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17/07/2017

From Lost Glasgow to Island Discovery: A trip to the isles on a vintage bus

Campbeltown harbour

Norry Wilson, curator of the Lost Glasgow Facebook page, forsakes the city for a day 'doon the watter' with the Clyde River Steamer Club.

 

A dram fine day out

We're off! Off where, you ask? Off on a one-day, three-ferry odyssey, visiting Brodick and Lochranza, on Arran; Claonaig, Tarbet, and Campbeltown, in Kintyre, before sailing back to Adrossan.

I'm travelling with the Clyde River Steamer Club (CRSC), an august bunch of ferry fans - make that 'ferry fanatics' - on their first major outing of the year; their 'Summer Hopper' tour. And it's not only the tides, weather, and ferries we're depending on to make our connections, we've even brought our own vintage coach, a 50-seater, 1979 Reliance 760. More on that gleaming beauty later.

Things get off to a confusing and damp start. My trip, arranged through a series of late night phone calls, sees me arrive at Ardrossan harbour with not a clue as to who I am supposed to meet. Names I know; faces I don't. And there's lots going on before departure. The Scottish Beagle Trust is also sailing to Brodick, for a sponsored climb of Goat Fell, meaning the departure lounge is an assault course of leads, pleading eyes, waggling tails, and cold, wet noses (and that's just the dogs' owners!).

Sheltering from the Sunday morning smir, I spy a fellow scanning the horizon. Is he looking for me? He is. It's my host, and CRSC contact, author Ian McCrorie, a man who has forgotten more about CalMac's ships, routes, crews, captains, and timetables than most of us will ever know.

All aboard for Arran

Introductions made, and tickets secured, it's time to brave the now bucketing rain and board the Caledonian Isles for the first leg of our journey, to Brodick. It's a sailing I have made many times - from childhood holidays on Arran, through rowdy student weekends, to more grown up walking holidays - but the departure of the 'boat' never fails to thrill. There's something about the well-rehearsed choreography of the dock and ship's crew; the untying of ropes, the increasing thrum of the mighty diesel engines, and the departure messages on the tannoy that, whatever the weather, and whatever your age, puts you in a holiday mood.

As we nose out into the Firth of Clyde, it's time to seek shelter below decks, say 'hello' to the beagle brigade, and fortify myself with coffee and a bacon roll. The breakfast of champions.

The saloons, all steamy windows and excited chatter, are a hive of activity. My CRSC companions are easy to spot; they are the ones poring over maps and timetables, looking at their watches, and checking, then rechecking, their cameras. The success of our round trip depends on us catching the Isle of Arran's afternoon sailing from Campbeltown, which due to the inclement weather, is already on an 'amber alert'.

That's the beauty of this trip, and these CalMac routes. By using Arran as a giant 'stepping stone', we can explore Kintyre without having to undertake the long and arduous drive up and around Loch Fyne. A great journey, no doubt, but one that cuts the time you have to explore this fascinating corner of Scotland.

A long, low blast of the ship's hooter signals the first sighting of Arran, or it would if the cloud would lift. I hope those beagles, and their owners, have a good sense of direction. They'll need it if they are to find the peak of Goat Fell!

Discover more about the Isle of Arran

Coach is a classy companion

Safely assembled on Brodick pier, we get the first glimpse of our driver for the day, and our transport of delight; Lawrence McCall and his beautifully restored 1979 coach. It's fresh out of the garage, having undergone a winter overhaul, and ready to shuttle us onwards to our next departure point, Lochranza.

Arran's tight, steep, and twisting roads were never built for buses, but with Lawrence at the helm, you'd never know it. This is a man who loves his vintage vehicles (he's got another old bus, a 50-year-old MacBrayne's touring coach, tucked up at the Glasgow Vintage Vehicle Trust  awaiting the summer season); and he loves to drive. He knows every bump, dip, and turn of this road, taking the coach up and down through every one of its 12 gears to get us to Arran's most northerly harbour. Indeed, with his muttonchop whiskers, eagle eyes, and driver's cap, he wouldn't look out of place behind a ship's wheel.

