Caledonian MacBrayne

Caledonian MacBrayne (Scottish Gaelic: Caledonian Mac a' Bhriuthainn), usually shortened to CalMac, is the major operator of passenger and vehicle ferries, and ferry services, between the mainland of Scotland and 22 of the major islands on Scotland's west coast. Since 2006 the company's official name has been CalMac Ferries Ltd although it still operates as Caledonian MacBrayne. In 2006 it also became a subsidiary of holding company David MacBrayne Ltd, which is owned by the Scottish Government.[1]

CalMac Ferries Ltd
Caledonian MacBrayne
Government-owned service
PredecessorCaledonian Steam Packet Company, David MacBrayne Ltd 
FounderDavid MacBrayne
Area served
Firth of Clyde,
Outer Hebrides,
Inner Hebrides
Key people
Robbie Drummond (Managing Director)
OwnerScottish Government
ParentDavid MacBrayne Ltd
DivisionsArgyll Ferries


David MacBrayne

MacBrayne's, initially known as David Hutcheson & Co., began in 1851 as a private steamship operator when G. and J. Burns, operators of the largest of the Clyde fleets, decided to concentrate on coastal and transatlantic services and handed control of their river and Highland steamers to a new company in which Hutcheson, their manager of these services, became senior partner. Their main route went from Glasgow down the Firth of Clyde through the Crinan Canal to Oban and Fort William, and on through the Caledonian Canal to Inverness. David Hutcheson was married to Margaret Dawson who was born at her parents home 'Bonnytoun House' in Linlithgow. She was the sister of Adam Dawson who owned the St. Magdalene Whisky Distillery in Linlithgow and sister to James Dawson who were also born at 'Bonnytoun House'. In 2011 Glasgow historian Robert Pool added over 200 letters and documents to his collection relating to David Hutcheson and the Dawson family.[2]

Caledonian Steam Packet Company

The Caledonian Railway at first used the services of various early private operators of Clyde steamers, then began operating steamers on its own account on 1 January 1889 to compete better with the North British Railway and the Glasgow and South Western Railway. It extended its line to bypass the G&SW's Prince's Pier at Greenock and continue on to the fishing village of Gourock, where they had purchased the harbour.

After years of fierce competition between all the fleets, the Caledonian and G&SW were merged in 1923 into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) and their fleets were amalgamated into the Caledonian Steam Packet Company. Their funnels were painted yellow with a black top. At the same time the North British Railway fleet became part of the London and North Eastern Railway (which built the PS Waverley in 1947). With nationalisation in 1948 the LMS and LNER fleets were amalgamated under British Railways with the name Clyde Shipping Services. In 1957 a reorganisation restored the CSP name, and in 1965 a red lion was added to each side of the black-topped yellow funnels. The headquarters remained at Gourock pierhead.

At the end of December 1968 management of the CSP passed to the Scottish Transport Group, which gained control of MacBrayne's the following June. The MacBrayne service from Gourock to Ardrishaig ended on 30 September 1969, leaving the Clyde entirely to the CSP.

Caledonian MacBrayne

On 1 January 1973 the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. acquired most of the ships and routes of MacBrayne's and commenced joint Clyde and West Highland operations under the new name of Caledonian MacBrayne, with a combined headquarters at Gourock. Funnels were now painted red with a black top, and a yellow circle at the side of the funnel featuring the red Caledonian lion. In 1974 a new car ferry service from Gourock to Dunoon was introduced with the ferries MV Jupiter and MV Juno.

In 1990 the ferry business was spun off as a separate company, keeping the Caledonian MacBrayne brand, and shares were issued in the company. All shares were owned by the state, first in the person of the Secretary of State for Scotland, and (after devolution) by the Scottish Government.

A joint venture between Caledonian MacBrayne and the Royal Bank of Scotland named NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries won the tender for the subsidised Northern Isles services, previously run by P&O Scottish Ferries, commencing in 2002. The ambitious programme ran into financial difficulties, and the service was again put out to tender. Caledonian MacBrayne won this tender, and formed a separate company called NorthLink Ferries Limited which began operating the Northern Isles ferry service on 6 July 2006.[3] On 29 May 2012, NorthLink Ferries Ltd lost the contract for provision of the Northern Isles ferry services to Serco.[4]


To meet the requirements of European Union Community guidelines on state aid to maritime transport, the company's routes were put out to open tender. To enable competitive bidding on an equal basis, Caledonian MacBrayne was split into two separate companies on 1 October 2006. Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) retained ownership of CalMac vessels and infrastructure, including harbours, while CalMac Ferries Ltd submitted tenders to be the ferry operator. Their bid for the main bundle, Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services, succeeded and on 1 October 2007 CalMac Ferries Ltd began operating these services on a six-year contract. The Gourock to Dunoon service was the subject of a separate tender, but no formal bids were made. In an interim arrangement CalMac Ferries Ltd continued to provide a subsidised service on this route,[3][5] until 29 June 2011, when Argyll Ferries took over the service.

