CALMAC may lose a £1m-a-month taxpayer supported 'emergency' ferry chartered to try and ease the effect of the nation's ferry fiasco in the wake of its sister vessel running aground on Orkney.

Ministers have confirmed the possibility that MV Alfred may return to Orkney - even though they say there is no contractual obligation.

Questions over whether MV Alfred will be able to continue to support island services run by Scottish Government-owned CalMac off the west coast of Scotland after ministers chartered it for nine months at a cost of £9m have come after its Pentland Ferries sister vessel MV Pentalina ran aground at the weekend.

Smoke was detected in the engine room of the MV Pentalina on Saturday night before it became grounded near the village of St Margaret’s Hope on the island, leading to the evacuation of 60 passengers, including three children and an infant.

READ MORE: MV Pentalina: Kevin Stewart says probe must look at safety award

Helen Inkster, managing director of operator Pentland Ferries, said all passengers were “safe and well” when they were evacuated, with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) conducting a survey before the Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) are expected on Tuesday.

MV Alfred was due to join the fleet from April 18 but was delayed because Pentland Ferries had previous issues with MV Pentalina - meaning it had to hold the vessel back.

Video: MV Pentalina on trials berthing in Oban in 2021 when it was being considered as a support vessel.

Two weeks ago MV Pentalina, which was being considered for use by CalMac  was granted a temporary passenger ship safety certificate (PSSC) by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), allowing it to carry passengers and vehicles.

Transport minister Kevin Stewart has said that while there is nothing in the charter contract that allows MV Alfred to be recalled, he has admitted that it could happen.

Neither CalMac or Pentland Ferries has commented on the possibility that MV Alfred could be recalled - even though it is known that user groups have been told the Scottish Government-owned ferry operator has exclusive use of the vessel for the duration of the charter.

Pentland Ferries has been using either Pentalina and Alfred to sail across the Pentland Firth from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on the Orkney Islands.

Bookings to and from Gills Bay and St Margaret's Hope were not available until May 8, when checked on Monday evening. After the crash, Pentland Ferries stated all sailings were cancelled until further notice.

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Mr Stewart has said that it is "too early to say whether there's an immediate need to consider bringing Alfred back to the Orkney service".

He said the situation would be monitored "to see what is happening in terms of the services that are in place".

He consideration would be given first to adding a fourth daily sailing on NorthLink's Stromness to Scrabster route.

"The terms and conditions of the charter of MV Alfred are a commercial matter between CalMac and Pentland Ferries. 

"There is no recall clause within the terms of the contract which was a commercial decision made by Pentland Ferries as part of its discussions with CalMac. But as I've said previously, the government will continue to monitor all of this as we go forward to ensure that the Orkney Islands are well served."

Before MV Pentalina returned to service a 'frequently asked questions' notice asked how reliable the vessel was.

The Herald:

The response was: "The vessel has undergone a technical overhaul, including a full service of all four engines and generators. Should we experience any unforeseen technical issues, these will, as always, be dealt with as swiftly as possible, in order to keep the service running smoothly."

MV Alfred was due to complete berthing trials from Tuesday at Campbeltown and Troon. She has already been to Ullapool, Lochmaddy, and Port Askaig.

CalMac said that once the trials have been completed they can then work out which routes she can operate on.

One ferry industry insider had said he would be "surprised" if Pentland Ferries had not included a clause that would allow MV Alfred to return in an emergency.

MV Alfred, which is at the centre of a crash investigation dating back to the summer of last year, is chartered from Pentland Ferries who will operate services on behalf of CalMac.

Concerns have been raised about the expense of the vessel with critics calling it a "panicked decision".

Pentland Ferries staff, who will operate services on behalf of Scottish Government-owned CalMac, bought MV Alfred for £14m in 2019 to operate between Caithness and Orkney.

MV Alfred was built in Vietnam and can accommodate 430 passengers and 98 cars, or 54 cars and 12 articulated vehicles/coaches.

At the time it was described as the "most environmentally-friendly ferry in Scotland".

Under charter, all crew will be provided by Pentland Ferries who will be responsible for delivery of service and the operational, technical and safety management of the vessel, including maintenance, repair, overhaul and provision of crew throughout the charter period.

Transport Scotland said the £9m will cover berthing dues, fuel, the commercial charter rate and other undisclosed costs.

The charter came amidst widespread disruption to services because of faults with vessels discovered during the annual overhaul process.

Two years ago a deal to buy a vessel similar in design to MV Alfred for £9m collapsed after the Scottish Government-owned procuring and ferry owning company Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) demanded a foreign firm pay up to £100,000 to pay for modifications that would allow it to gain UK maritime approval for it.

Negotiations had been taking place to secure the Indonesia-built vessel for months but the owners of the catamaran said they believed CMAL were never serious in completing the sale.

The Scottish Government-owned ferry operator said the primary focus for the use of MV Alfred was to have her available for resilience purposes and provide relief benefits across the network.

MV Alfred was at the centre of controversy when on July 5, it partially ran aground on the Isle of Swona, the more northerly of two islands in the Pentland Firth between the Orkney Islands and Caithness on the Scottish mainland.

RNLI lifeboats were called to evacuate the Vietnam-built – with one person being rushed to hospital with a fractured shoulder. Six injured passengers are seeking compensation.

CalMac is said to be UK's largest ferry operator, running 29 routes to over 50 destinations, across 200 miles of Scotland's west coast.

Their fleet of 35 vessels complete approximately 136,000 sailings a year with crossings ranging from five minutes to five and a half hours.