DISTILLERS on Islay are facing major problems in transporting their precious spirit over to the Scottish mainland because of a capacity crisis on ferry links to the famous whisky island.

Islay has been a massive Scottish success story in recent years, with visitor numbers to the island soaring thanks to the increasing popularity of its distilleries and other attractions.

Scotch whisky companies have responded to growing global demand for Islay’s renowned malts by ramping up production. New distilleries are being built on the island for the first time in decades.

But the growth of the industry is placing enormous pressure on ferry services, leading to fears the ambition and prospects of the island are being stifled.

CalMac, the publicly-owned ferry operator, has traditionally served Islay with two vessels, the MV Finlaggan and the decades-old MV Hebridean Isles.

But the MV Hebridean is nearing the end of its working life and, sources say, the two vessels do not offer the capacity Islay needs to service its whisky and tourism sectors.

One of the vessels is currently out of commission for essential maintenance, and has been temporarily been replaced by a smaller boat.

In addition, services to Islay have been hit by regular disruptions to timetables on the CalMac network, notably last summer when interruptions were caused by breakdowns on vessels serving other routes.

And pressure has been building up on the Islay service as a consequence of RET (Road Equivalent Tariff), which has dramatically cut the cost of taking cars to the island by ferry.

Around £100 million of investment is currently being made by the whisky industry on Islay, which includes plans by Diageo to bring its famous Port Ellen distillery out of mothballs and a move by The Glenmorangie Company to expand production at Ardbeg.

A ninth distillery, Ardnahoe, is poised to open on the island’s north-east coast, while the entrepreneur Sukhinder Singh, co-founder of The Whisky Exchange, has acquired land near Port Ellen with a view to building another distillery.

This expansion has come as Islay welcomes more and more visitors to the island to tour its distilleries. Industry body the Scottish Whisky Association said 150,000 whisky fans visited distilleries on the island last year, pumping an additional £6m into the local economy.

Carrying statistics from CalMac illustrate the growth of Islay. CalMac said the number of passengers it carried between Kennacraig on the mainland to Islay grew to 214,334 in 2017 from 203,219 in 2016.

At the same time, the number of commercial vehicles carried to the island grew to 11,228 in 2017 from 11,015 the year before.

But despite the growth in traffic there has been no expansion of ferry capacity.

CalMac typically serves Islay with the MV Finlaggan and the MV Hebridean Isles, which run services between Kennacraig on the mainland and two ports on the island – Port Askaig and Port Ellen.

The Finlaggan has an average total weight capacity of about 350 tonnes, while the Hebridean Isles has a capacity of 235 tonnes.

However, with the Finlaggan currently in dry dock for essential maintenance, it has temporarily been replaced by the smaller

MV Isle of Arran, which has a capacity of 195 tonnes and is more than 33 years old.

The Herald understands CalMac has moved to mitigate the capacity shortfall by committing to eight extra sailings for a two-week period.

But, according to the ferry committee of the Islay Community Council, the extra sailings are “already proving to be insufficient, space is tight, and we are hearing of many travellers who cannot obtain space when required.”

A spokesman added: “On top of this, there has already been considerable disruption to the timetable since last weekend, with diversions and cancellations and the removal of Finlaggan to drydock delayed by a few days. Originally due to leave on the 15th (of February) with Hebridean Isles and Isle of Arran then taking over, she left only on the evening of Monday the 18th.”

Transport Scotland recognised the pressure on ferry services to Islay in its 2016 Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan, with the report highlighting the capacity constraints on the routes and the age of the MV Finlaggan and the MV Hebridean Isles.

“We are therefore recommending that the next major vessel procured by CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets) is initially allocated to the Islay services to replace the MV Hebridean Isles.”

However, the Islay Ferry Committee said there is no sign of any new ferry forthcoming for the Islay route.

The spokesman said: “Although the Islay service was highlighted as being top priority for the next new vessel to be commissioned in Transport Scotland’s 2016 Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan, the new vessel has not yet even been specified.

“The timing for this is continually shifting and according to CMAL it is now due in the current quarter. Traffic forecasts in 2016 which justified a new vessel at that time, have substantially increased. Since it takes at least four years from order placement until a new vessel entering service, the situation is becoming critical.”

In addition, it is understood the design of the next two vessels currently on order for the CalMac network, which are being built by the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow, means they would be unable to dock in Islay.

While new vessels are 100-metres in length, the piers at Port Ellen and Port Askaig are only able to accommodate boats up to 92-metres long. Port Ellen may also require to be dredged.

Sources say this underlines the need for investment in harbour infrastructure on Islay.

Paul Graham of Ardnahoe, which is being built by the whisky bottler Hunter Laing, said the capacity of the ferry service is major worry for the island. He said: “As a business, we are very concerned about restrictions and available space on the vessels. It’s not just for commercial reasons, it is for the vibrant tourism industry that we have."

A spokesman for the SWA said: “There is over £100m of investment planned by distilleries on the island and demand for Scotch whisky produced on Islay is expected to increase.

“The Scotch whisky industry is committed to working collaboratively with the local community, Scottish Government, CalMac Ferries and others to ensure the industry and the island of Islay continue to flourish.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The introduction of RET has brought significant and continuing benefits to our west coast island and rural communities, however we are aware of the vehicle capacity challenges faced by our ferry services that come alongside a welcome increase in passenger numbers.

"As outlined in the Vessel Replacement and Deployment Strategy, Islay is in line for the next new ferry procurement to help support the island’s growing economy. Work on vessel specification is currently being taken forward by Transport Scotland, CMAL and CalMac.”