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Exploring Orkney’s Constitutional Future: Transport

In this series we are exploring the many issues involved in Orkney leaving Scotland and the UK. So far we have explored:

In this article we shall be looking at Transport.


You may be forgiven, if you do not live in Orkney, if you think that the only issue affecting the islands is that of FERRIES. And of course, they are very important, but Transport involves a lot more than that.


Public roads in Orkney are maintained by the Council. The maximum speed limit is 60mph and there are only single carriageway roads and less. Passing places are used on the single lane roads to allow vehicles to get by , this is especially important during the tourist season when traffic becomes much heavier with tour buses, mobile homes etc.

looking along Grandon Road towards the Mill now converted into a house

There are a few cycle ways but not very many and recently there has been a lot of concern raised about large groups of cyclists from cruise liners on the main roads. There is no alternative for cyclists due to the lack of dedicated cycle ways.

The Scottish Government is investing £1 million to support bike share schemes. Delivered by Cycling UK, the Cycle Share Fund  Scotland aims to make a bike in an affordable, easy and convenient way to get around .It will enable organisations to purchase cycles and equipment for schemes that provide people with access to a bike that they don’t own. It will support a range of delivery models including loan schemes, subscription services, hire schemes, bike libraries, pool bikes and bike shares.


The public bus service is run by Stagecoach who recently brought to Mainland a fleet of new low emission vehicles. The number of passengers using the bus service has grown steadily, increasing by 7% since 2019. Fares are subsidised by the Council and the Scottish Government’s Free Bus passes have made a huge difference.

inside the Stagecoach bus
image credit Nick Morrison

In Scotland:

If you are over 60 or have a disability, you could be eligible for free bus travel to get around Scotland and your local area. You can access this via the National Entitlement Card, your pass to free bus travel in Scotland. The National Entitlement Card scheme also allows for free travel for companions where required by eligible disabled people of any age (including children under 5).

All young people and children aged 5-21 years can apply for a card to access the Young Persons’ (Under 22s) Free Bus Travel Scheme, which began on 31 January 2022.You will need a National Entitlement Card (NEC) or Young Scot NEC with the valid free travel entitlement with you whenever you want to take the bus – otherwise you’ll have to pay for your trip.

The Free Bus pass (National Entitlement Card) can be used in Orkney or anywhere else in Scotland, so it is a great money saver if you are visiting south.

Orkney introduced more routes with the evening services thanks to Scottish Government funding. The Smarter Choices Smarter Places funding runs until the end of March 2024.

There are also bus services in Orkney’s smaller islands. You can find out more about them here: Bus Services.

Air Travel

Orkney has always been a pioneer when it comes to air travel. Miss Agnes Shearer Takes Flight to Wick, 1931

During World War two there were four airfields in Orkney but now the main airport is just outside Kirkwall. The Scottish Government funds an Air Discount Scheme (ADS) to alleviate the high cost of flights for islanders.

Kirkwall airport terminal from the front with the statue which is a tribute to Fresson

It is still an expensive mode of travel. The ADS gives a 50% discount on core air fares for residents of Caithness and parts of Sutherland, Colonsay, Islay, Jura, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles on eligible routes, it also applies to students from these areas who are studying away from home. The scheme will run until 31 March 2026. Air Discount Scheme


There is a mixture of ferry providers in Orkney. The inter island ferries are run by Orkney Islands Council with additional funding from the Scottish Government. Serco Northlink runs ferries from Orkney to Shetland, Aberdeen and Scrabster. This is the lifeline service and is subsidised by the Scottish Government. Pentland Ferries runs a daily service from St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay to Gills Bay. This is a private family run company. John O Groats Ferries runs a daily service in the summer for foot passengers only. It is a very popular route for day tours. It also does wildlife cruises.

Orkney , unlike the CalMac routes on the west coast does not have fares based on RET (Road Equivalent Tariff). The Scottish Government has still not been able to reach agreement with one of the ferry operators on putting this in place in Orkney. Instead the fares are subsidised so that Northlink Serco can offer Islander Discounts. 2023 Islander Prices are available for residents of Orkney and Shetland using a valid Islander ID. They also run a Family and Friends scheme.

Scotland’s National Entitlement Card – the saltire card – referred to above on bus transport, entitles islanders to two free return ferry journeys to the Scottish mainland each year. These apply on all the ferry operators routes to the Scottish mainland.

Orkney’s inter islands fleet is run by Orkney Ferries. Councillors in Orkney made the decision many years ago to retain control over the ferries. The fleet is an aging one. Recently the council purchased The Nordic Sea with additional funding from the Scottish Government. Unfortunately it was not fit for the purpose it was purchased for and is only occasionally used. “All I want is the truth and evidence”, The Nordic Sea Saga

The Nordic Sea in April 2022, in Stromness, now tied up in Kirkwall

In June Orkney Council announced that ferry fares would be frozen until Spring of 2024. Multi journey 50 x books of tickets will increase by 5%.

