served by modern "roll on - roll off" car ferries, with link-spans being built in the 1970s and 1980s to provide an efficient lifeline to the small and remote island communities. In earlier years, cargo was an important, if not dominant, part of the MacBrayne service and this was reflected in the utilitarian design of many of their vessels. MacBrayne became the dominant shipping company in the later part of the nineteenth century and even before this, competing companies in practice served different islands. There was never the cut-throat competition that characterised, for example, shipping on the Firth of Clyde : traffic could not justify the wasteful duplication and the area was never a battleground for competing railway companies. Railways came late to this lowly populated backwater, reaching the coast at Strome Ferry (from Inverness) in 1870 and Oban and Fort William/Banavie (from Glasgow) in 1880 and 1894/5 respectively. The lines were later extended from Strome to Kyle of Lochalsh in 1897 and Banavie to Mallaig in 1901, improving the railway connections to the Isle of Skye and onward to the Outer Hebrides (Harris and Lewis).

Following a visit of Queen Victoria to the western isles in 1847, this remote area became increasingly important as a tourist destination, although never in the mass numbers experienced further south at Rothesay and Dunoon. The so-called "Royal Route" from Glasgow to Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne and thence through the Crinan Canal for onward connection to Oban became a popular service with David Hutcheson (later David MacBrayne) putting the Clyde's most luxurious steamers (PS Iona and PS Columba) on the Glasgow-Ardrishaig leg of the run. Patrons of the route, especially before the arrival of the railways, were the local absentee landowners, grouse shooters and higher-income tourists.

Oban became the main "resort" and centre for excursion steamer services. After World War II, excursions became synomymous with the mighty turbine steamer TS King George V, which cruised to Fort William, Tobermory, around the Island of Mull to the islands of Iona and Staffa, the places on the route of the famous visit of Queen Victoria one hundred years earlier. Iona was famous for its monastery and its place as the point where St Columba introduced Christianity to the northern part of Great Britain. The much smaller island of Staffa was famous for Fingal's Cave, a geological formation named in the late eighteenth century after a legendary hero of 1500 years earlier, and accessible only by smaller ferry from the main steamer during fine weather on account of the heavy swell from the Atlantic ocean.

Paddle steamer excursions have recently been revived in the area. PS Waverley spends a few days each year at the beginning of her season.

Hutcheson (and therefore later MacBraynes) also operated a service direct from Glasgow via the Mull of Kintyre to Fort Augustus and along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness to Inverness after taking over the business of the main incumbent Messrs. Burns in 1851 (who had bought out their main rival Ainslie in 1849)

David Hutcheson & Co : David MacBrayne Ltd
David Hutcheson became a steamboat owner in 1851, when he took over a number of vessels of the Western Isles fleet of the G & J Burns shipping empire, of which he was the local manager and long-time employee. Burns sold out  to concentrate on his other instercsts but in a short time had brought some organisation to west Highand services and had bought out local operators, latterly William Ainslie. His business was the largest of the local operators and came to dominate the area totally, latterly in connection with the railways, but continuing until 1969 with direct services from Glasgow.

The company operated from Glasgow to Oban and Corpach via Ardrishaig which involved a change of vessel to transit the Crinan Canal between Ardrishaig and Crinan. From Corpach services ran via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness to Inverness.  Over time, services were increased to the Hebridean islands and remaining competitors taken over.

David MacBrayne was nephew to an one of three partners in David Hutcheson's company and eventually took exclusive control in 1879 after the retirement of David Hutcheson in 1876 and Alexander Hutcheson in 1878. MacBrayne died in 1907 , aged 92, having worked up until the previous year, by which time the operation had become David MacBrayne Ltd. It was reconstructed in 1928 as David MacBrayne (1928) Ltd, owned jointly by Coast Lines Ltd and the LMS railway. As David MacBrayne Ltd from 1934, 50 percent remained with the private Coast Lines Ltd until it was purchased by the Scottish Transport Group in 1969 and on January 1, 1973 was merged with STG's other subsidiary, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company to form Caledonian - MacBrayne.

