Future Ferries: It’s Not Plain Sailing

Scotland has a complex mix of ferry provision. No other country has such a system. Is our current method of ferry provision the most suitable for our needs and what can we learn from other countries?

Firstly let’s look at how ferries across Scotland are being run today.

In Orkney and Shetland the public ferries that ply between the islands of those two authorities are run by their councils via Orkney Islands Ferries and Shetland Ferries. Both of these also own the vessels which are ageing and in need of replacement. In order to run the ferry service the Islands authorities receive additional funding from the Scottish Government. There is a Ferry Task force which has been meeting since the end of January to try and find ways to replace the vessels.

Serco Northlink has the Scottish contract to run the ‘lifeline’ service between the Scottish Mainland and the Northern Isles. The ferries Northlink run are not owned by them. Northlink is the operator of the service and they are responsible for the maintenance, crewing etc of the ferries. The owners of the ferries is CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd) who lease them to Serco Northlink.

image credit Kenny Armet

CMAL also owns the ferries operated by CalMac Ferries and leases them to that company. CalMac Ferries Ltd operates the ‘lifeline’ service from the Scottish Mainland to Stornoway and the islands of the West Coast. CalMac is the largest ferry operator in the UK. CalMac Ferries Ltd (CFL) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of David MacBrayne Ltd, which is wholly owned by Scottish Ministers.

CMAL  are wholly owned by the Scottish Government with Scottish Ministers the sole shareholders.

Then there’s also Transport Scotland which is ‘the national transport agency for Scotland, delivering the Scottish Government’s vision for transport‘. The Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport is Michael Matheson and in his team is Jenny Gilruith as the Minister for Transport. Her remit includes Ferry Services (including CMAL).

In amongst this mix of operators there are also independent providers, most notably Pentland Ferries which provides a regular daily service from St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney, to Gills Bay, Scottish Mainland. Pentland Ferries runs the MV Alfred a purpose built car and passenger ferry owned by the company. It has a short crossing time and is more fuel efficient than the Northlink crossing from Stromness to Scrabster.

Image credit: Kenny Armet

The complexity does not stop at ownership and operation of the ferries, because we also have the harbours and related infrastructure. Some of those harbours are owned by CMAL – ” CMAL is the Statutory Harbour Authority and owner of 16 ports and harbours in the Firth of Clyde and around the Hebrides, and owns and leases properties and port infrastructure at 10 other locations within these areas. “

St Margaret’s Hope pier and harbour where the independently owned Pentland Ferries operates from is owned by a Trust, St Margaret’s Hope Pier Trust.

Also in Orkney, Marine Services, part of Orkney Islands Council ‘is responsible for the safe and efficient operation of the 29 piers and harbours located throughout the Orkney Islands’   Shetland Islands Council’s Ports and Harbours operates the safe running of their harbours.


A committee of the Scottish Parliament has been looking at the future of public ferry provision in Scotland. The Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee has been hearing from a wide range of those with an interest in our ferry provision. Members have even visited islands to speak to islanders themselves about what they think of current provision and what they would like to see done differently.

The committee haven’t confined themselves to Scotland. On 21st February they heard about how Norway runs its ferry services.

What does Norway do that is different?

In Norway the ferry operator owns the vessels it is using. This makes the procurement of vessels the job of the ferry operator. They also have a system where some routes are put into bundles – this means for example that an operator would bid to operate one bundle – unlike Scotland. Serco Northlink has the contract for the Northern Isles and CalMac the contract for the West coast. There is a system of competitive tendering in Norway and as part of that process, the ferry operator has obligations with regards to operating ferries with low emissions.

But Norway also invests in research and development of alternative propulsion systems which use electricity or hydrogen. Reduced prices on ferries has also seen an increase in passenger numbers in Norway.

What is the future for ferry provision in Scotland?

CMAL – that’s the part of the Scottish system that procures ferries – does have vessels under construction and has been trying to purchase ones ‘second-hand’. Most recently at Cemre shipyard in Turkey, CMAL signed the contract to build two new ferries to support the communities at Uig, Lochmaddy and Tarbert (Harris).

A new Scottish Ferries Plan was due to be published in December 2022 – that has not happened. It is now to be replaced by Transport Scotland’s Islands Connectivity Plan.

The Islands Connectivity Plan will replace the Ferries Plan but be broader in scope, taking account of aviation, ferries and fixed links, and onward and connecting travel. It will be developed within the context of the National Transport Strategy and the National Islands Plan and be informed by the outcomes of the Strategic Transport Projects Review. Consultation and engagement will be central to its development.

Islands Connectivity Plan

And we also have ‘Project Neptune’ which is a Transport Scotland review looking at the way the Ferry sector is set up in the Clyde and Hebridean services.

Transport Scotland

MSPs on the Net Zero Energy and Transport Committee are trying to pull together the many and varied threads of evidence being brought before them.

There is however, a resistance to change the way things are being done by those operating within the system as it is currently set up. Even the Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruith in her presentation to the committee admitted that her main focus was on the resilience and reliability of the ferry services.

Resistance to change and an overcomplicated system is not what a future ferry service should look like for Scotland. And we’re still not investing anywhere like enough. When we look over at Norway, an independent country of similar population size to Scotland, we can see future possibilities and opportunities that could be developed in Scotland.

It will be interesting to see what final report and recommendations come out of the Scottish Parliament committee – and more importantly if they are acted upon.

Fiona Grahame

Rhubodach Ferry named (Loch Dunvegan) to Colintraive

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