ISLANDERS have faced severe food shortages after a lifeline ferry was sidelined due to steering issues, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

State-controlled ferry operator CalMac has apologised as long-suffering islanders lodged complaints after they were left with no supplies for five days - leaving shop shelves bare on the Uist islands. .

It has emerged that following the concerns, transport minister Jenny Gilruth has committed to “urgently ”convene the Islands Transport Forum as part of efforts to “improve our collective response to resilience on our islands”

One businessman, who has filmed racks of empty fresh food shelves in the Co-op supermarket in Benbecula is among those who have registered their concerns that there were no food deliveries and has demanded action to ensure it never happens again.

John Daniel Peteranna lodged a complaint with Lewis resident Alasdair Allan, the SNP MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and a former minister for international development and Europe saying there was not enough food to even ration. He said: “It’s a bloody disgrace. This cannot go on. This needs sorted now.”

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The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency has said that food shortages were “unacceptable”.

In August, CalMac referred to “incorrect reports” in dismissing concerns that ferry cancellations were to blame after the Herald on Sunday revealed shops on Uist had had to ration milk and bread.

At the centre of the row is the continuing issues with the nation’s ageing ferry fleet breaking down - resulting in a string of cancellations and other disruption to lifeline services.

In 2022, some 17 of state-owned ferry operator CalMac's 31 working ferries deployed across Scotland was over its 25-year-old life expectancy. The oldest in the CalMac fleet is is the Isle of Cumbrae which 46 years old.

And since the SNP came to power in 2007, the average of Scotland's lifeline vessels has soared from 17 years to 24 years. Back in 1974 the typical ferry was just 13 years old.

Meanwhile, state-owned ferry operator CalMac new lifeline vessels MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 are still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine shipyard in Inverclyde, with costs of their construction soaring from £97m to nearly £340m and scheduled delivery over five years late.

It has emerged that concerns over food shortages came after rudder problems with 22-year-old MV Hebrides meant that it had to to be taken out of service.

It meant that sailings on the so-called Skye triangle between Uig, Lochmaddy on North Uist and Tarbert on the Isle of Harris were suspended, and vital food deliveries were not made.

The vessel which can carry 612 passengers and 90 cars, was first withdrawn with problems with the steering system early on November 2.

Uist islanders have said that food shortages lasted till the weekend.

Mr Peteranna of the Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group, who took video of the empty food shelves two days after hearing reports of shortage said: "There was nothing to ration. No fresh food or milk or vegetables. Is this country going backwards?

Mr Peteranna, who runs a South Uist-based renewable energy company which supplies wind turbines to make help make homes self-sufficient said the issues had hit him and other when he was trying to get back to South Uist.

Ferries normally provide food supplies on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays using the Uig to Lochmaddy route to supply Uist, a group of six islands including South Uist, Berneray, Grimsay, Benbecula and Eriskay.

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He said that food articulated lorries could not get across, so drivers had to sleep in cabs until another sailing was available.

With sailings suspended on Wednesday he said provisions did not reach Uist till Friday - meaning empty shelves.

Mr Peteranna said no food arrived till late Friday night, after he filmed the shortages on Benbecula.

He is now making a claim with CalMac after having to take a 167 mile detour and an overnight stay on the mainland due to the failure.

Two weeks ago it was announced that a new £115m contract to build two ferries for longsuffering islanders was up for grabs as attempts are made to shore up the nation’s ageing ferry fleet.

Transport Scotland said it is hoped that both ferries will be in place by 2026 and that they will serve the communities of Harris and North Uist, which have suffered severe disruption since the beginning of this year.

Mr Peteranna said: "The scary thing is it is going to continue to be like this until we get new ferries...something has to be done now. Some are now thinking it is too much hassle being here."

"The island goodwill towards Calmac is being lost, as if we have to wait another two years for improvement there will be nobody left working on the island, its just not worth the hassle.

Mr Allan responded to his concerns saying that the situation in Uist stores was "not acceptable" and said he highlighted the issues with transport minister Jenny Gilruth.

He said in the medium term the new ferry replacement would "substantially improve the fleet’s resilience and reliability."

