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Free Trip to Islay - June 1975

Free Trip to Islay - June 1975

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Published by Kintyre On Record
This is the story of Western Ferries' car ferry service to Islay as told by the company's then managing director Andrew Wilson, the story of subsidy and competition in Scotland's West Coast shipping services - Here too, an aside to these matters, is the tale of the departure of the paddle steamer "Jeanie Deans" from The Clyde on November 5, 1965, a future Western Ferries' engineer unexpectedly called to take her on the first part of her journey to The Thames.

While the company's "Sound of Islay" continues in service to this day, seven of the twelve vessels which operated to Islay during the period 1826 - 1905 were to finish life as total wrecks, little could one have dreamed that a similar fate would befall the "Sound of Jura".

Links are also given to a 278-page 1983-published report on Caledonian MacBrayne's shipping services.
This is the story of Western Ferries' car ferry service to Islay as told by the company's then managing director Andrew Wilson, the story of subsidy and competition in Scotland's West Coast shipping services - Here too, an aside to these matters, is the tale of the departure of the paddle steamer "Jeanie Deans" from The Clyde on November 5, 1965, a future Western Ferries' engineer unexpectedly called to take her on the first part of her journey to The Thames.

While the company's "Sound of Islay" continues in service to this day, seven of the twelve vessels which operated to Islay during the period 1826 - 1905 were to finish life as total wrecks, little could one have dreamed that a similar fate would befall the "Sound of Jura".

Links are also given to a 278-page 1983-published report on Caledonian MacBrayne's shipping services.

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Published by: Kintyre On Record on Sep 19, 2009
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Free Trip to Islay - June 1975
The Story of Subsidy and Competition in Scotland's West CoastShipping Services
Born in 1933, Andrew Wilson, the author of the 1975-published "Sound of Silence", in whichhe described the bizarre situation which had developed after Western Ferries broughtcompetition to the Islay and Jura routes, these hitherto the preserve of MacBrayne's and theirsuccessors and author of its sequel, "The Sound of The Clam", describing the even morebizarre events which had followed the publication of his earlier booklet, events which to hismind posed many questions about the conduct of government, its use of funds, its judgement, its accuracy and its secrecy, had joined Harrisons (Clyde) Ltd. in 1973, they theGlasgow shipowners who amongst other things acted as managers for Western Ferries andWilson then apoointed Western Ferries' Managing Director.Educated in the USA and England, Andrew Wilson had finally taken a degree in Modern Historyat Oxford in 1954 and then served for three years in The Royal Navy and then with the RNR,reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Joining the firm of J. Walter Thompson Co. (London) in 1957, he had worked on marketing andgeneral policy matters with major manufacturers of consumer goods and with nationalisedservices (aircraft and tourism) and, in 1967, had become a director of the company, he toocompleting his P.M.D. Studies at Harvard Business School that same year, his declared hobby,'clearing dead wood' !1
 
