SCOTLAND and Croatia do not appear to have too much in common.

But a recent trip to the Dalmatian coast gave rise to the thought that Scotland could learn a thing or two from the Balkans nation when it comes to maritime matters.

As a country home to more than 1,000 islands (not all populated, it must be emphasised), it was no surprise to find that Croatia is served by an extensive ferry network, and it did not disappoint.

Our experience of sailing the crystal-clear waters from Split to the island of Korcula around two hours away, and then the similar distance from Korcula to Dubrovnik a few days later, was hassle-free, competitively priced, and, generally, hugely enjoyable.

The catamaran, operated by Kapetan Luka, was modern, clean, and comfortable, and ran perfectly on time, even though demand from tourists was high as peak season approached.

READ MORE: Outgoing ferry boss: Time to break up islands network

As we soaked up the Adriatic sunshine, it was hard not to think how different life on the ferries currently is for islanders and tourists on the west coast of Scotland. As has been covered extensively in The Herald over recent months, people dependent on Scotland’s lifeline network have become used to disappointment as ageing ferries on key routes, and replacements drafted in during periods of maintenance, have broken down with frustrating regularity.

The disappointment in many cases has turned to anger, as people have been forced to miss vital medical appointments on the mainland. Businesses have been struggling to transport goods to and from the islands, and tourists are finding the ferries cannot be wholly relied on to take them to their favoured destinations.

The operation of Scotland’s ferries on the west coast have attracted so many unwelcome headlines that the debate over how to improve the network has become a dominant theme in public life, and a highly politicised one at that.

This week, attention has returned once again to privatising or de-bundling parts of the network to open up the opportunity for private operators to run some of the routes, and it is here that the Croatian example could perhaps inform the conversation.

Just as Scotland has CalMac, Croatia has a significant state-owned ferry operator. With a fleet of 55 ships vessels, Jadrolinija operates some of the busiest routes in Croatia, connecting the mainland with the islands and also running services across the Adriatic to Italy.

READ MORE: Scotland hotels: Costley & Costley has 'fully' recovered

But Jadrolinija, which can trace its roots back to 1872 and is Croatia’s largest shipping company for passengers and vehicles, is not the only show in town. Operating the Croatian waterways alongside Jadrolinija is a range of private companies, which run services on different routes and in certain cases the same ones as those served by Jadrolinija.

While it would be wrong from the perspective of a transient visitor to say that everything in Croatia is perfect, we were certainly left with the distinct impression of a system that runs very smoothly, with the public and privately owned ferries seemingly working well in tandem. And it is perhaps not really surprising. Croatia’s stunning island network and pristine coastal waters are a huge draw for tourists from around the world and Croatians themselves, so it is easy to imagine that major efforts are made to ensure the country’s shipping services are equipped to meet the high demands placed upon them.

Here in Scotland, the current picture is very different. Without wishing to denigrate the many people who work hard on the CalMac services, there is an inescapable sense that the ferries on its west coast network can no longer be relied on to meet the needs of islanders and those who wish to travel to the likes of Arran, Skye, and the Western Isles.

This week has seen fresh calls for CalMac’s Clyde and Hebrides network to be opened up further to give private operators the chance to place bids to run services on some of its routes. Those in favour point to the example of the privately owned Pentland Ferries, which operates services between Orkney and the north of the Scottish mainland, as a precedent which could be followed.

READ MORE: Scott Wright: Can Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow be saved?

Western Ferries (Clyde), which operates a car and passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon and is currently celebrating its 50th year in business, has long been an advocate of de-bundling the subsidised CalMac network. Managing director Gordon Ross, who has made no secret of the company’s desire to add new routes to its operations, told The Herald this week that the proposal to break CalMac’s dominance of the west coast routes should be properly considered.

"Scottish ministers have steadfastly refused to consider the pros and cons of de-bundling the CalMac monopoly, and this topic was removed from the remit of the recent Project Neptune review,” Mr Ross said.

"Only when a detailed study has been undertaken, can the financial impact on future subsidy levels be firmly established and at the same time island communities will then be better able to make an informed decision on the best way forward.

"Only the Scottish ministers can accurately explain why they continue to protect CalMac. Scottish ministers’ protection of the bundle should be distinct from protecting CalMac or any other operator. The questions going forward are therefore whether Scottish ministers are, taking into consideration all the recent events, going to permit CalMac to tender for the next contract and is this what the island communities want.”

Of course, any conversation around privatisation is bound to be controversial, and you will find no shortage of opponents to the prospect of opening up the west coast network to the private sector. As the experience of the UK rail industry in recent years has shown, privatisation is certainly no guarantee of improved performance or unlocking investment. The privatisation of the water industry is also currently the subject of intense criticism, as the ongoing struggles of Thames Water shockingly illustrate.

But as the Scottish ferry network struggles on and the frustration of its users grows, now is surely the time for new ideas to be considered.

This is not a clarion call for full privatisation, but perhaps there are certain routes where a new kind of operatorship could at least be trialled. Maybe community-owned companies could be set up to give local people a hands-on role in how their local ferry service is run and the kind of vessel that operates their route.

Given the huge stake that islanders themselves have in the prosperity of the ferries, it seems only right that they themselves not only have a say, but active participation in remodelling the system and how it operates going forward. After all, they are the ones who pay the price each time a vessel breaks down and services are cancelled.