The Sinking of Islay Ferry Lochiel

Robert Holden recalls the sinking of the MV 'Lochiel’ fifty years on for the Ileach, a fascinating story I might add.

It came as a shock to realise that Lochiel sank fifty years ago last October. I remember so much of it quite distinctly, since, as Max Boyce was wont to say 'I know, for I was there!' and quite a day it was. It had been a quiet crossing from Port Askaig. Shortly after entering West Loch Tarbert I was sitting comfortably in the main saloon beside a lady who was quietly knitting while I wrestled with the Herald crossword. Suddenly, but undramatically, the Lochiel did a leisurely, grinding roll to port for about twenty seconds, then stopped. We looked at each other; 'Golly, they’re cutting it a bit fine!' I said, 'maybe I should go and see what’s happening', and went down the companionway to the first class bar – against the rules, as I was a steerage passenger- and asked two of the crew who were standing there what was going on. 'We’re just waiting on the bar opening' said one. 'Aw, come on' I said, 'what’s happening?' 'We’re sinking' said he, and pulled open the door to the engine room below to show the engines with West Loch water swilling around them.

Then the engines got going again for a bit, and we sailed on for a mile or two until the sea engulfed them and we drifted gently into Escart(?) Bay, and settled quietly as the keel touched bottom. There was no panic, as it was obvious the main deck would stay above water, so the crew issued life-jackets, got the lifeboats launched, and started ferrying the passengers ashore. One of the boats was engined, the other was oars alone. Continue reading....

'Maybe you should get your stuff out of your van' said one of the crew, 'it’ll certainly go under', so I went below for my bag, and spotted the pen of sheep which had been driven aboard before we sailed. 'What about the sheep?' I asked when I got back to the main deck. 'Oh knickers' (or some such!) was the response, 'we forgot about them' –understandably, since they had over a hundred souls to care for – and sent a couple of the crew below to open the cargo doors and push the sheep out to take their chance. It’s hard to remember how far we were from the shore, but it can’t have been much more than two hundred yards (OK, I’m ancient, metres: to say half a cable would mean even less now!). Some of the sheep went for the shore, and some circled around aimlessly and climbed on to the bumper strake on the ship further aft, which was still above water, but quite a few were drowned. I heard one tale which ran that the sheep scampered around the main deck causing mayhem, but that just didn’t happen. Nor did the canard that the cabin crew went around liberally dispensing the contents of the bar until they were finished; if they did, I missed out on it!

The lifeboat with the engine did one run ashore then it gave up the ghost, and the crew –and some of the passengers- rowed back and forth on both boats until everybody was safely on terra firma. On the way in anyone with an available hand would grab a sheep by a horn if it was within reach, and tow it on to the shore. The life-jackets were of the old, massive cork-slab variety, and by the time you got them on what you couldn’t do was move around unencumbered; and you looked a fitting partner for a dalek. But we managed, though I remember helping a well retired old gentleman to get his fitted, and it took ages; but by the time I got him sorted out, I found it easier to deal with my own, and there was no hurry anyway. We weren’t going anywhere fast. And we had stopped going down.

The MV ‘Lochiel’ docked at Port Ellen pier

One episode does stick in my mind, perhaps because I always felt the two-class ticket system was a bit feudal, but when we were boarding the lifeboats the instruction from the crew was ‘Strictly personal luggage only’. And I think the man in charge of the one I was due to go on was the ship’s carpenter (though if I get taken to court over this I’ll deny everything!). The passenger before me had just been on a shooting spree at Ardfin –or Jura House as it is now called- fully kitted out in tweed knicker-bockers and surrounded by his ‘personal luggage’. He ignored the instructions and threw down a big haunch of venison, all sewn up in hessian sacking. Alan calmly picked it up and threw it overboard. 'Personal luggage only!' he said.

The shooter was just handing down a pair of guns in a case when this happened, and I can tell you they were hurriedly withdrawn and placed on the pile for later shipment. I have often wondered since what would have happened if the pair of Purdeys had followed the haunch. Or if I just dreamt that. If I did, I still remember it. Curiously, I had left my large tool bag on deck, with a chunk of venison on top of it (just in a polythene bag!), which I recovered next day. But the venison was gone. Later in the week I went back at low tide and just managed to retrieve my ladders from the roof of the van, and that was it. MacBrayne’s disclaimer form absolved them from any liability for the van – which was less than three months old – but my insurance company settled the case very fairly, and even left my no-claim discount intact!

On Sunday I took my three young boys down to let them see the Lochiel, still and forlorn, with only the bridge and afterdeck showing. The boys went silent at the sight of her, for they had sailed in her just once to Islay. And I have to admit I wept. Of course she was lifted, and renovated, and came back for quite a few more years. She finished her last sailing years as a ferry between Fleetwood and the Isle of Man for a short time, then retired to end her days as a Café/bar tied up in Bristol, before she was broken up for scrap. And her skipper on that fateful day, a relief Captain while the regular skipper was off, ended his days sailing Lochaline pier.

Tag: lochiel ferry history