Orkney is mulling whether to it needs to put in place emergency evacuation planning for its outer isles as it grapples with Scotland’s worst ferry crisis. 

Councillors on the archipelago have been trying to secure Scottish Government funding for new “lifeline” boats for at least a decade and a half.   

Now they say they will have to consider a worst-case scenario of more than one vessel in their desperately ageing fleet being out of action for months.  

Local officials, The Herald on Sunday can reveal, are whispering about whether they need to put in place plans for RAF air drops or temporary accommodation for some outer islanders in case the “worst” happens. 

Kristopher Leask, one of Orkney’s two Green councillors, said there was growing “pessimism” about the time it was taking to get a deal with the Scottish Government to buy new boats. 

“If we do not get a ferry replacement in the next few years we are going to have to start modelling what an evacuation would look like,” he told Herald on Sunday.  

“This is not something we are expecting on the horizon by any means,” he said. “However, it’s part of our responsibility to crisis plan. We’re now in meetings starting to talk about what would happen in the worse case scenario.” 

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He added: “We’re increasingly aware that the fleet is of such an age. So if it were to be the case, for example, that two of our North Isles ferries went out of action for six months, nine months, what would that look like for our islanders, how would they get the services they have a complete right to?” 

The Herald:

Leask stressed that this was not just a headache for island authorities but for national ones too, including the NHS. 

Orkney Islands Council, the country’s smallest, owns and runs its own fleet of nine ferries servicing 13 of its inhabited islands. Its youngest boat is 27, its oldest, 50. The local authority has an annual budget of just over £100m. Replacing its boats would cost more than four times as much. 

They local authority is not responsible for the bigger roll-on, roll-off or Ro-Ro ships that connect the archipelago to the rest of the country. They either belong to the Scottish Government or to a rival private operator.   

But locals are frustrated by what they see as a failure by politicians and officials in Edinburgh and London to appreciate the difference between their “hub-and-spoke” ferry services and the more linear routes CalMac runs on the west coast. 

Orkney Ferries - as the local shipping firm is called - has some sailings that are every bit as long and potentially gruelling as some of CalMac’s  

It takes two hours and 40 minutes in good weather to sail from Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, to its most northerly outpost, North Ronaldsay, with stops at other isles on the way. 

Last month the bow thrusters failed on one of the boats on the North Isles routes, the 34-year old Earl Thorfinn. Then its twin, Earl Sigurd, hit a buoy as it tried to cover extra routes. Smart Orkney Ferries engineers cannibalised Sigurd to get Thorfinn back in action. But this, said insiders, was a wakeup call, an “absolute alarm bell” 

The Herald:

Back in the 1980s Thorfinn and the Sigurd marked a huge change from old lift-on, lift-off boats. But even these once modern vessels are no longer fit for purpose: they do not comply with disability access laws.  Nor do all of Orkney’s ports and harbours. 

Not all the islands have a ro-ro ramp. Graemsay to the south of the Orkney Mainland and Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay to its north do not.  And this can have devastating consequences, especially for anybody with mobility problems. It means that  - literally, point out islanders - some disabled people are treated like animals.  

 “Somebody had to to be lifted on to a boat in a cattle box,” said Mellissa Thomson, a councillor who both farms on one of the North Isles, Eday, and chairs Orkney Ferries. “As appalling as it is, the context here is that we haven't got real ramp for them.” 

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 This issue helps explain some of the dramatic-sounding warnings about emergency planning.  Orkney’s ferry fleet and infrastructure is bespoke. It has different classes of boat for different stretches of sea and different docks. And therefore cannot be sure it could buy or lease a suitable second hand vessel at short notice. 

 Thomson brimmed with praise for the staff and crews who somehow keep the boats going. Orkney Ferries carried 320,000 passengers in 2022-23, just below pre-Covid numbers of around 340,000, on 33,000 scheduled departures. 

