The thread about how Scotland’s Hebridean and Clyde Ferries got their name and got their red funnels with lions on them

This thread was originally written and published in April 2021. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

The “Hebridean and Clyde Ferries” of Scotland – Caledonian Macbrayne or Calmac to you and me – have distinctive red funnels, with a red lion on them within an yellow circle. How did this come to be? Let’s find out, it’s really a story not of ferries, but of the internecine politics of the 1960s nationalised transport industry.

Below we have a beautiful poster for the new car ferry for Larne at Stranraer, Caledonain Princess (TSS stands for “Twin Screw Steamer”). It’s from some time between 1961 and 1965 and the ship has yellow funnels with red lions.

TSS Caledonian Princess, by Grainger Johnson c, 1961. Scottish Maritime Museum
TSS Caledonian Princess, by Grainger Johnson c, 1961. Scottish Maritime Museum

When the railways were nationalised by the government in 1948, so were their shipping concerns. On Scotland’s Clyde coast the railway fleets dominated the passenger and leisure trade; the Caledonian Steam Packet (yellow funnels with black caps, and a white band around the black hull) and the London & North Eastern Railway (red funnels with a broad white band and a black cap, with a gold stripe around the hull). These two competitors were combined as the Clyde Shipping Services of the British Transport Commission, and all ships got the yellow and black funnels. This also moved the Clyde shipping out from under control of the railways to alongside it under the BTC umbrella; for the first time, the men in the board room at Gourock found themselves with a hitherto absent degree of independence from the railway. The CSS painted all the funn

The Stranraer to Larne service was an exception however, it had been directly owned by the London, Midland & Scottish railway before nationalisation so in 1948 was put under direct railway control instead. It’s newest ship was the Princess Victoria, which had only completed in 1946. A diesel-powered, roll-on-roll-off ferry, she was the most modern vessel of her kind in the country.

Princess Victoria, credit: Mid & East Antrim Borough Council
Princess Victoria, credit: Mid & East Antrim Borough Council

She was the pride of the nationalised British Railways fleet, and retained her smart LMS colours of a yellow funnel with a black cap. However there were flaws in the design of the stern doors, the vehicle deck and the “scuppers” which should have drained it and she was tragically lost in a storm in 1953 with the loss of 133 lives. Only 46 on board survived.

Rescuing survivors of the Princess Victoria, credit: Belfast Telegraph
Rescuing survivors of the Princess Victoria, credit: Belfast Telegraph

A replacement was needed, but in the interim responsibility for the Stranraer to Larne service passed to Clyde Shipping Services, so when the vessel was ordered in 1959 from Dennys of Dumbarton, it came not from British Railways but CSS.

In the meantime, freed from the yoke of railway control, CSS had been quietly going about exerting its independence in the intervening years and modernising its fleet and operations. Its first three new ferries of 1954 were revolutionary roll-on-roll-off diesel vessels but kept their traditional colours of Caley yellow funnels with white lines along the black hull, seen here on Cowal.

MV Cowal
Cowal in her original colours. Embedded from the Flickr of the Scottish Maritime Museum

Their next order, a big car ferry for Arran, was the Glen Sannox of 1957. With this ship they went a step further than yellow funnels and white stripes and boldly put the old Caley crest – the Royal Standard of Scotland, or Lion Rampant – on the bow. This coincided with the return that year of the romantic old Caledonian Steam Packet name to replace the bureaucratic-sounding Clyde Shipping Services. The independence of the Caley became increasingly possible in the BTC; hamstrung by bureaucracy it had split the railways into 6 regional boards and given its other subsidiaries increasing self-sufficiency.

Glen Sannox when new, 1957
Glen Sannox when new – the crest is the dark circle on the tip of the bow. Embedded from the Flickr of Uisdean Spicer

The replacement for the Princess Victoria Caledonian Princess – was ordered in 1959. She was to be twice the displacement, twice as long and 25% faster than Glen Sannox, and the jewel in Caledonian Steam Packet crown. To celebrate this, management had not just the yellow funnel, white stripes and crest added to the bow, they had the Lion Rampant supersized and placed proudly in red on each side of the funnel. The new ferry set new standards in service of speed, comfort and capacity.

Caledonian Princess
Caledonian Princess when new. Embedded from the Flickr of Robert Waverley

The look of the Clyde ferries now found itself subtly at odds with the British Railways fleet (which had the same basic black hull, white upperworks and yellow funnel with a black cap), even though they were all part of the same British Transport Commission organisation. The board of British Railways were irked at the upstarts in Gourock; they could still excerpt considerable influence over them through the BTC so the management of the Caley had felt it prudent to keep the lions on the funnels off the builders plans just in case. The name Caledonian Princess was something of a compromise between competing parties and an attempt at reconciling traditions with eachother; Caley ships generally had names starting Marchioness of– or Duchess of– and the LMS Railway had used Princess-.

In 1963, plans were put in place to abolish the sprawling BTC by the government. Its various subsidiaries were re-organised in a simpler structure reporting directly to the Minister of Transport. The railways were returned to a single operational structure, the British Railways Board, and the Caley found itself made a subsidiary of the former. It was back under railway control, however was still a nominally independent company with its own management. The BTC ceased to exist on January 1st 1964, and the Caley management started off as it meant to go on, they ordered red lions be added to the funnels of the Glen Sannox for the summer season.

