Letter from Europe

Ferry links: Britain and Ireland

Issue no. 2016/5

Picture above: Explore the Scottish islands and the Clyde coast with Caledonian MacBrayne. A CalMac ferry at Largs in the Firth of Clyde (photo © Robert Flynn / dreamstime.com).


There is much ado in British and Irish waters these days, with so many very appealing ferry routes, but also a few services slipping from the schedules. In this Letter from Europe, we give an overview of some interesting new developments.

Dear fellow travellers

There is much ado in British and Irish waters these days, with so many very appealing ferry routes, but also a few services slipping from the schedules. It is often hard to keep track of which routes are actually running. In January, P&O axed its service from Troon in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland. Scoot Ferries launched a new ferry link from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight last November only to cease trading the following month.

Good news for South Uist

There's interesting news from Scotland as Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) will from next month dedicate a ship solely to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Until now the island has relied on a shared service with Barra. Now there will be daily sailings in both directions between Lochboisdale on South Uist and the mainland rail head at Mallaig. For three winters in succession, CalMac has trialled the route, operating on two days each week. Now it looks set to become a year-round feature of the Hebridean sailing schedules, which will greatly improve the accessibility of South Uist from the mainland.

The shift to having dedicated ships for Barra and South Uist — one for each island — means that there will no longer be direct sailings between Castlebay and Lochboisdale. It will leave no great gap in public transport provision as travellers can easily use the Barra to Eriskay ferry instead. But we always rather enjoyed the Castlebay to Lochboisdale route. It was a great excursion for a summer evening, on a good day affording fine views of the Small Isles away to the east. The last sailings on this route will be on Thursday 24 March.

Summer outings with CalMac

CalMac's summer schedules see some reallocation of ships between routes, but otherwise the pattern of service is much the same as last summer. One surprise is that the summer-season service across the Firth of Clyde to Campbeltown (on the Mull of Kintyre) returns for 2016.

This experimental service from Ardrossan to Campbeltown was introduced in 2013, and we fully expected that it would not continue beyond 2015. But it's back, as bizarrely timed as ever, and now looks as though it is going to be a regular feature of summer in Kintyre.

As the Saturday morning Ardrossan-bound boat stops at Brodick, devotees of oddball ferry routes will thus still be able to enjoy the once-a-week connection from Campbeltown to the Isle of Arran. It is one of a number of quirky seasonal ferry links which operate in one direction only. Another favourite in this category is Brittany Ferries' weekly sailing from Roscoff to Bilbao (which has no balancing services in the northbound direction). The first sailing from Roscoff will be next Monday, with the Cap Finistère then leaving every Monday until the end of October.

Lifeline links to remote islands

It's easy to forget that there are many islands around the coast of Britain and Ireland which rely on only very infrequent ferry services. In winter, the 70 inhabitants of North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys have only a weekly link with Kirkwall. When the summer timetables start in May, the frequency doubles to twice weekly. In the Shetlands, the island of Foula has just a twice-weekly ferry link in winter. Fair Isle, which is arguably the remotest permanently inhabited island in the British Isles, is served by only one boat each week in winter.

Irish waters

On the east coast of Ireland, there's been talk for two years now of a car ferry service across the mouth of Carlingford Lough. But the proposed start date of Easter 2016 now looks highly improbable.

In north-west Ireland, the Lough Foyle international car ferry service linking Northern Ireland with the Republic could well be reinstated this summer. Lough Foyle Ferry Company operated the link between Magilligan and Greencastle, but the company sold its only vessel in November. Local authorities on both sides of the border are now busy negotiating with potential new operators for this service.

Kintyre Express will be back for the 2016 summer season, operating two routes out of Ballycastle on the Antrim coast - one to Port Ellen on the Hebridean island of Islay and the other to Campbeltown on Kintyre. The timings permit a day trip from Northern Ireland to Islay.

North Sea

We are not at all optimistic about the much vaunted reinstatement of the North Sea link between Harwich and Esbjerg. Regina Line claimed they would reopen the route in March 2016, but that certainly won't happen next month.

Travellers intent on crossing the North Sea to Scandinavia do however have an opportunity with the DFDS freight ferries from Immingham (on the Lincolnshire coast of eastern England). DFDS will accept passengers and private cars on its services from Immingham to Brevik (Norway) and Göteborg (Sweden).

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Why not enter our Scottish Slow Travel Challenge? Devise a route from Skye to Ardrossan relying entirely on scheduled ferry and boat services. The deadline for submission of entries is Friday 11 March 2016.

Update (13 March 2016): You can see an optimal solution to the Scottish Slow Travel Challenge in our Notes section.

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