08 February 2020

Travelling on CalMac: a Nordic perspective

In 2016, I visited Scotland on two separate occasions and travelled on a small selection of Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries, connecting Scotland's Western Isles to the mainland and each other. An abundance of photos from those trips have been sitting on my hand drive ever since, waiting for publication. For this blog's new concept, I thought I'd finally record some of my impressions of travelling with CalMac. Some ships discussed have of course been featured here before, but today we'll look at them in a slightly different way.

Clansman and Isle of Mull at Oban harbour in the afternoon of 4.6.2016.

The very original plan for my visit to Scotland was that the first CalMac ship I would encounter would be the 2014-built Loch Seaforth. However, an unexpected schedule change for my travelling companion (the design historian Bruce Peter) meant my first encounter with CalMac was quite different: 1984-built Isle of Arran.

My first time seeing a CalMac ferry: the Isle of Arran arriving at Ardrossan.
Onboard the Isle of Arran, bound for the island the ship is named after.
The Isle of Arran was, frankly, surprisingly old-fashioned. Both in terms of exterior and interior design, the ship seemed to be a product of a much older era than the first half of the 1980s (delivered 1984). For a tour of the ship's interiors, please refer to this previous entry.

Returning from Arran, my second CalMac experience was more up to date: the 1993-vintage Caledonian Isles, sailing on the Ardrossan–Brodick route alongside the Isle of Arran, which offers a wider array of facilities, but also looks more up to date on the outside and inside. However, there is certainly a CalMac "house style" when it comes to interior design that – to me anyway – looks dark, brooding and somewhat out of date. The Caledonian Isles also has some strange design choices, like an observation lounge where the windows are so high you can't actually properly see outside when sitting down...

Of course, it should be remembered CalMac are more of a public transport service than a commercial venture, and the interior do work fine, regardless of what you think about the decor.

The Caledonian Isles makes an evening departure from Ardrossan to Arran on 5.8.2016.
The Mariners Restaurant on the Caledonian Isles; a chairs bolted to the floor give the space a decidedly workmanlike feel.
The Caledonian Isles' Coffee Cabin.
Following the initial encounter with the Isle of Arran and Caledonian Isles, Bruce and I headed to Oban, where the main attraction of was the last seagoing paddle steamer in service, the Waverley, but we also had plenty of opportunities to photograph various CalMac ships, and travelled onboard the Isle of Mull and Coruisk.

The Isle of Mull on a crossing from Oban to Craignure on 5.6.2016, photographed from onboard the Coruisk.
The Mariners Restaurant onboard the Isle of Mull. Note, again, the fixed seats.
The Isle of Mull is one of two CalMac vessels with a bar – The Still – onboard, as seen here.
On the Oban–Craignure route, the Isle of Mull and Coruisk made for a very mismatched pair: the 1988-built Isle of Mull has one of the widest selections of public rooms onboard CalMac ships, while the 2003-vintage Coruisk is more of a glorified road ferry, with just one public room and very little passenger space compared to the (then-)running mate.

The Coruisk departing Oban on 5.6.2016. This is an aft view, though it is quite hard to tell on a ship that is essentially (but not quite) a double-ender.
Boarding the Coruisk at Craignure. Boarding procedures varied from skywalks as on bigger ferries to car deck walk-ins such as the one seen here.
The Coffee Cabin on the Coruisk. A somewhat more extensive look at the interiors of the ship can be seen here (though to be honest, there isn't very much to it...).

What surprised me positively was how extensive the onboard product was, at least on the bigger ships (of course, the Coruisk was the only "smaller ship" I sampled on these trips): there is more often than not a (cafeteria-style) restaurant, a café, an observation lounge, a shop and sometimes even a bar. On the other hand, a negative surprise – though from previous experiences with the UK, it perhaps shouldn't have – was how much staff there are in the different venues and how frankly inefficient it all seemed. A cafeteria that on a Finnish ferry would be manned by one or two people had four or five people banging their heads together behind the counter on the Caledonian Isles and Isle of Mull. Of course a contributing factor is the British aversion to self-service, where even a self-service cafeteria needs to have someone to give you your food... which to me, coming from very efficiently-minded Finland, seems utterly wasteful.

CalMac food isn't nescessarily something to write home about, as this Full Scottish Breakfast from the Isle of Mull demonstrates. In hindsight, I'm surprised this didn't come with chips – on the Caledonian Isles, they even wanted to give me chips with lasagna! (I declined).

Of course, my CalMac travels so far have only scratched the surface of their large fleet and varied route network, so my impressions should not be taken as definitive in any way. But it is fascinating – as always – to realise how different onboard products on ferries are in different parts of the world, when on the surface you would expect them to be the same.

For those interested in CalMac and their ships, there will be an gallery of ferry exteriors coming up later.

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