They are a vital link to the mainland for tens of thousands of islanders, and every year bring boatloads of tourists to some of Scotland’s most beautiful locations. 

But the latest disruption to hit Scotland’s ferries is a reminder that the services are struggling. 

Hundreds of visitors were left stranded on Arran amid cancellations sparked by bad weather, and as a powerful 80mph Atlantic storm batters Scotland today more services are expected to remain tied up in port.

CalMac said it was an unfortunate reality of island life “that in mid winter there is always a likelihood that some sailings will be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions”. 

But locals point to a wider problem. 

Gavin Fulton, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group, told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that islanders faced disruption on an almost weekly basis.

He said: “We absolutely accept that there will be days in the year when the ferry won’t sail, but the situation in the past was the boat sailed to Ardrossan on a regular basis and when the weather was bad it would sail to Gourock.

“Although we would get fewer sailings in a day, we still had a secure link to the mainland. 

“Some years ago the boat stopped sailing to Gourock and there has been no credible explanation as to why it does not sail to Gourock now.”

He added: “Obviously new boats are required. The current fleet is very old and prone to a lot of breakdowns, which is making the situation difficult.

“But there are other problems. Ardrossan is not a good harbour. They are planning to spend £35 million altering it for the new ferry which, if it ever arrives, would be going there.

“Would that expenditure solve the situation? I think that’s a big question. 

“They’ve spent £31m at Brodick and the pier is hopelessly compromised. It doesn’t work properly in an easterly wind. So this to me all comes down to incompetence and mismanagement.”

The Herald has repeatedly highlighted the problems facing Scotland’s ferry network, with an ageing fleet struggling under the weight of soaring passengers. 

A calamitous contract for two CalMac ferries was also at the centre of a long-running dispute at Ferguson Marine shipyard on the Clyde.

The yard was taken into public ownership last year, but taxpayers now face an extra £100m bill for the two vessels, one of which, Glen Sannox, is destined for the Arran route. 

The boats will now be around four years late.

One radical solution to the problem facing island communities has been backed by Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, formerly the Western Isles.

He wants ministers to consider building tunnels to replace ferry services in parts of Scotland, and previously suggested links under the Sound of Barra, the Sound of Kerrera off Oban and between Mull and the mainland. 

He has also said a tunnel between the Isle of Harris and Skye is “not out of the question”. 

Mr MacNeil told The Herald such tunnels would make a huge difference to the islands, adding: “It would just be revolutionary in so many ways we can’t imagine yet.”

Norwegian consultancy firm Norconsult, which has been involved in numerous subsea projects in Norway and the Faroe Islands, said it had briefly looked into the possibilities of constructing a link between Skye and Harris or Lewis after speaking to Mr MacNeil. 

A briefing note it prepared states: “For a single tube tunnel along this route we are talking about investment costs of some £250 million to £500m.”

It added: “Another subsea tunnel link between Harris and North Uist will considerably reduce the need for ferries to the Western Isles.”

Morten Knudsmoen, a senior tunnelling engineer at Norconsult, told The Herald a tunnel under the Minch would be feasible. But he added: “The figures are very uncertain because we don’t know much about the ground conditions.”

A spokesman for the local council, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, said a tunnel between Skye and Harris was not  a priority.