WESTERN Ferries has revealed it is weighing up a bid to return to serving the Hebridean island of Islay – nearly four decades after withdrawing from the route.

The company, which runs the Gourock to Dunoon car and passenger ferry service, is examining the viability of operating a freight-only service to Islay.

It comes shortly after The Herald revealed the growth of Islay’s whisky and tourism industries is putting enormous pressure on existing ferry services to and from the island.

CalMac, currently the only operator serving Islay, typically serves the island with two ferries, which run services linking Kennacraig on the mainland with Port Askaig and Port Ellen.

However, as tourist and business traffic on the routes continues to rise, concerns are mounting within the island’s business community that the vessels do not offer the capacity Islay needs. And it is feared that the pressure on current services will reach breaking point amid plans by distillers to invest £100 million to expand production facilities and introduce new visitor attractions. New distilleries are being built on the island for the first time in decades.

READ MORE: Islay whisky supply under threat from ferry crisis

Western Ferries has a historical connection with the island, having launched in the late-1960s as a challenger to David MacBrayne (later Caledonian MacBrayne) running services in the Islay route. The service pioneered roll-on roll-off ferry services to the island, but it withdrew from the route in 1981 due to “challenging market conditions”. Since then it has concentrated on the Gourock to Dunoon route.

Now Western is giving serious thought to returning to Islay, though the company emphasised that it would only do so as a complementary service to the existing CalMac operations.

Gordon Ross, managing director of Western Ferries (Clyde), said: “Western Ferries is aware of the current pressure on public sector ferry services to and from Islay and we are currently looking at whether there would be scope for a complementary commercial ferry service.

“Any such service would be freight-only and would represent a significant investment for Western Ferries. However we are aware that any commercial service can only be delivered in co-operation with Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government.”

READ MORE: Tourism chief reveals Brexit staffing crisis

Concern on Islay over the pressure on current services was underlined by the ferry committee of the Islay Community Council last month. It noted that, despite Transport Scotland stating in its 2016 Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan that the next vessel procured by CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets) would be allocated to Islay, there was still no sign of a new vessel arriving.

CMAL is currently embroiled in a dispute with Clyde shipyard Ferguson over the delivery of two dual-fuel ferries to be deployed on CalMac’s west coast network. But even when those vessels are eventually brought in it is feared they will be too long to dock at Port Askaig and Port Ellen.

Mr Ross said: “There is a historic and close connection between Western Ferries and Islay. We are aware that, with the growth in whisky and visitors to the distilleries as well as general tourists, demand has considerably increased while capacity has remained the same.

“Transport Scotland has said its next new build will be an Islay boat, but it is likely to be a number of years before there is a public sector solution.”

READ MORE: Investment on rise at Western Ferries as expenditure weighs on profits

The most recent accounts for Western Ferries show it carried 1.4 million passengers in the year to March 31, and invested £2.7m in shoreside infrastructure. That included the addition of a new linkspan and berthing structure at McInroy’s Point in Gourock.

The accounts showed that profits dipped to £2.32m from £2.51m amid higher repair and maintenance spending. Western said 57 of its 64 staff reside in Dunoon and Cowal and pledged that it would recruit locally if it returned to serving the island.

Mr Ross said: “As far as staffing any proposed commercial freight ferry is concerned, we would hope to replicate the local employment philosophy we have on our Dunoon route, where more than 90 per cent of staff live in the area.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The increase in demand for ferry services to Islay reflects both the island’s burgeoning whisky industry and increased tourism to Islay and the growth in the island’s economy is very welcome news not only fir the people of Islay but also for Scotland.

“The Scottish Government seeks to support sustainable growth in Islay’s economy and therefore welcomes Western Ferries’ proposal to operate a commercial freight service to Islay.

"While the introduction of a new service is a commercial decision for Western Ferries, and Ministers have not discussed the proposal in any detail at this stage, such an initiative would itself potentially provide an economic boost, both locally and nationally, as well as complementing the existing Islay passenger and vehicle service provided by CalMac Ferries Ltd.”