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The Highland Line: why five island communities are hacked off over ferries

There must be some civil servants still scratching their heads, working out how exactly they did it.
 

And it was quite an achievement - managing to anger five island communities by offering them a ferry service seven days a week for the first time ever, something they had all  dreamed of for generations.

The timing of the Hebridean outrage uproar also  probably caught them unawares because the proposals which caused so much offence were in the Ferries Review which the Government published before Christmas.

But the devil was in the detail of that document for the residents of the Small Isles - Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna – and of Colonsay far to the south.

For the Small Isles, that part of their service improvement will be based on the introduction of a daily fast RIB passenger service along with a minimum of two visits a week from a vehicle-carrying ferry and freight provision.

The residents see this as a significant diminution of their present four visits of the car ferry Lochnevis during the winter and five in the summer.

It was the document saying the new service was “Dependent on purchase of new RIB vessel” which caused most concern.  As far as the islanders are aware the largest RIBs available carry around 30 people. This compares to the Lochnevis’s 200 passengers and 14 car capacity, which the Small Isles Community Council insists the communities need in the summer.

Transport Scotland's declaration that what they have in mind is high speed craft capable of carrying around 150 passengers, is cutting little ice.

Capacity is also the problem for Colonsay where the community council voted unanimously against the Lochnevis arriving specifically, because in the summer there can be 30 to 40 cars coming and going in a single day, many with trailers for boats. The 130 islanders would far prefer the status quo, which means the island is served by either the ferry Lord of the Isles , which carries 54 cars, or the Isle of Mull which can take 70. 

There are three direct return sailings a week to Oban in the winter and five in the summer. There is also one sailing a week which comes from Islay, to Colonsay then up to Oban and back again.

Launched in 2000, the Lochnevis, the vessel the Small Isles want to keep and Colonsay doesn’t want, cost around £5.5m and was purpose built as part of a £30m European assisted programme to modernise ferry services to the Small Isles of Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna, and Inverie in Knoydart -  that remote arm of the mainland.

Some 25% of its construction costs qualified for support from the European Regional Development Fund.

The people of the Small Isles say that means she should spend her working life serving them. They point out that she was specially designed for their jetties and that Europe did not contribute its money just to add another ferry to the CalMac fleet, but to address their particular problems.

In particular Muck, Rum and Eigg were the last locations in Scotland where CalMac ferries had to be attended by flit boats (smaller motor boats) to transfer people and goods to and from the islands.

They used to operate at several places. There was Iona where several “red boats” would attend the King George V when she anchored in the Sound of Iona, disgorging up to 1,000 visitors for an hour or so onshore during the tourist season, then head  north to perform the same function when the steamer reached Staffa.

A red boat attended the Claymore when she called at Coll, as anyone who has read the Katie Morag books will know. At Craignure on Mull the same thing would happen when the mail boat, the Lochinvar and later the Lochearn called on her service between Oban, Salen and Tobermory.

But in the late 20th century this was seen as an unacceptable way in terms of health and safety as well as efficiency, for a publicly funded service to operate.

So there was European support not only for the ferry, but also for the jetties.The one at Eigg cost £7.8 million, with £4.1 million from the Scottish Executive, £2.3 million from European Regional Development Funding and £1.4 million from Highland Council.

Muck and Rum was an  £8.7 million joint project (£4.5 million for Muck and £4.2 million for Rum), with £3.8 million from the Scottish Executive, £2.5 million from Highland Council, £1.9 million from European Regional Development Funding and £0.5 million from Scottish Natural Heritage.

There were similar funding arrangements for the £3.2m ferry terminal on Canna and the £6m plus pier at Inverie in Knoydart.

There were hiccups a plenty with delays in building the jetties etc, but it was a project which answered the needs of some of the most fragile communities in the land, who now can’t understand why ministers want to meddle with it.

Meanwhile Eurosceptics would be well advised to visit the Small Isles some time to see how such significant European support transformed these small communities with arrivals of their first ever car ferry service.

Lorries can now carry the likes of coal and animal feed to the islands, and take cattle and sheep away to market. Tradesmen can take their vans over, and for the people on Muck they no longer have to wade ashore at certain stages of the tide.
One unforeseen development is how right wing commentators use the £8.7m invested in the Eigg pier as evidence cited in their determination to prove the subsidy dependence on that island now owned by the community.

They don’t mention that Muck ,which is privately owned and has less than half the population of Eigg, got a £4.5m pier; Rum which is owned by ministers in the form of Scottish Natural Heritage got much the same; and  a million or so less for Canna which is owned by a charity, the National Trust for Scotland.

The subsidy charge against Eigg is wide of the mark. The community, which staged a historic £1.5m buyout of the island in 1997, got very little public money, only about £18,000 for the purchase, and has since then only received grants that are available to any community in the island. But more importantly there is virtually full employment on the island, so the proportion of handouts will be significantly smaller than those in any small community dependent on tourism and nearby sporting estates.

The 90 strong community has pursued a £1.6m project to connect its three hydro-electric schemes, four- turbine wind farm and solar energy development to a high-voltage network through seven miles of buried cables. This now produces more than 92% of the island's energy needs.

That replaced the reliance on old diesel generators that had largely powered the 45 households, 20 businesses, and six community buildings.

But the islanders were not finished, embarking on a further programme of insulation and energy conservation and cutting total carbon emissions by 47%.
It impressed the judges of the prestigious Ashden Awards, and in July 2010 it was announced that Eigg was the overall UK winner of the £20,000 prize.

This followed on Eigg's even more lucrative success in January of that year, winning £300,000 in The Big Green Challenge run by the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts.

It is unlikely all this could have been achieved without the Lochnevis and the island’s new pier.
Meanwhile, despite getting its new pier Knoydart is still not part of the Lochnevis’s scheduled service.  The community depends on the estimable Bruce Watt and his passenger vessel Western Isles to get to and from Mallaig, as it has for generations.
The service runs three days per week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) all year. A service runs both in the morning and afternoon for each of the three sailing days. The service is not funded by the Scottish Government.

According to the Ferries Review, “the intention then is that we will work with the community, the existing operators and our partners on how improvements could be made to this particular ferry service. It is certainly possible to include Knoydart as part of our medium-term proposals for the Small Isles, strengthening the present service with the addition of more sailing days for the community.”

So as things stand the prospect of the Lochnevis sailing up Loch Nevis to Inevrie, remain remote, unless of course it is going to link up with Colonsay!

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