They are the lifeline services that ensure Scotland’s islanders are connected and their communities can thrive.

Now Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferries are being given a new role – as networking centres, aiming to get more businesses to set up in the islands and bring an added economic boost.

The fresh role for the vessels will see them used as a floating base for business seminars, with the hope being that onboard networking events and inspiring talks from business leaders may encourage others to relocate or launch their own firms amid some of Scotland’s most remote and spectacular scenery.

The first ferry-based conference will take place later this month, when MV Clansman sets off for a day-long return jaunt from Oban to Colonsay, with a passenger list made up of existing and potential business owners. 

The trip is expected to be among the most scenic of seminars, with the possibility of spotting dolphins, seals and whales on the way, and is expected to be the first in a range of similar events designed to stimulate business interest in the west coast islands.

CalMac currently sails to 27 island and remote mainland locations and is crucial to maintaining and growing businesses in the areas it services.

However, the past year has seen a wave of ferry travel disruption, with compensation demands from some tourism operators and vessels, including MV Clansman, removed from timetables because of long-term repairs. 

Recently it was revealed that passengers received more than £120,000 because of faults.

However, according to Colonsay businessman Finlay Geekie, whose Colonsay Gin business relies on the CalMac ferry service, anyone considering setting up shop on the west coast’s islands should not be put off by the risk of potential ferry or communications blips. 

“If you plan properly, there’s no reason why you can’t run a business here and enjoy living and working in a terrific place,” he said. 

“The most important thing is to have a ‘Plan B’ and then a ‘Plan C’. 

“We only have a ferry here three days – when it arrives it’s like the biggest event of the day for many people. It’s a chance to meet up with friends and it’s very much a community event.”

He launched his business in 2016 with wife Eileen after relocating from Oxford.

Mainly thanks to marketing their gin in a series of picturesque social media posts, the couple are now set to deliver their first order to America, with a flow of further international orders on the way. 

He adds: “I can look out of my window at Loch Fada and the hills. There’s a northern harrier which swoops by every now and again. It’s an amazing place to work.”

Meanwhile, Alastair Barge, managing director of Gigha Halibut, which sells fish to top end UK and international restaurants, praised CalMac for coming up with the idea of a floating meeting. 

“It’s a good way of showing how you can work and grow a business on the west coast islands and how CalMac services can play a part. 

“Working on the islands is not straight-forward; there’s a lot for businesses to consider, including the extra costs of transporting what you produce,” he added. 

“But you have the advantages of being in a wonderful environment with a great deal of provenance.

“We can gut our halibut here and pack it in polystyrene boxes with ice on a Monday, and it can be at a Los Angeles restaurant by Wednesday morning.”

He will be speaking at the floating event along with others from Isle of Colonsay Oysters, the Loch Melfort Hotel, Gael Force Group Holdings, the Tiree Music Festival and the Kilchoman Distillery Company Limited. 

The floating seminars are part of a wider range of measures which CalMac is said to be exploring in an effort to boost the economy of the remote communities it serves. 

CalMac’s independent community board member, Ian Macfarlane, who has a career-long track record of successful business development, is the brainchild behind the events.

He said: “Our islands and remote communities are not only wonderful places to live and visit; they are also great places to do business. We have a real can-do attitude to enterprise and business opportunities across a range of sectors which are there to be developed.”

CalMac’s director of community and stakeholder engagement, Brian Fulton, added: “We are committed to working with the community board to expand our role as an economic enabler for the islands.

“This is not just a short-term networking event; it is one of a number of new initiatives we will be exploring to help deliver more employment opportunities across the areas we support.”

CalMac’s move follows concern over the state of its ageing ferry fleet. Last tourist season was labelled a “summer of discontent” when the ferries to and from the islands were hit by breakdowns and disruption.

Cash paid out by CalMac to passengers to compensate for technical failures tripled in a year: a total of £120,373 was awarded to passengers in the first nine months of last year compared to the previous year’s full annual total of £37,215.

Overall, £429,611 has been awarded in compensation by CalMac between January 2014 and September 2018

The firm’s own community board and politicians have also attacked a Scottish Government proposal to increase peak time fares on west coast ferry routes, saying it would hit communities.

The Scottish Government has also faced calls for “urgent” investment in Calmac ferries after figures revealed that more than 120 repairs were made to the fleet since 2016.