Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Maritime studies: Caledonian MacBrayne and the reshaping of Hebridean society




Donald E. Meek


One of the most neglected aspects of maritime services to the Hebrides is the impact that such services have had on the society of the islands.  Indeed, it could be said that the whole subject of ‘the ship and island society’ has been absent, by and large, from the discussion.  It can be claimed, fairly, that the focus of such study as there has been has been the ships themselves, overall – the ‘maritime hardware’ rather than the influence and role of that ‘hardware’ in the islands.  Over the years, I have been very much aware of a huge gap in the literature, as well as in the discussion, and that was one of the reasons that Nick Robins and I wrote The Kingdom of MacBrayne.  It was our attempt to provide a more humane, human and socially nuanced view of the subject as a whole.  It was, of course, only a first word; it was not a last word, and my research in the field of maritime services and social change in the Hebrides is far from complete.

In the absence of any significant guiding lights or marker buoys in this treacherous channel, it is hardly surprising that, when service providers are discussed (if ‘discussed’ is the right word), it is usually within a rather narrow focus, and with next to no awareness of overall patterns.  Sometimes, when Caledonian MacBrayne is hitting the headlines, one would think that the so-called ‘problems’ are all new, and that Caledonian MacBrayne is little more than a ‘villain’, a ‘bogey man’, changing this and that, but more frequently not obeying the orders of islanders as quickly or as readily as the islanders would wish.  The islanders want change now, or preferably yesterday.  Often the demands and responses are contradictory and curiously unbalanced, and the service provider is seemingly capable of doing the right thing and the wrong thing at one and the same time.  Islanders growl when there are not enough tourists in the place, and they begin to growl when there are too many tourists of a certain kind, particularly those with camper vans, who suddenly demonstrate to the local authority that there are very few replenishment points in the islands.  Islanders growl when they do not see the plans for a new ship, and they growl when they do, because they haven’t seen them soon enough….and on and on we go!

There is a lack of broader perspective, as well as of longer perspective, in how people approach these matters in the heat of the moment, with the result that, when the ‘feel bad factor’ is in the ascendant, the service provider becomes a ‘whipping boy’, and is blamed for just about everything that has ever happened to the detriment of a community. Nobody gives the slightest thought to how Caledonian MacBrayne fits into the evolving social fabric of the Highlands and Islands since such services began, when the first West Highland steamship, Henry Bell’s Comet, sailed to Fort William on a regular basis in 1819.  She had, of course, already reached Fort William in September 1812.  The role of maritime service-providers relative to ‘change’ across the years, and in response to demand and delivery and much else, hardly ever enters the picture in a balanced or sensitive manner, nor do the lessons that we need to learn from history.  We work with our own immediate sets of prejudices, blinkers, preconceptions – and all too frequently our misconceptions, seeing our own little stressful world and very little else.

The first point I want to make is that ‘social change’ – change in any society, in such a way that ‘ancient traditions’ and ‘old customs’ and ‘time-honoured practices’ gradually disappear, and society is ‘reshaped’ – is an extremely subtle process.  It is caused by many factors.  Most of the time it is hardly visible, because we are all part of it, and contributing to it.   We are all changing the world, in one way or another.  Anyone who thinks that David MacBrayne or Caledonian MacBrayne alone is responsible for such change is, in my view, deluded. Social change is created by a wide variety of processes, each one nudging and complementing the other, gradually making people think differently, reject certain options and choose others.  The building of roads and canals (Telford), demographic manipulation (‘Clearances’), the arrival of crofting, the power and authority of the Protestant evangelical movement – all of these have helped to change the world of the Highlands and Islands in a way that would have been unthinkable to those who lived before 1760 or so. 

On the other hand, and this is my second point, it would be perfectly correct to say that David MacBrayne and Caledonian MacBrayne and other Hebridean shipping  operators have facilitated change.  They have not, however, acted off their own bat to initiate it.  Very frequently they have acted in response to an earlier demand by the community itself, and have provided the vehicle for change.  One of the most graphic statements of ‘demand’ by a Hebridean community that I have come across to date occurs as early as 1837, and was penned by the writer of the North Uist section of the New Statistical Account, who observed acutely and prophetically:

Steam navigation, judiciously arranged and properly conducted, would in some degree supply the want of local manufactures, by affording facilities of export, and of communication with the south.

