Wednesday, 19 February 2014


Donald E. Meek


Having recoiled in horror at the sight of Serco NorthLink’s Hamnavoe leaving the Mersey with a totally new ‘paint job’, which features a supposed Viking warrior as its main image,  I found myself reflecting on the use of brands and logos on Scotland’s ferries.  My interest was stimulated further by reading a sharply perceptive article in Ferry & Cruise Yearbook 2014 by George Holland on ‘The ferry branding game’ in the English Channel.  Holland shows how Otto Thoresen began the fashion, which was soon followed by Stuart Townsend.  The practice was consolidated in Townsend’s purchase of Thoresen in 1968.  From then on, other Channel operators, most noticeably British Rail and then Sealink (the maritime arm of BR, later bought by Sea Containers), developed their brands.   As Holland points out, the succession of brands and logos does more than show the various competitions, mergers and demergers on the Channel services.  The brands and logos also carry messages, almost subliminally, about the operator’s qualities.  These messages can be extrapolated at the time of applying the brand or logo, but also in their later contexts.  Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, they can be ‘read back’ as a ‘statement’ of performance, as, for example, with the undulations in the waving livery and brand of LD Lines, a company which has had many ups and downs!  In the case of LD Lines, the brand merges into the colours and paint-design of the hull.

NorthLink ships until now have been distinguished by their light blue hulls and white upper structures, with funnels in white, blending with the superstructure.  The brand ‘NorthLink’ has been carried on the sides in a tastefully unobtrusive, but very conspicuous, manner.  This was introduced when Caledonian MacBrayne took over the running of the Northern Isles services, following the ending of the earlier P & O service and the introduction of three new purpose-built vessels.

Serco, the operator since 2012, has now adopted a radically different livery, with all-white hull and blue boot-topping, with a very large image of a made-up Viking warrior, pointing forwards to the bow with outstretched, raised left arm and index finger.  The warrior is the logo.  The NorthLink name, the brand, is on the forward part of the hull, and is somewhat eclipsed by the proportionately immense scale of the logo.  What does this tell us about Serco and its intentions at this stage?


First, it is evident that Serco wants to be seen as ‘the new lad on the block’.  It wants to break with the older NorthLink practice, and introduce a new era in ferry services for the Northern Isles.  The predominance of white suggests a fresh start, a carte blanche on which only Serco has written its name.  Communities will have to work with the implications of this, as will Serco.  Continuity is important in the minds of island communities, where tradition and custom tend to linger.  Serco’s livery underlines, and even accentuates, the very considerable changes in service operators which have occurred in the Northern Isles sector since 2000, and the assigning of the franchise to Serco, which had no previous familiarity with these routes or indeed with operating seagoing ferries of that kind, is arguably the most decisive and thought-provoking change to date.

Second, it is clear that Serco wishes to emphasise the distinctive cultural heritage of the Northern Isles.  The islands’ links with Nordic communities, and ancient and modern connections with these communities across the North Sea, are well known.  Serco clearly sees this as an opportunity to champion the distinctiveness of the region which it serves, and at the same time to make a statement about its own relationship to that culture.  This is perhaps the contradictory point.  Serco is trying to be ‘the new lad on the block’, but also to persuade us that it is part of the area, integral to its culture and perhaps even to the survival of that culture.  The ‘new lad’ is also the ‘old lad’, aware of his heritage, and promoting it vigorously.

However, Serco is also buying into the concept of the ‘invented Viking’, complete with horns on his helmet – one of the best-known images of the imagined Viking.  The invention of the ‘cartoon Viking’ goes back to the nineteenth century, when Dasent and others, including Sir Walter Scott, brought Norse sagas into popular prominence.  This, therefore, is a na├»ve image, which is closer to the ‘trolls’ and ‘gonks’ of Norway than to real history.  Serco thus panders to the popular, slapstick mindset of external perceptions of the Northern Isles.  Whether Orcadians and Shetlanders think of their ancestors in that way or not, the image is a pervasive one, hard to eradicate from the popular mind.  Serco thus reinforces cultural distinctiveness at the risk of retaining a distortion of historical fact.   It has obviously concluded that the risk is worth the money.

