As part of our series about the lesser known ferry routes and crossings around the British Isles, below we take a look at the wonderful and historic ferry routes around the Hebrides.

Off the west cost of Scotland, Cal Mac, the shortened name for the Caledonian MacBrayne company, has run since 1974 all the major ferry routes out from the mainland and back from twenty-two of the major Hebrides Islands. Out of the twenty-nine ships used by Cal Mac, nine are over 80 metres in length. The MV Isle of Lewis is the largest, measuring in length 101 metres.

Cal Mac began as a steamship line in 1851 operating out of the Firth of Clyde and along the Caledonian Canal. The chief competition for Cal Mac has been Western Ferries operating out of Gourock on the Scottish coast, began in 1974 as an alternative to Cal Mac. Currently, Western Ferries operates four vessels along the west cost of Scotland. Government subsidies have been a vital part of Cal Mac’s operation of these routes all designated as lifeline services for the islands. Because of this factor, the ferry business of Cal Mac has actually been owned by the State of Scotland since 1990. Western Ferry and several other ferry companies operate in Scotland without government subsidies, noting the fact in their ads as a point of pride, but still, such an economic disadvantage makes it difficult to compete.

One other independent ferry operating a single vessel in the Hebrides still remains. For over forty years, the ferry boat Glenachulish makes the crossing across the Kylerhea Narrows between the Glenelg on the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Skye. This Skye Ferry runs between early spring and the middle of October, both dates dependent on local weather conditions and the number of customers. It is one of the last “turntable” ferry operations in the world. The Kylerhea Narrows are indeed narrow, measuring only 550 metres, and have been used for centuries as a passage for cattle drovers to swim their herds of Highland cattle. A ferry service operated there in the 17th century, the proof of which can be found in the writings of famed traveler Doctor Samuel Johnson and his well-known biographer James Boswell who both took a sea trip aboard a ferry ending across the narrows at the tip of the Sleat peninsula. Passenger ferry service continued right through the Victorian Era; a vehicle ferry service began in 1934, though World War Two interrupted all ferry service across the strait due to nearby naval bases.

The Glenachulish ferry is operated by the local community and has recently undergone a series of repairs. You can find out lots more about the Skye Ferry from their website here, and even make a donation to keep this wonderful ferry in operation. There are also some wonderful video clips of the ferry in action from years gone by, some of which we have included below.