The company became totally connected with the life of the western isles - the fragile economies of the remote islands became dependent on MacBraynes services and MacBraynes dependent on the continued requirement for freight (and in the summer, tourists), to and from the isles. They purchased many of their paddle steamers second-hand and also operated an extensive fleet of screw steamers, especially for their cargo services. In 1931 they took ownership of the new and innovative diesel-electric ship Lochfyne which latterly became associated with its Clyde mail service to Ardrishaig and other new diesel-electric vessels in the 1930s for their general passenger and cargo island runs and by the outbreak of World War II had ended their association with paddle steamers.

The company also operated the "Ardrishaig Mail" steamer service on the Clyde to the eponymous Loch Fyne port where transshipment along the Crinan Canal allowed passengers and mail to get to Oban and beyond. This route was also named the Royal Route on account of being taken by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for their holidays in the area, thus popularising the West Highlands with a wider, particularly English, clientele. The route featured the magnificent long-lived paddlers Iona and Columba until replaced by turbine steamers bought second hand from Clyde operators in 1935 (see Clyde Services below)

Hutcheson bought out the operators of services along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness in 1851 and operated a connection to Inverness with a long sea voyage around the Mull of Kintyre and inland at Fort Augustus as well as local services on the canal (see Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness services below

Above : Mountaineer of 1910.  MacBraynes were well-known for purchasing old paddle steamers second hand for their western Isles services but a change in policy came in 1905 with the purchase of Pioneer new from A&J Inglis and Mountaineer, which proved to be their final purchase of a paddle steamer.  At 180 ft long, she was of modest size but 20 ft longer than Pioneer although with a similarly rated compound diagonal engine (
20.5 and 38.5 inches with 48 inch stroke)

Long used to owning screw steamers for its cargo services, MacBraynes did not follow the Clyde ferry owners when it came to replacing their old vessels with new tonnage in the 1930s. The company took a remarkably modern view and introduced a number of new diesel-electric powered screw vessels. DEPV Lochfyne looked considerably different to the highly traditionally-styled Mountaineer.

MAIN FLEET : Paddle Steamers ex- G & J Burns - built before 1851

Duntroon Castle (1842-1853)
Built for the Inveraray service. Sold to the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway
Dolphin (1844-1862) 
sold for blockade running in the USA

Pioneer (1844-1893)
Built for the Greenock-Rothesay service.  scrapped in 1895

Built to link Glasgow and Inverness via the Crinan Canal

Cygnet (1848-1882) wrecked in Loch Ailort
Lapwing (1848-1859)
sank in a collision off Kintyre

Note : Edinburgh Castle and Curlew were used on Caledonian Canal services and later renamed Glengarry (see below)

Paddle Steamers purchased after 1851
Mountaineer (1852-1889)
Chevalier (1853-1854)
Iona (1855-1862)
sold for blockade running in the USA
Clansman (1855-1869)
Inveraray Castle  (1857-1891)  
built in 1839
Mary Jane  (1857-1931, renamed Glencoe in 1875) built in 1846 
Duke of Argyll  (1857-1858)  
built in 1852
Stork  (1858-1861)  built in 1851
Plover  (1859-1879)  built in 1849 as Maid of Lorn
Fairy (1861-1863)
Iona (1863)
sold for blockade running in the USA
Iona (1864-1936)
Chevalier (1866-1927)
(1868) built in 1849 as Islay 
Islay (1876-1890) 
built in 1867
Columba (1878-1936)
Grenadier (1885-1927)
Fusilier (1888-1934) later Lady Orme, Crestawave until 1939
Hero  (1890-1909,
renamed Mountaineer in 1892) built in 1858 
(1890-1902)  built in 1872 as Princess Louise for the Larne & Stranraer Steam Boat Company
Great Western  (1891-1904, renamed Lovedale in 1893) built 1867, ex- Great Western Railway Irish and later French services