On 14 July 2009, it was announced that CalMac would begin Sunday sailings to Stornoway on Lewis from Sunday 19 July. These had historically faced strong opposition from Sabbatarian elements in the Lewis community, particularly the Lord's Day Observance Society and the Free Church of Scotland. However, CalMac stated that EU equality legislation made it unlawful to refuse a service to the whole community because of the religious beliefs of a part of it.[6]


The company enjoys a de facto monopoly on the shipment of freight and vehicles to the islands, and competes for passenger traffic with number of aircraft services of varying quality and reliability. Nonetheless, few if any of the routes currently operated by CalMac are profitable, and the company receives significant government subsidies due to its vital role in supplying the islands - these routes are classified as "lifeline" services. In 1996 CalMac opened its first route outside Scotland, winning a ten-year contract to provide a lifeline service to Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland. This service continued until 2008 when CalMac lost the tender.[7]

Various versions of a local poem (based loosely on Psalm 24) refer to MacBrayne's long dominance of Hebridean sailings:

The Earth belongs unto the Lord
And all that it contains
Except the Kyles and the Western Isles
And they are all MacBrayne's

Several groups have proposed privatising the service, and there has been a long commercial and political struggle with a privately owned company, Western Ferries, which has run a rival unsubsidised service from Gourock to Hunters Quay (near Dunoon) since 1973. In 2005, the Scottish Executive put the collective Hebrides routes out to competitive tender, with the Dunoon route being a separate tender.[8] Some island and union groups opposed the tendering process, fearing it would lead to cuts in services and could be a prelude to full privatisation.

During the tendering period, the company of David MacBrayne Ltd., which had been legally dormant for many years, was re-activated on 4 July 2006. David MacBrayne Group Ltd. acquired the full share capital of NorthLink Ferries Ltd, and took over operations of the NorthLink routes on 6 July 2006. Three operators submitted bids for the block of routes[9] with CalMac retaining all its existing routes. During September 2006, David MacBrayne Group Ltd., acquired the entire share capital of CalMac Ferries Ltd. Thus, from leaving the hands of David MacBrayne 78 years earlier in 1928, the west coast ferry service returned to the fold in 2006, vastly enlarged.

At the time, no bids were made for the separate Gourock–Dunoon route and the service continued as before. In August 2006, David MacBrayne Group Ltd., directed two of its subsidiary companies, Cowal Ferries Ltd., and Rathlin Ferries Ltd., to take over operation of the Gourock to Dunoon, and Rathlin to Ballycastle services. Following a European Commission decision to not subsidise a passenger and vehicle service, the route was again put out to tender. In May 2011, Argyll Ferries Ltd, a newly formed subsidiary of David MacBrayne, was named as the preferred bidder for a passenger-only Dunoon-Gourock service. The timetable was extended into the early hours over weekends, with additional sailings integrated with rail services. Two passenger-only ferries, MV Ali Cat and MV Argyll Flyer (formerly MV Banrion Chonomara), were arranged for the run.[10] When the service began on 30 June 2011, preparation of the Argyll Flyer was incomplete, and as an interim measure the cruise boat MV Clyde Clipper was leased from Clyde Cruises.[11]

Argyll Ferries was incorporated into Caledonian MacBrayne on 21 January 2019.[12]


