FERGUSON Transport & Shipping, based at Corpach, near Fort William, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, delivering logistic solutions to customers across the west coast and Highlands of Scotland and the length and breadth of the UK. The company has expanded and made major advancements since the business was originally set up in 1959 by group managing director Alasdair Ferguson’s father, mother and uncle in Ardrishaig, Argyll.

Archie and Anne, along with Andrew Grinlaw, started off with horse-drawn carts and coaches before buying their first lorry, a Commer two-stroke. Today, Ferguson Transport & Shipping operates a fleet of over 70 trucks, 170 trailers and six vessels from its modern integrated warehousing and distribution centre. It has successfully combined road/rail/marine movement of goods for its customers and has exciting plans to expand its rail operation to transport roundwood timber.

Forestry Journal: (L-R) Alasdair Ferguson and Michael Oliver.(L-R) Alasdair Ferguson and Michael Oliver.

Meeting with Alasdair and transport manager, Michael Oliver, in the company boardroom at Ferguson Transport & Shipping’s head office, my aim was to find out more about this family-run company, which is one of the largest independent logistics companies in Scotland. In the mid 1960s, its lorries moved timber and agricultural goods and the company is proud of its forestry roots, which date back to those early days and continue right up to the present, as Alasdair explained. 

“My father’s big break on the forestry side came after the 1968 storms. A massive area of windblown trees required clearing up in Knapdale Forest in Argyll and, because of the location and logistical issues of the west coast road network, many of the bigger, more recognised haulage operators did not want to be involved. We were in the right place at the right time and my father rose to the challenge. This job gave him a great revenue stream for a good few years, allowing him to grow and expand the business.”

The movement of timber and agricultural products was the mainstay of its operations at this time. However, by 1974 it had outgrown its Ardrishaig base and, once the windblow job finished, Archie and Anne moved the business to Spean Bridge in Lochaber. This move coincided with involvement in loading and unloading timber from ships at Corpach Basin for Scottish Pulp and Paper Mills. 

While mum and dad continued to be the driving force behind the company, they were soon joined at various intervals by their children Alasdair, Jack, Carol and Leslie.
“My father and brother Jack spent a lot of time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s working on modifying our company vehicles and trailers to meet the needs of our customers. One of the best home-grown pieces of kit they designed was a mobile crane called Timber Jack, which we still have to this day. This crane had a longer reach than others on the market at the time and was just what we needed to help with the loading and unloading of roundwood from ships and lorries in the late ‘90s.

Forestry Journal: Harvest Anne with a load of timber.Harvest Anne with a load of timber.

“In the late 1980s, I went out to the Black Forest in Germany as part of a consortium of UK hauliers to help deal with a massive clear-up of six million tonnes of windblown trees after a storm. There were hauliers and harvesting teams from across Europe. I was based on a farm, taking timber there during the day and at times helping on the farm at night, taking baled hay and straw in for my board and lodgings. These were the days before mobile phones so when breakdowns occurred, universal sign language was needed to get help. Normally, payment for that help being in universal currency – a case of beer!”

Alasdair and Jack learned on the job from their father, including working on machinery, learning how to drive the trucks and how to operate the cranes. In the early ‘90s, Ferguson Transport & Shipping was involved in harvesting of timber and Alasdair still remembers as a young 15-year-old lad being towed by a chain behind a truck to forest sites to operate the independent loader. When safely off the road he was allowed to drive the truck and bring timber from the woods to the loading sites.

Hands-on experience was a big part of their early careers.

Harvesting and forwarding operations continued to be important for the business, with winches being used to move the timber in the woods down to the waiting lorries. Archie and Jack’s mechanical skills were used to modify a Volvo 6x4 ex-hire/reward truck, fitting an Epsilon 30-tonne crane to it and the crane itself had a Lako harvester head attached, allowing the roadside processing of wood to be carried out. This was very innovative at the time and a great example of how Ferguson Transport found effective solutions to drive the business forward.

“The harvesting side was worthwhile when we started out and we managed to extract a lot of timber from the steep ground, a regular feature on the west coast of Scotland. The roadside processing was a big help in doing that – however, it soon became clear this was a diminishing market so we decided to exit. We sold our winches and harvesting equipment on to third parties in the late ‘90s and our ship loading cranes to JST Services in early 2000.

Forestry Journal: Swap body rail wagons.Swap body rail wagons.

