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Bookreview - From Burma to Barra

There can be few people better qualified to write of the recent history of ferries on the west coast of Scotland than Sandy Ferguson. Ferguson was born in Greenock but spent much of his childhood at Carradale, where he decided that he wanted to spend his life at sea. He does not appear to have been exactly ambitious as a boy though and left school without a formal qualification to his name - eventually getting some training as a cadet at James Watt College and then going to sea with the 'British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company'. Reading between the lines it is possible to conclude that it was meeting his wife to be, Rita, at the formative age of 17, that made him focus on building a career, and having eventually obtained a Masters ticket during the course of much colourful world wide travel, he decides that he needs job where he gets to see more of his family. He signs on as Mate with a new, private company, Western Ferries, that was proposing to operate a radical new concept (for the UK), a roll on-roll off (ro-ro)vehicle service to Islay. At that time, MacBrayne's were still using the 'Lochiel' and loading cars via a crane and so unsurprisingly, Western Ferries took virtually all the business, eventually getting a Norwegian yard to build a bigger boat, 'The Sound of Jura'  to accommodate the increase in traffic that ro-ro generated.

The book has some very telling passages - and here is a classic from page 49 - 'Considering that she was built in Norway at exactly the same time as CalMac, or David MacBrayne as it then was, were building the 'Iona' at Troon, the difference between the two was staggering. We tend to be a parochial nation, thinking we know it all, instead of travelling to find out how other countries do things. At that time Norway was miles ahead of the UK when it came to building ro-ro ferries...' There are a lot of people in the ferry industry who would claim that nothing much has changed even today. In 1973 however, Ferguson was to jump ship to work for CalMac, and in the book justifies the move by criticizing the financial and operational management of the private company - illustrating this by pointing out that Western ferries eventually sold the very successful 'Sound of Jura' to Mexico, and were to withdraw from Islay altogether by 1981. Continue reading...Ferguson acknowledges that he is no businessman however, and it it is possible that his lack of commercial experience may explain much of the rest of this fascinating, and often scary, book. The book is essentially a string of stories and seagoing anecdotes, many of which relate to the extended periods Ferguson spent serving the people of Islay. Ileachs will recognise many of the characters that leap from the pages. The chapters are conveniently arranged according to the CalMac ships he commands, but it is soon difficult to avoid coming to  the conclusion that the much of fleet in those days was downright dangerous. The first CalMac boat he commands, the 'Loch Arkaig' sank twice, the second and final time in the Med after CalMac had just sold her to some Greeks with the loss of two lives. Apparently she was wooden, and leaked a lot. The second, the 'Arran', was a bodged ex-Clyde conversion whose propellers cavitated when going astern. This disconcerting fact eventually results in a serious accident at Port Ellen pier and if this wasn't bad enough, her starboard rudder was later to fall off on passage.

Engine room communications on the 'Glen Sannox' were so bad that, after one incident when the ship overshot Port Askaig and ended up in Bunnahabhain, Ferguson declares: 'Had it occurred in the restricted confines of Port Ellen, I could have ended up preaching in the pulpit of the village church, complete with ship!' The old 'Clansman' is described as so underpowered that her captain Kenny MacPherson declares that: 'I will not do one more run across there in that thing'. The 'Hebrides', 'Columba' and 'Clansman', all built for MacBrayne, are described as:'almost unmanageable at times' and 'frequently turned through 360 degrees without warning, as they just would not respond to the helm.' The central message here is surely that CalMac have been able to maintain their extraordinary safety record purely because of the quality and dedication of their crews who have somehow nursed their assemblage of dodgy steamers through some of the trickiest waters on the planet. CalMac skippers are not affectionately called 'Rock-Dodgers' for nothing.

Captain Ferguson comes across as a salty, no nonsense sort of fellow and the last couple of chapters chronicle his eventual promotion to 'Marine Superintendent' at CalMac working under Managing Director Colin Paterson. Sadly, his relationship with his superiors was not to survive Paterson's departure, although he still defiantly describes himself as 'CalMac through and through.... CalMac have wonderful masters, officers and crews and are proud of their phenomenal safety record. They give fantastic service to the people of the Western Isles of Scotland and nothing should be done in the future by the Government or EU that would jeopardise that service by Caledonian MacBrayne.' The book is a valuable addition to the folk history of the Western Isles and should join Walter Weyndling's fascinating account of maritime business conducted on the West Coast on the shelves of many Ilich. Carl Reavey

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach Newspaper.

Tag: calmac book review ferry history

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