For Chris Lowe and his family, the long drive north from their home in Midlands was much more than a welcome break.

Chris’s father had been diagnosed with vascular dementia in November and moved to a North Uist care home. They’d spoken on the phone, but the pandemic and distance meant he hadn’t seen his ailing 76-year-old dad Brian since 2017.

As he set off on the 600 miles long road to the isles, the journey he’d made several times before had a very special, bittersweet meaning.

Not for a second did he think his summer break would evolve into a miserable, chaotic challenge that saw him, his wife, daughter and the family dog grind to a halt almost within touching distance of his dad, thrust into the latest round of ferry chaos to hit Scotland’s west coast islands.

Technical issues the previous week had already caused disruption to the Skye Triangle sailings linking Skye with Lochmaddy on North Uist and Tarbert on Harris.

Supposedly resolved, the issues with the carbon dioxide (C02) firefighting system resurfaced, causing MV Hebrides to be withdrawn from service again.

With sailings scrapped, travellers were advised by CalMac to switch to the Mallaig-Lochboisdale service to South Uist, or Ullapool to Stornoway services, sparking a scramble among visitors, islanders and businesses to find out if they might be able to face a space on board and shock as they realised the distances involved.

With his ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy cancelled, no guarantee of finding space on an alternative crossing, uncomfortable nights spent sleeping first in a waterlogged tent and then in their van, silence from the ferry operators and time running out, Chris took the tough decision to turn the car around and head home to Wednesbury near Wolverhampton.

“It’s really disappointing,” he says. “I haven’t seen my father for so long. I can ring him and I think he recognises me, but it’s hard to tell over the phone. “The clock is ticking for him. I don’t know how much time there is left before he gets worse.

“This whole experience has left a nasty taste,” he adds. “We know how wonderful it is up there, but after this my wife says she doesn’t ever want to go again.”

Those lost precious moments between father and son are just more collateral damage from a ferry service that is rapidly driving visitors and locals to absolute despair.

Unusually for communities which often absorb ferry cancellations due to bad weather, breakdowns and timetable changes with a stoic shrug of the shoulders, the latest problems to hit their troubled lifeline service has seen them come out fighting.

No longer willing to ride the storm, the normally restrained folks of North and South Uist – and other Hebridean islands - are increasingly making their voices heard, logging experiences with online groups, bombarding ferry operators CalMac with complaints and demanding compensation for businesses, better customer service and, with no sign of a new ferry soon, a replacement vessel that doesn’t rob other islands of their services.

Using Facebook and Twitter, locals and visitors have shared tales of lives thrown into turmoil. There’s the NHS nurse whose childcare arrangements were thrown into chaos meaning she struggled to get to work, patients with hospital appointments placed in jeopardy, lambs bound for market stuck, and countless travellers left on rain lashed quaysides wondering when they might be on the move.

With typical island hospitality, there is advice and directions to village halls that opened for travellers seeking a place to sleep, change clothes or use a toilet, while businesses from hotels and restaurants to construction companies and travelling dog parlours lament lost customers and wasted time, fuel and effort to go nowhere.

With holidays cancelled, some tourists have vowed never to return.

While, with shops running low on supplies, milk rationed to two litres per person and fears over what next for the beleaguered service, has left some islanders contemplating whether they should stay.

“We’re not big shouters here, it’s the way people are, we usually just get on with it,” says Joan Ferguson, Chairperson of North Uist Community Council. “But what is happening to our ferry service is so unjust and people are scunnered.”

She says there is a lack of understanding among central belt Scots for the everyday challenges islanders face even when the ferry service runs as it should.

“People in the central belt need to stop and look at a map,” she says. “CalMac issue statements about re-routing services but it’s not like what they’re suggesting is just down the road.

“Imagine travelling for three or four hours to find your ferry isn’t going. You can’t just nip to the Travelodge for the night, because on Skye, it’s impossible to find any accommodation.

“On the mainland, you can get in a car and drive if the bus or train isn’t running. We can’t do that, there’s no comparison.”

For Margaret Cowie, enough is enough. In a few weeks’ time, she’ll leave the North Uist home where she’s lived for 17 years for a new start on the Black Isle, partly because of the ferries and the uncertainties that comes with travelling.

“I love my house, it has one of the most phenomenal views and until May I never dreamed of leaving,” she says. “But I’m finding it harder to cope with staying here. The ferries are the last straw.”

Looming in October is the closure of Uig Harbour on Skye for work to strengthen the berthing structure, dredging and a new terminal building, needed to accommodate the delayed 102 metre dual fuel vessel, currently under construction at Ferguson Marine shipyard.

With the Uig to Lochmaddy service out of action, islanders like Margaret face travelling either south to Lochboisdale and the longer crossing to Mallaig, or north to Stornoway and across the Minch to Ullapool.

“It’s not the kindest of seas,” adds Margaret, who’s 68. “I don’t think I could stand the thought of four and a half hours crossing it.”

Tough conversations are taking place in many households. In Lochboisdale, Kevin Morrison says his family’s food van, shop and catering business, Croft and Cuan, has reduced staff hours because ferry disruption meant the expected footfall hasn’t materialised.

“Islanders learn to grin and bear it,” he says, “but everyone is suffering. The local Co-op shelves are nearly empty - this is affecting every facet of life.

“There seems to be a fatigue from people who don’t understand. They think it’s all about tourists not getting their holiday and who cares?”

He points to research among businesses on North and South Uist which showed just two weeks of ferry disruption costs up to £650,000 in lost earnings.

“We don’t feel we are being listened to at all,” he adds. “We’re stuck in a loop with all the organisations involved bouncing off each other, and we don’t feel there’s any willingness to do anything.

“My wife Christina is from Uist, my family from Harris,” he adds. “She is a big advocate for Uist as a great place to live and work, but recently I’ve heard her ask why are we doing this?

“Why are we running a business on an island where organisations can’t fulfil their obligations to people because of the ferry service?”

At Langass Lodge on North Uist, owner Amanda Leveson Gower says those unfamiliar with Hebridean life may not fully appreciate the problems.

“When people on the mainland hear the ferry isn’t running, they think it’s just one ferry. But it affects our heating fuel, animal feed, our food, building supplies.

“It stops businesses in their tracks. And the reputation our islands have cultivated with tourists is hit because people are either stuck on one side or the other.”

She says communities are now kicking back. “It was highlighted with the recent train strikes, I saw businesses on television saying how it has lost them money, well, we have this every bloody week.

“People didn’t want to talk before, we had stuck our heads in the sand. But now we are fighting for our community,” she adds.

“Those in charge of making the decisions have repeatedly ignored us, but they will have to listen to us.”

Robbie Drummond, Managing Director of CalMac, said: “Customers will understandably be upset about this latest disruption to their journeys, and I am deeply sorry for what they are going through.

“Disrupting our services is a decision we do not take lightly and we fully understand how this affects our customers and the communities we serve. We sincerely apologise for the latest inconvenience caused and our team is working hard to bring MV Hebrides back into service as soon as possible and return all vessels to their normal timetabled services.

“A long-term strategy to replace vessels and improve port infrastructure would improve the capacity we can offer to meet demand and increase resilience.

“I would like to thank customers, including hauliers and businesses who have agreed to move bookings, for their patience and support at this very difficult time.”