Serco’s corporate brand, with such a stark image, is without precedent among the ferry operators of the UK.  It eclipses Silja Line’s gutless seal on Baltic ferries, and, for a comparable image, we have to look to Moby Lines, operating in the Mediterranean.  Moby is ‘the pioneer of truly wacky paint schemes’, according to George Holland.  Their initial whale motif (from ‘Moby Dick’), as Holland says, has been almost completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of the ‘Looney Tunes’ characters of Warner Brothers, painted in happy configurations on every hull, with different configurations and selections on each hull. ‘Their [the ships’] elegant lines,’ writes Holland, ‘are utterly bombarded by the madcap cartoon creations.’  This, as Holland notes, is ‘outrageous…yet is instantly identifiable as Moby’.


It can certainly be said that Serco is breaking the mould, and that its motif, the Viking warrior, is ‘instantly identifiable as Serco’ – with horns on.  By contrast, of course, Serco’s use of a single image is restrained compared with the ‘crowd’ on some Moby hulls.  What observers like me find initially ‘shocking’ is the enormous size of the massive blue Viking, which seems to be out of all proportion to the rest of the hull.  Gone, in an explosion of white paint reminiscent of a Mr Bean film on how to get your painting done in one mighty blast, are the distinctive sections and levels of a ship’s configuration – the waterline and below, the hull above the waterline, the decks above the hull.   The only concession to ‘hull differences’ is in the section below the belting, which merges into the boot-topping, and is blue (and may be expected to show less rust on this particularly rust-prone part of the ship).  Otherwise, the hull is white, and the Viking image rules all, in what immediately strikes the ‘traditionalist’ as a gauchely oversized manner, positioned where there is the greatest depth of white ‘wall’, inclusive of the funnel on each side.


The use of iconic warrior-images in the context of Scottish shipping is not, however, new.  David MacBrayne in the nineteenth century, as well as several other operators, made much play of the ‘romantic Highlander’, who appeared as a finely-crafted figurehead on their steamships.  The tradition of carrying a figurehead of this kind was, of course, a continuation from the days of sail, when images of worthy and not-so-worthy ladies were carried on the stems below the bowsprit, and often seemingly supporting the bowsprit.  Its accommodation to elegant steamships was particularly appropriate on yacht-like MacBrayne vessels with names such as Clansman, Claymore, and Chieftain, which could carry sail to some extent to supplement the engines.  The Highlander might be considered a MacBrayne logo in such a context.  However, other owners too made use of the Highlander as a figurehead.   When the Western Isles Steam Packet Company advertised the services of its first ship, the St Clair of the Isles, in 1873, they made much of the figurehead:

Her figurehead is a Highlander in full costume – blue bonnet with feather, dark-green jacket, Stewart tartan plaid fastened at the shoulder with a gold brooch, his right hand is brought across his breast as if in the act of making for his claymore, on which his left hand is laid, and his face looks as if he were in earnest.

The steamship Davaar, owned by the Clyde and Campbeltown Shipping Company, and also the Kinloch, likewise carried a splendid figureheads of a Highlander on their bows.


As with the Serco Viking, the Highland warrior was intended to indicate that the ships served a region with a distinctive culture, that of the great fighting hero, likewise romanticised by writers such as Sir Walter Scott.  It was not, however, the monopoly of any single company.  It was part of the prevailing Zeitgeist.


The image of the romantic, kilted Highlander continued into the more modern fleet, and was remade for new times and needs.  After the Second World War, the ‘brawny-kneed Highlander’, as I have often called him, was resurrected as a figure embossed on a metal rectangle.  He carried a targe, and thrust a sword skywards with his right arm.  Reshaped and in every sense refashioned, the image was romantically appealing, with a colourful kilt and plaid, but it was also essentially masculine and macho, astride a Scottish mountain and piercing the sky with his powerful ‘claymore’.  Displayed in colour in relief on a gold-edged plaque, the new-styled MacBrayne Highlander appeared as a quasi-figurehead on the bows of the 1947 Loch Seaforth and the 1955 Claymore.  With a quiet, powerful dignity, devoid of undue flamboyance, he carried the message of ‘MacBrayne for the Highlands and Islands’, although he represented pre-eminently the romantic Highlands, which won the hearts and money of successive generations of tourists.


The ‘brawny-kneed warrior’ appeared on MacBrayne’s advertising material, on the covers of brochures, pamphlets, timetables and pre-eminently posters.  He could become a multiple image, with a clutch of kilted men, represented at their jingoistic best as bearers of flags, in the assertive, identity-conscious MacBrayne literature of the 1930s, in the run-up to the Second World War.  Since then, he has appeared on a small roundel on the bows of both the Clansman (1998) and the Hebrides (2001), and he has also had a new life as the computer-crafted logo of David MacBrayne Ltd, the holding-company of the various operating bodies created after the demerger of 2006.

