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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.

Steamer Operators:
Alexander McEachearn (1832-1835) / Robert Napier (1835-1837) / Thomson & MacConnell (1837-1840)
G & J Burns (1835-1851)
David Hutcheson & Co : David MacBrayne Ltd (1851-1973)

Sir James Matheson
McCallum & Orme

Bibliography
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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