Ferry services have been plunged into further 'chaos' as it emerged that two major vessels have been sidelined for a third successive year after faults including rust emerged during annual overhauls.

The latest to be kept in for repairs is 26-year-old MV Clansman which was due to return to service on February 9 but after user being told it will return on February 19, it has now been put back until at least Friday (February 23).

Among the islands affected by the resulting disruption is longsuffering South Uist - which was at the centre of a major island protest in the summer of last year over disruption to services.

READ MORE: 'Ferry fiasco'? 'Ageing fleet'? How did we get here?

It comes as 30-year-old MV Caledonian Isles, which serves on the Arran route, one of the busiest on the Scottish coast, went out of action since going for an overhaul at the start of January and is not expected back for weeks.

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Last year MV Clansman was delayed from coming back into services after an overhaul identified steelwork corrosion which had to be replaced. On February 10, it was said work that was needed was supposed to take a few days.

But 13 days later she was still out and had to go to the King James V dock in Glasgow for further inspection after further issues.

And in early 2022, an inspection of the Clansman uncovered the need for further steelwork due to corrosion during her overhaul meaning her return was delayed by a further three weeks.

The latest issue with MV Clansman, said to need complex work to the engine has meant that services between Uig on Isle Of Skye and Tarbert in Harris have been cancelled since Saturday.   CalMac confirmed steel repairs were completed during the scheduled annual overhaul and did not cause the latest delay.

Services between Uig and Lochmaddy on North Uist between the mainland and Lochboisdale on South Uist were cancelled on Monday and are due to remain that way till at least Thursday.

A limited 'alternative service' has been set up to run between Lochboisdale on South Uist and Uig.

CalMac told users on Tuesday that there was a "significant backlog of traffic" for services to Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy and suggested a lengthy detour travelling from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

The development coincided with the departure for an annual overhaul of the Scottish Government-funded £1m-a-month 'emergency' ferry MV Alfred - which had been serving on the Uig Triangle lifeline service route, supporting the communities at Skye, Lochmaddy and Tarbert.

CalMac said that it had explored all avenues to see if they could delay the departure of Alfred, which is owned by Pentland Ferries, but that it was not possible.

The knock-on effect of shifting vessels around the Clyde and Hebrides network has seen disruption to services to and from Craignure on the Isle of Mull.

The 39-year-old MV Hebridean Isles has been shifted, because of the overhaul problems, to operate a combined one-a-day service from Oban to Castlebay on the Isle of Barra and Lochboisdale starting on this Friday and running till the following Wednesday.

The Herald: MV Hebridean Isles

Like MV Clasnman, Caledonian Isles has suffered issues in overhaul for the third year running.

It was sidelined for over three months with further steelwork and engine difficulties this time last year.

When it went for an annual overhaul in early January 2023, it was due to return to service on February 2 but that was delayed for, again, additional steel work and engine repairs being required.

CalMac initially announced a provisional return date of February 28 but this was later pushed back to March 31 and then pushed back further to mid-April.

Further steelwork problems were attributed to a further period spent in the yard in early 2022.

The vessel was found to have had major technical problems during overhaul this year, having been due to return on January 23, and is now not expected back till at least the end of March.

Users have been told that the vessels have needed steelwork, which has led to rust concerns.

MV Caledonian Isles was moved to the Cammell Laird yard facility in Liverpool for repairs and there is a race against time to get it available in time for the summer timetable to kick in on March 29.

But user groups were told two weeks ago that a true assessment and timeline will only be known in the coming weeks, once the vessel has been moved and a full assessment is made.

John Daniel Peteranna of the of the Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group, which organised the summer South Uist protest said: "Calmac and the Scottish Government are determined to clear these islands of its people,  culture and heritage with their total disregard for their responsibility to our lifeline ferry services.

"The only ferry trying to serve North Uist , Benbecula and South Uist is one of the oldest in the fleet the Hebridean Isles.

"The MV Alfred was providing cover on the Uig / Lochmaddy / Tarbert triangle for the MV Clansman, but was allowed to go for its drydock check in spite of not having another boat to replace it with. 

"So now the Hebridean Isles is sailing from Lochboisdale to Uig, 3.5 hours each way instead of the 1.45 hours from Lochmaddy to Uig, and by the way Harris gets no ferry at all again.

"Can you  imagine how stress full this all is for the travelling islanders?