" A Moment in Time" People on Deck of MV Glen Sannox circa July 1965. On the Brodick to Ardrossan Route. Arran Ferry. Scanned from one of my late Fathers 35mm Slides.
Glen Sannox’s proud red lions in 1965. Embedded from the Flickr of Murray McFarlane

These 2 rampant, red fingers up to London from Gourock weren’t taken lion down (badum-tsch!) though. The British Railways Board didn’t respond immediately. Instead, it commissioned a landmark corporate identity scheme which would stretch to all parts of its organisation – including the sea – and unify it in colour, branding and style. Restyling itself as plain old British Rail under the iconic “Double Arrow” logo, the new Corporate Design Manual specified every detail of the new look and feel, in exacting detail – including ships!

The BR Corporate Identity Manual of 1965 featuring the Double Arrow by Gerald Barneyand the Rail Alphabet of Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear

The Caley management were sent a copy of the manual and ordered by London to turn to the section on shipping, tow the line and get the orders out to the painters. Black hulls were out, “Monastral Blue” was in. Yellow funnels were out, red were in. Unauthorised white bands, traditional crests and logos were out. The ventilators were to be an insipid corporate grey and a giant white Double Arrow was to be stuck on each funnel.

Turn to page: ships! The addition of the Sealink brand was a later addition, but the rest was the same.

The channel ferry Dover was the first ship to get the new look when she joined the fleet in June 1965. Ships take time to repaint, so change on the Clyde wasn’t instant. They weren’t able to resist Monastral Blue, or keep their own pattern of white lines, but they did retain the yellow funnels and – where fitted – the red lions on the funnels remained. Without the BTC to protect it, the Caley was lucky to get away with this level of concession.

Glen Sannox with the blue hull and no mid-hull white line.

But get away with them they did. BR had much bigger fish to fry in trying to rationalise the chaotic railways and unravel the failures of the BTC’s “Modernisation Plan” and perhaps saw the Monastral Blue hulls and decided to leave the Caley alone. The Caley took advantage of this and the red lions multiplied, spreading across most of the funnesl of their fleet. Smaller examples, the “lion cubs” found their way onto most of the yellow funnels on the Clyde, including the old pleasure steamers – with rather mixed aesthetic results.

Waverley in the hybrid BR/Caley livery. CC-by-SA 3.0, Johnragla
Waverley in the hybrid BR/Caley livery. CC-by-SA 3.0, Johnragla

BR probably just wasn’t interested in having anything to do with Clyde shipping – be it arguing over funnel ornaments or running things – and managed to palm off the Caley to the Scottish Transport Group, who answered to the Secretary of State for Scotland. As a parting gesture however, it took the Caledonian Princess and the lucrative Stranraer to Larne route with it. They wasted no time in having her repainted “by the book”, and the red lions were replaced with the corporate Double Arrows. The Caley crest survived on her bow until the end of her days for some reason.

Caledonian Princess in Sealink house colours

The Caley now found itself in the Scottish Transport Group; which was largely formed form the Scottish Bus Group. Co-incidentally, before WW2, the non-municipal Scottish bus industry was dominated by a single operator, Scottish Motor Traction (SMT), who owned much of their own competition. And SMT was owned by – you’ve guessed it! – the railways! Instead of answering to a railway in London, Gourock now answered to a bus company in Edinburgh, who had learned much of their management from a railway company in London!

At the same time as the Caley was brought into the STG, another ex-railway organisation was too; David Macbrayne. Macbraynes were a vast transport network across the highlands and islands of Scotland. They operated a big fleet of passenger and freight steamers, but were much more than just a shipping company; they also had a bus network and a lorry-based freight distribution service. The STG took the opportunity to split the company up; buses went to the various Scottish Bus Group regional operators, the lorry freight service became a standalone subsidiary and the shipping was placed into a holding company for the time being. Macbrayne‘s house colours were black hulls, red funnels with a black cap and buff yellow masts and cranes.

Macbrayne’s house colours

But the STG proved not to be quite such a difficult parent as BR had been. Once it has sorted the buses out, they took the logical decision to merge both of its their operations into a single company; Caledonian Macbrayne, headquartered in Gourock. The new corporate livery was to be a pleasing compromise between the traditions of both companies; They got funnels in Macbrayne red, but the Caley red lion was added, in a red disc. Hulls would go back to being black. Both companies used the buff yellow masts and cranes, so they stayed. Ventilators were a pale blue.

The funnel of MV Juno
The funnel of Juno

A substantial and ugly bullet was dodged in 1973 when the prototype colour scheme, trialled on the Waverley was sent back to be reworked:

Waverley in 1973. Pic via

Merger completed, the STG then sensibly left Caledonian Macbrayne to get on with running ferries, and it got on with running buses. And that is the story of how Hebridean and Clyde ferries got their red funnels, their red lions, their yellow circles, their black hulls and their name. The name, and the colour scheme has stuck to this day. It will be 50 years old next year.

The Waverley herself is still going, in a scheme based largely on that of the London & North Eastern Railway for whom she was built – itself based on the scheme of the North British Railway fleet.

Waverley in 2004. CC0 1.0
Waverley in 2004. CC0 1.0

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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