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on Loch Shiel, Glenfinnan, by Fort William, Scotland, PH37 4LT

A brief history of boating on Loch Shiel

Loch Shiel and its surrounding area are steeped in history. There is no doubt that the Loch was once a busy thoroughfare, travelling by boat being by far the easiest way to get around. The River Shiel is two miles long and flows into the sea at Loch Moidart, thus enabling passages from the sea as far inland as Glenfinnan.

The first boats would have been skin-covered, no doubt similar to the Welsh and Irish coracles and curraghs. Stronger and longer lasting craft built of wood followed. Loch Shiel has long been noted for its dense oakwoods and it is known that Gaskan was the area where the MacDonalds built their boats. These larger boats, called Birlinns, were based on the Scandinavian longboats but were smaller and more manoeuvrable. Shorter inland journeys would have been made in smaller wooden skiffs.

In 1893 David MacBrayne, the founder of the very large ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne, owned a hotel at Shiel Bridge and ran a launch called Maud, mainly for towing small fishing boats up the Loch. Once a week in summer he would travel the length of the Loch to Glenfinnan as part of an elaborate circular route from Oban. This continued until 1897.

In 1898 Lord Howard of Glossop, the owner of an estate at the south end of the Loch inaugurated the first steamer service. This launch was called Lady of the Lake and operated from Acharacle in 1898 to link up with a mail coach running from Fort William to Arisaig.

The completion of the West Highland Railway Line from Glasgow to Mallaig resulted in a huge increase in passenger numbers, cargo and mail to be shipped down the Loch and larger boats were commissioned for this purpose.

The best-known vessel was Clanranald ll, which plied the Loch from 1900 until 1953 and was a lifeline for the people living on the lochside.

In 1953 David MacBrayne again took over the service and ran two smaller launches, Lochshiel and Lochailort, carrying only passengers and mail.

This weekday service ran until 1967 when the new road between Lochailort and Kinlochmoidart was completed, marking the end of a 70 years of mail sailings.

In 1968 Jimmy Henderson commissioned his launch Rose Isle as a passenger boat, operating from Acharacle and skippered by his brother Duncan.

This open boat ran until 1983 when Duncan retired.

Between 1983 and 1985 Niall McKillop of Fort William ran a small open passenger launch from Glenfinnan.

For a number of years after 1985 there were no passenger boats on the Loch, until Jim Michie launched his classic vessel Sileas in 1997.

The new seasonal service, Loch Shiel Cruises, started in April 1998 and runs from Glenfinnan, offering a variety of different cruises and once again giving people the opportunity to experience the delights of this beautiful Loch.

These notes are taken from an article by Fraser G. MacHaffie, printed in the Summer 1977 edition of Clyde Steamers, the magazine of the Clyde River Steamer Club, and we thank both the author and the editor for permission to use them.

Contact us:
Jim Michie, Marnoch, Roshven, Lochailort, Highland
Tel / Fax 01687 470322 Mobile 07801 537617
Email us - sileas@highlandcruises.co.uk