So imagine my grief when driving down the coast road from Largs with still a few miles to go, when I spotted my would-be ship Isle of Arran departing Ardrossan and heading out into a distinctly gloomy if not downright stormy Firth of Clyde.
Gathering my wits, I double checked the sailing time – over an hour yet, if my 24 hour-clock arithmetic wasn’t way out. But, I wondered, was she just clearing the harbour temporarily for the Caledonian Isles to come in from Arran on her regular run from Brodick? And thankfully that was the case, Caledonian Isles docked while Isle of Arran hove to amongst the rain squalls and Firth of Clyde chop until she was able to come in again.
In fact, when not on the Campbeltown run, she seemed to be taking turns on the Arran route herself, the run for which she was built back in ’84 until replaced by Caledonian Isles in ’93. She was – I believe the term is - cascaded, moved down the pecking order of routes, ultimately becoming a spare ship, though every year it is obvious how important that role is. For three years of the Campbeltown Ferry trial from the end of April through to the end of September, Isle of Arran has delivered the Ardrossan-Campbeltown route. This year she sailed out from Ardrossan to Campbeltown, way down there on the Mull of Kintyre, on Thursday evening with a day return voyage from Campbeltown on the Friday and a single voyage back to Ardrossan on the Saturday calling at Brodick. On Sunday, there was a return voyage from Ardrossan.
As I thought about it, I realised this run is unique in the UK: a serious ferry link (not just a vehicle shuttle) between two parts of the UK mainland. But it makes much sense given any scrutiny of the geography. There was a regular passenger-cargo link until 1939 and for decades before that a direct Glasgow- Campbeltown ship.
Today’s service means a voyage between Campbeltown and Ardrossan of around 34 miles across the Firth. At Ardrossan it is only another 34 or so miles on good easy roads to Glasgow and there are frequent trains to Glasgow Central for foot passengers. However, to drive to Glasgow from Campbeltown out on the bottom end of Kintyre is a tedious and tortuous 138 miles on ever busier roads, shared with slow and cumbersome articulated trucks, around the top of Lochs Fyne, Long and Lomond. So it is easy to see why the Kintyre community and local businesses are vociferous in their campaign to retain the ferry link and make it permanent.
I was to witness more of this heartfelt support for their ship later, but meanwhile as the choppy waters of the Firth slopped over the Ardrossan breakwaters, the Caledonian Isles was back on her way to Brodick and Isle of Arran and came expertly through the narrow entrance and spun hard to starboard to dock bow on to the link span. She rapidly took aboard 20 vehicles and a 100 passengers, many of them ‘walk on’ having come by train or left their car at Ardrossan. She sailed precisely on time and, after safety instructions, the passengers quickly settled down into the warm comfortable lounges. The friendly staff were ready to serve an excellent range of hearty food served up as the Ayrshire shore receded into the night, Ailsa Craig just visible in the murk to the west as storm clouds rolled over us. The ship, howeve, was very steady, apparently sheltered by the bulk of Arran and the Kintyre peninsula in her path.
Thirty minutes into the voyage and a passing shadowy presence became apparent in the disappearing evening light and I realised it was the Troon – Larne P&O fast-ferry Express on her way to Larne. I reckoned she might have a lively time of it once further out toward the North Channel. She herself is in her last season on this run.
As the Ayrshire shore receded the Pladda light at the tip of Arran and the Davaar Island light ahead were only intermittently visible between dense rain squalls and low cloud which blocked out the moon. Going on deck was an expedition needing arctic protective gear. It occurred to me that this two and a half hour voyage in comfort was in place of what that night would have been a horrific and potentially dangerous over 3 hour drive from Glasgow which included mountain passes.
Oblivious to the bleak night outside, the well fed and refreshed passengers in the lounges were a chatty and interesting mix with a variety of reasons for making the voyage. A couple with a camper van had purposely taken ship to start at Kintyre on their three week exploration up the West Coast of Scotland, heading for Skye and Ullapool after a few days. Another large group had taken holiday accommodation near Campbeltown as they had done for three years, expressly because the ferry avoided that long diffi cult drive with travel sick children in uncomfortable overloaded cars. A walk-on trio of mother and two children from Glasgow were visiting parents in Campbeltown, her home town, for the last weekend before the ferry fi nished for the year.