The Council was awarded additional funding by the Scottish Government in June 2021 to reduce the base rate of passenger and vehicle fares (under 5.5m). This resulted in a 38% reduction in passenger fares and vehicle fares under 5.5m. A 25% discount for elderly and disabled passengers and 50% for Under 22’s also applies.

OIC Transportation Service Manager, Laura Cromarty, explained:

“Elected members agreed that we would align the Orkney Ferries fares with the Scottish Government subsidised ferry services. This is because Orkney Ferries is now fully revenue funded by the Scottish Government, so it makes sense to be consistent with any fare increases. However, the 50 x multi journey books of tickets do not form part of the new fare structure and so will see a previously agreed increase of 5%. Options continue to be looked at in relation to the replacement of the multi journey books of tickets to ensure a fair system for all.”

Angus Campbell, Chair of the Ferries Communities Board (CalMac) recently visited Orkney to take forward the views of islanders on his consultation into Project Neptune. The meeting for members of the public was sparsely attended. ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport’

Providing public transport is expensive, however, it has huge benefits for trade, tourism, employment and reducing social isolation. If Orkney makes the decision to leave Scotland and the UK funding transport, including replacing the aging ferry fleet, will be a massive cost to the public purse. There are no toll roads in Orkney or Scotland. Tolls on Scotland’s bridges were abolished. Tolls on the Skye Bridge were abolished in 2004. The Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Act is an Act of the Scottish Parliament passed in 2008 to abolish tolls on all road bridges in Scotland. In practice, it removed the remaining tolls on the Forth Road Bridge and the Tay Road Bridge and repealed legislation relating to the Erskine Bridge.

The Varagen Ferry
Image credit: Mike Robertson

So what could change if Orkney decides to separate from Scotland which it has been part of for over 550 years? Here are examples of some of the options being proposed by the Leader of Orkney Islands Council

The States of Guernsey, Crown Dependency, population over 63,000

Roads in Guernsey – Guernsey has a lot of cars in a small space so it can be very busy. Roads are narrow and many are lined with stone walls so careful driving is very important. Guernsey also has FILTER IN TURN at certain junctions, for UK drivers these look like Yellow Box Junctions. Buses are limited to 25mph and other traffic is restricted to 25 – 35mph

Guernsey’s public bus service operator is CT Plus. During the Inter Island Games the Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure offered free bus travel during the games, making transport easier for islanders and visitors.

There is a variety of bus passes to allow for multiple journeys. Only children under 5 (accompanied by an adult ) travel free.

“CT Plus service is delivered by Tower Transit UK under contract to, and in partnership with the Environment and Infrastructure Department for the States of Guernsey. The puffinpass and its associated products has enabled and given affordable travel to commuters, students, visitors and all those wanting to get out and about in Guernsey. A modern fleet of buses serves a network of 24 routes that can take you to almost any point on the island.” It runs 7 days a week, 362 days a year from the main bus terminus in St Peter Port.

Air Travel – You can fly to Guernsey in as little as 30 minutes. A number of airlines operate flights to Guernsey from regional and international airports across the UK and Republic of Ireland including London Gatwick, Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and more.

Ferries – There are several options for travelling by ferry to Guernsey which will take about 3 hours if sailing from England.

  • Condor Ferries:  3-hour sea crossing from Poole. If you’re travelling from the UK – photo ID required
  • Iris Freight: foot passengers, inter island travel 7 days per week – Departs at 3.00am Jersey arrives at Inter Island Quay in Guernsey around 6.00am.
  • Manche Ile Express:
Map showing the ferry routes from France to Guernsey

The Faroes, an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. Population 54,000

Roads are now the main means of getting about in The Faroes. Most islands are connected by an excellent infrastructure of roads, bridges and subsea tunnels.

All major highways are paved, but some roads, especially to the smaller villages, are still gravel roads. Many roads and tunnels leading to villages can be very narrow.  To keep traffic flowing, these roads have lay-bys (widened sections formed to one side as to leave the road free for other to pass). These lay-bys are NOT to be used for parking.

The general speed limit is 50 km/h in urban areas, and 80 km/h on asphalt roads and gravel roads in rural areas. Road maps can be viewed online here.

Motorists are obliged by law to use headlights at all times, day and night. Passengers in the front and back seats of an automobile are required by law to use safety belts. Talking on a mobile phone and driving under the influence of alcohol are strongly prohibited.

