Plans to connect the main Shetland islands through tunnels or a ferry service are now at an “advanced” stage, the islands’ council has said. 

The Shetland Island Council has secured a meeting with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, to discuss inter-island connectivity. 

Meanwhile, talks are also ongoing with the Scottish Government. 

Shetland’s inter-island ferry service has been described as “the social and economic backbone” of the islands, with a fleet of 12 vessels sailing about 70,000 times a year to nine islands, carrying approximately 750,000 passengers. 

However, the council raised concerns that much of the fleet is 30 years old, about six years older than the average Caledonian MacBrayne vessel. 

The council has earmarked £700,000 for the project, which envisages four tunnels: from the Mainland to Yell; Yell to Unst; Mainland to Whalsay; and Mainland to Bressay. 

But overall costs are likely to dwarf this figure – with one tunnel alone predicted to cost upwards of £17 million. 

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The council’s political leader, councillor Emma Macdonald, said: “The importance of the inter-island transport network to life in Shetland cannot be overestimated. 

“It is the very definition of a lifeline service, and is the social and economic backbone of the islands. 

“However, there are a handful of vessels which are already operating past their intended lifespan. 

“If they are not replaced now, either by tunnels or new ferries, there is a material risk to lifeline services to Shetland’s islands.”