Only 413 sailings - which can include multiple stops as ferries nip in and out of islands - were cancelled in the last financial year. That included 140 for technical reasons.  

The Herald:

Thomson has become increasingly frustrated with the pace of talks on new ferries, especially all the bureaucracy and politics of the issues. “It's report after report with promises and carrot dangling and nothing's ever coming,” she said. 

The councillor was scathing of the latest process, a ferry replacement group set up under former Deputy First Minister John Swinney which has only met once, back in January.  “This whole task force is pretty shameful, to be honest, just the way they've left it,” Thomson said. “It shows we're not going to be in the budget this year.” 

Transport Scotland, however, insisted the group will be up and running again soon. “The Scottish Government remains committed to the Orkney Internal Ferry Replacement Task Force,” the  quango said in a statement. “The next meeting will be in August with Fiona Hyslop MSP, Minister for Transport, and will take place in Orkney.” 

Behind the scenes Scottish Government sources say they are taking Orkney’s ferry crisis very seriously.  

It is understood that that the deputy first minister, Fiona Robison, would take ownership of the task force, as her predecessor Swinney did before her.  

There is a complicated back story to Orkney’s internal ferries and how they are paid for. The politics are as complicated as the engineering. 

Originally outer isles services were provided by the old Scottish Office. They were only transferred to Orkney in the hope that the local authority would secure some European Union structural funding. And it did. 

Since Brexit it is the UK Government - and not the Scottish one - that is responsible for what was once European funding. 

Scottish Government sources are not confident that London will stump up. 

However, Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan was last week in both London and Edinburgh lobbying for support. 

Orkney has offered to give its fleet back to the Scottish Government. The ferries, islands sources said, are effectively trunk roads, not local ones, and should therefore be funded nationally. 

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Some Edinburgh insiders have long mooted that Orkney may have to dip in to its “rainy day” reserves to at least help pay for new boats. That does not go down well in Kirkwall. 

An official council spokeswoman said: “Whilst we have reserves, those are allocated for other purposes and in any case would in no way meet the capital costs required for replacement of our internal ferry fleet.  

“We also have a responsibility to manage those allocated reserves properly for all of Orkney – and that shouldn't include being required to use those vital reserves to provide services that other island communities have funded by Government, as that simply would not represent equitable treatment.” 

The Herald:

Earlier this month Stockan and most Orkney councillors supported a motion calling for the local authority to explore new constitutional arrangements. This included headline-catching talk of rejoining Norway or becoming a crown dependency like one of the Channel Islands. 

Insiders acknowledge the ferry crisis at least partly provoked this move. One seasoned island watcher said the gambit was a ‘bait and switch’. Orcadians, he said, hoped to get attention by mooting a very unlikely Viking statelet off Scotland and then use the limelight to lobby for new ferries and better funding, including for ways to exploit its renewable resources. 

Orkney Islands Council, meanwhile, confirmed it was looking at emergency planning. 

“Given the age of the fleet and the absence of a funding commitment from government, Council officers have been asked to make preparations for the mitigation and service changes that will be required if there was no access to the current ferry provision at some point in the coming months or years,”  the local authority said in a statement.  

“Our partners in NHS and other essential services operating in the community have been asked to make similar preparations. Put simply, we cannot run an unsafe vessel – and that might mean that eventually we won't be able to run a boat at all." 

“We’re also exploring ways to provide essential and affordable passenger only transport links to these communities when the current fleet is unavailable.” 

The council pointedly said London and Edinburgh would have to keep the islands going if the ferries fail. 

It added: “As part of these plans UK and Scottish Government agencies  - and the wider public and private sector - will be asked to provide assurances for communities around their plans to ensure the provision of essential freight, energy and fuel stocks, as well as other aspects of services and support that are not devolved to local councils when the current fleet is no longer safe to operate.” 

Thomson, meanwhile, was blunter about the Scottish Government. “Are they trying  to clear the isles by stealth by not funding us, by not supporting us?” she asked. “Is that their goal?”