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Scottish islanders suffer disastrous summer after Nicola Sturgeon’s ferry failures

·5-min read
CalMac ferry scottish islands - Jane Barlow/PA
CalMac ferry scottish islands - Jane Barlow/PA

When Kate Blake decided to move to the Isle of Harris and set up an arts studio with her husband six years ago, she expected to cater for a steady flood of tourists seeking a peaceful getaway.

Instead, the Covid crisis kept visitors away from the couple's Hebridean Design Company business for two years. And just as they were hoping for respite this summer, widespread ferry disruption described as an “island catastrophe” left the shop empty again.

“We’re holding our breath waiting for the next disaster to happen,” says Blake.

“Our takings for July were considerably down on last year when we were still under some Covid restrictions.

"Everybody has noticed that the roads are quieter, there’s a lot of cancellations for self-catering holidays. [Ferry disruption] is going to have a long-term impact. It’s been a very disappointing year.

"There have been instances where people have had to sleep in cars as they couldn’t get off the island.”

The couple are far from alone. Repeated ferry cancellations in the Western Isles have been so bad that locals say a coach holiday company has cancelled 18 weeks of overnight bookings and tours throughout the area, leaving hotel owners tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket.

As the chaos grows, anger is building about the state of the creaking vessels operated by ferry company CalMac, and the state-owned company's ultimate political masters – Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

Ms Sturgeon has been accused of abandoning Scotland’s islanders "on a catastrophic scale" following reports that some shops were having to ration essential items such as milk and bread, although Transport Scotland and CalMac have insisted that any claims linking disruption to food shortages is wrong.

Nicola Sturgeon scotland islands ferries food rationing calmac - Jane Barlow /PA
Nicola Sturgeon scotland islands ferries food rationing calmac - Jane Barlow /PA

Willie Rennie, the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, says he fears younger people living on the islands will start to question whether they really want to stay there if ferry issues go on for much longer.

“You have cataclysmic impacts unless the government steps in,” he says.

“If this was a major transport problem in the Central Belt, I bet you there would be a recall of parliament. Because it's tucked away up in the west coast, far from the Central Belt, it gets less of a priority. That needs to change.

"This is the sharp end of this crisis. We need to hold the government back to answer and come out with a worked out plan.”

CalMac is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and operates a fleet of 34 ferries, some more than four decades old.

The company is waiting for the delivery of two new ferries from the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Glasgow – also nationalised – that are expected to come into service several years late and tens of millions of pounds over budget.

Earlier this summer, CalMac had to shut down two routes between Uig on Skye, Lochmaddy on North Uist and Tarbert on Harris owing to a safety issue on one of its oldest boats that sparked widespread concerns about underinvestment in the ferry network.

Patience is waning fast, with locals eager to raise awareness of the impact cancellations can have on their communities during the key summer tourist season. Hope Blamire, an artist on the Isle of Harris, has urged tourists not to “give up” on the island in a social media post warning the public that the “people of Harris are in a critical situation” as a result of the travel chaos.

In her post, shared by thousands of people, she said families with young children had been sitting in their cars for up to ten hours hoping to secure a place on a 10.30pm ferry that day, while other residents had missed key medical appointments. “For five days, the daughter of a gravely ill man has been unable to reach Harris to see her father,” Blamire said.

Caledonian Macbrayne ferry in the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow - Jane Barlow /PA
Caledonian Macbrayne ferry in the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow - Jane Barlow /PA

Another homeowner added that people living on the mainland seem unaware of the impact ferry cancellations can have on small communities.

“The tourist season is short here anyway. This year I don't know how some will survive," she said.

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesman, argues that travel disruption has been a long time coming and warnings from islanders have gone ignored.

“People in the island communities throughout Scotland have been warning the SNP and the Greens for years that this type of thing could happen, and funnily enough it has done,” he says.

“For island communities this is the most important time of the year. There are so many people who rely on a good summer season to make the money that sees them through the winter. If visitors have a bad experience this year, they're not going to come back next year. This damage could take a decade to undo."

CalMac's managing director Robbie Drummond has already said that what is really needed is a long-term investment program in the ferry network, adding last week in an interview with the BBC that he wanted to encourage people to see the “brilliant scenery” of the Western Isles.

Drummond said: “A long-term strategy to replace vessels and improve port infrastructure would improve the capacity we can offer to meet demand and increase resilience.”

A Transport Scotland spokesman said that while the problems have been regrettable, CalMac has operated a "number of additional sailings to help transport essential supplies during the disruption".

He said: "In situations like this, they prioritised food supplies and confirmed that nothing was left on the mainland. Any shortages may have been down to supermarket supply chain issues".

Blake and other small business owners are left desperately hoping for relief. After a difficult three years, they cannot afford for disruption to go on for much longer.

“This is such a magical place. Please support the islands in any way you can,” Blamire wrote in her post last week. “Keep planning your trips. Don’t give up. That warm Hebridean welcome will be waiting for you.”