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Whisky barrels over children? CalMac timetable cautiously accepted by Mull and Iona users, but only after an intervention from transport minister

The Loch Frisa on the water near the port in Craignure sailing out onto a calm sea.
The Loch Frisa near Craignure, Mull. Image: Sandy McCook/ DC Thomson

Ferry users on Mull and Iona say they have negotiated a better winter timetable than the one they were initially being offered.

After negotiating with CalMac, Mull and Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC) said the winter timetable serving the islands is the “best outcome” given the lateness in which the draft timetable was published.

The proposals were criticised for, amongst other things, its lack of sailings beyond teatime on a Sunday, and for the early time on a Monday school pupils would have to leave the island of Iona to get to class on time.

Joe Reade, chairman of Mull and Iona Ferry Committee, said after discussions with CalMac and Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth, he was “satisfied” with the final timetable – after believing some of the initial proposals prioritised whisky barrels over children getting to school.

The timetables will be published on the CalMac website in coming days, and will be available for booking on or shortly after October 13.

Island children will only need to leave the island five minutes, ten minutes less than was proposed.

The timetable is based on three variables, the first is when there are two ferries, the second is when the smaller capacity Loch Frisa is on the route, and the third when the Isle of Mull is on the route.

The Isle of Mull is often taken from the route to fill in when there are breakdowns in other parts of the network – and in those cases the Loch Frisa single vessel timetable will come into force.

Problems with Loch Frisa timetable

Mr Reade said: “The timetable when we have the single vessel Loch Frisa was the most problematic timetable, due to the slow speed and capacity of the Loch Frisa.

“As initially proposed, the impact on Iona islanders was particularly poor, giving them only two hours to visit Oban.

“In addition, the first sailing from Craignure on Mondays, carrying school children, had to leave 15 minutes earlier than previously in order for the pupils to arrive at school on time.

“Our initial request for a major vessel to work alongside the Loch Frisa at all times was denied.

“We then pressed for the provision of a major vessel on Mondays only. This too was deemed not possible. The only potential vessel for this job was the Hebridean Isles.

“Transport Scotland agreed with CalMac that the disruption caused to Islay on Mondays by borrowing their second vessel was not acceptable.

MV Loch Frisa docks in Craignure, Mull. Photo by Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“Many on Iona feel with some justification that this was the prioritisation of whisky barrels over children.”

In the end, the ferry that brings high school-aged children from Iona to Oban for the week, will leave five minutes later and children will be last to board the Craignure ferry.

After changes to the proposed timetable, Iona residents will now have a four-hour window in Oban.

Mr Reade continued: “We have also proposed an additional early morning sailing from Oban, which requires a 4am positioning sailing from Craignure.

“These additional early sailings have not yet been agreed, but we are insisting that they are an essential requirement, as a result of the Loch Frisa’s low capacity.”

Two vessel timetable

It was better news for the community when two vessels were on the route.

Mr Reade continued: “It is now possible to catch the 8.57am train out of Oban any day of the week; to be in Oban before 9am every week day, and return home much later than before.

“Capacity certainly should not be an issue.”

MV Isle of Mull single vessel timetable

For three weeks in March, the Isle of Mull will operate on her own whilst the Loch Frisa is in dry-dock.

This is a similar service to the previous normal timetable, but significantly compromised by the application of a 50minute sailing time and a 20minute turn around time.

The Isle of Mull ferry.

Other timetables

Fionnphort – Iona:  Timetables are still being finalised.

Lochaline-Fishnish and Tobermory-Kilchoan timetables are unchanged from previous years.

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: “We appreciate the uncertainty around the winter overhaul and timetable plans will have been unsettling for our island communities and we are sorry for any anxiety this may have caused.

“We have been working hard to publish the timetables as early as possible, but the revised plan for the closure of Uig, which is resulting in two different timetables and a high volume of service changes to accommodate this year’s overhaul plan, brought an unprecedented level of complexity.

“This involves entering over 58,000 sailings and is on top of the usual interdependencies between routes and connecting services, and tidal restrictions in some areas.

“We want to assure customers we have being doing all we can to deliver the timetables as quickly as possible and want to thank customers and communities for their patience as they bear with us through this period.”