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Secret Ships of CalMac

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The secret ships of CalMac were three vessels constructed for ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) in 1964, when the Cold War had reached its height following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Better known as ferries operated by CalMac, the vessels Columba, Hebrides, and Clansman have been reported to have been built as Cold War citadel ships for The Secretary of State for Scotland.[1]

All were built in 1964 and were fitted with advanced door systems which permitted the interior of the vessel to be hermetically sealed from the outside world, and were equipped with comprehensive decontamination and shower facilities internally, with external water spraying, or pre-wetting equipment fitted to protect the exterior. In the event of a nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) attack, the interior of the vessel - the citadel - would have been sealed and pressurised to prevent the ingress of contamination, while the exterior water sprays which covered the entire vessel would have enveloped it in a continuous stream of running water, intended to prevented contamination or fallout from settling on the outer surface.

The three ferries remained in operation until the 1980s, presumably with their NBC equipment maintained in a state of readiness. The last to be sold was Columba in 1988, only one year before the Cold War was officially declared over by US President George HW Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989.[2]


Hebridean Princess at Crarae, 2011, Fox
Hebridean Princess at Crarae

Beginning in 1964, Columba served on the route between Oban and Craignure, on the Isle of Mull, which was a brand new route for CalMac, also connecting with the harbour at Locahline in Morvern. In 1972, Columba became the first CalMac vessel to offer a Sunday sailing, innovative and controversial at the time, such sailings continue to attract controversy and opposition as late as 2011. The ferry had a capacity for 850 passenger and 50 cars, with a length of 235 feet, breadth of 46 feet, and a draught of 9 feet, with a gross of 1,420 tons.

Columba served with CalMac until retiral in1988, and was then acquired by Hebridean Island Cruises to become the luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess in 1989. A total internal refit for this new service saw the passenger count fall to just 49.

Media revelation of 2017

As an amusing follow-on to this article, itself dating to 2011 and preceded by the undated sources referenced, the The Herald/Sunday Herald published the story on 22 January 2017 as 'How Scotland and three CalMac ferries played a crucial part in nuclear planning' which begins:

 IN the event of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the west, key members of the British Government would have survived on ships specially built by Caledonian MacBrayne as 'floating nuclear bunkers', and hidden along the Scottish coast and in lochs.

There is also speculation that the Royal Family would have been evacuated to one of these CalMac survival ships to last out the war.

The revelations about Scotland's role after an atomic war appear in top secret documents which have just been declassified following Freedom on Information requests from Cold War researcher Mike Kenner.

The papers detail the “Python” programme designed to keep the government running and the head of state alive in order for the British state to continue operating despite a nuclear exchange, mass deaths and radioactive fallout.

Kenner said: "According to a 2009 Cabinet Office statement, 'The Python plans that were valid from 1968 bear similarities to plans that are still current.' This explains why it has taken almost 50 years for the Cabinet Office to release any substantive information concerning the Python concept."

- How Scotland and three CalMac ferries played a crucial part in nuclear planning.[3]

To be fair, and more serious, while the ships are referred to, the article is a much wider-ranging summary of the plans made, and changed, regarding the response to a nuclear attack.

Compared to earlier articles regarding such planning, there is a notable trend within them to consider that the Government and other organisations were almost naive in their content and presentation to the general public, however, this more recent article would seem to suggest this was not really the case, and the authorities had a much more realistic grasp of the consequences than has been suggested.

It may be truer to suggest that they had no real options or defence at the time, and that informing the general public of the day would have been disastrous. The reaction to being told that millions of casualties were inevitable, and that little or nothing could be done, could have been almost as damaging as an attack.

Notably, although plans were laid, shelters built, and Government evacuations arranged (to mention some of the plans), these gradually dwindled and were abandoned over the years, slowly seen to be costly to create and maintain, and realistically ineffective in the event of a nuclear exchange.

The newer releases of records would appear to show that the rundown was a response to realistic analysis, and a move away from what could be seen as propaganda, which was becoming less effective as the public became better educated as more information about nuclear war and its consequences became better known.


1 Ships of CalMac, Secret Ships

2 Malta summit ends Cold War, BBC News, December 3, 1989.

3 How Scotland and three CalMac ferries played a crucial part in nuclear planning (From HeraldScotland) Retrieved February 01, 2017.

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