No regular steam-boats are employed to ply in this quarter: and the failure of the attempts that have been made to establish them has arisen from the circumstances, that the boats were not well fitted for the kind of trade proper to the district.  They should have been adapted to convey cattle, &c., instead of being splendidly fitted up for passengers.

In conjunction with the projected plan of sending cattle and other produce from the West Highlands to the Liverpool and Glasgow markets, were a steam-boat of proper construction for the conveyance of cattle established, to ply during the season alternately, along the west side of Skye, with the Long Island coast, and the east side of Skye with the opposite part of the mainland, – no doubt can exist that the speculation would succeed, and would prove extensively beneficial to these remote quarters.  The great variety of other raw produce that might be exported, and the goods of various kinds required for the overgrown population, would, in a short time, create a trade which must inevitably spur the industry, and promote the comfort of all classes of the inhabitants. 

We can feel the writer’s strong desire that North Uist should not miss out on commercial opportunities being afforded to other parts of Scotland, particularly within the cattle trade.  This aspiration fits in with the philosophy of ‘improvement’ which was a consequence of the Enlightenment, and which was stimulated by the Industrial Revolution.  Because of the Industrial Revolution, and the creation of the steamship, it was possible to bring the ‘outer edges’ of the United Kingdom into closer contact with the ‘energy centres’ of industry and commerce on the mainland.  And those ‘outer edges’ wanted closer contact of that kind – it was not something that was foisted upon intransigent natives in grass kilts by domineering shipping magnates like David Hutcheson or David MacBrayne.  It takes two to tango – the community stimulates the demand, and the service provider responds to the need.  What the service provider does not see, and does not need to see, are the long-term consequences of meeting the need.  These are a matter which has to be taken into account by the community concerned, and by the local authority, and they are often notoriously slow to act – indeed, I would say that the relevant local authorities in the Hebrides have lagged behind Caledonian MacBrayne, and even David MacBrayne, in their common reluctance to enhance operating infrastructures.  The recent moaning and groaning about RET demonstrates that.

Another point that we can note here is the writer’s irritation with existing – or non-existing? – steamship services to North Uist, and the kind of vessels currently in vogue: ‘No regular steamboats’: ‘boats not well fitted for the kind of trade proper to the district’.  The spirit of ‘improvement’ is alive and well in these words too.  ‘Regular steamboats’ are needed; so the message is to improve the schedule.  ‘Well fitted’ boats are required for cattle  - and not the kind ‘splendidly fitted up for passengers’, nor, one might say, the old sailing gabbarts that hauled livestock across to neighbouring islands to pick up the various drove-roads that led to Crieff and Falkirk and other markets.  In other words, improve the design, so that it fits our needs here and now.  The economy needs a boost, and the means to achieve it.  All of this certainly puts the present day into context, as yet another enquiry into Hebridean ferry services tramps its weary way round the islands, and islanders continue to shout for ships that suit their own needs and localities.

The demand for cargo conveyance to and from the islands was significant throughout the nineteenth century, and it did indeed create regular services, centred on Glasgow and reaching as far as St Kilda by 1877.  Islanders were prepared to establish, and invest their money in, their own companies to deliver the services that they wanted.  It was not merely the comfortable writer of the New Statistical Account who wanted improved services – people from the farmer to the shepherd were prepared to put their pounds or pennies to use in share-holding in potential companies.   The difficulty from the beginning was that such services were extremely costly – then as now – and that backers with very considerable sums of money and technical know-how were needed, in addition to the practical goodwill and investment of islanders.  The most durable of these cargo-based services were provided principally by Martin Orme and John McCallum, who were every bit as important as David MacBrayne in their own day.  With the support of major shareholders, and in addition to providing a backbone service for the Inner and Outer Hebrides, including Skye, McCallum and Orme maintained services to St Kilda until 1939, when the Second World War halted shipping in waters west of Lewis. 