Here, as in the good old days when we would go the cinema and find our seats after the startof the film, watch the screen and the plot, which we often wouldn't then immediatelyunderstand, watch the film's end and then, after watching some adverts, a newsreel, a 'LookAt Life' documentary and a "B" feature film, we would settle down to watch the beginning of the main film that we'd gone to see and then discover that 'we'd only missed the openingcredits and the film was only just beginning when we'd taken our seats', here, we are going to join Andrew Wilson's story 'almost in the middle' and then cover its beginning and its end ! So,let's 'dive in' to the shallow and somewhat murky waters of the past, into the West Loch of  Tarbert in 1975 !It is difficult to be sure who had the idea but it was probably David Boyd in Islay. He hadnoticed from the figures given in "The Sound of Silence" that the subsidy which CaledonianMacBrayne required for the Islay route just about equalled Western Ferries' total route income.Given the same subsidy, Western Ferries would not need to charge at all, assuming of coursethat the stampede of passengers to (and from) the island did not sink the ship.It was easy to demonstrate the principle of the thing. Western Ferries would provide the shipfree. An oil company could be asked to give free fuel. The crew offered their services free.'Sound Catering', a staff venture, agreed to serve free food. And the island distillers kindlycontributed free whisky, Bowmore, Mackinlay's, Red Hackle, Findlater's and Long John, all of which contain a healthy portion of Islay malt. The first difficulty in such an exercise, like marriage, is to decide upon a day. Some days arewrong because they are too early or too late to be featured in the Sunday newspapers.Weekends are unpopular with short staffed television teams. If you choose the best day, youmeet the hottest competition from national events since even rapists and quintuplets seem toknow when their appearances are likely to have the greatest effect.How can one win when each day brings news of convulsion and catastrophe ? In short, thereis no good day for a special event and, whatever day is chosen, you are bound to announcethe event too early, so that the press are tired of it by the time it happens: or too late, so thatthey don't even know it occurred. So the date chosen was Friday, June 13th, 1975.How to control the numbers ? Islay prides itself for the whisky it produces. Tarbert men, onthe mainland side, pride themselves on consuming it. And free whisky is accounted to have aspecial flavour and mellowness lacking in all other kinds., a special booking systems forpassengers had to be established ! The rest should have been straightforward. All that was needed were lapel badges for thepress, folders containing background material, and a quick press conference once the trip waswell and truly on its way.It was known from the beginning that many whom we would have liked to come would beunable to accept the invitation, officials who might feel threatened when called upon toexplain their decisions, others who might be expected to stand by The Secretary of State onprinciple, yet others who were otherwise engaged. But it was disappointing that many presspeople who had hoped to come, did not, whether from fear of missed copy dates, seasicknessor a surfeit of whisky (less likely), it is hard to say.Invitees who did come somehow became lost in the surging throng but fortunately managed topass the barrier of staff counting the numbers coming on board.[It is a heinous sin to exceed your passenger certificate. It is said that a Mate, observing aDepartment of Trade surveyor coming on board, remarked to his Captain "I'm glad he sees us2
 
on a busy day, we have nearly a thousand on board". The ship had a certificate for just 600 !Fortunately for the Captain, the Surveyor could not see the wood for the trees].Most did not have lapel badges and therefore had to be identified by guesswork. And theirfolders, except for containing a photograph of our rival vessel, the
Pioneer
, (travelling as ithappens empty) carried none of the other papers which they were supposed to contain.If public relations were supposed to be Western Ferries' strong point, the company was nowrevealed as bungling amateurs.Press conferences (or news conferences as they are popularly known now that television hasbecome such an important medium) are normally identified with multiple microphones andflashing camera bulbs.Not so this one. Wedged into the bridge in order to hear each other shout, everybody agreedthat only the insanity of The Secretary of State's determination to ignore the fact that WesternFerries had introduced new methods, helped to build island prosperity, kept prices down,won most of the traffic and not gone bankrupt in the process could excuse such total absurdityas this trip. It was easy to pose 'twenty questions' for The Secretary of State in the sureknowledge that he would not answer any of them.One of the nicest things about Argyll was its Member of Parliament, Iain MacCormick. Thepopular picture of a SNP member as a be-kilted warrior wielding oil statistics and dire threatsdoes not fit him. He cares about all those living in his constituency as if even the deer hadvotes. He lent his weight to the demand for proper investigation of the situation.After this, the conference lost any cohesion it ever had. The poor journalists, local andnational, were besieged by well-wishers such as local businessmen, customers, farmers andagents anxious to press home the importance of the Western Ferries' service to the people of Islay and Jura. At Port Askaig a fresh deputation from Jura awaited the ship waving banners inthe damp air and Lilly MacDougall played the pipes as if to summon the clans from all theWestern Highlands.It is time to refer to the description of the scene in 'The Herald' Diary which, despite smallerrors of fact, recollected the scene with amazing clarity.'If we don't get this show off the road' said one of the captains (there seemed to be at leasthalf a dozen), Lilly'll run out of wind'. No chance. No way. There were stories too.'MacBrayne bashing' said one of the captains. 'Oh, no, but I did batter the Loch Carron withthis boat last week ... ' And he added, 'But maybe that was carrying things a bit far'.Or the tale of Sir William Lithgow, constant user of Western Ferries to get to Jura. 'He oncemissed the boat by minutes and stood waving on the pier. I just waved back', said thecaptain.And of course there was the catering. 'Sound Catering' did it and sound indeed it was. Thebar that day, run by a seemingly inexhaustible chief engineer, operated from the ship's'Mother's Room'.'This room', read the notice, 'is provided for mothers who wish to attend their babies'. Itdefinitely wasn't 'Mother's Ruin' for the mothers' room. It was Bowmore malt. And they gaveaway 1300 bottles of that and other notable whiskies.3

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