Over The Sea To Skye

Garry Fraser considers a lesser-known route

The first time I went to Skye – many years ago – was by ferry, the old Kyle of Lochalsh – Klyeakin route. The last time I went to the misty isle was by bridge but the next time, I’m determined it will be by ferry again. One route is to Armadale via Mallaig but to me the pivotal one is via Glenelg and over to Kylerhea. There are two reasons.

One is the approach up and across from Glen Shiel which boasts magnificent views back to the Five Sisters of Kintail. The other is that the mode of transport is by the world’s only remaining turntable ferry. It might only take a matter of minutes but the scenery is magical, with otters, seals, dolphins and a resident sea eagle to keep you company on the way.

Jo Crawford is Development Manager for the ferry company which is very much part of a community enterprise aimed at putting Glenelg – surely the most visually appealing palindrome! – firmly on the map.

“A ferry has operated at the Kylerhea narrows here for hundreds of years,” she says. “The crossing formed part of an old droving route, cattle being driven from Skye to central Scotland would be swum over the narrows, at slack tide.

“Since 1982, Glenachulish, the current vessel, has operated the Glenelg ferry across Kylerhea narrows between Easter and October each year. The 550 metre crossing takes only five minutes and is the shortest sea crossing to Skye. There has been a ferry on this route for over 400 years, with a car ferry since 1934.”

A Vital Part of the Community

As well as providing a valuable tourist service – around 12,000 cars and 36,000 passengers are carried each year – the company also provides local employment in an area where jobs are scarce. There are two full-time annualised jobs and one full-time seasonal job, two part-time annualised and six part-time seasonal rope hand jobs for local boys and girls at high school or home from college or university.

It also provides subsidised travel for locals and tries to support other local businesses by attracting visitors to visit the Glenelg and Arnisdale peninsula and the many historic places there is to see.

The ferry’s fame has spread far and wide, really putting Glenelg on the map. “Hollywood came to Glenelg in 2004 for the filming of Made of Honour,” says Jo, “which featured some great footage of the ferry and her crew. Various BBC productions including Hebrides, Islands at the Edge, The One Show, Wilderness Walks with Ray Mears and Channel 4’s Homes by the Sea have included the ferry crossing and the abundant wildlife, in particular Victor, our resident sea eagle.

“A German film crew shooting scenes for a fantasy feature film were with us last season and Volvo spent a day filming for an advertisement at the start of this season. So, it’s really great exposure for us and brings the ferry to the attention of a huge audience.”

In the close season when the ferry doesn’t run, there’s still plenty for Jo to keep her occupied. ”My own work continues apace even when the ferry goes for her winter refit – marketing, advertising, fundraising, liaising with other agencies like Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. I am currently working on a project to create a small visitor’s centre above the Glenelg slipway so there’s lots to occupy me all year round!”

“A Special Bit Of Living History”

But while it might be a business concern, Jo is conscious of the role the ferry plays in the heritage not only of the region but of  Scotland in general.

“The Glenachulish is the last of her kind in the world” she says. “Manually-operated turntable ferries were once a common sight on the West coast of Scotland, partly because they didn’t require much in the way of infrastructure – a ramp or slipway would suffice to carry traffic across the waters. Our ferry is the last survivor and therefore a very special bit of living history. The heritage of the vessel and the crossing are significant, which is why it’s so important to preserve the service.”

Travel in style…

For more information, and to book trips on Glenachulish, visit the ferry’s website at skyeferry.co.uk