Scotland’s new transport minister sailed straight into hot water yesterday (Thursday 30 March), with a series of parliamentary answers on the current ferry crisis which left islanders fuming.
And today he’s been warned by island representatives that punishment at the ballot box faces his government, unless he gets a grip on the severity of the situation.
In the Scottish Parliament yesterday, the new minister for transport Kevin Stewart faced MSPs from across the chamber clamouring for his response on the ongoing ferry debacle.
They included Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant, who described it as ‘unacceptable’ that Lochboisdale is to lose its ferry service for six weeks, and Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson, who described the long-term projected disruption to the network as ‘disastrous.’
Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan said he had been ‘inundated with messages of despair from South Uist’ which he described as a community which had suffered by far the highest rate of ferry cancellations.
In response to the barrage of demands for action, transport minister Kevin Stewart MSP said that he planned to speak to CalMac about the issues raised, a response that Graham Simpson said would not be of any comfort to islanders.
Today that summary has proved prophetic, with a growing wave of anger directed at a new minister described by one islander as ‘thoroughly disingenuous’ on the subject.
Harris councillor Grant Fulton has today published the text of a letter sent to Mr Stewart, in which he said: “I watched with interest your response to Ms Grant in Holyrood in regard to our lifeline ferry service, or lack of.
“I was shocked that you were ill-prepared and not briefed when you laid the blame at CalMac. CalMac are only operating with the equipment they have - ageing vessels which have missed their maintenance schedules.
“The blame lies with CMAL, Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government.
“Some of your wisecracks were relatively amusing when replying to Ms Grant, however, I can assure you no one in the islands is laughing with you, only at you.
“To joke on record, whilst our islands are being decimated by no lifeline service, is patronising to the extreme.
“Contract more vessels, build more vessels and ensure the ageing fleet is maintained - that would be a good start.
“Engage with our community, we feel marginalised and attacked, the SNP are fast losing any grip on coastal communities.”
Stòras Uibhist have reacted furiously to news that CalMac sailings from Lochboisdale will be cancelled from 5 April for 6 weeks.
Chairperson Mary Schmoller said: “(When we) met with Roddy MacDonald from the Scottish Government, we were very clear that we could not have a repeat of last year’s cancellations and expect our businesses to survive.
“He left us after one hour promising to get back to us within a week…and yet just 24 hours later we received this devastating news.
“We need better and more consistent contingency planning so we know what happens if and when our ferries are cancelled, and we need a business support scheme to enable local business to survive.”
And her words were endorsed by one local resident, who said: “With less than two weeks to Easter, plans for many of us will have gone in the bin with this announcement.
“Imagine the outcry if bus and train services were to be cancelled for six weeks in Glasgow and Edinburgh over the Easter holidays. Sort it out Humza or pay the price at the ballot box!”
Members of the Uist Association of Community Councils met on Wednesday evening (29 March) and agreed a statement calling on CalMac to greatly improve communication with communities, hauliers and individual travellers.
They added: “We also call upon Scottish Government, Transport Scotland, CalMac and our MSP Alasdair Allan to find viable and immediate solutions to the life line services required by the Islands Act 2018.
“The failure of these and other bodies is substantially affecting people, families, health and well-being along with supporting business essential to our well-being.”
Illustrating the impact of the proposed service cancellations, social media is alive with individual accounts of the impact already being felt by businesses and families in Uist and beyond.
One South Uist resident said: “Last year, there were only five businesses in the main part of Lochboisdale. After a year of ferry chaos we are down to three, and the others struggled severely last year due to cancellation of sailings. How many will we have left this time next year?”
Accounts were given of individual travellers facing missed family reunions, cancelled holidays and lost expenditure on failed transport connections – and some feel that the current chaos only heralds future reductions in essential services.
One said: “I always feel, when I see CalMac cancelling the Lochboisdale/Mallaig ferry, that it will be only a matter of time before they call it a day for that run.
“Do they think so little of the people that rely on this service and the effect that it has?”
And another described the situation as ‘an ongoing scandal and ridiculous state of affairs.’
They said: “When will feet be held to the fire for the ongoing failure to provide a reliable ferry service to South Uist? Families and businesses continue to suffer without anyone being held to account.”
The pictures show transport minister Kevin Stewart and MSP Rhoda Grant during yesterday’s exchange at Holyrood.