By Fiona Grahame
Few people can now be unaware of the additional funding coming to Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council to assist in the running costs of our internal ferry fleets. A great deal of work has been done on this issue by both island authorities and their leaders. I pick out in particular the influential contributions from their Leaders James Stockan and Cecil Smith. Another vital person in this success has been the fact that we have an Islands Minister, Humza Yousaf in the Scottish Government who listens and understands.
The following is an article first published in the January edition of iScot magazine attempting to explain to a wider audience the importance of the ferries to island life and the back story to where we are now both in the internal routes and those to mainland Scotland.
Cast from the fetid mouth of the Stoor Worm the sea monster’s teeth were thrust into the boiling sea to form the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Assipattle, slayer of the Stoor Worm had but a peedie boat to take on the mighty beast whereas today we cross those same waters with ro-ro ferries. Orkney comprises over 70 islands of which only something like 16 are inhabited. Orkney Ferries operates 9 boats between 13 of them.
Life on the islands revolves around ferry arrival and departure times. Orkney Islands Council is responsible for the fleet which carries over 82,000 vehicles and 320,000 passengers annually between the islands. The ferries are showing their age and will need replaced in the near future. Sometimes, mainly due to the weather, but occasionally as the result of a technical fault, they are unable to sail. Islanders are prepared for this and stock up supplies but it means trips away are disrupted or have to be cancelled altogether.
For sailings to mainland Scotland or to Shetland the Scottish Government has pledged to reduce fares. The cost of the ferries to the Northern Isles has been a major issue at every UK and Scottish General Election. The SNP candidate for Shetland in the 2016 election the late Danus Skene got into a furious debate with the LibDems Tavish Scott who continually criticises the Scottish Government over the cost of ferry fares. Tavish Scott was the transport minister in the Labour/LibDem coalition when the Northlink contract to build the new Northern Isles boats was awarded in 2005 on a PFI style deal. Tavish Scott signed it off.
Danus Skene explained:
“We [Shetland] receive much more subsidy per journey than anyone on the west coast, but it is all being spent on the grossly inefficient contract negotiated by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition. For example, the present inappropriate ferries costing £100m will cost over £200m over 20 years because of the terms of the financial leasing arrangement with the Royal Bank.”
“The effective subsidy of a passenger between Lerwick and Aberdeen provided by the taxpayer is in the region of £300. This is way above the support given on the west coast, however comparisons are made.”
Despite this the Liberal Democrats have successfully made the cost of traveling on the lifeline ferry service a major fault of the Scottish Government and conveniently forget their central role in the considerable expense to the Scottish tax payer of this financial deal.
Orkney is also served by the privately owned Pentland Ferries running from St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay and the summer operating John O’ Groats foot passenger ferry which comes in at Burwick. These routes are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike.
The creation of an Islands Minister, currently Humza Yousaf, is a welcome move by the Scottish Government and in the Spring Budget the pledge to reduce the ferry fares to the Northern Isles [from mainland Scotland] was announced. Strangely the Liberal Democrat MSPs for Orkney and Shetland, Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott, both voted against this budget and therefore against the lowering of [those] ferry fares. It’s happening anyway and it will make a considerable difference to islanders and visitors. Not only will it mean that a ferry journey for islanders will be less expensive it will boost the local economy through increased visitor numbers.
It is difficult for non islanders to grasp how essential ferries are for the sustainability of our economy and social wellbeing. We may no longer have to battle sea monsters to survive but where mainlanders have roads islanders have sea routes. The ferries that ply the routes within the islands of Orkney, north to Shetland and south to mainland Scotland are all lifeline services. We are one Scotland. Landscape and Seascape.
“If yer weary o’the city, just you come along with me and I’ll tak ye owre the ferry to the island” Sandy Windwick