'We definitely get the impression that the islands aren’t as significant or important as central belt concerns'
The two delayed and overbudget ferries are just the tip of the iceberg for connectivity problems for islanders
People are now beginning to understand, at long last, that ferries are called lifeline ferries for a reason,” says Roddie Mackay, the former leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Stornoway resident. “Ferries aren’t just about people coming and going, and it’s not just about tourists, which is where the emphasis almost always used to be. Ferries are absolutely essential to the entire economic fabric of the island.”
While his town is not directly impacted by the two late, unfinished and overbudget vessels currently sat in Ferguson Marine’s shipyard in Port Glasgow, he says the problems there are reflective of wider issues on the ferry network. And if a positive is to come out of that situation, it is that island connectivity is finally getting the attention islanders know it deserves.
Problems with ferries go beyond mere transport inconvenience. They impact islanders’ lives daily and on multiple levels, from the economy and livelihoods, to access to health and social care, to even being able to visit friends and family.
For Angus MacMillan, a South Uist businessman, it is about the uncertainty this creates. “Will you go ahead with your investment in an island where you’re absolutely unclear whether that ferry is due to come on next year, if ever it will?” he posits.
MacMillan is in the middle of building a new distillery in Benbecula, the small island sandwiched between North and South Uist. One of the new ferries, the as-yet-unnamed hull 802, is destined for the Uig triangle, serving the communities of Skye, Harris and North Uist. In addition, the three ports must undergo improvement works to accommodate the new vessel – and as a result, Uig harbour will be closed for six months this winter.
“I’m very concerned,” says MacMillan. “I’m setting out this year, but while the upgrade is going ahead for six months, there’s total uncertainty as to where the ferry will be leaving from and going to. Total uncertainty.
“I’ve got building works going on, I’ve got equipment being supplied, I’ve got contractors and suppliers all signed up. And there is great uncertainty as to whether they’ll actually get there.
“And of course, once you get it up and running, then you need your supplies of malt, you need your various supplies of everything to come in. It’s not use coming in a week late. Production comes to a standstill while you wait for a ferry.”
Part of the problem, he goes on to explain, is a lack of flexibility caused by an ageing fleet and paucity of suitable vessels. Driving that point home, the day after we speak it is announced the Mallaig-Lochboisdale ferry is to go offline for eight days while repair works are done, and so residents of South Uist must travel north to get the ferry to the mainland. Two days into that repair work, MV Hebrides collides with the pier at Lochmaddy, causing cancellations on the Tarbert-Uig-Lochmaddy route and leaving the people of Uist without any ferry service at all.
MacMillan says: “If you had specific ferries that were interchangeable, both on routes and for piers, then you’d have a more efficient structure and infrastructure. Then, if there’s a ferry breakdown in Lewis, you can take one from Islay; one breaks down for Lochboisdale-Mallaig, you get one from somewhere else. But that can’t happen just now.”
Mackay agrees. “Long-term plans should be to have interchangeable ferries, and common ferries and common berthing, so that if a ferry from Stornoway is needed down in Uist or down in Argyll, it can go. It can’t go just now because it can’t berth there, it’s only suitable for the Stornoway route. How stupid is that?
“They build ferries that they can only use on one particular run so they can’t deploy them anywhere else. It’s really, really beyond belief, whoever thought that up. It’s incredibly frustrating for us. And nobody seems to be listening.”
They build ferries that they can only use on one particular run so they can't deploy them anywhere else. It's really, really, really beyond belief
But even when everything is running as smoothly as it can, capacity remains a problem for islanders – and it’s one that is not measured effectively. Rhoda Grant, Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, explains: “If you go to book a ferry and you can’t get one, nobody measures that. We have no idea what the unmet demand is and yet we’re building ferries. Locals have a better idea of that unmet demand because they obviously live with it.”
The CalMac ferry community board, which was set up in 2017 to act as the voice of residents, does keep a track of how far in advance spaces on ferries fill up, though. Arran’s representative, Bill Calderwood, explains very few sailings between Brodick and Ardrossan have vehicle spaces left in the few days before travel. He says: “Last year, some of them were [full by] the high 80s, 90 days ahead of travel. Within the 10-14 days, it was probably less than 10 per cent of the sailings available for booking, and you would find that they would be the last sailing in the evening.
“You can’t go to the dentist at 7:30 at night. If you’re going for dental appointments, hospital appointments, chemo, all that stuff, we need some capacity first thing in the morning to get off and we need some confidence that you can come back home after your treatment.”
CalMac and Transport Scotland have partly addressed that problem by offering to pay for taxis of anyone with healthcare appointments, meaning they can board as foot passengers. Even with this adjustment, Calderwood says some islanders are still reluctant to trust the unreliable service and end up heading to the mainland the night before an appointment, and therefore absorbing the cost of an overnight stay.
“During Covid, that was absolutely impractical to do,” he adds. “Health and social care on the island, we believe, has been seriously impacted and there is no immediate resolution for that.”
Similar problems exist for social care workers needing to get to Arran, as well. He explains: “A significant number of them come over from North Ayrshire and Arran Health Board. We need them over on the first boat. When they can’t get over, the next time they can get in, sometimes it’s 11 o’clock when they arrive. Then if the weather’s uncertain, they may decide they’re not coming. Social care on the island is suffering because of the poor service on the ferries.”