There are three sub-sea tunnels in the Faroe Islands: Vágatunnilin, Norðoyartunnilin and Eysturoyartunnilin.

All require a toll payment. Prices vary.

Vágatunnilin connects the western island of Vágar (Airport) to the island of Streymoy (capital Tórshavn). If you arrive by plane and plan on visiting other islands besides Vágar, you will need to drive through this tunnel. You only pay for one stretch of the journey, when travelling from Vágar.

Norðoyatunnilin connects the northern island of Borðoy (Klaksvík) to the island of Eysturoy (Leirvík). You only pay for one stretch of the journey, when travelling from Klaksvík.

Eysturoyartunnilin connects the island of Streymoy (Tórshavn, the capital) with the island of Eysturoy (two towns: Strendur and Runavík). In this tunnel, you pay both ways.

There are no pay stations at the tunnels. You can choose to pay online, or drive through the tunnel without stopping and pay at one of the designated petrol stations:

Ferries are government-subsidized and can cost as little as DKK 15. If you purchase multi-day Travel Cards (DKK 500 for 4 days), they can be used on all buses and ferries, with the exception of the one to Mykines. 

Helicopter travel is subsidized by the government so that locals can live on some of the archipelago’s harder to reach islands. This form of transport is mostly reserved for local residents.

Flights to The Faroes: There are several daily flights to the Faroe Islands from different airports in Europe throughout the year.

  • Copenhagen (all days throughout the year)
  • Keflavík (Monday and Friday all year round – Wednesday added from May till end September)
  • Billund (several times a week)
  • Edinburgh (Monday and Thursday from 30 March till 18 December)
  • Bergen (Monday and Friday all year round – Thursday, Wednesday and Sunday added from April)
  • Oslo (Wednesday throughout the year and Sunday from 26 March)
  • Paris (Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 3 April till 16 October)
  • Barcelona (Tuesday from 20 June to 29 August)

Archived story: Velkommen til Faroe Airways

Norway, Independent Nation , population 5.4million

Roads in Norway – traffic is relatively light on motorways and roads in Norway. The main motorways are European roads (indicated with an “E” in front of their number, e.g., the E39), connecting the country together and connecting Norway to other countries. Some regional roads may be very winding and narrow, and you need to use roadside pockets to let traffic from the opposite direction pass.

There are very good motorways (with speed limits between 90-110 km/h) between Oslo and Trondheim, Oslo and Stavanger, and Oslo and Halden (by the Swedish boarder), and also between Trondheim and Bodø. Apart from these, most roads outside the cities are single lane with a speed limit between 60-80 km/h.

Norway is investing massively in electric vehicle-friendly infrastructure and incentives. With more than 17,000 charging stations and 3,300 rapid chargers spread across the country. You need to have Norwegian registration plates for an EV or plug-in to use parking spaces and other special facilities reserved for such vehicles. For the latest rules, check the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association

Dipped headlights are mandatory at all times. Norway has a human-oriented traffic culture that puts pedestrians and cyclist first. Pedestrians who want to cross the street will expect you to slow down or stop at zebra crossings.

Ferries –  Most ferry journeys in Norway are paid through AutoPASS, the automated system for collection of road and ferry tolls.  For the most popular ferries, it is recommended to book in advance. The newly built ferries are constructed at Norwegian shipyards.

Numerous ferries connect Norway with other European countries, including daily crossings from both Denmark, Sweden and Germany. It is also possible to sail directly from the Netherlands.

In Fjord Norway and Northern Norway, travellers often have to rely on ferries and express boats for transportation. Express boats and car ferries sail up and down the coast, in sheltered waters and across open seas, to towns, villages and islands big and small.

Norway is going on all out an electric travel system “You can now go by bike or electric bike, often on newly built cycling lanes or tracks, take the train (also electrically driven) to a fjord, where you can board an electric mini cruise ship

Buses, trams, trains, and ferries are all going electric. Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim, have electric tram systems. Oslo also has an underground system.

The aim is for the entire Norwegian car fleet to be zero-emission (electric or hydrogen) by 2025. That’s why there are all sorts of incentives to get people to use EVs: subsidies, cheaper parking, tolls and ferry tickets, and the right to drive in bus and taxi lanes. You can easily rent an electric car from most rental companies. There are more than 17,000 charging stations and 3,300 rapid chargers spread across the country.

island surrounded by city
Photo by Tobias Bjørkli on Pexels.com

Three very different examples of how transport is managed in other places. However, it must always be stressed, that these places also have much larger populations than Orkney, and Norway is an independent nation similar in population size to Scotland. Therefore, for Orkney to aspire to systems anything like these would take a whole lot of financing. Something for the councillors voting for separation from Scotland and the UK to think about.

Fiona Grahame

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