GREAT Glen Shipping Company (GGSC) is heading for the completion of its first decade transporting timber and other products by sea in and around the west coast of Scotland and the Irish Sea. The company, which was incorporated in January 2010, thanks to the financial support of Transport Scotland and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, is the brainchild of Liam Browning.

Liam, a student of Newcastle University, where he studied Naval Architecture and Marine Transport, carried out an academic study on the movement of goods on the UK’s inland waterways. His study was supported financially by Bill Broad and having established a case, in theory, Liam set about proving it could be done in practice.

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He settled on the movement of cargo to Inverness via the Caledonian Canal. A £122,000 Mode Shift Revenue Support Grant was secured from the Scottish Government, with a further £65,000 coming from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, allowing a six-month trial to be carried out.

“We hired a vessel, the MV Kanutta, but the winter of 2010 was very severe, with temperatures of minus 15 degrees, and the canal actually froze over,” said Liam.

“This severely affected our ability to prove that we could move timber from Loch Etive, near Oban, up to Norbord at Inverness. The original idea was to do this and to back-haul fish feed down the canal.

“Interestingly, this misfortune on the weather front led us to get other cargo contracts. We ended up moving rock salt for the roads by sea and coal to Stornoway. Both commodities were badly needed because of the severe weather. In the end, we made 20 voyages up the canal, taking 16 lorryloads of timber per voyage off the congested Highland road network. Doing this was very much part of our rationale for moving cargo by water in the first place.”

Even though this initial idea was to prove unviable, from a commercial point of view, GGSC and others had established that timber could be moved by ship on the west coast waters. Liam’s business partners Calum Boyd and Christine MacColl, both from Boyd Brothers Haulage, had some good contacts in the timber industry and that was a big help in establishing the business.

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Operating out of the port at Corpach, they found themselves ideally placed to help move the wealth of timber that was available on the west coast islands of Scotland to the ever-growing BSW K2 sawmill, located next door to them. The K2 sawmill, over the period that the business has been operating, has received a multimillion-pound investment and the volume of timber required to service its needs has grown.

Corpach Port lies opposite Fort William, on the junction of two lochs, Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil. There is a 120 m quay with a 5 m depth, allowing fairly large-sized vessels to berth and offload a variety of cargoes. It is also located at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal with a sea lock allowing vessels to enter the basin. It handles a wide range of cargo, with timber being a major component of the port’s annual landings.

By the summer of 2011, Liam and his business partners were convinced that the movement of timber by sea was a viable business model. They were also encouraged by the fact that a mobile floating pier had been set up on Loch Etive to facilitate the removal of large volumes of timber. This timber would require, over a five-year period, ships for transportation.

Liam said: “At the time we started out, floating pier technology was coming into use on the west coast of Scotland, allowing access to forests, which in the past would not have been possible. Boyd Brothers were at the forefront of this and we took over the movement of timber from Glen Etive using their floating pier. Up to 2016, we moved around 100,000 tonnes of timber from there to Corpach.”

To allow them to do this effectively, GGSC purchased two 900-tonne-capacity coastal vessels, the MV Burhou and MV Isis, and ceased the chartering of the MV Kanutta. One of the first tasks was to convert the MV Burhou to become a self-discharging and -loading vessel through the addition of an excavator base and crane.

Liam said this was critical as they planned to operate in and out of small harbours and piers where larger ships could not get access. In these locations, it was very likely that there would not be the shore-based facilities such as cranes and other equipment to facilitate the loading of the ships. The goal for Liam then became one of establishing a business that was aiming to become a key link in the movement of timber for the forestry industry in the west coast of Scotland.

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Initially, there was not enough work to keep both ships occupied and the MV Isis was laid up at Corpach. However, at this time, investment work was being carried out on piers at Mull and Knoydart, allowing more timber to be harvested there and extracted via ships. This also came at a time when there was an increased demand for roundwood in the marketplace. The GGSC ships were attractive in that they could carry 650 tonnes of timber, which could be loaded in a day, shipped overnight, and at the sawmill the next morning.

“This gave us a real point of difference, as those harvesting the timber and the end-user sawmill could schedule production at the levels that were required on a daily, weekly, monthly basis,” said Liam. “We could and still can give them a drip feed of timber, if that is what they require. We set out to get into the nooks and crannies of smaller harbours and piers that the bigger ships could not access. In effect, we were looking to create a niche transportation solution for the timber industry in the west coast of Scotland.”

Supplying timber to the Iggesund plant at Workington added to the workload of GGSC and ultimately led it to chartering CEG Cosmos, which had a 1,000-tonne cargo capacity. It still supplies timber to Workington on what Liam describes as the ‘milk run’. This vessel also allowed larger cargoes of other commodities to be moved by the company, as and when the timber market demand has moved up and down.

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As well as working with timber companies and others to ensure the vessels were kept fully occupied during the initial years, Liam studied for International Safety Management (ISM) certification. He then took over the full management from the company that had initially been employed to do this. He was quick to point out that in the early days he was helped by being able to persuade the officers and crew of both MV Burhou and MV Isis to venture north to crew these vessels.

