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Ferry delays causes issues for Islay businesses and residents

Long delays on the arrival of new ferries and persistent issues with routes means that island businesses and industries are suffering the consequences.

Upgrade works at Kennacraig have contributed considerable disruption to Islay’s lifeline ferry service.
Upgrade works at Kennacraig have contributed considerable disruption to Islay’s lifeline ferry service.

MV Glen Sannox, the first of the two ferries under construction in Ferguson’s Yard on the Clyde, is due to arrive on the Arran route in May of this year – around six years later than the original delivery date, having begun tentative sea-trials only last week.

However, when the Glen Sannox and its sister ship, MV Glen Rosa finally sail to Arran, it will be from the port at Troon. Because, despite the tardiness of their delivery, no work has yet commenced on upgrading the berth at Ardrossan to cater for the two larger vessels.

In that respect, Islay is considerably more fortunate, with work already underway at Kennacraig in advance of the MV Isle of Islay’s arrival in October this year, followed by the MV Loch Indaal in March 2025. Work to improve the marshalling facilities at Port Askaig is due to commence this summer, and though not ideal in terms of the timeline, upgrade works at Port Ellen will commence in  the summer of 2025, and are expected to last for eighteen months, long after the arrival of both of Islay’s new ferries.

With the two identical vessels due to join the Islay route being larger than the MV Finlaggan, upgrades of all three piers are understandably necessary. But recent events have somewhat undermined CalMac’s assurances that works at Kennacraig, expected to continue for another seven months, and which have necessitated the removal of the linkspan, would not interrupt or endanger Islay’s lifeline ferry service.

In December 2023, The Islay Community Council Ferry Committee expressed their concerns over continued berthing at Kennacraig in disadvantageous weather conditions in advance of the removal of the linkspan. At the time, these concerns were downplayed by CMAL and CalMac.

At a recent CMAL/CalMac/Argyll & Bute Council drop-in event held at Islay’s Gaelic Centre in January, the Ileach reiterated these concerns to CalMac staff in attendance, in response to which we were assured that mitigations were being put in place to offset any concerns over berthing in high-winds.

Unfortunately, soon after the event, CalMac’s website advised that the Finlaggan would sail from Port Askaig to Kennacraig, but there was no guarantee of it being able to berth due to adverse weather, and that it may be found necessary to return to Port Askaig.

Since then, there have been several cancellations of ferry sailings, either because “…the preferred berth is unavailable”, or, in a notable about-turn, the vessel remained overnight on Islay and  was thus unable to operate the 7am sailing from Kennacraig.

Only recently, CalMac’s website offered the following: ‘Thursday 8th – Saturday 10th February. Due to a forecast of strong Easterly in excess of 40mph and the preferred safe berth being unavailable in Kennacraig due to the infrastructure works, this service is liable to disruption or cancellation at short notice’.

It would be naive to pretend that residents of Islay and Jura are unused to ferry disruptions at this time of year, but as a spokesperson for the Ferry Committee pointed out: “We cannot recall sailings ever being cancelled due to weather conditions at Kennacraig preventing berthing.

“Our islands cannot afford this single ferry to be regularly cancelled without some contingency in place. Kennacraig is normally a safe port in any weather conditions and it is only the present change of berth that is making it no longer safe, in weather that would not otherwise have been a problem.”

At the drop-in event mentioned above, CalMac said they might opt to employ the pier at Campbeltown as a contingency measure, but one that has not been used, nor subsequently mentioned.

However, as advised by the letter from Frazer Campbell of Campbell’s Stores in Port Ellen included in last issue’s report, it’s not simply the lack of passengers being unable to depart or arrive, but the economic consequences of repeatedly cancelled or delayed sailings.

For instance, in the week commencing 5 February, all sailings to and from Islay were cancelled, with the ferry berthed at Port Askaig. That meant no food or bread deliveries on Monday.

The following day, with the ferry still berthed at Islay, the early morning sailing from Kennacraig was cancelled. But when the ferry did eventually sail later in the day, the bread lorry, having sat at Kennacraig since early morning, was prevented from boarding the ferry, seemingly in contravention of CalMac’s stated claim to prioritise perishable goods. This meant that two bread deliveries arrived on Wednesday morning. 