Mainland or inner port Island or outer port Crossing Voyage Time Regular vessel(s)
Portavadie, CowalTarbert, Kintyre PeninsulaLoch Fyne25 minutesMV Isle of Cumbrae (summer)
MV Catriona (winter)
Gourock, InverclydeDunoon, CowalFirth of Clyde25 minutesMVs Argyll Flyer & Ali Cat
Wemyss Bay, InverclydeRothesay, ButeFirth of Clyde35 minutesMVs Argyle & Bute
Colintraive, CowalRhubodach, ButeKyles of Bute5 minutesMV Loch Dunvegan
Largs, North AyrshireCumbrae Slip, CumbraeFirth of Clyde10 minutesMV Loch Shira
MV Loch Riddon (summer only)
Ardrossan, North AyrshireBrodick, ArranFirth of Clyde55 minutesMV Caledonian Isles
MV Isle of Arran (summer only)
(summer only service)
Campbeltown, KintyreFirth of Clyde2 hours 40 minutesMV Isle of Arran
Claonaig, Eastern Kintyre Peninsula
(summer only service)
Lochranza, ArranKilbrannan Sound30 minutesMV Catriona
Tarbert, Kintyre Peninsula
(winter only service)
Lochranza, ArranLoch Fyne / Kilbrannan Sound1 hour 25 minutesMV Catriona
Tayinloan, Western KintyreArdminish, GighaSound of Gigha20 minutesMV Loch Ranza
Kennacraig, Western KintyrePort Ellen, Islayvia West Loch Tarbert, Argyll2 hours 20 minutes MVs Finlaggan &
Hebridean Isles
KennacraigPort Askaig, IslaySound of Islay2 hours 5 minutes
Port AskaigScalasaig, Colonsay1 hour 10 minutes
ObanScalasaig, Colonsay2 hours 20 minutesMV Clansman
MV Lord of the Isles (winter only)
ObanCraignure, MullFirth of Lorne46 minutesMV Isle of Mull
MV Coruisk (summer only)
ObanAchnacroish, LismoreLynn of Lorne50 minutesMV Loch Striven
ObanArinagour, CollFirth of Lorne / Sound of Mull2 hours 55 minutes MV Clansman
ObanScarinish, TireeSound of Mull / Little Minch3 hours 20 minutes
ObanCastlebay, BarraSound of Mull / Little Minch4 hours 45 minutesMV Isle of Lewis
Oban (winter only service)Lochboisdale, South UistLittle Minch / Sound of Mull5 Hours 10 Minutes MV Lord of the Isles
GallanachBalliemore, KerreraSound of Kerrera5 minutesMV Carvoria
Lochaline, Morvern PeninsulaFishnish, MullSound of Mull15 minutesMV Lochinvar
Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan PeninsulaTobermory, MullSound of Mull35 minutesMV Loch Tarbert
Fionnphort, Ross of MullIonaSound of Iona10 minutesMV Loch Buie
MallaigArmadale, Sleat Peninsula, SkyeSound of Sleat30–45 minutes
varies dependent on which vessel
MV Lord of the Isles (summer)
MV Loch Fyne (summer)
MV Lochnevis (winter)
MallaigSmall Isles (Eigg, Muck, Rùm & Canna)VariesMV Lochnevis
MallaigLochboisdale, South UistLittle Minch3 hours 15 minutesMV Lord of the Isles
Sconser, SkyeRaasayNarrows of Raasay15 minutesMV Hallaig
Ardmhor (Barra)Eriskay
(connected to South Uist by causeway)
Sound of Barra40 minutesMV Loch Alainn
Uig, SkyeLochmaddy, North UistLittle Minch1 hour 45 minutes MV Hebrides
UigTarbert, HarrisLittle Minch1 hour 45 minutes
Leverburgh, HarrisBerneray
(connected to North Uist by causeway)
Sound of Harris1 hourMV Loch Portain
Ullapool, Wester RossStornoway, LewisThe Minch2 hours 45 minutesMV Loch Seaforth

Other vessels

Passenger numbers

Passenger numbers on the 10 busiest CalMac routes (2017)[16]
Change (2016–17)% changePassengers
Wemyss Bay/Gourock–Rothesay713,906675,71438,1925.65%674,088759,680

Current fleet

Vessels are owned by Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) and operated by CalMac Ferries Ltd. There are 33 vessels in current service, with ten 'major units' – ships of 80 m (262 ft) or more in length. The largest is MV Loch Seaforth at 116 m (381 ft) in length. MV Finlaggan (2011) is almost 90 m (295 ft) long and able to carry 550 passengers with 88 cars.[17] She was built in Poland, at a cost of £24.5 million and operates the Islay service.[18] The others are MV Isle of Lewis, MV Clansman, MV Hebrides, MV Caledonian Isles, MV Isle of Mull, MV Hebridean Isles, MV Isle of Arran and MV Lord of the Isles.[17]

There are 13 "Loch Class" vessels in different shapes and sizes. These double-ended ferries are mostly symmetrical when viewed from the side, with no operational bow or stern (although in official documents the designation of such is given). MV Loch Portain is able to handle Force 7 gales and carry 36 cars and 149 passengers, with a crew of five. The smallest vessel in the fleet is MV Carvoria, built in Shetland for the Kerrera route.[19]

