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Rare Ferry Routes with CalMac

By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries |

Practical Info

The Scottish island of Harris has not had any direct ferry link from Uig in Skye since the CalMac vessel MV Hebrides ran aground on 25 September (photo © hidden europe).

The Scottish island of Harris has not had any direct ferry link from Uig in Skye since the CalMac vessel MV Hebrides ran aground on 25 September (photo © hidden europe).

Update (29.9.16)

Since we published this piece early on Wednesday 28 September, there have been some big changes. CalMac now plan that the Clansman will provide relief coverage on the Uig Triangle, instead of MV Lord of the Isles (LOTI). So LOTI will pick up the usual Clansman routes from Oban to Coll and Tiree (extending on Wednesdays to Barra and back). That will mean no sailings on LOTI's regular route from Mallaig to Lochboisdale and reduced capacity on the Mallaig to Armadale route.

CalMac has further amended the timetable for 29 September, so that the proposed 11.00 sailing from Lochboisdale to Uig has now been cancelled. However, some even more extraordinary routes are now on offer today. MV Isle of Lewis will now sail from Castlebay to Uig at 13.00, along the way skirting the west coast of Skye and passing Dunvegan Head.

Meanwhile, MV Clansman will also travel up the west side of Skye today, on a rare non-stop run from Oban to Lochmaddy. Departure from Oban is at 11.00 and arrival in North Uist at 18.00. From Lochmaddy, the Clansman will track back across The Little Minch to Uig then sail to Tarbert (Harris) where she is due to arrive at 22.25.  This Clansman adventure surely rates as one of the most interesting CalMac sailings of recent years.

Is there a nautical equivalent of the track basher? Are there ferry enthusiasts who book to travel on unusual ferry routes in much the same way as track bashers roam the rail network bagging rare track, ie. railway lines served only very rarely by scheduled rail services? September has been a good month for collectors of unusual ferry routes in the Hebrides – though unseasonal stormy weather has also made it a trying month for both CalMac and their passengers with numerous sailings cancelled due to unusually strong winds.

Unusual routings on MV Clansman

On 14 September, Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV Clansman made an unusual non-stop run between the Scottish islands of Barra and Coll, routing via the eastern end of Coll to reach the pier on the west side of Loch Eatharna. On her weekly foray to the Outer Hebrides (which is a feature of the timetables from late March to late October), the Clansman normally runs from Coll to Barra and back with an intermediate stop in both directions at Tiree. But on 14 September, when we travelled from Barra to Coll, the timetable was tweaked on account of cattle sales in Tiree, giving the rare pleasure of a non-stop run from Barra to Coll.

Last Wednesday (21 September), the weekly excursion of the Clansman to Barra was cancelled altogether, with the vessel being used on a non-stop run from Oban to Lochboisdale (on the island of South Uist) and back. That’s a route which was dropped from the CalMac schedules in March this year, although it will reappear as a twice-weekly service (operated by MV Lord of the Isles) from late October. The 21 September sailing from Oban to Lochboisdale and back with MV Clansman was laid on to accommodate extra traffic associated with the Uist cattle sales.

Today’s weekly sailing by MV Clansman from Oban to Barra and back via Coll and Tiree has been cancelled due to high winds, as have the direct sailings from Barra to Oban and back on MV Isle of Lewis.

LOTI helps out at Uig

Tomorrow sees an extremely rare sailing for MV Lord of the Isles, a handsome ship which regular users often simply call LOTI. She is being pulled off the Lochboisdale to Mallaig route to provide cover on the Uig Triangle (ie. the routes running to the Outer Hebrides from Uig, a port on the west side of the Trotternish peninsula in northern Skye). The vessel which normally serves the routes from Uig to Tarbert (Harris) and Lochmaddy (North Uist) is the MV Hebrides, which sadly ran aground last Sunday while approaching the linkspan at Lochmaddy. So with MV Hebrides now heading off to Gourock for repairs, the Lord of the Isles is making a guest appearance on the Uig Triangle.

The Lord of the Isles is scheduled to sail from Lochboisdale at 11.00 tomorrow morning, with a passage time of just over three hours to Uig. It’ll be a rare chance to sail through waters that don’t feature in regular CalMac schedules. Her route will track up the east side of South Uist, affording (if it’s a clear day) fine views of Beinn Mhòr and Hecla off the port side. She’ll then head north-east past Dunvegan Head and Waternish Point to reach Loch Snizort. This will be the first time for many years that ferry enthusiasts have the chance to snap a CalMac ferry just off Dunvegan Head.

It will be interesting to see how long MV Lord of the Isles provides relief at Uig. The Lochboisdale crowd will surely protest at the loss of their vessel and the cancellation of direct sailings from Lochboisdale to the Scottish mainland. We just wonder if MV Isle of Lewis – which nowadays doesn’t run to Lewis at all but serves the Oban to Castlebay (Barra) route – might make a few trips to Lochboisdale to help plug the gap. She often overnights in Barra and there is enough slack in her schedule to add in a Lochboisdale call on some sailings.

That’s one to watch, as direct sailings from Castlebay to Lochboisdale (and vice versa) were dropped from the regular schedules in March this year. So that route must now surely count as the marine equivalent of rare track.

Getting updates on CalMac service changes

CalMac is superb in updating the service status information on its website, and that’s the place to look for detailed information on cancelled or amended sailings. It’s worth bearing in mind that a number of websites sell through rail-sea tickets to Hebridean ports, and these are not normally updated with current timetable information. So some are still selling tickets for a rail-sea journey tomorrow from Glasgow to Lochboisdale via Mallaig, when there will in fact be no CalMac sailing from Mallaig to Lochboisdale on account of the MV Lord of the Isles providing relief duty on the Uig to Lochmaddy route.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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