The future of many of Scotland’s island communities are being put at risk by the unreliable state of the country’s ageing ferries, which have seriously impacted the ability of islanders to get to the mainland for medical care, and stopped essential supplies reaching islanders.
Most of the islands in the west of Scotland rely on services from a state-owned company called Caledonian MacBrayne.
The average age of its ferry fleet is higher than 24 years, with many large boats even older than this.
The ageing boats are developing more faults, which leads to delays and cancellations, an issue which has been compounded by delays and massive cost overruns in getting new ferries completed, in a process dogged by accusations of financial mismanagement and incompetence on the part of the Scotish government.
As a result, ferries have been moved from one route to another to cover what are described as “lifeline” services.
Most recently, there were protests after the South Uist to Mallaig service was withdrawn for almost an entire month, and in some cases local shops in island communities have had to ration basics like milk and bread.
Angus Campbell of the Ferries Community Board, a group set up to ensure operators hear the views of people who use the services, tells Euronews that almost every route had been affected at one point, adding “wherever you start taking away capacity to fill a gap somewhere else you’re leaving a gap for service”.
He said the state of the ferry services had threatened the future viability of the islands, because people had been questioning whether they should leave.
“Everywhere you go you hear of people having to make decisions to leave islands because it could be that they don’t feel they have access to services,” he said. “It could be health services, it could be they’re just fed up living their life where they don’t know whether goods are going to come in or not.
“Particularly in these industries that are dependent on ferry services, there is a lot of questioning whether they should be based on the islands any more or should relocate to the mainland where they don’t have the added headache of ferry failures to deal with.”
Having spoken to people on the islands as part of a consultation, he knows such concerns have been raised by both young and old, for different reasons.
“There were examples of people leaving elderly people who felt they had to leave to get a quality of life, so there’s no doubt it’s having an effect,” he said. “At the other end of the school when you’re trying to convince young people there’s a future for them on the islands the negativity around the ferries has made many of them decide ‘not for me thank you’.
“I think we reached a point where the underinvestment in the infrastructure have gone on for so many years that time caught up with a lot of the fleet,” he added.
Operators and government defend their record
The Scottish government has been on the defensive over the ferry fiasco for a number of years, with the opposition parties smelling blood in the water.
The spiraling costs for two replacement ferries, to more than €300 million each, has been a particular point of contention – with repeated calls on the government to concede it would have been better to scrap those two vessels and build them abroad instead of in Scottish shipyards, despite how politically unpalatable that might have been.
The fact that replacement ships are more than six years overdue has been described by one Conservative politician as “the latest kick in the teeth to taxpayers and betrayed islanders in a never-ending scandal”.
Scottish First Minister “Humza Yousaf needs to stop the secrecy, be honest for a change, and tell us how much higher the real cost to taxpayers for these ferries is going to be,” said Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, recently.
Over the summer, as the saga dragged on, Ross again slammed the government over ferries delayed by more than half a decade, saying “the SNP’s failure to deliver a working ferry network is ruining lives, damaging businesses, costing jobs and driving islanders to despair,” with growing calls for compensation for island businesses – like hotels and guest houses – which have lost revenues due to the woeful state and unreliability of the island ferry services.
The Scottish government tells Euronews it is “fully committed to investing in our ferry services,” blaming “technical issues” for delays in annual maintenance for some of the boats, which resulted in cancellations.
“We appreciate that every cancelled sailing can have a significant impact and continue to work with operators and CMAL to improve reliability and resilience.”
Six new vessels are due to go into service connecting the Scottish islands and the mainland by the end of 2025, while a small vessel replacement programme should be underway before the end of the calendar year.