Farmer and shipping entrepreneur

Born: May 13th 1931

Died: January 26th 2019

Andrew Alfred Banks, who has died aged 87, was a farmer and Scottish islands’ short-sea shipping entrepreneur.

Known throughout his life as ‘Alfie’, he was the visionary behind Scotland’s busiest and most commercially-successful ‘mainland to island group’ year-round passenger and freight ferry service.

In time for the 2019 tourist season, Scotland’s most modern catamaran ROPAX ferry with the name Alfred proudly displayed on her bow and stern, will start her thrice-daily crossings of the Pentland Firth’s busiest sea route.

He died at the family’s 240-acre Smiddybanks farm-house at the edge of Orkney’s largest village, where he had lived his entire adult life after leaving secondary school at the age of 14 without qualifications.

Alfie was one of a family of three to Andrew Banks (b. 1895) and his wife Mary; his two brothers Harry and Bill both joined the Merchant Navy, whilst he stayed at home managing a farm that has been in the family’s hands since the 19th Century.

His farming career spanned an era of rapid change in Scottish agriculture and he gained much experience in engineering skills as mechanisation proceeded apace, eager to adapt ‘best practice’ from the farming press.

In the 1950s Smiddybanks was a major egg-producer, Alfie was an early Scottish adopter of ‘battery hen’ units, and then liquid slurry fertilising methods for cattle and fowl effluent, whilst participating agricultural shows and ploughing matches, and also being a stalwart in village’s amateur football team.

Alfie was a community-minded man throughout his adult life in such as the local School Board, the local Pier Trust, and the Community Council, with the economic welfare of his native isle and the wider Orkney archipelago always at the forefront of his mind.

As Orkney farming became reliant on summer grass-fed beef cattle, Alfie and other island country-folk complained at the cost of buying-in winter-feed supplements manufactured on the ‘Mainland’ and decided to do something constructive about it.

He spotted an opportunity in the vacant buildings on the Pier at St Margaret’s Hope, left behind when the Royal Navy closed its Great War and WWII major warship base at Scapa Flow.

Together with local blacksmith, the late Willie Mowatt, he fabricated grain ‘bins’ and other ancillary handling equipment for ‘importing’ wheat and barley by sea-coasters for the milling and mixing process; and bought Orkney’s first-ever articulated truck to deliver finished supplies direct to any island farmer who wanted fodder-food – that proved to be most of them.

Mowatt was also a creel-fisher, but instead of consigning his shell-fish catches via the ferry at Stromness, he sailed his own and others’ lobster weekly just six miles across the Pentland Firth to the tiny pier at John O’Groats from where he conveyed them to Wick train station, where the shell-fish was loaded on to the daily chilled fish-freight cars for the regular runs to London’s Billingsgate Market.

That convinced Alfie that a ferry service to Caithness’s Pentland Firth coast could be viable and he persuaded his brother Captain Bill to come ‘home’. Bill purchased a redundant WWII air-sea rescue craft that he renamed Pentalina and in 1970 the Banks’s re-opened the ancient ‘short-sea route’ to Orkney for passengers and light goods.

This was by using a temporary berthing extension that he and his blacksmith friend had fabricated from an old crane-jib and water-tanks. Pier-owners Caithness County Council agreed on a permanent concrete extension that became the first project in the Highlands & Islands to receive European grant-money, once Britain had joined the Common Market in 1973.

That was the same year at the major Piper oil-field was discovered in the North Sea and the decision was taken to bring its supplies ashore at the end of a 126 mile sub-sea pipeline to Flotta, Orkney.

Vast quantities of building and fabrication materials were needed to construct facilities and this led Alfie to establish Flotta Marine.

He used a coaster to ship supplies from as far away as the Humber estuary as well as laying on work-boats and small passenger vessels to take construction workers on the short trip across Scapa Flow to what was one of the UK’s biggest construction sites of the 1970s.

In later life he often said that he regretted dropping the John O’Groats ferry link after two successful seasons to concentrate on these developments.

He did not forget about it and his money played a prominent ... if behind the scenes alongside Orkney bus entrepreneur James Peace, in the setting up and running of Orkney Ferries plc to try to establish a RO:RO service to Gills Bay, three miles West of John O’Groats.

The project did not get properly off the ground, costing Alfie significant losses when the ‘Business Expansion Scheme’ company went into administration.

Salmon rearing was establishing itself as a major industry in the Highlands & Islands in the 1980s and, by 1994, Alfie decided to enter aquaculture.

His son Andrew was given charge of the day-to-date operations, but the family sold out in 2002 as consolidation, mostly with Norwegian money, became Scottish aquaculture’s watchword.

In the late 1990s, Alfie turned his thoughts back to the short-sea crossing.

Pentland Ferries Ltd was formed with Alfie and Andrew’s Edinburgh-born wife Susan on its board, but with Andrew himself as the managing director, as his father was then officially of pension age.

The company bought the redundant 70-metre Caledonian McBrayne ship Iona that the family renamed Pentalina B.

Young Andrew negotiated a long-lease with the local community-owned Gills Harbour while doing a deal with the Crown Estate for renting the adjacent seabed.

All the while, the family firm used a local workforce of four who have toiled there continuously since 1999, providing a major marshalling area, as well as all modern ferry-terminal facilities.

The service was proving popular with hauliers as well as car-passengers, but even Alfie’s was surprised when Scotland’s Auditor General conducted an 2017 enquiry on ferries that showed clearly that, by 2016, their route was the busiest seaway for freight and passengers to and from Orkney.

Since former transport minister Keith Brown MSP’s 2013 statement that the short-sea crossing was now an officially- recognised ‘lifeline route’, Alfie was contented that his vision has as intended brought many benefits to South Ronaldsay and Orkney.

Alfie leaves four children: May, Alan, Andrew and Anne and eight grown-up grandchildren as well as several great-grandchildren.

Bill Mowat