BOOKS: New book reveals the fascinating history of Caledonian MacBrayne

CalMac ferries sailing across Oban Bay and, above, a ferry at Oban Pier.
(Pictures by Bill Heaney

 Review by Paul English

DAYS spent messing around on the west coast water as a boy with his father put the young Andrew Clark into a current he’d be happily caught in all his life.

“You know roughly the direction you’re going in,” said the author of a new book on the history of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry line, “but you don’t know quite what experience you’re going to have along the way. And you don’t know what you’re going to discover at the end of it.”

What Clark refers to as a “quest of discovery” – his new book The Making of MacBrayne – has taken the classical music critic ten years to complete.

HeraldScotland: Deck scene on 1870 Clansman
Deck scene on 1870 Clansman (Image: Andrew Clark: The Making of MacBrayne)

But the author began this quest many years before he ever put pen to paper to write about it.

“I’ve had a fascination with everything to do with the west coast and shipping services since I was a boy when I first went to the Hebrides with my parents,” he said.

“When I was 16, I went on my first journey to the Hebrides on my own, and I was a very young 16-year-old. Nobody thought anything about it. I had a great time.”

The book, published by Ayrshire-based Stenlake publishing, could justifiably be considered a life’s work, aside from his decades-long career in newspapers in London.

The near 500-page tome is a forensic chronology of the storied company, whose red funnels and black and white hulls are the very definition of Scottish seafaring iconography.

HeraldScotland: Captain John MacFarlane (holding lifebelt) with crew of 1888 Fusilier at Oban 1928
Captain John MacFarlane (holding lifebelt) with crew of 1888 Fusilier at Oban 1928 (Image: Andrew Clark: The Making of MacBrayne)

Clark’s painstaking research and investigations saw the writer plunder files at the National Archives of Scotland and National Archives at Kew in London, as well as The Postal Museum, such was his determination to accurately chart the brand’s history.

“The Postal Museum in London was a key factor in the MacBrayne story,” said Clark. “When I went down there and looked at all the MacBrayne files, it was as if nobody had looked at these since they were launched.”

The result of his graft is a supremely detailed account, charting the company’s history and roots back to the mid-1800s. Its subtitle, A Scottish Transport Monopoly Spanning Three Centuries, is an indicator that this is more than a sunny-day seaside reverie on family outings and sturdy little boats. For example, history reveals that the stormy seas CalMac sail on today, with delayed budget-bursting ferries at Ferguson’s yard in Port Glasgow, and the perennial trouble over service shortfalls and marooned island communities, are nothing new.

HeraldScotland: Discharging sheep off car deck of 1964 Hebrides at Uig 1985
Discharging sheep off car deck of 1964 Hebrides at Uig 1985 (Image: Andrew Clark: The Making of MacBrayne)

Clark said: “The more I explored it, the more I realised that the past was relevant to the present. The same themes keep recurring in the history of west coast services. The islanders are never satisfied with the service that they’re given, even though over the years the services have improved beyond measure.

“On the other hand, the more the government takes control, the more inefficient the service becomes, because they enhance the monopoly, and the monopoly is anti-competitive. So, you get civil servants in Edinburgh dictating what should be happening in the islands, who don’t have a feeling for how to run a service efficiently.

“It’s a bureaucracy running a daily service in territories that require knowledge not just of how to run boats, but of the islanders’ needs.”

Yet despite its troubles, a casual affection for the brand nevertheless endures, perhaps more so in the minds of those unimpeded by the everyday impact of its shortcomings. And, of course, through the sepia-haze of personal nostalgia.

Days on Clark’s father’s boat, a 32-foot Bermudan sloop moored off the island of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde north west of their family home in Kilmarnock, saw family and friends sail around the west coast waters during the summer months.

One such trip gave the youngster a shocking close encounter with a MacBrayne steamer that he remembers vividly.

He said: “There was a dinghy to go ashore, and every time we put down anchor, as on this occasion I remember in Tobermory harbour, I would go out on the rowing boat, even as a boy.

“I was very agile in the wooden rowing boat. I would pretend that I was a steamer, or a MacBrayne boat, and I would circle round the harbour.

“One morning in Tobermory bay we were anchored not far from the pier, the whole scene was covered in mist, you could hardly see where you were. I was happily rowing around and then suddenly, almost on top of me, was the MV Claymore, the 1955 mailboat. It was coming in very slowly in the mist trying to find the pier, and here I was. It was almost on top of me. Obviously, I got my engines going quickly. That was a formative experience.”

HeraldScotland: Captain Guy Robertson with crew of the 1998 Clansman at Lochmaddy in 2003
 Captain Guy Robertson with crew of the 1998 Clansman at Lochmaddy in 2003 (Image: Andrew Clark: The Making of MacBrayne)

Clark worked on the MV Kepple as a teenager, ferrying passengers between Largs and Cumbrae. When their family boat was out of the water in Millport for the winter, his father would take him to Greenock’s East India Harbour to see the King George V and St Columba steamers.

“They’d be slumbering next to each other, one with two funnels and one with three, all red with black tops and caps over the funnels to stop the rain getting in over winter. They completely captivated me,” he said. “We did that every winter.”

Clark still sails his 23-foot sailing boat around the waters which so beguiled him as a boy, and travels regularly on today’s ferries around the west coast.

His favourite route, West Loch Tarbert, Kennacraig, to Islay and Colonsay, still feels to him like he’s “entering another world.” Being on the water, he says, still elicits the feelings it did in him as a boy.

He said: “It’s wonderful for the imagination, the senses, and the sense of wellbeing. And the peacefulness of the islands is as restorative as it ever was.”

HeraldScotland: The Making of MacBrayne book cover
 The Making of MacBrayne book cover (Image: Andrew Clark: The Making of MacBrayne)

The Making of MacBrayne is a story Andrew Clark has been writing his whole life, even if he only started ten years ago. The experience of charting these waters has been analogous to a Hebridean sail.

“You’re discovering something about yourself, about the world, and about your native landscape and your native people. And that’s a thrilling experience.”

The Making of MacBrayne by Andrew Clark is out now, published by Stenlake.

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