St Kilda, in fact, provides a fascinating case study of how shipping services helped to transform the social fabric, and ultimately to determine the fate, of one particular island location.  By means of the steamship, the St Kildans were given new houses (in 1838), a significant place on the tourist map of the British Isles (from 1834), an introduction to a cash-based economy, which they exploited to good effect and with considerable skill, and an opportunity to leave St Kilda to improve their lot in the Lowlands and beyond.  St Kilda was no exception in these respects: improved housing, tourism, a cash economy, and the means to leave the islands came to just about everyone in the Hebrides courtesy of the steamship in the course of the nineteenth century, and David MacBrayne and his successors merely built on that foundation in the course of the twentieth century.  Most importantly, the St Kildans came to depend on the steamship to keep them alive, and what we would now call a ‘lifeline service’ had been developed within ten years of the Dunara Castle’s first call at Village Bay in the summer of 1877.   In a curiously paradoxical way, however, a ‘lifeline service’ became a ‘deathline service’ – the equivalent of the ‘MacBrayne Drain’ in its own time.  The failure of the UK government to provide an updated service for St Kilda in the 1920s contributed a great deal to the eventual evacuation of St Kilda.  Had a proper service for St Kilda been provided by motor-ships like the Lochearn and the Lochmor which appeared in 1930 – the very year that St Kilda was evacuated – the community in Hirta might have lasted for much longer….but here we speculate to some extent.  Even so, we would be foolish not to heed the message.

This brings me to my third point, which may well be the heart of the matter, namely that maritime service providers do have immense power over the future of Hebridean communities.  Depending on how the service provider responds to the demands of the community, he can retard, maintain, encourage or accelerate rates of change.   To a large extent, however, this itself is determined by wider issues, and one of these issues is of particular importance, namely, How much money does the service provider have in the kitty to build ships that can meet the needs of the time?  Usually, the answer is ‘Not enough’, as the cost of upgrading and improving services to the Hebrides, especially in building new ships, is far beyond what an operator can afford.  This is no new thing. 

The general pattern of ‘ups and downs’, poverty traps and fresh starts, is illustrated very clearly by the ‘phases’, so to speak, of David MacBrayne (using the name for the moment as an umbrella term for a mixture of companies).  Broadly, there have been three phases in the life of MacBrayne, according to ship types: (1) The steamship phase, from 1878 to 1930; (2) the motor-ship phase, from 1930 to approximately 1975; and (3) the car-ferry phase, beginning in 1964, but getting into its swing from 1970, with the building of the modern Iona, and continuing to the present. It is very noticeable that the fortunes of MacBrayne have been determined not only by the nature of the company during each phase, but also by wider national attitudes to the company and to the Highlands and Islands during these periods. 

If we look at the first phase, the steamship phase, it seems clear from the evidence that the MacBrayne steamships contributed significantly to the opening of the Hebrides at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, with an emphasis on passengers and tourists, but with some interest in cargo.  The years when old David MacBrayne himself was in charge contributed much to the well-being of the Highlands, with noticeable expansion in the hotel trade and extension of premises.  Ports such as Oban and Mallaig developed in response to the arrival of new steamships and railways – and island facilities began to improve, with the creation of more appropriate piers and landing-stages.   This was a relatively stable phase until the First World War intervened. The period as a whole was one of declining capability for MacBrayne, despite the efforts of David Hope MacBrayne to boost tourism with the grand ship Chieftain, built in 1907, and aimed primarily at the tourist market. Broadly the Highlands and Islands reached a low economic point after the First World War.  The evacuation of St Kilda in 1930 marked the end not only of that island as a viable community, but also the trough of a bad phase in the Hebridean economy generally.  By the 1920s the MacBrayne fleet was bordering on the ancient, investment in the company was low, and eventually, with the wrecking of three major ships, the end of the traditional MacBrayne empire was in sight.    There was little to indicate that the company had the means or intention to revitalise the fleet, though some experimentation was evident in the introduction of a couple of paraffin-engined motor-ships, most notably the Lochinvar of 1908.  Change in the Highlands and Islands was slow – and the point to note here is that the MacBrayne ‘mood-music’ and the economic context of the Hebrides went together.  On the whole, this was a period of maintenance, with an ageing fleet overall, and a ‘poverty trap’.

