RESIDENTS have lodged concern over the "lottery" of getting on and off Scotland's islands as it emerged some routes have little or no space for cars for over three weeks.

Islanders have made demands for extra sailings as the lifeline ferry network struggles to cope with demand exacerbated by Covid restrictions remaining in place and breakdowns to the ageing ferry fleet.

It is estimated Arran is losing at least £113,000 a day in lost income on the Covid restrictions alone - which is restricting capacity to a third.

Research by the Herald on Sunday on Wednesday revealed that the worst hit service provided by CalMac is Mallaig on the Highlands' west coast to Lochboisdale on South Uist which typically provides one crossing a day. There was no availability to book in a car online till August 13.

On the route from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist which typically provides two crossings a day, there were no crossings available till August 11.

On the Uig to Tarbert on Harris route where there was typically two sailings a day there was also nothing till August 11.

On the Ardrossan to Arran run, one of the busiest in Scotland, there are typically nine sailings a day, there was only two sailings available for the end of last week - at 6pm on Wednesday and Thursday. There were no further spaces till Tuesday of this week. Islanders have told of having to book weeks in advance to get a ferry and putting increased pressure to provide extra ferries and sailings.

One resident of Mull asking to book a pickup and livestock trailer to Oban was told the next available space for him on a Saturday was in October.

Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee, said the mismatch between capacity and demand was huge.

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"There is absolutely a problem with getting on and off the island," he said. Generally speaking here you have to book three weeks ahead to get a sailing of choice.

"People don't know that CalMac might accommodate people who, say are needing to get to hospital. They go online and if they can't get a ticket that's it. "Individual CalMac offices are normally quite good if you approach them and plead your case. They will always do their best.

"But the system is still rubbish. There is just not enough capacity on the ferries."

The issues have been exacerbated with a series of breakdowns to the CalMac fleet of 31 ageing ferries during the busy summer tourism period.

The Herald:

In the latest breakdown, western isles ferry services had to be cancelled after the most serious of the technical problems hit the 32-year-old MV Lord of the Isles, one of the biggest and oldest vessels in the CalMac fleet.

Problems with the the vessel which carries 505 passengers and 56 cars surfaced on Tuesday evening and resulted in cancellations on the Mallaig, Invernesshire to Lochboisdale on South Uist and Mallaig to Armadale on the Isle of Skye.

A knock-on effect saw services between Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris cancelled.

On Friday afternoon following successful sea trials in the morning the most travelled vessel in the fleet returned to service.

"They do keep back a very small number of foot passenger tickets on a turn up and go basis," explained Mr Reade.

"And on the Oban to Craignure that is just four tickets on each sailing.

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"The waiting list is managed by the port office. So you have to speak to them and ask to be put on the waiting list. So if someone rings up who has got a ticket for that sailing and moves their booking or cancels, then you'll get rung to be told. "The other way to fill empty spaces is that there is an unbooked queue so you can turn up on en spec. They take the booked cars and then the unbooked.

"You end up having to take chances. But the system isn't sophisticated.

"It is a kind of a lottery if you can't book your ticket in advance on the unbooked queue or on a waiting list hoping someone drops out.

"People generally if they can't get a ticket just won't travel because you cannot be sure of travelling. Very few people would travel en spec."

The Herald:

The network issues comes as would-be ferry replacements MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 are still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine's shipyard with completion running up to five years late and costs of their construction more than doubling from the original £97m contract. MV Glen Sannox was originally due to enter the Ardrossan to Arran service in the summer of 2018.

Sheila Gilmore, chief executive of Visit Arran said: "It is just really frustrating.

"Turn up and go is a big risk. How does it work? You tell me.

"They have eight passenger tickets, not even cars, and here on a Sunday the pier office doesn't open till 8.30am and people are queuing are 8am outside just to get in.

"The staff at the port are very accommodating, but it is not something you can plan. You just turn up on the day and hope you can get in.

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"Things that people might take for granted, normal every day things like travel you can't do that. Any time I go away I have to book weeks in advance. "It is a joke because you have the distancing on the ferry, and you go on the train or a plane and there's none. And on the ferry you can go on the deck in the fresh air which is supposed to be safer. And people on the car deck go up the stairs together. "We just need the social distancing changed which is a joke. "

She suggest that the island should have a round-the-clock service .

"The crews on the boats do a great job but this whole thing is very frustrating for them.

"If you asked anyone on the island what they wanted, the first thing they would say is that they want a reliable ferry service, anybody.

"The demand is there, and at the moment the demand is well outripping the capacity.

"Then you have a lot of people who book accommodation and can't get on ferries and are cancelling. "People are losing revenue because they can't get booked. Our businesses are losing money out of it all too. "

Duncan Macpherson, an independent Highlands councillor for Inverness South told of the difficulty attending a family funeral earlier this month on Uist.

He says he was told by the call handler: “We are restricted by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government to 35% capacity.”

He said they were not permitted to use the upper mezzanine deck, which can hold 18 cars per ferry journey, plus foot passenger numbers on each ferry are restricted too.

"Yet a 60,000+ crowd are allowed into Wembley for a football match in the Euro Final," he said.

"It’s a poor show at a very sad time for all the family members wishing to pay their respects to the young mother who has died in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, and for her family trying to get her remains repatriated to her home in the Outer Hebrides."

He later said that CalMac ferry staff at Uig and Lochmaddy had been busy pulling out all the stops to help out and had been assured that they would be on the ferry as foot passengers at least, and if humanly possible, in a car "once they speak to their most accommodating freight customers, who may re-schedule a load crossing the Minch just to help out the family so that they can all reach home in time for the funeral service".

Uist residents have registered their concerns at the services on message forums too.

One said: "I have a hospital appointment on July 28 and am baffled on how to work it. I honestly thought the ferry was here to serve the island folk."

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: "We recognise communities’ frustration at the recent disruption and the impact it is having. We are doing everything that we can, supporting Calmac to maximise available capacity across the network and to ensure the timely resolution of these issues.

“Booking ferry travel in advance wherever possible continues to be strongly encouraged for all passengers, including islanders. We do however understand that this is challenging for islanders needing to travel, often at short notice. In order to try to preserve some space for islanders, some passenger capacity is being held back for Turn Up and Go travel, for the benefit of islanders travelling at short notice.”

A CalMac spokeswoman said: “There is an extremely high demand for tickets this summer, but Covid-19 restrictions set by the Scottish Government have severely impacted the number of tickets we can offer. We currently have to operate at around only one third of our usual passenger capacity, as this is the only way we can comply with legal physical distancing restrictions of one metre between each passenger.

“Once physical distancing rules have been removed by the Scottish Government, we will make it a priority to increase to full capacity as quickly as possible.”