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The independent Ferries Community Board has gathered extensive and compelling evidence of the cost to island communities of continuing disruption to the west coast ferry network.

And, they say, it’s time that the impact of cancellations, delays and suspended services is recognised as a major contributor to a loss of ‘islander confidence.’

A report has been collated as part of the board’s response to a request from the Scottish Government’s Scottish Islands team, to give information of what effects have been felt because of recent weather delays and cancellations.

Their evidence shows that breakdowns, delayed overhaul schedules, weather disruption and Covid protocols have all contributed to significant financial loss, human distress and lives made harder in numerous ways.

The board asked island communities to sum up their experiences and board member Eoin MacNeil of Barra shared some of the reports yesterday (Thursday 24 February) via the community news page Guth Bharraidh (https://www.facebook.com/GuthBharraidh).

Island reporters detailed emotional, financial and life quality losses including:

  • Inability to travel to funerals of loved ones
  • Paying out for days of accommodation while waiting for a ferry to get them home
  • Teachers, doctors and other professionals missing days of essential work
  • People, pets and livestock going without food
  • Missed hospital appointments, blood samples and chemotherapy treatments

Impacts were felt throughout Scotland’s western islands, with only Bute and Islay describing their experience as less severe than others, amounting to inconvenience rather than significant disruption.

Islanders in Coll gave examples of people who had chartered a RIB costing £550 to get home, and others paying £1,100 to charter a service plane so that they could get to the mainland and begin their annual two-week holiday. The same group had already paid for car and passenger tickets on the ferry for three consecutive days, to be sure of reaching the mainland in time.

In Barra, teachers returning from their mid-term break missed the first day back at school, causing ‘huge disruption.’ Barra crofters reported distress to animals when hay failed to be delivered and Barratlantic could not have their shellfish delivered, with stock later sold off to processers at a reduced price. Local workers had to be sent home, losing income.

In Bute, while impacts were reported as ‘less than elsewhere,’ a local haulier delivering grain to Arran distilleries is in despair at the costs and delays involved, with one load taking four days to be delivered.

Arran itself reported distilleries shutting down production, due to missing fuel deliveries, and households left with no heating oil. The local authority closed their waste management plant to commercial waste because waste from the island could not be shipped away.

Livestock feed was also interrupted and livestock itself could not be transported to market. Some carriers are saying they no longer guarantee deliveries or collections on Arran.

Crofters on Tiree saw their cattle sale postponed for a week, with some buyers deciding not to attend at all and market prices falling as a result. Supplies have been delayed getting to shops, crofters and builders, and the local fuel station ran out of fuel.

In Coll the uncertainty of the ferry link led to the local vet, nurse and waste collection vehicle being unable to reach the island, or to leave once they had arrived.

Islanders in Cumbrae found that their primary school was regularly unable to open due to lack of mainland staff, while high school pupils were unable to attend school on the mainland on numerous days. Hospital and care staff worked double 12-hour shifts to cover for staff unable to travel from the mainland.

Across the Western Isles numerous examples were given of disruption. On one day in Lewis two funerals were badly affected by weather and breakdowns, one on the mainland where family members were left at the quayside while freight traffic was prioritised and one where a funeral had to be planned around space on the Sound of Harris ferry, with the family having no choice as to when to hold it.

Significant disruption on all islands was felt by accommodation providers, who lost income due to people not being able to travel and having to cancel their bookings on both sides. Meanwhile many islanders found that much-needed holidays from work were lost, costing them time with family and friends as well as payments lost on accommodation.

One reporting organisation from the Western Isles said: “All of the above is just a drop in the ocean of the impacts felt by our communities. We have heard from the hairdresser unable to return home for five days who has lost income for that period and from the builder who cannot get materials in and has to down tools at a financial cost to him and also to the customer he is building for.

“We have animals having to ‘go on a diet’ until their food arrives days later, and fish farms having to put back their delivery as nets cannot come in to be hung in time. This has a huge cost in rearranging boats and manpower and could also impact on the end price for the fish as everything has to be pushed back.

“There are so many examples of how our communities are impacted due to service disruption.”

Gathering together all these views, the Ferries Community Board plans to ask the Scottish Government about immediate plans for fleet availability, flexibility in the service and a minimum service commitment.

They said: “Any ferry service needs to deal with weather issues, so excluding them could encourage innovation within the service.”

Underlining the point, one contributor spoke of a loss of islander confidence as a result of continuing disruption.

They said: “The impact of weather is one thing that every islander wholly understands, more than those who live and work on the mainland. However, service providers not taking advantage of a clear weather window to help sustain our population is unforgivable.

“It is time to assess the real human and economic costs to the islands as a result of how our service is currently being managed.”