It is important to note that cargo services were not, in the main, provided by David MacBrayne in this period, but by McCallum and Orme, who maintained the Dunara Castle and the Hebrides until 1948, when the company was taken over by MacBrayne’s.  The Hebrides continued until 1955 under the MacBrayne flag.  The cargo-vessels were, arguably, the real catalysts for social change, as they brought all manner of very practical goods to the islands.

The second phase arrived with the bankruptcy of old-style David MacBrayne at the end of the 1920s, but the company was rescued by Coast Lines and the LMS Railway, under the visionary leadership of Sir Alfred Read, who introduced diesel-engined vessels, including the Lochearn and the Lochmor.   With these developments, the MacBrayne ‘mood-music’ changed significantly, and the condition of the fleet took a giant leap ahead of the overall Highland economy during the period of the depression in the inter-war years.  My own view is that, without the changes instigated by Alfred Read, the Hebrides would have been very seriously affected by the Second World War.  The new ships were not perfect, but they were capable of using their derricks and improved accommodation to good effect, and they helped to preserve the Hebridean population and way of life during the critical years of the 1930s and 1940s.  One indicator of how important these ships were is the fact that neither the Lochearn nor the Lochmor was requisitioned for war service, despite fears that they were on the call-up list.  These vessels provided the back-bone of Hebridean passenger services by sea until the early 1960s – a remarkable achievement – and, before departing to Greece, they were used finally to provide car-carrying support on the Sound of Mull, when existing ships could no longer cope with the increasing number of car-owners who wished to take their vehicles to Mull.  For Phase 2, then, I would argue that investment by Coast Lines and the LMS Railway signalled encouragement, based on Alfred Read’s drastic and essential renewal programme.  This helped to retain the population in the principal islands, and to keep the Hebrides in robust form, during the Second World War. The islands that were not served by MacBrayne in this period – namely St Kilda and Soay off Skye – lost their populations, and that tells you a lot.  The worst ‘drain’ of all occurred when there was no sign of MacBrayne! The ‘diesel and derrick’ model of motor-ship provision, however, became standard, and was already past its peak when the Claymore, the last traditional motor-ship, was launched in 1955.  Both she and the Loch Seaforth (1947) maintained essential services into the early 1970s, for the Inner and Lewis respectively, but they too soon became outmoded.  Another ‘poverty trap’ developed, with the standard consequences.

In the early 1950s, MacBrayne’s built cargo-vessels to replace the older tonnage of McCallum and Orme, namely the Loch Carron of 1951 and the Loch Ard of 1955.  These vessels were state-of-the-art for their time, and contributed immensely to the rebuilding of island life for some twenty-five years.

The third phase, the car-ferry phase, initially overlapped with the era of the traditional motor-ship, but by mid-1976, the surviving motor-ships had vanished.  The stage was set for a massive change in service provision for the islands, with a succession of new car-ferries, from the Iona onwards. When Caledonian MacBrayne was formed in 1973, and especially when Colin Paterson was Managing Director in the 1980s, a revolution in Hebridean sea transport occurred, with a consistent and daring programme of ship replacement. Indeed, the whole network was revamped. The larger car-ferries, with the support of smaller vessels on shorter crossings, became the standard modus operandi, and these provide the main services at the present time. Their arrival has had major consequences for island society, which has been reshaped more markedly in the last thirty years than ever before. 

I would list the principal consequences for island society as follows:

(1)   An enormous increase in vehicle traffic to the islands, both cars and large lorries, as well as extremely large machines and mechanical parts for very specific building projects (e.g. wind turbines)  All of this is testing island infrastructure to its very limits and beyond.  It has very serious implications for island roads, especially in the Inner Hebrides.  It also boosts island economies, and allows essential modern developments to take place, especially in the field of ‘renewable energy’.

(2)   Very large consignments of mainland foodstuffs, leading to further dependence on ‘external’ food sources, and thus reducing still further the self-sufficiency of the islands.

(3)   Facilitation of transporting of cattle and also goods of all kinds.  No more pier-head ‘rodeos’, with crew and pier-hands chasing sheep and cattle – with huge delays on occasions. 

(4)   Withdrawal of ‘old-style’ cargo-boats, most noticeably the Loch Carron (sold in 1976).  ‘Puffer’ traffic also ceased.

