ONE of the last shipbuilders on the Clyde has turned down its biggest ever order and the work is set to go abroad, it emerged last night.

Ferguson Shipbuilders, of Port Glasgow, had been selected to build a 110-metre roll-on roll-off car ferry worth #21m for a new service between Scrabster and Orkney.

The 8600-tonne vessel, which will be capable of carrying 600 passengers and 70 cars, had been ordered by NorthLink, a joint venture between Caledonian MacBrayne and the Royal Bank of Scotland, while two larger 125-metre ferries to operate between Aberdeen and the Northern Isles will be built by Aker Finnyards at Rauma in Finland.

However, the contract for the smaller ferry is also now likely to go abroad after Ferguson pulled out of the deal.

No-one from the yard was available for comment last night, but it is understood there were problems on design arrangements and the timetable for delivery.

A spokesman for NorthLink said last night that alternative suppliers had been contacted and it was expected the vessel could be completed within the necessary timescale.

He added: ''Our extreme disappointment is heightened because, as a company, we were keen that a Scottish yard should be involved in the project.''

In October, the Scottish executive chose NorthLink as the preferred bidder to replace P&O as operator of the subsidised ferry service to Orkney and Shetland for a five-year contract period, starting in summer 2002.

NorthLink exchanged letters of intent with Ferguson at the end of October and, last month, Richard Deane, the managing director of Ferguson, which is owned by Frank Dunnet, the octogenarian Glasgow millionaire, said about 50 extra employees would be taken on to build the ship, bringing the yard's workforce up to 450.

He said that in order to cut down the construction time, Ferguson was negotiating to subcontract the design work and some fabrication work to BAe System's Govan shipyard, which is short of work.

Ferguson did not bid for the two bigger ferries because its slipways were not long enough to construct them, while the BAe Govan yard, which had lobbied in vain to secure part of a recent Ministry of Defence order for six ro-ro ships for the Royal Navy, did not bid for any of the three NorthLink ferries as its prices were too high.

Yesterday, Sarah Boyack, the transport minister, said: ''I am extremely disappointed that it appears that Ferguson will no longer be involved in building this ship. Bringing jobs to the Clyde was one of the elements of the package that I was particularly keen to sign up for.

''We are hopeful that, despite the current situation, the agreements can be signed by the end of this week.''

Jim Moohan, a senior organiser with the GMB union, said: ''I find it very strange for them to knock back this type of work because there is no one else (in Scotland) who does this type of work now, as everyone else more or less does MoD work.

''It may well be that because there is only one, the cost factor attached to it meant it wasn't worth their while. If they have made this decision, then hopefully they have other work on the horizon.''

Ferguson, like all European shipyards, is rushing to bag new orders by December 31 in order to secure a 9% government subsidy on each new vessel. Under European Union rules, ships ordered after the year-end will not qualify for the subsidy, which is to be abolished.

Last month, Mr Deane said that by contracting out part of the work on the NorthLink ferry, Ferguson could squeeze in the construction of two more ships for delivery by the end of 2003.