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Company History

Company History

Caledonian MacBrayne has a long history stretching back more than 160 years. Its name is synonymous with the west coast of Scotland, providing vital lifeline ferry services and carrying millions of people each year to and from the islands and remote peninsular communities. It has been, and remains a major local employer, both on shore and at sea. This short history summarises the key milestones from its inception in the 1850s to the modern, award-winning operator it is today: 

Caledonian MacBrayne started life in 1851 as a steamer company under the name of David Hutcheson & Co.

The main sphere of operation was from Glasgow through the Crinan Canal to Oban and Fort William and then on through the Caledonian Canal to Inverness.

In the late 1870's the Hutcheson brothers retired leaving the firm in the hands of David MacBrayne to which the firm was renamed. Throughout the late 1870's and 80's the MacBrayne empire continued to expand with a mail run to Islay, Harris and North Uist from Skye and an Outer Isles run from Oban to Barra and South Uist.

In fairly quick succession new railways began to reach the West Coast - at Fort William, Kyle of Lochalsh and Mallaig and the fleet rosters were altered to meet the new situation. There followed a period of new ship building, largely for the mail routes to the islands and remote mainland communities.

Following the Great War of 1914 - 1918 David MacBrayne was operating a much-reduced fleet and this eventually resulted in the company's withdrawal from the tender for the mail contract. Thanks to a rescue operation jointly with LMS Railway and Coast Lines Ltd a new company was formed - David MacBrayne (1928).

1948 saw the nationalisation of the LMS shares in the company and the acquisition of the ships. Five years later the state-owned Scottish Transport Group (STG) was formed to operate not only MacBrayne's services but also those of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSP) on the Clyde together with the dominant Scottish Bus Company.

Soon after, the shipping companies were amalgamated and renamed Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd; lorry services were operated by MacBrayne Haulage while David MacBrayne was retained for certain minor services. The CalMac vessels soon sported the red CSP lion in the yellow disc in the centre of the red funnel.

From the sixties to the mid-eighties many improvements and refinements took place in order to complete the modern roll on-roll off ferry revolution and ensure that all vessels were operated to the maximum levels of safety.

In 1990 Caledonian MacBrayne threw off the umbrella of STG and became wholly owned by the Secretary of State for Scotland (now the Scottish Government.)

In 2006 the then Scottish Executive, decided that under EU rules ferry services were required to be put out to tender, but this presented an issue as the vessels required to operate the services, and many of the ports to which services ran, were owned by Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd, giving it an unfair advantage over potential competitors.

The solution was to rename Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd as Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) in order to retain the vessels and ports in state ownership, and a separate ferry operations company, CalMac Ferries Ltd, was created. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of David MacBrayne Ltd, which is wholly owned by Scottish Ministers. (CMAL also retained ownership of the Caledonian MacBrayne brand, which CalMac uses as a trading name under licence from CMAL. The lion rampant device is also used by CFL with the permission of CMAL.)

CMAL is also wholly owned by Scottish Ministers and is based in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde.  CFL and CMAL are two entirely separate entities. CFL provides certain services to CMAL under contractual arrangements.

In 2007 the contract to provide services under the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service (CHFS) was awarded to CalMac Ferries Ltd for a period of six years.  CMAL leases the vessels and piers to the operator of the Clyde Hebrides Ferry services (currently CFL) and is also responsible for the procurement of new ships and the maintenance and development of port facilities in its ownership. (Some ports are owned by local authorities or private harbour trusts/ authorities.)

In 2013, Transport Scotland, which is part of Scottish Government, announced it was to extend the period of the CHFS contract by a further three years, and go out to tender for a new contract to commence in October 2016. In May 2016 it was confirmed that the bid submitted by CalMac Ferries Ltd had been successful and a 6-year-contract - with the option of a two year extension- was awarded by Transport Scotland.

The Transport Minister Humza Yousaf MSP subsequently announced a review into ferry tendering procedures, which specifically looked at the possibility of applying the so-called Teckal Exemption to Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services which would remove the requirement under EU law of putting lifeline service out to tender.

In December 2017, Transport Scotland published an interim report into its Ferry Services Procurement Policy Review and Mr Yousaf MSP made a statement to Parliament advising that it was the Government's desire not to put the next Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract out to tender in 2024. It believed that with some minor changes to the constitution of David MacBrayne Ltd. the contract can be awarded directly to an in-house provider, such as CalMac Ferries Ltd, if they are compliant with the Teckal exemption and EU state aid rules.

The policy review is continuing to assess the governance arrangements required for a company owned by Scottish Ministers to be in a position to receive a direct award.

In the meantime:

  • The Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services network will continue to be operated by CalMac under the terms of the current contract until 2024.

  • In December 2018 the Scottish Government announced that it would not be putting the contract for the Gourock-Dunoon ferry service out to tender as previously indicated and would be transferring responsibility for the passenger-only service to CalMac Ferries Ltd to be operated under the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract.  This took place with effect from January 21 2019. The ferries, MVs Argyll Flyer and Ali Cat, which have been deployed on the route since June 2011 by the DML subsidiary, Argyll Ferries Ltd,  are continuing to operate and the Government has announced its intention to give further consideration to the future vessel and service requirements of the route.

  • The Northern Isles Ferry Services contract, currently operated by Serco NorthLink, has been extended until October 2019 and the tender process for the next contract is now underway.

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