So who pays?

According to Frazer: “Unfortunately it is us that pay, both in the fact we don’t have anything to sell at the expected time and then when it does arrive, we are left with minimal or out of date products.

“This is something that infuriates me, as it will be a long seven months. And this was flagged up to them before the works started.”

Tom Hunter, of Port Charlotte Stores, concurred, as did management at Bowmore Co-op who were left to find shelf-space for two days’ worth of bakery goods and both Monday’s and Wednesday’s fresh veg orders. 

The uncertainty of sailings, whether they’ll arrive, depart, or be able to berth in windy weather, makes it harder for retailers of perishable goods to know whether to reduce subsequent orders or not.

And it’s not only the retail trade that is feeling the effect. The Ileach contacted the island’s distillers to enquire if the ferry disruptions had created problems for them.

Several had experienced substantial delays in moving spirit off the island, while awaiting deliveries of empty casks and malt. One distillery manager described the situation as “absolute madness.” However, not all had been so unfortunate, with others reporting only minor delays to deliveries.

Meanwhile, opening of the new Immersive Classroom facility at Islay’s Gaelic Centre has been delayed by over two months, due to the fabricators required to complete the project, being unable to book on and off the island to carry out the final works.

And then there’s the tourism aspect. One Islay accommodation provider told the Ileach: “The situation is a nightmare. If my cottage is anything to go by, it is going to be a hard summer. Unable to book the ferry, I have already had two cancellations and others seem reluctant to book just in case they can’t get over.

“It will affect the whole island one way or another; less tourists, less money into the economy.”

Emma Clark, co-chair of Explore Islay and Jura, told the Ileach:

“A combination of extremely late release of the summer timetable and the Kennacraig works has unquestionably led to a lack of confidence from visitors, and some cancellation of bookings and anecdotally, an unquantifiable number of potential guests choosing to go elsewhere. 

“The latest delay in releasing the summer timetable has exacerbated the situation, frustrating visitors, islanders and all businesses who need to be able to plan.

“However, the late timetable doesn’t suit CalMac either and any efforts to fix that are welcome. We would hope that such a delay will not happen again; Transport  Scotland has a clear role in ensuring it gets their bit right and Explore Islay and Jura is doing its best to lobby those who can effect change, keep those involved in tourism informed and involved and ensure the importance of tourism to the  island’s economy is not understated.

“What will not help any business on these islands is to give the impression that they are inaccessible to tourists. 

“We recognise the port works as an essential preparation for an improved service going forward, something to work through in the hope of much better things to come. But the co-ordination, planning and execution of these works is shambolic.

“We will continue to lobby hard for immediate improvements in the short term, whilst planning for sustainable and regenerative tourism in the longer term.”

A CalMac spokesperson, announcing the publication of the Islay summer timetable on Wednesday 14 February, stated: “Although the north pier is operational, it has a fixed ramp which affects berthing operations. This set-up means that, when MV Hebridean Isles joins the route, it will be limited to stern-only loading on both mainland and island ports. 

“This means vehicles need to drive on and reverse off, which will add to turnaround times. Work on the north berth is scheduled to finish on 21 August, when turnaround times will return to normal.”

CalMac also announced that the timetable this summer will have two fewer sailings per week, on a Friday evening and Saturday morning. The timetable applicable from 29 March shows that the Saturday morning ferry will not depart from Kennacraig until 10:05, arriving at Port Askaig at 12:10. 

According to CalMac: “We appreciate that the communities we serve would prefer to have a full timetable operating, but we have thoroughly evaluated the level of service we can provide, and this is the best we can offer in the circumstances.”

The Islay Ferry Committee has communicated its disappointment of this drop in the number of sailings, pointing out alternatives to CalMac that might enable them to restore the number of sailings for at least part of the summer season.

It would be foolish to deny that these upgrade works are other than necessary steps towards improving Islay’s transportation infrastructure. With an increased number of distilleries and all that these entail, Islay is currently the principal freight route on CalMac’s west coast network.

However, in the light of recent disruptions, it would have been nice if there had been a Plan B.