If you live or work on the island of Islay – or just visit occasionally, you might get the feeling you are living in a bygone generation. It is just one island, albeit an important one. It is said that Islay boasts a larger export trade value than Birmingham, but the Scottish ferry issue is plaguing all the islands.
For example, if you want to make a future ferry booking on or off this beautiful island in May (just days away) or even beyond, be prepared to be frustrated and perhaps confused. Use the CalMac website as instructed and on whatever date or sailing you choose after 3 May, you will be told starkly that it's 'not available'. That is the same statement you get when your chosen ferry is fully booked, so you might, innocently enough, imagine that all the ferries are in fact full and that you cannot travel. If you are a visitor, potential visitor, or a person unaware of the mystic customs of Caledonian MacBrayne, you will be put off and go elsewhere. And they do.
But it's not true. 'Not available' in this context only means that those who control CalMac don't have the foggiest notion about what ferries will be available in a few weeks time and have not issued a new timetable for May and beyond. It should say 'may be available but please hang about until we are ready'. But it does not say this on the booking website.
So, life has to go into suspense until the great CalMac ferry chess board produces a solution. But life, unlike CalMac timetabling, does not go into suspense.
People need to get on and off the island – and know how and when to do it. Deliveries to shops, distillery products, people with appointments, tourists whose lifeblood keeps an island industry alive – all need certainty and predictability. Without it, the fabric of island life is torn, businesses can't survive and depopulation becomes the result.
But, but, but
, they tell us loudly, two new ferries are being built for the Islay route – in Turkey. Not assuredly in Port Glasgow where 'two ferries for the price of five' is the taxpayers' bargain. The Turkish ships, they say, will deal with all the extra traffic and eliminate any need for a separate freight boat.
Oh, if only it was true.
The two-new-ferries solution was of course not CMAL's favoured option. Remember for a moment that in the present confusing set-up, one company CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd) builds, designs and owns all the ferries and most of the piers. CalMac then operates the ships they are given. This is a structure designed for muddle and buck passing, and one that allows the Scottish Government overlords to hide.
In the Zoom-based 'consultations' two years ago on the Islay service (both of which I sat through), what was favoured was a bigger ship to operate alongside the existing MV Finlaggan. However, out of the blue, the decision was taken to have two identical new ferries. The common-sense idea of just building another Finlaggan since we had the design and it would fit the piers, was summarily dismissed. Silly people – to even suggest it!
The question now is: will the two new ferries fit the existing piers? Since CMAL own Port Ellen pier and they dominate the use of Port Askaig pier (owned by the Council) and they have designed the new ships specifically for Islay, the answer should be glaringly obvious. Not a chance.
After all, CMAL designed the MV Finlaggan specifically for the Islay route and yet it did not fit the dock (the linkspan, to be technical) at Port Askaig and hugely expensive adaptations had to be made at all their
piers to fit their
own new ferry.
And now CMAL has made it clear that the new ferry will not be able to fully use Port Ellen (if you are following this saga, remember CMAL own Port Ellen pier). The marshalling area is not big enough to handle the capacity of their design of ferry. Unless there is a massive new expansion of Port Ellen pier. This will be expensive and take some time to build, all before the new ferry can be used to its potential.
At the Port Ellen pier extension consultation (with only one obvious solution) last year, I asked the CMAL representatives if the money had been actually committed for the new marshalling area. 'Not our department' was the reply. So, has it? The islanders need to know.
But will the drama be over when, or if, the island eventually gets two new ferries, three adapted piers, and a new marshalling area? Not on your life.
CMAL say that the mainland Kennacraig terminal near Tarbert needs to be rebuilt in the near future. Just imagine then, if you are a passenger or potential passenger, the serious disruption which that work at Kennacraig will mean for the Islay service.
In the CMAL Zoom consultation, I dared to suggest that instead of rebuilding Kennacraig it would make sense to build a new pier at the mouth of West Loch Tarbert, with two objectives. First, to eliminate the need for boats to slow slalom up and down the loch and, second, to reduce the sailing time to Islay, allowing a more frequent service. The boss of CMAL dismissed the idea with a wave of the hand. The questioner does not understand ferries, he claimed, which is too often the riposte of a company that has not delivered much in the way of ferries.
Full disclosure from me: I am presently chairman of the board of directors of Western Ferries. That's the company which used to run a competing service to Islay from Kennacraig, a terminal it created and which is now run by CMAL. Western Ferries was driven off the route by vast subsidies given by the state operator which made the alternative service unviable. We now run the roll-on roll-off service across the Firth of Clyde. From dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, we offer an efficient, unsubsidised service to the travelling public.
I also, in the distant past, had a part to play in the devolution plans for a Scottish Parliament. Optimistically, I believed that if we devolved power from Westminster to Scotland, devolution would go much further and closer to the remoter regions of our land. I was obviously deluded. It seems that, given what we experience with the ferries of Scotland, the Islay shopkeeper who said to me last week: 'we are as far from the thoughts and considerations in Edinburgh than we were from London', speaks a brutal truth.
Both CMAL and CalMac are owned by Scottish Government ministers. Where are they and why are they not listening?
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen has been Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, UK Defence Secretary and Secretary General of NATO. He was a Scottish Labour MP for 21 years