Toiling up and over the hills which separate Brodick from Lochranza, there's plenty to see. As we inch through the village of Sannox, we spy, sitting high and dry on the pier, an earlier version of a Clyde ferry; a clinker-built birlinn, of the kind used by the medieval Lords of Isles to control these vital sea routes. With its carved dragon prow, it's a reminder of even earlier visitors to these shores; the Vikings. And those Norsemen knew a thing or two about sailing. Indeed, some of the routes CalMac sails today have been maritime highways since the Dark Ages.

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Scotch missed!

A collective sigh of disappointment goes up as our coach speeds straight past the Arran Distillery at Lochranza. It's early yet, but some minds are already turning to drink. A nudge and nod from Ian McCrorie reassures me that everything will be alright, as he starts rhapsodising about the possibility of a 'miracle' dram in Campbeltown; a 21-year-old Springbank malt he has heard tales of. It's not only ferries that this man knows a thing or two about!

We have another ferry to catch, so a tasting tour at Lochranza will have to wait for my next Arran adventure.

The next leg of our journey is a new one for me; the short hop from Lochranza to Claonaig, on Kintyre, aboard the diesel/electric 'Catriona'. And here we hit our first hurdle. There's no pre-booking, you just turn up and board, but there is limited space for vehicles, and a fair queue of cars ahead of us. If we miss this sailing, it'll throw out the rest of our day's timetable. Worse is to come. Once we park up, to watch the ferry sail in, a few cheeky late arrivals - campervans - steal a march on us in the queue.

Heads shake, chins are stroked, perhaps we are going to miss our midday sailing. Some eyes wander towards the nearby Lochranza Hotel. Perhaps I'll be enjoying that dram sooner than I thought.

Crew to the rescue

At that, we see Catriona's CalMac crew at their best. Following a huddled conversation with our cruise convenor, they tell the queue-jumpers to back off - one Johnny come lately has to reverse all the way back up the slipway - and us, and our dear old bus, are, with literally inches to spare, squeezed on board.

With the weather now clearing, and the sun threatening to emerge, we are now all out on deck, eyes scanning the water to see if we can spy some of the area's regular summer visitors - basking sharks. With none to be seen, we turn to talking, and what's remarkable is that we don't have to shout. The Catriona's hybrid diesel/electric engines are so silent that, despite the stiff sea breeze, our voices carry clearly.

All too soon we're approaching the landing stage at Claonaig, a steep concrete ramp that driver Lawrence must negotiate alone. Depending on time, weather, and tide, he carries a variety of wooden blocks to prevent his beautiful bus from grounding out on ferry slipways. After all, he doesn't want to damage its restored coachwork. A loud rev of the engine, and a charge up and down Catriona's long ramps sees us safely landed on Kintyre. An arrival which is greeted with a cheer from my shipmates.

Now, a word of warning for anyone planning to sail to or from Claonaig; there isn't much, if anything there. If you face a wait for the ferry, stock up on drinks and sandwiches before you arrive.

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You don't have to be mad, but...

Our next destination is Kennacraig, to see the 1pm departure of the CalMac ferry Finlaggan to Port Askaig, on Islay, a star island on the West Coast whisky trail. Sadly, our delayed departure from Lochranza means that, on arrival, the ship is already leaving the pier. A toot on our horn is greeted by a long blast from the ship, and waves from the passengers.

On the pier head, with the sun now shining, all you can hear is the cries of gulls, and the clicking of cameras. As I said, these folks are ferry fanatics. At that, one un-named fellow passenger gives me a cheery smile, and confides: "We're all certifiably mad, but we're a nice bunch." And that they are. A more knowledgeable and friendly crew would be hard to find. The random conversations on the coach are both intriguing and informative.

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Now, with the sun over the yardarm, it's time to seek out some refreshment, and we motor on to nearby Tarbert. From here, if we wanted, we could board a CalMac ferry to Portavadie, on the Cowal side of Loch Fyne, but it's food, a pint, a toilet break, and a sit in the sunshine we seek out.

