It was the summer of 1970 and we were on an island hopping holiday on Scotland’s West Coast. It was on one leg of this trip that we first encountered Loch Seaforth. (The Scottish Gaelic is Loch Shiphoirt and is translated as ‘sea loch’.) Aboard our Honda 175 motorbike, we had climbed out of Tarbert on Harris and were making our way towards Stornaway on Lewis, when we looked down on the cloud shrouded loch – the view was breath-taking!
A few days later we crossed back to the Mainland, and as our bike was carefully lowered onto the diminutive ‘Vital Spark’ for transit to Applecross, we came across Loch Seaforth at the pier in Kyle of Lochalsh. From that you will gather, Loch Seaforth is not just a sea loch between Harris and Lewis, it is also the name of a MacBrayne mailboat which linked Stornoway with Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh from 1947 until 1972. She is regarded by many as the greatest of the motor-driven mailboats built for David MacBrayne Ltd and is especially remembered for her reliability of service and the wit and warmth of her crew. There was just one issue, she appeared to become accident prone and it was this fact that led to her premature demise.
To the surprise of many she was withdrawn from the Stornoway route in January 1972 to serve on the Oban-Coll-Tiree-Castlebay-Lochboisdale run in place of the ‘Claymore’. Sadly her days were numbered. On the night of 22 March 1973 she left Lochboisdale, South Uist, and made her way across the Minch. The weather conditions were ‘somewhat boisterous’ leading to what one passenger described as a ‘rough crossing’. By the time she entered the Gunna Sound between Coll and Tiree, the wind had moderated and the sea was ‘slight’. At 5.15 am on the morning of the 23rd, her death knell was struck when she came to a juddering halt on a skerry at the tip of Tiree. Thankfully, no lives were lost. Later that day the tug ‘Courier’ towed the Loch Seaforth off the rocks and brought her eventually alongside the pier in Gott Bay. The captain wanted her beached but he was overruled. The following morning the vessel sank blocking most of the pier for six weeks. Passengers could embark and disembark from a small boat from the slip beside the pier, but the movement of cattle and vehicles was almost impossible for most of that time. The Loch Seaforth never saw service again. Seven weeks later, having been declared a total loss, she was refloated, patched up and towed to Troon on the Clyde where she was scrapped. So the Isle of Tiree features in the life and death of the Loch Seaforth.
A new era is dawning, with the arrival of a a new Calmac ferry built in 2013 specifically for the Ullapool to Stornoway crossing. Built at Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft MBH and Co KG – Flensburg, Germany at a cost of £41.8m, the MV Loch Seaforth is capable of operating round the clock and has a capacity of up to 700 passengers and 143 cars or 20 commercial vehicles. She will shortly replace the ‘Isle of Lewis’ when upgraded pier facilities at Sornoway and Ullapool are completed. On a recent Glasgow-Tiree flight I was able through the murk to catch a glimpse of this fine vessel at Greenock. However, in these days of fixed formation trains and dedicated ferries, unlike her namesake, she will be unable to operate on the Oban-Coll-Tiree service.
The above picture of the MV Loch Seathforth is used with the kind permission of CalMac Ferries Ltd and is copyright (2014). It may not be reproduced in any way or form without their permission.