ISLANDERS are calling for the First Minister to intervene quickly on the nation's ferry crisis - after transport minister Kevin Stewart quit the cabinet after less than ten weeks in the post.

The Scottish Government said Mr Stewart tendered his resignation to the First Minister and stepped down from his ministerial post for health-related reasons.

He said that since October, last year he had bouts of poor mental health, with a low ebb in early December of last year and that over the last week he had once again been feeling unwell.

One of the last tasks of his tenure as transport minister was to have online meetings with business leaders on South Uist that have been hit hard by the latest wave of ferry chaos and led to a major demonstration. The last of the meetings was on Thursday.

The Herald: Scottish Government handout photo file photo dated 11/07/20 of Mental Health Minister Kevin Stewart. Scots are being urged to look out for vulnerable people after referrals for support increased in the past six months. Issue date: Sunday February 20,

On Sunday an estimated 500 residents, 200 cars, 40 vans and 20 lorries converged on Lochboisdale - the port which links South Uist to the mainland - in a protest over CalMac's decision to cancel almost every ferry service in June to the island due to continuing problems with its ageing fleet.

READ MORE: Motorhomes ban and call for sackings amidst islanders' ferry cuts demo

The issues were further exacerbated over the weekend when CalMac blocked motorhomes from going to and from North Uist from Saturday morning and into Sunday because of a problem with MV Hebrides' mezzanine deck.

Now South Uist business leaders have called on the First Minister to step in to ensure that the issues are resolved.

John Daniel Peteranna of the South Uist Business Impact Group, which organised Sunday's demo said: "Hand on heart, we are full of sympathy for him. We know that in the world that we live in there are pressures that can affect their mental health and we just really hope he gets over it and get past it.

"When we saw him on Thursday, he seemed quite confident, but obviously he was under pressure given the situation.

"We now need the First Minister to do something. What is he going to do about this. We now have to consider the mental health of the people of South Uist whose businesses are going to go bust."

The Lochboisdale protest.  Credit: Carla Regler

Stòras Uibhist a community owned company that manages the 93,000 acre South Uist Estate comprising the Outer Hebridean islands of Eriskay, South Uist and parts of Benbecula has raised concerns that the impacts of ferry cuts will impact the island's population.

Its chairman Mary Schmoller said that she will be writing to the First Minister urging him to appoint a successor quickly and for that person to have ferries "and specifically the Lochboisdale cancellation, at the very top of their priority list".

"This is an opportunity for the new minister, whoever that may be to make a real difference from Day 1 and I urge them to do just that and fix this mess once and for all," said Ms Schmoller.

She said a replacement should be appointed before the Scottish Parliament summer break adding that "given the critical situation we can not be left until September without a minister of transport".

She added that while there was disagreement "on many things about the impact of ferry cancellations and the way forward" she was sorry to hear that he had to resign for health reasons."

She has emailed Transport Scotland saying: " Please pass our regrets to the Kevin Stewart, we would like to thank him for his time and hard work over the past while and we did feel he was listening to us. We wish him a full and quick recovery."

The Scottish Government is expected to arrange a new meeting with CalMac after net zero and just transition secretary Màiri McAllan expressed “disappointment” in the ferry service’s handling of communication.

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"Technical issues with major vessels and delays to the annual overhaul programme have led to cancellations of sailings and regrettably there are some [communities] which have been more impacted than others," she told MSPs.

The Herald: Mairi McAllan

"Ultimately, South Uist evidenced this by their demonstration on Sunday. The fact that they have lost confidence in CalMac I think is clear to see. We have expressed our disappointment at CalMac and how the communications engagement has been handled.

"And I've been very clear that no stone must be left unturned in addressing the issues with the Uists And I've asked urgently that CalMac review the route prioritisation matrix to ensure that it reflects the socio-economic impacts which pertain in particular to fragile communities like South Uist."

But she rejected calls for CalMac performance penalties to be used to compensate islanders for cuts to services because of lack of investment in Scotland's ageing ferry fleet.

READ MORE: Revealed: Ministers' five-year-old warning over Ferguson Marine costs.

The level of fines for performance issued by government agency Transport Scotland hit a record £3m in 2021/22. And in the six months from October 2022 to March 2023 the penalties had already reached £1.45m.

But Ms McAllan said that ministers wanted to use the money for improve the resilience of the ferry network and some of the money had already been used for bringing in MV Alfred for a nine-month-charter from Pentland Ferries at a cost of £9m.

The cabinet secretary was criticised by Scottish Labour's shadow rural economy and tourism secretary Rhoda Grant Some 18 of of CalMac's 35 working ferries deployed across Scotland are now over 25 years old - considered the working life of the vessels.

The oldest in the CalMac fleet is is the Isle of Cumbrae which is 47-years old.

Two new lifeline ferries Glen Sannox and Hull 802 were due online in the first half of 2018 when Ferguson Marine was under the control of tycoon Jim McColl, with one initially to serve Arran and the other to serve the Skye triangle routes to North Uist and Harris, but they are over five years late. The last estimates suggested the costs of delivery were to quadruple from an original £97m contract price.