(5)   Very regular and reliable schedules to most, though not all, islands, allowing relatively speedy access to and from the islands. Schedules have become much tighter and faster, as a consequence of improved loading methods.  This in itself builds confidence and fosters a sense of reliability.

(6)   A major increase in tourists and tourist-related vehicles, most recently camper vans, following introduction of RET pilots.  LAs need to take action.

(7)   ‘Mainstreaming’ of islands as centres for major sports and cultural events – Wave Classic in Tiree in the autumn, Celtic Festival in Lewis in the summer.  This again promotes a more buoyant economy, with a sense of being at the centre of things.

(8)   Pressure on local authorities to enhance infrastructure to handle the ships and their carryings.  This bears on  roads, piers, storage facilities, and tourist-related facilities.

(9)   Loss of individual island characteristics, e.g. Sabbath regulations in Lewis.  This, as I see it, is a natural extension of ‘road equivalence’; the Lewis people cannot eat their cake and have it.

(10)   A significant improvement in the overall quality of service.  This far exceeds anything prior to 1970. Fashions and styles have changed, from the more formal silver service of the motor-vessel, to the relatively informal cafeterias and Formica-faced restaurants of the car-ferries – but the quality has improved markedly in most respects. 

(11)     An expectation that such quality will be maintained, or even enhanced, as ship follows ship into service.

I would therefore argue that, in the third phase of MacBrayne operations, broadly from 1970 to the present, the trend has been towards leading change, if not accelerating change, in the islands, and helping the islands to prosper in a manner very similar to mainland society.  Such ‘acceleration’ makes its own demands, and in the process Hebridean society is being reshaped quite radically, even as we speak.

To my mind, the most important aspect of the ‘car-ferry revolution’ in the Hebrides is that it has undoubtedly brought the islands even ‘closer’ to the mainland, and has caused them to become more dependent upon it. Arguably, this is not something to lament – but to celebrate, as it has improved the ‘quality of life’ in the islands beyond measure. This means, however, that the standard of provision has to be maintained into the future.  If the quality of the ships is allowed to decline, and the quality of service alongside that, it will have serious consequences for the area.  ‘Lifeline services’ and ‘MacBrayne Drain’ are, unfortunately, two sides of the same coin, and it is vital that the right side of the coin remains uppermost.

I conclude on this note because we are at a critical time in the development of Hebridean maritime services.   Several of the best-known of the larger car-ferries in the fleet are now between 20 and 30 years old, and will require replacements soon.  Yet there is very little sign from Caledonian MacBrayne – and particularly from Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited, which ‘owns’ the fleet on behalf of Scottish Ministers – that a programme of replacement has been created.  This is an extremely serious matter.  A phased programme of major-unit replacement, with an accompanying business and funding plan, is the most important undertaking for any fleet-owning company which takes its responsibilities seriously.  We are now three years into the new structure of Caledonian MacBrayne, but apart from the new ship for Islay, due in 2011, I am not aware that CMAL has taken any significant action in that regard.  Consultations with Local Authorities about the provision of small ferries, reports, and attendance at maritime safety conferences etc. are very much in evidence, but the real business, which I define in the above terms, has yet to appear at the centre of CMAL’s agenda.  That is where it must be – very, very soon.  We must not have a repetition of 1928, or of the tendency to rely on outmoded vessels in the late 1950s-1960s.

Essentially, the contemporary fleet of Caledonian MacBrayne offers lifeline services to the islands, but that is the consequence of ever-improving provision which has led to increasing dependence on the outside world.  Hebridean society has been reshaped by Caledonian MacBrayne and its predecessors over many, many years – of that there can be no doubt whatsoever – but, the pace of change has quickened since 1970, and the islands have grown to expect the ‘gold standard’, and not the old ‘make-do and mend’. The fine services which have come into existence over the past thirty years must be retained in order to ensure a prosperous future for the region.



This paper was written in October 2009, in preparation for a series of lectures which were given by the author in Oban, Lochmaddy, Stornoway and Ullapool in the autumn of 2009 and the spring of 2010.  It is presented as written, without alteration.  It has particular relevance at present, because of the implications for the islands of MV Clansman’s mechanical troubles in June and July 2010, and the Scottish Government’s Consultative Paper on Ferry Services in Scotland.

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