Ferry services to and from Orkney are facing two weeks of cancellations after the MV Pentalina ran aground last month.

There are no bookings available until May 22, while there remains uncertainty over where and when sister vessel MV Alfred will set sail while currently moored in the port of Ayr.

Ministers sanctioned the nine-month charter of MV Alfred as an 'emergency' vessel to try and ease the effect of the nation's ferry fiasco at a cost of £1m-a-month. 

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

And there remains questions over whether Alfred would return to fill in for Pentalina, taking her away from the west coast.

Transport Minister Kevin Stewart said on Monday that the priority remains for Pentland Ferries to take "the necessary steps" to deterime when Pentalina can return to service.

On Friday, Pentland Ferries said that issues found after berthing trials mean the vessel cannot yet enter service.

While trials to test MV Alfred on certain west coast ports have been completed, CalMac said there are "no details of a confirmed deployment yet".

READ MORE: 'Catastrophic': Island 'inaccessible' claim after  70 per cent ferry fare rise

And Pentland Ferries said that issues found after berthing trials mean the vessel cannot yet enter service.

The ferry company has been conducting a service of hydraulic systems.

Pentland Ferries have now cancelled all sailings from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on the Orkney Islands in the wake of the continuing issues up to and including May 21.

The Herald: MV Alfred docks at Ardrossan during the trial

The company said that the decision was made with "regret" and that all customers are being contacted.

Investigations continue to be carried out by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The firm said: "We are grateful for the many expressions of concern and support following the grounding of MV Pentalina.

"We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience. We are doing all we can to minimise the disruption and will share any further updates as and when we can."

Smoke was detected in the engine room of the MV Pentalina on April 29 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

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.

It came amidst a series of breakdowns of ferries controlled by Scottish Government-backed ship and harbour owner Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited and operated by Scottish Government-owned CalMac while two long-delayed lifeline vessels being built by sister shipyard firm Ferguson Marine remain incomplete with delays of over five years and costs quadrupling.

The previous Ferguson Marine owner, tycoon Jim McColl, who rescued the yard when it went bust in 2014, blamed repeated design changes by CMAL which owns and procures ferries for the issues in building the vessels for operator CalMac, which is also publicly-owned. CMAL have blamed the shipyard firm.

Jamie Halcro Johnston, Scottish Conservatives' shadow business minister said: “This delay will be disappointing news for both Orcadians and for the visitors who make a vital contribution to the islands’ economy.

The Herald:

"I know Pentland Ferries will be working hard to get their service back up and running as soon as possible. But while the Pentalina's grounding may have been down to mechanical failure, it was only being used because the route's regular vessel, the MV Alfred, has been lent to CalMac to plug gaps in its ageing fleet on the west coast.

"The SNP government’s failure to deliver new vessels is a betrayal of our island communities which continues to have a devastating impact. Yet, despite inexcusable delays and many millions of public money wasted, they are no closer to resolving this national scandal.”

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

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.

But it has been further delayed.

Ferry operator NorthLink has added an extra service to its Sunday timetable following the grounding of the Pentalina last weekend Every Sunday from May 7 to June 25, Northlink will run an additional return crossing between Stromness on Orkney and Scrabster on the mainland.

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.

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

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".

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

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.

Transport Minister Kevin Stewart said: “The priority remains for Pentland Ferries to take the necessary next steps to determine when the Pentalina can return to service on the Pentland Firth. All parties will work to minimise disruption to services to Orkney and Parliament will be kept updated. 

“We are committed to the completion of the two ferries at the Ferguson Marine shipyard, and supporting our island communities that rely on this type of vessel on a daily basis. More broadly, we have invested over £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.

"Since May 2021, we have bought and deployed an additional vessel in MV Loch Frisa in June, chartered the MV Arrow, commissioned two new vessels for Islay, progressed investment in essential harbour infrastructure, and now we are delivering a further two new Islay-class vessels.”