Despite moving away from harvesting, the business boomed under Archie’s leadership and full involvement from family members. Alasdair stopped driving lorries, moving into the office to learn more from his father running the general haulage and take on the role as commercial director. Jack looked after operations and equipment, and Carol the financial management. The company invested in the latest trucks including the Scania 143. These 3-series trucks were considered one of the best at the time. Ferguson Transport also invested in Volvo FH 16 trucks and forged a relationship with Volvo which has lasted until the present day.

Under the guidance and foresight of Archie, innovation was not confined to the lorries. They also modified and developed their own timber trailers.

“My father visited Elmia Wood and saw all the latest timber trailers and cranes available on the market but he felt he couldn’t justify the cash investment in them, so he set about building his own! He modified trailers to suit our timber operation needs, adding the first sliding bolsters using Boughton 10-tonne winches. We added extra axles for 38,000 kg gross weight skelly trailers for Riddoch of Rothiemay, the sawmill and Corpach, the pulp mill at the time.”

Forestry Journal: The famous Timber Jack.The famous Timber Jack.

From its Spean Bridge base, the business was ideally placed to move timber across the Highlands. In the early days it ran pulp into Scottish Pulp and Paper Mills, Inverness Harbour and logs to Riddoch, TSK and subsequently BSW, Gordon and Tulloch Sawmills, not exclusive.

The business was growing and doing well when tragedy struck in March 1997. Archie Ferguson was killed while assisting with the recovery of a vehicle stuck on a forest road. Archie’s family knew he would have wanted them to carry on building and growing the business that he and Anne had started in 1959 and that is exactly what they have done.

In 1998, Ferguson Transport & Shipping chartered a ship to operate on the west coast of Scotland for fish feed distribution. They then purchased their first vessel, the Harvest Anne, in 2004 and now have a fleet of six vessels – one bulk discharge ship and five landing crafts. These vessels are primarily involved in the movement and delivery of fish feed, aquaculture, forestry and general freight. Two years later, the company secured a lease and invested in infrastructure and warehousing at Kishorn Port, located on Loch Kishorn, as a base for its new shipping operation.

The port was seen as a key part of the strategy of the company to integrate freight services and to cut down on the amount of freight transported on the rural roads of the west coast. 

In 2012, Ferguson Transport & Shipping branched into rail freight to offer another solution to transport problems. Trials were carried out involving the movement of sawn timber, fish feed and aluminium via road haulage and rail. The goods were loaded into swap bodies, transported by lorry from Fort William to Grangemouth then the swap bodies loaded onto the train for onwards rail delivery by WH Malcolms to the south of England. The current aspirations are to rail-haul roundwood from Rannoch Moor to Corpach and set up a rail feeder train to central Scotland.

Further expansion of the company took place in 2015 and 2016 when Ferguson Transport & Shipping acquired Skye Transport (Crossal) Ltd and then a year later purchased the old K1 BSW sawmill site at Kilmallie. The purchase of this 18-acre site was a major part of the strategy to develop a logistics hub. The acquisition included 160,000 sq ft of warehousing space, a weighbridge, offices and a large area of hardstanding ideal for its growing vehicle and trailer fleet.

Alasdair explained: “We had outgrown our Spean Bridge base so when the opportunity came up in 2009 to centralise our operations at the old auction mart site at Corpach, then subsequently the ex-sawmill K1 site in 2016, it was too good to miss. We have revamped the offices and are investing and making changes as and when we need them on site. As a family, we are proud that we have picked up the baton left by our father and run with it to develop the business to the size and scale it is today. He gave us a good solid foundation and work ethic and we have a loyal team of staff, including Michael, my wife Jill who is our workshop general manager, and my brother-in-law Colin who is also one of our transport managers. Our staff are part of our extended family and have helped us grow and expand over the years.”

Forestry Journal: The Ferguson family celebrates 60 years in business.The Ferguson family celebrates 60 years in business.

With regard to the forestry side of business, Alasdair is confident about the future and encouraged by the recent actions driven by Fergus Ewing and the Scottish Government to increase planting across the country and the investments being made by the forestry sector. He, like many others, believes that potentially there is a dip coming in terms of the number of trees available to harvest until the new plantings mature and come on stream. He firmly believes that the future movement of timber, certainly in the west coast and Highland area, should be made by utilising an integrated system of road, rail and sea.

