WITH every business meeting, medical appointment or delivery missed by islanders on the west coast wishing to travel to the Scottish mainland, the temptation is to focus on Caledonian MacBrayne, the state-owned ferry operator which runs the bulk of Scotland’s ferries.

In reality, CalMac can only sail vessels which are provided to it by Caledonian Maritime Assets (CMAL), the harbour and ferry infrastructure body which has the Scottish Government as its ultimate paymaster.

And, with islanders, tourists and business-owners increasingly frustrated over cancellations and timetable disruptions, it is becoming clear that it is ferry procurement policy presided over by Scottish ministers which should be brought under the microscope.

Experts say the solution to Scotland’s ferry woes lies in a radical rethink in the way vessels are acquired.

In simple terms, they argue that CMAL buys ships which are too big, too expensive, too complex and, in some cases, too difficult to manoeuvre.

Take the recent controversy over the two ferries CMAL ordered from Ferguson Marine.

Putting the contractual dispute between the parties to one side, it is argued by some that the vessels were ordered without giving sufficient pause to how they would fit into the


One of the vessels, the Glen Sannox, was ordered for the Ardrossan to Brodick route. But its specification has necessitated tens of millions of pounds of investment to upgrade the harbour infrastructure at both ports, simply because of the ship’s size.

Some fear that the combined cost of the Ferguson ferries and harbour upgrades will be much more than £100 million.

Is this really a wise use of public money?

And there are other examples. The Loch Seaforth which sails between Stornoway and Ullapool cost £42m and almost the same again in harbour upgrades.

But it is not only the apparent waste of public money which irks communities on islands such as Arran and Islay.

The policy of operating certain routes with just one vessel causes problems when, as often happens given the age of the fleet, ferries break down.

When that happens, ferries are taken from other routes, leading to wider disruption across the network.

There is much to be said for the calls by respected experts such as Alf Baird and Roy Pedersen to improve capacity and reliability by introducing a bigger fleet of smaller vessels, which run more often, cost less, and do not require harbours to be massively upgraded.