“They initially weren’t very keen to come up,” he said. “However, they soon started to enjoy the challenge of operating in and out of the piers and harbours of the area. I fondly described them as like the guys in Dad’s Army. They were all older but had years of experience operating these smaller vessels and could cope with the day-to-day workloads and challenges. That said, things weren’t always smooth. On one particular sailing, one of our vessels collided with a major lighthouse entering a port in northwest England, leading to a significant insurance claim for reinstatement of the lighthouse, as well as a new bow section for the vessel.”

Despite this setback, with the three vessels, business was good and both the MV Burhou and MV Isis were the workhorses that allowed GGSC to grow. In 2016, the company entered into a joint venture with a German company, Cargo Export Group GmbH, allowing it to take over management of the vessels they were operating.

“We are the majority shareholder in the company, but we now charter our ships from them and they do all the management,” said Liam.  “This company has the ISM responsibility for the ships and crew. This has allowed us to sell the MV Burhou and MV Isis and bring newer vessels into operation.”

Now joining the CEG Cosmos are the CEG Universe and CEG Galaxy. The CEG Galaxy, in particular, offers a higher cubic-metre carrying capacity. It is 65 m in length, some 20 m or so bigger than the company’s first vessel, MV Kanutta. However, these vessels still have the ability to operate in and out of the west coast ports, piers, and harbours. The ships are all around 30 years old, of an age that allows GGSC to use them for another five to 10 years.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to find ships of the size we operate,” said Liam. “Most of these smaller ships now are of 3,500 tonnes rather than the 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes that we need. It was sad to see both the MV Burhou and MV Isis go, as they had been great servants to us. Their sale also saw the officers and crew move into retirement as well.”

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As well as Iggesund at Workington and the BSW K2 sawmill, GGSC also supplies sawn logs to the Murray Timber Group in the Republic of Ireland via Wicklow port. Liam has been able to plan and organise other cargoes to be hauled either around other ports in the Republic or back across the Irish Sea to keep the ships working to capacity, which is key to having a profitable business.

Shipping timber can have the same issues as hauling by road, with inevitable breakdowns, accidents or minor hiccups affecting ships.

“The west of Scotland sea bed has a lot of granite rocks, unlike the south of England, where it is mostly sand and silt,” said Liam. “These rocks can be very unforgiving on the vessels if they hit them, even on the smallest of bumps.  Sadly, things can happen to the ships as a result, but we just get things fixed and move on.”

CEG Cosmos is currently being converted to be self-loading and -discharging. Liam said: “We now use a Leibherr with good reach and lift capability, complete with either a timber grab or clamshell bucket. We fix rails along each side of the ship for the excavator to be mounted on. It then tracks up and down the deck via hydraulic motors, which allows us to load and offload cargoes. Being self-sufficient is part of our appeal.”

Much of GGSC’s success is due to its ability to keep the ships working hard, with the aim of having each operating with two to three cargoes per week.

“60 per cent of the cargo that we carry is timber and we ship road salt for Highland Council and quarry stone for Breedon Aggregates,” said Liam. “We continue to ship coal to Stornoway and building materials to the Outer Hebrides. We carry animal feeds, wheat and cement in and around some of the Irish ports.”

In Liam’s mind, the business is at a nice size, with a long-term charter now having been taken out on a fourth ship, Liva Greta, to add to the fleet.

“We probably are now operating some of the last small coastal vessels in the UK,” he said. “We are equipped to cover the timber and general cargo markets with these ships. If I am honest, a problem might come in the next five to 10 years when we attempt to find ships of their size to replace them. I have exhausted most of the contacts for such ships in Europe to get the vessels we have currently.”

The future vessel it may operate could, in fact, be a sea or river vessel which could have a ‘cut and shunt’ to make a smaller ship, capable of being used in a similar way to the coastal vessels that GGSC uses today. “The Norwegians have done it, so it is doable,” said Liam.

“However, they use these shortened vessels to move fish feed. This cargo is a much more lucrative cargo than timber to carry, making such modifications cost effective and worth doing.”

At the time of Forestry Journal’s visit, the timber market was in a dip, with less demand from the sawmills. However, Liam was philosophical, having experienced the ups and the downs of the market in the years since GGSC’s formation.

“There has been a cutback in demand for timber in the building market,” he said. “There is also a lot of sawn timber coming into the east coast from Europe and the mills are using up the stockpiles. We have been here before and I am sure things will pick up. We need to keep being flexible in the way we operate, able to deliver the timber as and when it is needed.”

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Asked what he does to take his mind off the stresses and strains of running a shipping company, Liam revealed he is a rower, on one occasion crossing the Atlantic.

“Back in 2015, myself and three friends from my university days rowed the Atlantic in 45 days, heading from San Sebastian in La Gomera to Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour, Antigua,” he said. “It was certainly an experience that now, like many things in business, I look back and remember only the good things about and none of the bad things. Which is strange, because after three days of that trip, we were all literally sick of it.”

Over the last decade, GGSC has proved there is a market to move large quantities of timber by sea rather than road. In doing so, it has helped to bring large quantities of timber to market from areas and sites that would have proved difficult and challenging using road transportation. All of which fits nicely into the ethos of the company, which is: “To provide a vital logistics link to the Highlands and Islands with a core focus on removing lorry traffic from the Highlands’ road network.”