“There are large tonnages of timber at Rannoch to move – Moving 24 tonnes at a time on lorries along a 100-mile stretch of A and B roads doesn’t make as much sense as moving 500 tonnes at a time by train. We are looking to work with BSW, Network Rail, landowners and train operators to start moving timber from Rannoch by 2020 directly into the K2 sawmill at Corpach. We have a rail siding there and nearby a slipway to allow sea access. We are currently working on both sites to upgrade in line with our plans.”

Ferguson Transport & Shipping transport circa 85 per cent of the sawn timber produced from the K2 sawmill and around 20 per cent of the roundwood going in. So the ability to move large amounts of timber by rail is a big opportunity for the company. Alasdair is targeting moving 10 per cent of the roundwood timber BSW currently require by rail from 2020 onwards, all going to plan. Alasdair feels that if the movement of large volumes of timber by rail from Rannoch can be achieved then there will be a greater willingness to allow the restocking and planting in that area.

The firm also hauls timber for Forestry and Land Scotland in West Argyll, Lochaber and throughout the Highlands and Islands. It carries out work for Tilhill, Euroforest, SWOAC, Munros and Gordons to Norbord and Balcas – the list is not exclusive or exhaustive. Its area of operation stretches from Lochaber and Argyll right up to Caithness. Because of poor road infrastructure, drivers must strictly follow the agreed routes set out in the individual timber management plans. This is a challenge in itself which Ferguson Transport faces on a daily basis.

Forestry Journal: Railway sidings at the K2 sawmill, which are currently being developed to enable timber to be delivered by rail direct to the mill.Railway sidings at the K2 sawmill, which are currently being developed to enable timber to be delivered by rail direct to the mill.

Michael explained: “We do all our own in-house crane training for the forestry crane operators. If we see a team member showing a willingness and an aptitude to learn we put them on a training programme. This starts at our main hub and then moves into the forest with trainers showing, teaching and watching staff, ensuring those being trained are fully competent at operating the cranes and are fully health and safety compliant. It can take from six to 10 weeks before we sign off on the training.”
Ferguson Transport & Shipping still has family values at its roots. While mum Anne retired 15 years ago and is now looking forward to her 80th birthday, there are still 11 family members currently working for the company – five of whom are third generation. It was clear from meeting up with Alasdair that this is very important to him and his co-directors. 

“We are very proud of Christopher, Carly, Kevin, Jodie and Carhie’s involvement and shared enthusiasm to work for the family business.”

Ferguson Transport & Shipping, as a vehicle operator, has gained earned recognition from DVSA. This is a new voluntary scheme where operators regularly share performance information with DVSA. As a result, its vehicles are less likely to be stopped by inspectors. 

“We are proud of our record of a 100-per-cent pass rate at annual testing, and feel the scheme is a great way to demonstrate that our vehicles and drivers meet all standards we set along with DVSA.”

Once I had been given a comprehensive overview of the company, its history, and the future direction that it is going in, Alasdair left me with Michael to discover more about the company’s fleet. 

We also visited the logistics hub and the railway sidings which are being brought back to life adjacent to the K2 sawmill.

Michael explained that the fleet is now predominately Volvo trucks, but has a small number of Scania trucks.

“During the 1960s and ‘70s we operated Volvo F86 and F88 trucks and Scania 142s. We had 30 Scania trucks at one stage but at the same time we had one of the first Volvo F16 Globetrotter trucks in the country. With reliability and customer care paramount, we started to move our fleet towards Volvo and we have found them great to work with. They have assisted in training our team of engineers and provided support if required. This has been very important given our location as we need to be pretty self-sufficient.

“Our timber fleet today comprises eight Volvo FH Euro 5 and 6 trucks, which are greener trucks operating with zero emissions. We also have two Scanias and 10 dedicated timber trailers which have a mixture of Jonsered, Loglift, Epsilon and Hiab cranes fitted. All of the timber trucks have Tireboss or Bigfoot central tyre inflation (CTI) systems fitted to them. This allows us to deflate the tyres when operating in the woods, offering better traction and causing less ground damage, but we can inflate them again when back on the roads. We also have circa 100 flatbed trailers with pins, which can move serious volumes if running to an independent crane.”

On our tour of the logistic hub, Michael highlighted the work which has been carried out on the site as well as showing me the famous Timber Jack crane. We then moved over the road to the BSW K2 site to see first-hand the work being carried out on the railway sidings which will allow timber deliveries right into the mill.

I left there and Corpach promising Michael I would be back next year to see the first timber train arriving loaded with logs from Rannoch.