The major change, however, which the Serco warrior represents in dramatic style, is the increasing use of the ship itself as the advertising opportunity, a floating set of hoardings, with sides ready to win customers in the post-1980 consumerist era, already foreshadowed by cut-throat competition in the Channel in the previous decade.  Ship sides are now utilised to carry the strongest possible ‘short statement’ about the operator’s identity, qualities and intentions, and make the world aware that ‘he’ is there, in the fight for money.

The danger, of course, is that the ‘statement’ can be read in ways that the creators and the operators did not intend, especially if it is largely ‘wordless’ and consists solely of a logo or image.   Although the Serco image points its index finger to the future and to NorthLink, it can make connections (in the minds of some) with the distant past, but unfortunately (in the minds of others) with the more recent past. The domineering pose of the Serco Viking, with outstretched arm, can recall Leif Ericsson, the Viking ‘explorer’ of Vinland sagas, but it can also connote the famous Kitchener poster of the First World War.  More worryingly, it can remind some of us of the dictators of the Second World War and their later successors.   Indeed, one may be forgiven for feeling a frisson of fear, when a symbol which might be construed as one of aggressive, militaristic domination presides over a hull which is almost entirely white.


Brands, based on words, are less dangerous in this respect than images, but even they can take ‘a bit of getting used to’. The earliest use of the owner’s brand on a vessel’s side that I witnessed in Scotland was the promotion of EILEAN SEA SERVICES on the revolutionary Isle of Gigha, a very basic LCT-type ferry which arrived in Oban in the early summer of 1966, and began to convey cars to Mull when the MacBrayne vessels of the time were tied up because of the seamen’s strike.

Later, when the Isle of Gigha was transferred to the ownership of Western Ferries (Argyll) Ltd and became the Sound of Gigha, it carried the owners’ ‘circle and arrows’ motif on its bows.  This unobtrusive logo was a very neat summary of this pioneering company’s intention to employ and develop roll-on, roll-off principles in the Hebridean ferry trade.


A much more overt use of the ship-borne brand as the operator’s ‘ID statement’ arrived in northern Scottish waters from the Channel in the context of state-operated services, most obviously on the ships of Caledonian MacBrayne, which began to carry the brand name from 1983. This, at the time, was a massive change from the plain black hulls, with red boot-topping and white superstructures and varnished deck-houses, characteristic of ‘all time previously’.  It was also largely pointless, as there was no meaningful competition which justified such a bold proclamation  – nor is there still (as with NorthLink).  I well remember the shock of seeing the 1964 car-ferry Columba, with her sides plastered with CALEDONIAN MACBRAYNE in large letters for the first time.  My reaction was not unlike my reaction to the new Serco warrior – ‘horrid, disgraceful, disfiguring, desecration writ large’.


The ‘writing on the wall’, of course, became the standard practice on Caledonian MacBrayne ships.  The brand has been written in variations of Californian 1b font on most ships’ sides, with exceptions only in instances where the ships were too small to carry the brand comfortably.

In due time, we all came to accept the ‘bill-boarding’, just as we came to accept car-ferries themselves, which were also a ‘shocker’ to some conservative souls long familiar with the derrick-swinging motor-ship. 

Should we now be preparing for the re-emergence of the ‘brawny-kneed Highlander’ in ultimate grandeur, perhaps in ‘full fig’ after the next contract for the provision of CalMac services has been settled? 


A lot will depend on who the new operator will be, and how much latitude is granted by CMAL in remaking the brand.  But perhaps even more will depend on the endurance of Serco’s new Viking warrior, as he battles with the Pentland Firth and the Merry Men of Mey.  If he becomes no more than a rust-scarred shadow of his former Mersey majesty within six weeks of sallying forth into the Swelkie, few will be surprised, and he may well contribute to the sinking of such iconic adventures in corporate identity.   The hulls of ships operating in the stormy waters of the Hebrides and Northern Isles were painted in dark colours, not because of some northern gloom in the minds of the owners, but because the owners knew full well what salt water did to metal.

If he survives the tempests and remains unsullied, rustless and pure, it may be that even the ‘traditionalists’ will come to regard him as yet another ‘old friend’.  Perhaps he may become the template for the return of the brawny-kneed Highlander to Hebridean ferries – painted in full glory on their sides!