"Its a further example of how the ones in Scottish Government / Transport Scotland / CMAL [the state-owned ferry and port owner] and CalMac are totally unaffected by the decisions they are making but its the poor islander continues to suffer, time after time.

The Herald: A CalMac ferry

"Things need to change now, the lack of ferries is the flu but the poor management is the real virus."

A ferry user group official said that the continuing issues with Scotland's ageing fleet was another "symptom of the shameful under-investment in the lifeline fleet" and questioned the need for the 'emergency' ferry to disappear at a time when the network was in "desperate need of resilience".

"Every year we have a round of annual maintenance and every year we have problems that keep the ferries out of action and the people who suffer as the people that rely on the ferries in their everyday lives," he said.

"The steel issues are effectively a euphemism for rust, so why has this not been sorted the first time it emerged, to save the chaos that is ensuing all the time.

"When the lifeline ferry service needs support, there is very little to support it and it is time that the politicians pulled their collective fingers out to put an end to all this."

Two new ferries Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa being built at the nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard were due online in the first half of 2018, with one initially to serve Arran and the other to serve the Skye triangle routes to North Uist and Harris, but are at least six years late, with costs expected to be quadruple the original £97m contract. It has been confirmed that both are now to serve Arran.

Glen Rosa was meant to be delivered to CalMac in August 2018, but that is currently scheduled for May 2025. Glen Sannox, was launched by Nicola Sturgeon nearly seven years ago and is not expected to be ready till July at thee earliest.

But the dates of arrival have been constantly in a state of flux as their construction has been plagued by design challenges, cost overruns and delays.

South Uist has been consistently hit by cancellations to services through a CalMac route prioritisation matrix which attempts to place ferries in positions to ensure the least impact on the public.

But the matrix has been subject of a review, which was expected to ensure that Lochbosidale did not become the default option for cuts.

The Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group alongside other island groups have been calling for a 'resilience fund' to be launched to support islanders who have been consistently hit by cancellations to services through a CalMac route prioritisation matrix which attempts to place ferries in positions to ensure the least impact on the public.

The bid has been rebuffed by the Scottish Government which points out that penalties are used to improve the resilience of the existing fleet following network failures.

CalMac said that MV Clansman's extended stay in dry dock were caused by "additional emergent work, identified during the alignment and securing of the port main engine".  

A source  said: "The engine was removed from its bedplate to provide access to the tank top, directly below the engine, for steel renewal, which was a planned task during the annual overhaul maintenance period. The alignment and securing of the engine are complex tasks."

Robbie Drummond,  chief executive of CalMac, said: “We are keenly aware of the disruption that overhaul delays can cause to the communities and customers we serve, and we apologise for it. As we have no spare vessels, a delay in overhaul for one vessel can have a significant knock-on effect on the wider network.  

“We complete steel repairs and renewals every year as part of the annual overhaul programme. Given the age of the vessels, with one third of our fleet operating beyond their life expectancy, the scale of these renewal requirements is increasing. When a vessel goes in for annual overhaul, it is not possible to establish a fully defined scope of work until steel removal works have started due to the complexity of the structure of each vessel. 

“Our teams are working with multiple external service providers to explore all available technologies to increase the survey accuracy to allow renewal requirements to be more accurately defined. 

“The six major and 10 small new vessels funded by the Scottish Government and arriving over the next few years are very much welcome; however, we face a difficult period as we wait in anticipation for them to be fully operational on the network. In the meantime, we will continue to work in partnership with local stakeholders and communities to ensure the best possible outcomes for all who rely on our services.” 

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact that delays and disruption have regrettably had on our island communities and are committed to investing in our ferry services.

"Delivering six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026 is a priority for this government. We have invested more than £2 billion in our ferry services since 2007 and we have outlined plans to invest around £700 million in a five year plan to improve ferry infrastructure.

“CalMac are also investing additional sums to improve fleet sustainability and to provide a more resilient service for customers and communities, ensuring all planned and unplanned maintenance can be met.

“Our Islands Connectivity Plan has been published for consultation, looking at a wide range of issues, from improving fleet reliability and monitoring performance, to reducing carbon emissions and making future contracts more flexible to respond to community needs.

“We share the desires of island communities for sustainable and effective ferry services and look forward to continuing our constructive engagement with them on future services and vessel replacements.”