There’s always been strong connections between the northern part of Ireland and Scotland, going back at least to the joint kingdom of Dalradia in the 6th century. At the southwest corner of Scotland is the port of Stranraer. At one time important trains ran from London to the port to serve the lucrative Irish trade. Today, the railway line from Carlisle has been long closed. Although there are trains to Stranraer from Glasgow, they no longer connect with the ferries, although a bus, number 350, runs from Stranraer to Cairnryan port. The road to Carlisle, the A75 is terribly inadequate, the A77 to Glasgow a goat track.
In 1973, Stranraer was abandoned in favour of Cairnryan, six miles north, on the other side of Loch Ryan. This was a small port that grew during WW2 when it was No 2 Military Port, with three harbour piers and a military railway. In 1957/58 the lighterage wharf was used again, by the Army and the RAF to transfer equipment to build the rocket tracking station on St Kilda. Military use of the port ended in the 1960s.
In July 1973, Townsend Thoresen started a ferry service from here to Larne, with the Ionic Ferry. In 1987, P&O took over Townsend Thoresen and have developed the service constantly.
Larne is 32 miles from Cairnryan, and the ferries take exactly 2 hours. Larne has always been a popular port. There used to be 3” gauge trains at the ferry terminal to whisk passengers to Ballymena in luxury coaches. The narrow gauge system was closed in 1933 and the coaches transferred to the County Donegal system. There are still 5’ 3” (Irish gauge) trains at the pier with regular connections to Belfast today. The pier station was famous for having a large clock showing both Irish and UK time. It is connected by an excellent dual carriageway road right from the ferry terminal that links with the Northern Ireland motorway network.
Today, the service is operated by the European Causeway and its sistership the European Highlander, operating up to 7 return trips per day, 7 days a week. Currently, the ships are going for refit, in turn, and so the European Seaway (Limassol registered) is providing cover, sent up from Dover.
The European Causeway was launched in July 2000 by Mitsubishi at Shimonoseki, Japan. She is 159.5m long, 25.34m beam, 9,516t net weight, 20,646 gross tonnes, 5.5 m draft, 22.5 knots, Nassau Bahamas registered, crew of 55, with a capacity for 410 passengers, 375 cars or 116 x 13.5 freight units, 1,771 lane metres, four engines, each 10,000 horse power (6732 KW) at 600 rpm, roll on, roll off. The European Highlander is very similar, but launched in January 2002, and is 6m longer than her sister, gross tonnage 21,188, beam 23.4m otherwise the same.
This route is very important. Stena Line also sail from Cairnryan, to Belfast, with a similar intensity of services. A large amount of freight is carried, and passengers and buses, all year round. After “Brexit” this route could even become more important as an easier route into the EU, with no border between Eire and Northern Ireland. It also has a “land bridge” potential from Ireland, via Scotland and England to ferries to the continent via Newcastle or Hull. The refit will, no doubt, see the two ships offer an even higher standard of service on this busy route. As trade and tourism grows, we might even see bigger ships on the route in the near future.