He added: "I take your point that island communities cannot wait until these new vessels are launched. Short term solutions must be found immediately.

"I continue to press the Scottish Government to acquire additional second-hand tonnage through purchase or charter. The government is acutely aware of this need having listened to our comments on disruption over the summer. They ensure me that they are making progress and I hope that a solution will be in place soon.

HeraldScotland: Alasdair Allan Photograph: Gordon Terris

"This is in no way an excuse for the most recent technical faults on the MV Hebrides."

Another businessman on North Uist also raised concerns about ferry resilience saying that he has already had to close up his guest house for a few months because of the unreliability of the ferries and soaring energy prices.

"Having to deal with limited food supplies is bloody disgusting, really and we are just fed up with it all. I am already trying everything to keep my business going," he said. "I am not the first to have been told by tourists that they are being put off in coming here because of ferries. But when there is nobody to cater for and you cannot even get food in the shops, it is beyond belief.

"It is good news that we may be getting new ferries, but people on the mainland do not really appreciate how much more pain has been felt and will continue to be felt until they are delivered. Enough is enough."

The Scottish Parliament launched an inquiry into the state of the ferry service after one Uist resident launched a petition warning ministers that unreliable ferry services are causing "huge losses to island economies".

Uist islanders have had to deal with a series of disruptions to lifeline services because of ferry and infrastructure failures.

Lochboisdale, the port which links South Uist to the mainland was out of action to ferries between September 24 and October 8 to allow for repairs following safety concerns over the linkspan used by the ferry.

A routine annual inspection by specialist engineers and Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), which owns the ferry terminal, revealed a number of lifting ropes on the linkspan which need to be replaced at the earliest opportunity. Last year’s inspections showed no issues.

And an alternative route for people on South Uist using Lochmaddy on North Uist has suffered disruption due to pier works and adverse weather.

After the Herald on Sunday revealed islanders complained about rationing in August, CalMac said it was due to a supply chain issue with the Co-op, which has been going on for a while, and panic buying.

CalMac’s managing director Robbie Drummond said food deliveries were “always prioritised”, insisted they had shipped everything the local haulier has asked for and that any issues were not the ferry firm’s fault.

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He also went on Twitter linking to a follow-up report that said Ms Gilruth was urged to “urgently” intervene in the ferries crisis amid reports [from the Herald on Sunday] that islanders are having to ration food saying: “This story is wrong and wholly inaccurate.”

But Grant Baxter, the transport manager for DR Macleod, which he said is responsible for getting around 95% of foodstuffs onto the islands, said residents were right to lay the blame squarely with the ferry issues.

He said goods got to the islands eventually but were delayed by the fact that "there weren't adequate ferries to provide a service".

A CalMac spokesman said about the latest issues: “We are extremely sorry for the disruption to customers caused by the loss of MV Hebrides. Food supplies are essential and are prioritised during times of disruption, but unfortunately, poor weather made it difficult to divert all deliveries.

“We worked as quickly as possible to identify and repair the technical issue with the vessel’s steering system, and were able to return her to service on Friday afternoon. An amended timetable was arranged in order to clear the backlog of traffic.”

In response, Transport Scotland said the agency had “made clear” that island communities, businesses and residents “deserve better”.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The current level of service is not good enough and we are working hard to deliver the service and changes they need to see.

“It’s not acceptable if technical disruptions to ferry services, compounded by poor weather, are leaving island communities short of food. The Transport Minister has committed to convening the Islands Transport Forum. That will meet urgently to ensure that we are all doing what we can, across government and through agencies and transport operators, to ensure that our islands are prepared and supported for further disruptions this winter.

Video: Empty food shelves in Benbecula

“We are also working hard to introduce more capacity and greater resilience on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service. Since this government was elected in May 2021, we have bought and deployed an additional vessel in MV Loch Frisa in June, made significant progress in the construction of vessels 801 and 802, commissioned two new vessels for Islay, progressed investment in essential harbour infrastructure, and now we are delivering a further two new vessels.

“At the same time we are continuing to work on pursuing all reasonable and appropriate opportunities to enhance capacity and resilience in the short term through second hand vessels.”