Uig, at the northern tip of Skye, is the departure point for the shortest ferry crossing to the Western Isles, and the only ferry service that allows you the option of going either to Harris & Lewis or to the Uists. The Summer timetable provides around 10 sailings each week from Uig to Tarbert in Harris, and around 12 sailings each week from Uig to Lochmaddy in North Uist.
The additional services on the Uig to Lochmaddy route are significant, because they reflect a seven days per week service, including Sundays. There are no sailings between Uig and Tarbert on Sundays, given the strength of Sunday observance in Harris and Lewis. However, with the launch in 2006 of a Sunday service by the Sound of Harris ferry it is now possible for anyone needing to get to Harris or Lewis on a Sunday to do so, by sailing first to Lochmaddy then catching the Sound of Harris ferry from Berneray to Leverburgh.
Until 1996 the Tarbert-Uig-Lochmaddy service provided the only vehicle ferry link between Harris and North Uist. Today's fully developed Sound of Harris ferry links the Western Isles' two main island groups and almost all of the services from Lochmaddy and Tarbert go direct to Uig. What at first sight seems to be a triangular service (like that connecting Lochboisdale and Castlebay to Oban) is actually two separate linear services operating from Uig.
The ship in use on the service is the MV Hebrides. She was built by Ferguson Shipbuilders at Port Glasgow at a price of £15m and was launched by HM the Queen on 2 August 2000. She entered service on 24 March 2001, taking over from the MV Hebridean Isles which had operated the service since 1985. The Hebridean Isles moved to take over the Islay service, which she still operates.
The MV Hebrides can carry 110 cars and over 600 passengers and her introduction on the route provided a significant increase in capacity. For the technically minded, the vehicle deck comes complete with a mezzanine level which can be loaded with cars when demand is high: while the open rear of the vehicle deck allows dangerous cargoes to be carried safely.
The MV Hebrides is very similar in design to the MV Clansman, built two years earlier and used on the South Uist, Barra and Oban route. The most noticeable difference is a significantly improved amount of open deck space on the Hebrides, much of it providing some protection from the elements.
Internal accommodation is of a very high standard and, overall, MV Hebrides is probably the most comfortable of CalMac's ferries: though this view could also be influenced by the relative shortness of the crossings from Uig, taking just 1 hour and 40 minutes to Tarbert and 1 hour and 45 minutes to Lochmaddy.
Until 1963 Lochmaddy. and Tarbert were served by mail steamers from Uig, which offered no vehicle carrying capacity. Things changed dramatically with the arrival of the first car ferry on the route, an earlier ship named Hebrides. By today's standards vehicle access was primitive.
Cars drove on via side ramps in front of the bridge and were then rotated on a turntable and lowered to a vehicle deck in the bowels of the ship capable of holding 50 cars. This may sound primitive to a roll-on roll-off generation, but in 1963 it revolutionised transport to and from the Western Isles, making them for the first time a practicable tourist destination. The service was vigorously marketed under the banner of Hebridean Highways.
This older Hebrides has long disappeared from sight, first to service in the Greek Islands and more recently probably to the scrapyard. But an echo of her can still be seen in these waters in the form of the Hebridean Princess. She is now known as a luxury cruise ship plying the west of Scotland and beyond: but before heavy conversion she was the older Hebrides' sister ship, the Columba.
This first generation of car ferry soldiered on from Uig until it was replaced by the MV Hebridean Isles in 1985, making today's MV Hebrides just the third ship to have served on this route since the advent of the car ferry era in 1963.