These points are all echoed by Grant. She says: “The ferries issue is hugely important because it’s not just about empty supermarket shelves, which is a pain, but it’s also about missed weddings, missed funerals, missed hospital appointments, living with uncertainty. […] That uncertainty is almost a daily reality for island dwellers. If you’re on the mainland, you put in your order to Amazon and expect it to arrive tomorrow. You can depend on things happening. Island people can’t – and there’s not the understanding of that in urban areas. Because of that, it’s very difficult for those of us who represent the islands to get people to understand.”
There's been no meaningful improvement in ferry provision. It's gone backwards. And we've made the case to several different ministers
She has represented island communities for almost the entirety of the Scottish Parliament, bar one session between 2003 and 2007, and she admits it has been “an uphill struggle” to get people to listen to islanders. Recently, there have been some moves to rectify this, for example through CalMac’s community board.
The Islands Act 2018 was also meant to promote islanders’ voices and island-proof policy decisions. But Grant is sceptical of its impact in the four years since its passage. “I was on the committee that looks at it and yes, I did think at the time that it was going to be useless, it was going to be window dressing. […] I hoped differently. Sometimes, when things come into force, just by influence things can change. There’s nothing in the bill that was going to make things change, but you hope the policy direction and the influence of the bill may do some of that. I can’t put my finger on one thing that has happened because of that bill.”
Instead, Grant believes a better solution would be to empower islanders to make their own decisions. She says this “goes against the grain” of the current Scottish Government. “I know certainly we [in Labour] have given thought to having island authorities that took over for more things within those islands, like the ferries, so you had democratic oversight by islanders of the things that were really important to them. This was never a manifesto pledge, but it was always something we had looked at.
“They obviously need to then work within a framework,” she adds, “so the people running health were still operating in the guidelines of how health should be delivered, you wouldn’t be taking any of that away, but you’ll be giving a lot more control to the islands. I suppose we were always the party of devolution and that didn’t stop in Edinburgh, that went beyond that in communities, and we’re still really keen on that and how you make that work. I think islands would be a case in point; you could probably devolve a lot more power to islands and get things properly done.”
That suggestion, perhaps unsurprisingly, has the support for Mackay. He says: “We do get a sense that the whole idea of community empowerment, which government do talk about, is merely being talked about rather than actually living it and working it.
“Just generally, we feel that there’s centralisation, and that more and more, the funds that come to local authorities are ringfenced and guided by Scottish Government spend plans. And there’s less and less autonomy for local authorities to spend money on what the real need is on the ground. So across the piece, we would say that there is a general diminution in local accountability and local decision making.”
For ferries specifically, he feels this would help to simplify the decision-making structures. “The central belt decision-making – a lot of people go on about that. We’ve got what we call the Bermuda Triangle, which is CalMac – who operate the ferries – CMAL – who build the ferries or commission them – and Transport Scotland. These three together, we call it the Bermuda Triangle because ferries seem to disappear and you never see them again. It’s an awful, archaic, not fit for purpose structure.”
And Calderwood says it often feels as though islanders’ suggestions are not given enough weight by decision-makers. He explains that before the Glen Sannox – or hull 801, the ship launched by the First Minister in 2018 with painted-on windows – was commissioned, Arran residents clearly said what they would prefer is two smaller, faster ferries than one large one.
“That went through the various bureaucracies and at the end we were presented with, ‘here’s what we’re going to build for you.’ It had an extra level on, it had all the crew accommodation and it had grown to an excess of 100 meters and it was using LNG gas which had no obvious existing source. We had to accept that.”
Social care on the island is suffering because of the poor service on the ferries
Asked why she believes the Scottish Government doesn’t take islander views into account, Grant says there are “too many vanity projects”. She adds: “Why not just buy a boat that goes back and forth? Why does it have to have fancy fuel – they haven’t even built the tanks to fuel the new boats, that’s got to be another how many million? Is that fuel going to always be available? Why design something new and different? Why not just go with what you know works?”
And one thing that really sticks on the craw of islanders is when ministers, faced with criticism, revert to highlighting how much cash is spent. Mackay is clear that islanders are not asking for more money, but for it to be spent better. “In the five years I’ve been there [as council leader], there’s been no meaningful improvement in ferry provision. It’s gone backwards. And we’ve made the case to several different ministers and they always respond with how much they’re spending on ferries, and we always go back and say, you don’t need to spend that much, just spend it wiser.
“Listen to the communities, we have great solutions. All these solutions around smaller, faster ferries, all these solutions around deployment, all the solutions around common birthing facilities, common crews, and everybody’s happier, and it won’t cost you more money,” he adds.
Islanders have long known what their communities need – not just to improve transport connections, but everything else that depends on ferry reliability, too. And the issue will not go away until islanders feel like their voices are heard.
Mackay says: “We found it really, really frustrating as a local authority, because we can see on the ground the knock-on impacts that is has on our islands, on our economy, you know, which is a fragile economy at the best of times. It’s ironic that one of the most telling, negative impacts on our islands is at the hand of the Scottish Government. It’s at their hand. They have the resources and the ability to address the issue. And they just simply don’t seem to be interested, so we definitely get the impression that the islands aren’t as significant or important to them as their central belt concerns.”