The main ferry route to Islay leaves the mainland from Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert, a few miles south of Tarbert on the Kintyre peninsula. In summer the normal timetabled frequency of around four sailings per day from Kennacraig to Islay is supplemented by ad hoc sailings at busy times and by a weekly sailing from Oban, which also provides a link between Islay and Colonsay. Islay is a year-round destination and the winter service is almost as good as in summer. At the Islay end, services normally divide equally between arriving at Port Askaig and Port Ellen.
From 2001 to 2011 the service was provided by two ships operating in tandem, the MV Hebridean Isles and the MV Isle of Arran. The former was built in 1985 in Cochranes in Selby in Yorkshire and can carry 68 cars. The latter was built by Ferguson Ailsa in Port Glasgow in 1983 and can carry 76 cars. Before the introduction of the MV Hebridean Isles onto the route, the MV Isle of Arran had been keeping the service going largely on its own since 1993.
In June 2011, CalMac introduced a new ship onto the route. The MV Finlaggan is named after Loch Finlaggan, the traditional administrative centre of the Lords of the Isles on Islay and was built by Remontowa SA in Poland. She can carry up to 85 cars and is the first ship in the Calmac fleet to have clamshell bow doors. She now operates the route in tandem with MV Hebridean Isles. Most of the images on this page are of the MV Finlaggan.
From the passenger's point of view, the MV Finlaggan is a fine ship with all the conveniences and facilities you would expect from a modern ferry. There is ample passenger lounge space across two floors, plus the spacious "Mariners" cafeteria. Windows are large and plentiful, and seating is well designed and comfortable. There is also plenty of external deck space, at the rear and, in good weather, the front of Deck 4, and in the rear half of the upper deck. There are passenger lifts to all floors capable of accommodating wheelchairs, and recliner lounges, a TV lounge, and pet areas.
The car deck is a drive through space with an open rear portion. Accommodation for cars is increased by the insertion of a mezzanine deck which lowers for loading and unloading. Whether the increase in vehicle accommodation from the Isle of Arran it effectively replaces is sufficient to meet the growth in demand remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that in every other way the MV Finlaggan brings a step change in capability. This is obvious on the highly automated bridge, which comes complete with wings that project beyond the sides of the ship. The glass panels in the floor of the wings providing views down the side of the ship are a surprise if you only notice them while standing on one.
En route to Islay the MV Finlaggan first sails down West Loch Tarbert. As it emerges from the loch the Paps of Jura spring into view, and they then command the horizon, as they will throughout your stay on Islay. As you enter open water, striking views also open up to the east across the low-lying island of Gigha to the Kintyre peninsula: and across both Gigha and Kintyre to the still more distant mountains of Arran. It takes sharper eyes to spot the newer addition to the Kintyre skyline, the large windfarms down the spine of the peninsula.
Your arrival in Islay might take you past the white painted coastal distilleries of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig en route into Port Ellen, with its equally nicely painted, but no longer operational, distillery. Or you might be taken into the Sound of Islay with close-up views of the southern end of Jura en route to Islay's second ferry terminal in the village of Port Askaig.
This is a service with a long lineage. The first steam sailings to Islay date back to 1825, and by 1876 the P.S. Islay was being operated twice weekly from Glasgow around the tip of Kintyre to Islay by an ancestor company of today's CalMac.
A timetable from 1880 shows an alternative for those in a hurry to reach the island. The P.S. Columba left Glasgow at 7.00am, and after calls at Greenock, Dunoon and Rothesay (amongst other places) reached Tarbert at 11.45am.
A horse drawn coach then took passengers across the narrow neck of land to a pier on West Loch Tarbert, not far from today's ferry terminus. From here they could catch the 12.40pm "Swift Steamer" which, after a call at Gigha, arrived in Port Ellen at 3.40pm or, on Mondays, Port Askaig at 3.30pm.
If you did the same journey today you'd only be able to save a couple of hours on that total journey time. And in the days before modern roads and roll-on roll-off ferries there were probably periods when the 1880 timetable seemed a pretty good deal.
By the 1960s, efforts to provide better and faster links to Islay produced a proposal for a ferry link across the much shorter sea crossing from Keillmore on the western side of Argyll to Lagg on Jura. An improved road would then be built down the east side of Jura, connecting with a ferry link across the narrow Sound of Islay to Port Askaig. Happily for the continuing tranquility of Jura, the Kennacraig solution was eventually chosen instead. More recent times have seen the proposal re-emerge on a smaller scale, but press reports suggest that this was unable to gain the necessary support to proceed.