Tarbert is already bustling with its first summer visitors. Home to annual seafood and music festivals, every May the village also hosts The Scottish Series, Britain's second largest yachting regatta, with competitors coming from all around the UK and abroad.

With only an hour to spare, it's a hurried lunch in the Gallery Café, before we dash back to the bus. Racing along the harbour front, a colourful confusion of fishing boats, yachts, and leisure craft, we spy not one but two birlinns, more reminders of the ancient sea routes we are following.

See www.tarbertlochfyne.com for the Tarbert and Loch Fyne activities calendar.

Campbeltown calling

Now, with all eyes on our watches, and the weather, it's time to head to Campbeltown, Scotland's smallest designated whisky region. Once home to over 20 distilleries, today the town boasts only three; Springbank , Glen Scotia , and the recently reopened Mitchell's Glengyle Distillery .

Arriving at the harbour, our ferry fans are in for an unexpected treat. Tied up at the quayside is the refurbished Hebridean Princess. A cruise ship operated by Hebridean Island Cruises, she started life as a MacBrayne car ferry and Royal Mail Ship, initially RMS then MV Columba. Today, reconfigured as a luxury cruiser, she takes wealthy passengers on regular tours of the outer isles. And she comes highly recommended. The Queen has twice chartered the vessel for her summer holidays.

The dream dram

Now, with two hours to spare, it's time to go in search of that promised Springbank 21-year-old. If in doubt, ask a fisherman. A quick chat with some men, who are busy repairing their nets, points us in the direction of the award-winning Ardshiel Hotel.

Housed, appropriately enough, in a property which once belonged to one of the town's Victorian whisky barons, the hotel bar is a whisky-lovers' heaven; the shelves lined, from floor to ceiling, with rare malts. The whisky 'menu', complete with tasting notes, is as thick as a phonebook, but makes for more interesting and rewarding reading.

Now here's the thing: having come in search of the 21-year-old Springbank, we're now faced with a wide variety of the distillery's malts. Decisions, decisions. And at over £20 a nip for the 21-year-old, you don't want to make the wrong choice (as if such a thing exists).

Drams in hand, water in a jug, we retire to a window seat overlooking Campbeltown Loch. Do we 'wish it was whisky'? We do not. The much thought about Springbank is a revelation; a honeyed, well-rounded mouthful, with lingering hints of peat, and a slight tang of the sea. Truly a malt in a million.

With a toast to our trip, and new friendships, our table falls silent, each of us lost in admiration for the distillers' art.

Drams drained - the glasses almost licked clean - we wander back down to the pier, to sit in the sun and await the, now confirmed, arrival of our ride back to Ardrossan; a two-hour, forty-minute sailing around the southern tip of Arran, aboard the eponymous Isle of Arran.

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Westering home...

Once on board, there's a mad dash for the mess deck (dinner is included in our ticket price). Despite the mild swell, which sends a few diners reeling, our appetites are up, and the CalMac galley crew do us proud. Steak pie has never tasted better.

As we enter calmer waters, I retire out on deck, finding a seat in the sun, and out of the breeze, where I soon fall into a fevered dream of ferries, vintages coaches, and malt whiskies. I awake in time to see the granite mass of Ailsa Craig - the source of the world's finest curling stones - on the horizon. Holy Isle then 'glides past', with the late evening sun casting long shadows over Arran's 'Sleeping Warrior', a formation of hills which resembles a recumbent Medieval knight.

All too soon, Ardrossan is in view, and it's time to start packing up. Anoraks are stowed, cameras checked and put away, diaries consulted regarding the next Clyde River Steamer Club outing.

Once back on dry land, phone numbers, addresses, promises, and 'goodbyes' are swapped with my new CRSC crew mates. Will I go sailing with them, and CalMac, again? You bet. There's no better way to explore the undiscovered delights which await on Glasgow's own doorstep.

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