Gael  (1891-1923)   built in 1867 by Robertson & Co of Greenock. 211 ft : 361 GRT. Oscillating 45 and 45 in x 63 in by Rankin & Blackmore. ex- Campbeltown & Glasgow Joint Stock Steamship Co. and Great Western Railway

Cygnus  (1891-1896, renamed Brigadier in 1892)  built in 1854
Carabinier  (1893-1909)  built 1878 as Albert Edward
Glendale (1902-1905)  built in 1875 as Paris, later Flamingo, La Belgique
Pioneer (1905-1943) 
sold for use as underwater research and training ship HMS Harbinger, surviving until 1958
Mountaineer (1910-1937)

Above : A&J Inglis product Pioneer of 1905 was one of the few paddle steamers commissioned new by Hutcheson or MacBraynes. Mountaineer was to follow five years later from the same Glasgow yard. She was of modest size (160 ft long) with a GRT of 241. Her small compound diagonal engines were of 20 and 38 inches with 48 inch stroke.
Pioneer outlasted her younger sibling and survived on the mail service to Islay, Jura and Gigha for most of her life before a final year serving Skye before the outbreak of World War II. She spent the remainder of the war as a Submarine HQ ship on the Clyde at Fairlie and was later sold to the Admiralty outright. With her paddles and sponsons removed, she was used as a laboratory at Portland until scrapped in 1958 in the Netherlands. Photo is in the public domain  

Turbine Steamers (ex - Turbine Steamers Ltd) : for details please go to : Clyde Turbine Steamers website
Purchased in late 1935 for service from 1936

Saint Columba  (1936-1958)  built in 1912 as Queen Alexandra
King George V (1936-1974)  built in 1926


MacBraynes maintained one service on the Firth of Clyde - the "Ardrishaig mail" route from Gourock, bringing mail, and in the summer months, tourists to the Loch Fyne port on what became kown in the later 19th century as the "Royal Route" to the isles after a visit by Queen Victoria. After a short ferry ride along the Crinan Canal, passengers saw open water at Crinan and continued their journey by a MacBrayne's steamer

MacBraynes continued to operate the Ardrishaig service until shortly after the company was nationalised as part of the Scottish Transport Group in 1969. The service was transferred to the STG's new Clyde subsidiary the Caledonian Steam Packet Company but was withdrawn shortly afterwards.

See Hutcheson / MacBrayne - Clyde Services

CALEDONIAN CANAL and LOCH NESS SERVICES  (Banavie - Fort Augustus - Inverness)
Hutcheson (and therefore later MacBraynes) also operated a service direct from Glasgow via the Mull of Kintyre to Fort Augustus and along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness to Inverness after taking over the business of the main incumbent Messrs. Burns in 1851 (who had bought out their main rival Ainslie in 1849).

Ex-Burns Paddle Steamers (purchased in 1851)

Curlew (1837-1853,  built as Glencoe and renamed in 1849 when taken over by Burns from Messrs. Ainslie)
Edinburgh Castle (1844-1927, renamed Glengarry in 1875)

Further additions :

Gondolier (1866-1939) 
Lochness  (1885-1912) built 1853 as Lochgoil and later Lough Foyle.   * Loch Ness mail service
Gairlochy (1894-1919) built 1861 as Sultan, then Ardmore 


Sir James Matheson
Purchased the Isle of Lewis in 1844 and instituted a service from Glasgow via various islands with the Mary Jane ( of 1846-1851, which later became part of the Hutcheson fleet in 1857 and survived until 1931) and added Marquis of Stafford (1849-1853, which was sold for use at Genoa, Italy, renamed Piemonte)

Steamers of the Highlands and Islands : An Illustrated History
By Ian McCrorie
Published in 1987 by Orr, Pollock & Co
ISBN 1 869850 017

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Clyde Turbine Steamers
Hutcheson / MacBrayne - Clyde