The company is adapting to the demands of 21st century. MV Lochnevis (2000) was designed for the Small Isles service. MV Bute (2005) and MV Argyle (2007), both built in Gdansk are on the Wemyss BayRothesay route. A new "super loch", MV Loch Shira entered service in 2007 on the LargsCumbrae route. MV Hallaig (2013; for Raasay), MV Lochinvar (2013; for Tarbert) and MV Catriona (2015; for Lochranza), built by Ferguson Marine Engineering are pioneering seagoing roll-on roll-off vehicle and passenger diesel-electric hybrid ferries.[20] The latest vessels are two dual fuel ferries under construction by Ferguson Marine Engineering: MV Glen Sannox (2017) is due to be delivered for the Arran service in summer 2020[21] and Hull 802 is due to be launched in 2018 for the Uig triangle.[22]

See also



  1. "Company History". Caledonian MacBrayne.
  2. "David Hutcheson and Dawson family documents". The Great Shipping Dynasty of Burns, Hutcheson and MacBrayne. Robert Pool's Glasgow Collection @ Flickr. June 2011. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  3. Alan Rehfisch (2007). "Ferry Services in Scotland" (PDF). SPICe Briefing. Scottish Parliament Information Centre. Retrieved 16 January 2015.
  4. "Serco confirmed as Northern Isles ferry operator". BBC News. 29 May 2012. Retrieved 25 July 2012.
  5. "UK | Scotland | Highlands and Islands | CalMac ferry contract confirmed". BBC News. 20 September 2007. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  6. "UK | Scotland | Highlands and Islands | Green light for Sunday sailings". BBC News. 14 July 2009. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  7. "Probe into tendering contract of ferry run". News Letter. 17 June 2008.
  8. "Proposals for Gourock-Dunoon ferry route". Scottish Executive. 21 September 2005. Retrieved 29 August 2007.
  9. "UK | Scotland | Contest narrows for CalMac routes". BBC News. 23 December 2005. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  10. "Argyll News: Argyll Ferries Wins Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Tender". For Argyll. 26 May 2011. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  11. Goodwin, David (1 July 2011). "Ferry Launch is hit by first-day breakdown". Greenock Telegraph. pp. 1–2.
  12. "CalMac takes over the tiller at Argyll Ferries". Argyll Ferries. 21 January 2019. Archived from the original on 27 January 2019. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
  13. "Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited announces Scottish shipbuilder as preferred tenderer for two large ferries contract". CMAL. 31 August 2015. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  14. "CMAL announces name of first LNG ferry". CMAL. 1 June 2017. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  15. "Public invited to help name CMAL's first LNG ferry". CMAL. 2 May 2017. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  16. "Carrying Statistics". Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  17. "Ships of the Fleet". Ships of CalMac. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  18. "Remontowa wins newbuilding order for another ferry to be operated by CalMac Ferries Ltd". 2 November 2007. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  19. "New Kerrera Ferry Launches in Lerwick". CMAL. 15 August 2017. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  20. "'Hybrid' CalMac ferry launched from Port Glasgow". BBC News. 17 December 2012. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  21. "First Minister Launches UK's First LNG Ferry". CMAL. 21 November 2017. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  22. "CMAL Shares Project Update on Dual Fuel Ferries". CMAL. 9 March 2017. Retrieved 25 November 2017.


  • McCrorie, Ian (1987). Clyde Pleasure Steamers: an illustrated history. Greenock: Orr, Pollock & Co. ISBN 978-1-869850-00-5.
  • McCrorie, Ian (1987). Steamers of the Highlands and Islands: an illustrated history. Greenock: Orr, Pollock & Co. ISBN 978-1-869850-01-2.
  • McCrorie, Ian (1989). To the Coast: one hundred years of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company. Fairlie: Fairlie Press. ISBN 978-1-871209-01-3.
  • Meek, Donald E.; Peter, Bruce (2011). From Comet to Cal Mac: Two Centuries of Hebridean and Clyde Shipping. Ramsey, Isle of Man: Ferry Publications. ISBN 9781906608361.
  • Preston, Robert (1994). Days at the Coast. Ochiltree: Stenlake Publishing. ISBN 978-1-872074-42-9.
  • Robins, Nick S.; Meek, Donald E. (2006). The Kingdom of MacBrayne: from steamships to car-ferries in the West Highlands and Hebrides, 1820-2005. Edinburgh: Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-500-0.
  • Smith, Colin; Cowsill, Miles (2016). Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean and Clyde Ferries: the fleet. Ramsey, Isle of Man: Ferry Publications. ISBN 9781911268055.
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