Sound of Islay Ferry (history of)

In the mid 1960’s the islands on the west coast of Scotland were served by two kinds of vessels; mail ferries operated by David MacBrayne Ltd and 'puffers' - small bulk cargo vessels capable of landing at simple piers or on the beach to discharge coal, lime etc. MacBrayne’s also operated a number of cargo vessels out of Glasgow. None of these vessels was equipped to deal with road transport.

The three car ferries owned by MacBrayne's were all side-loading and not suited to carrying the sharply increasing growth in tourist traffic or commercial vehicles. In 1966 three people engaged in contracting work on the west coast decided to set up the Eileann sea service. With the help of an HIDB loan the vessel Isle of Gigha was constructed and started operation in the middle of the seaman's strike. But in November the ship capsized and this put the company in financial difficulty.....

If anything further were to happen, more money and technical back-up were needed. A group of Scottish businessmen having special interest in shipping and haulage matters, many of whom also had local interest in Islay and Jura, subscribed £100,000 capital and Western Ferries was set up. The Sound of Islay was ordered from Ferguson Brothers of Port Glasgow. She was designed to carry 20 cars or a combination of cars and commercial vehicles. She was launched amid a storm of derision.

Trading began on April 7th 1968 between Kennacraig, West Loch Tarbert and Islay. The service provided a new facility (roll-on roll-off), it operated twice as frequently as the existing boat to Islay, and it offered lower rates without the benefit of subsidy. Unlike its competitor, it operated seven days a week, at night if required, and was punctual. It was immediately successful not only in taking the traffic which had formerly used mail or cargo services but also in converting much of the bulk trade which had formerly travelled in 'puffers' to using trailers, thus saving on time, handling, breakage, pilferage and port dues. Also lower rates meant a general increase in trade and the volume was such that a larger and faster vessel was required.

The Sound of Jura had to be ordered from Norway. She came into operation in 1969 with three sailings a day. The capital of the company was increased to £250,000. Western Ferries had already formed a very close working relationship with a local haulier. He opened depots near both ferry terminals so that trailers could be moved on and off the vessels quickly without drivers and tractors units having to cross with them. He provided a parcel service as well as bulk service, and with dedication, grass roots expertise and low rates he built a thriving business.

At the beginning of 1969 the Port Askaig (Islay) Feolin (Jura) service began, a high frequency service across a short stretch of water with a landing craft type vessel (the Isle of Gigha now modified and renamed Sound of Gigha, capable of carrying the largest commercial vehicle permitted on the road, or six cars). This effectively joined Islay and Jura and increased the traffic to the mainland. Jura was now served by three through sailings a day instead of three per week and both islands could now enjoy things which had been luxuries so far, like fresh fruit.

In 1970, the Sound of Islay commenced the Campbeltown (Scotland) to Red Bay (Northern Ireland) service and was successful with the initial help of a cement strike in Ireland and a dock strike in England. Attempts to keep up a winter service, primarily with timber, were unsuccessful. The ship continued to operate a summer service until 1973 and spent the winter on charter work all up and down the West Coast carrying every conceivable kind of cargo provided it was legal. She acted as relief vessel to Islay when the Sound of Jura was going to drydock.

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