Ten vehicle ferry operators provide all-year scheduled services in Scottish waters.

Four are local authorities that underwrite any deficit, four are private, unfunded by the public purse and indeed contribute taxes to that purse. One (Serco) is a management company funded to operate ferries on behalf of the Scottish Government. Then there is CalMac Ferries Ltd, part of state-owned David MacBrayne Ltd also funded by the Scottish Government to run ferries. In the latter two cases the ships are leased by state owned CMAL to the operators. Thus, Scottish vehicle ferry provision is highly varied in both service quality and productivity.

The majority of these operations are run efficiently and reliably. Shetland Islands Council’s internal ferries and Western Ferries on the Firth of Clyde stand out as exemplars of best practice based on Norwegian principles, featuring frequent crossings from around six in the morning until 10 at night or later – no fuss, uncomplicated economical ships and terminals, typically four crew.

In contrast the Caledonian MacBrayne/CMAL system has become a byword for poor service, and eye-watering costs to the taxpayer. Annual subsidies have risen from £5.8 million in 1992 to £150m today, signifying abysmal productivity. Actually, the CalMac fleet is two fleets. The smaller ships that shuttle between slipways, function well enough. The problem lies with the “big ships”.

To illustrate the productivity shortfall, the proposed new 350 passenger, 107 car ferries for the two-hour Islay crossing, are planned to have a crew compliment of 27 of which no less than 11 are involved in on-board catering and sales. Compare 11-13 crew (three-four catering) on Norwegian company, Torghatten Nord’s Landegode (390 passengers, 120 cars), on the 3¾ hour Bodø – Lofoten open Atlantic crossing. Pentland Ferries catamaran Alfred, 430 passengers, 98 cars, has a crew of 14 (two catering). Costing only £14m, this catamaran has proven vastly superior to conventional CalMac-type monohulls in sea-keeping, reliability, greatly reduced operating costs and CO2 emissions. Each of these ships is covered by the same Europe B rules as CalMac.

CMAL/CalMac’s terminals are labour intensive; the Norwegian equivalents are typically un-manned.

So how to improve productivity? The answer lies in Norwegian practice: simple vessels and terminals, small crew compliments, basic on-board snack catering on all but the longest routes, selecting the shortest feasible route to improve capacity, frequency, reliability and overall journey times. Ferry operating contracts are for individual routes or small groups of routes.

By adopting these principles, how do we best benefit the wellbeing of the island communities? Firstly, instead of providing a large Premier Inn for crew accommodation on top of each big ferry, crews should live ashore with their families in the island communities served, thereby boosting island populations, school rolls, local business, etc. Furthermore, the Scottish Government’s Islands Plan calls for greater community empowerment. If this is genuine, then it opens the door to greater community influence on how an island’s ferry service should be arranged, possibly even to the operation of the ferry itself by the community.

How then could this work in practice? To give some examples. The current 50-minute ferry service between Oban and Craignure (Mull) provided by the lumbering 90-metre, 65 car, 28 crew Isle of Mull can only be described as awful. The ship is too big to berth overnight at Craignure, so that for half the week in winter, the earliest arrival in Oban from Mull is noon and the last boat out is at 4 pm. Hopeless for hospital appointments or a trip to pick up supplies at any distance from Oban without the expense of an overnight stay. Imagine instead two efficient 80-metre catamarans, able to berth overnight at Craignure, which with their greater beam, could take 80 cars apiece, with crews of 10-14. They could provide an hourly clock-face service from 06:00 till say 22:00 in summer and every two hours in winter. That would more than double capacity, revolutionise Mull’s connectivity and, with the crews and their families living on Mull, the local economy would be boosted. The neat part is that this arrangement would actually be cheaper in terms of state subsidy than the present set up.

Arran’s woes are, if anything, worse than, Mull’s, The brand new £30m overly complex terminal at Brodick is untenable in easterly winds, while the mainland terminal at Ardrossan involves a tight turn that is challenging for the larger high sided CalMac ferries. Indeed it is speculated if the even bigger and higher £100m-plus, Glen Sannox, languishing at Ferguson’s yard, will be able to negotiate Ardrossan’s harbour entrance in any but dead calm conditions. Again two catamarans, with their lower profile and superior turning capabilities, as suggested for Mull, would resolve Arran’s problems.


Another Norwegian principle is the “land-bridge”, as adopted in Shetland in the 1970s when the North Isles mail ship Earl of Zetland was due for retirement. In those days, the Earl sailed northwards round the various island ports one day, returning the next. The then Scottish Office agreed to fund a replacement side loading ship capable of doing the round trip in a day. Shetlanders told the Scottish Office where to stick their round trip boat. They opted instead for a series of small ro-ro ferries linking the islands by frequent shuttle services. Thus it has been possible since, to travel at any time of the day or evening from Unst by ferry to Yell and anther ferry to the Mainland and onwards to Lerwick.

A similar system was recommended for Islay, using Jura as a land bridge, but was black balled by the Scottish Office. It would still offer huge capacity advantages, many more journey options and shorter overall journey times. The stumbling block is the need for substantial road upgrade on Jura and Knapdale. That cost, however, would be more than offset long-term by the greatly reduced ferry operating costs and improved connectivity of the land-bridge system.

There are many more examples of how applying these principles to West Coast ferry services could revolutionise island connectivity, and at less cost to the taxpayer, not least by resolving the running sore of the Uig (Skye) to Tarbert (Harris) and Lochmaddy (North Uist) mess. One capacity constrained ship Hebrides, with 34 crew, has to serve both Outer Hebridean ports alternately, such that Uist gets two sailings one day and one sailing the next and vice versa for Harris. 802, the rusting hulk at Fergusons, is supposedly destined for the service. While offering a slight capacity increase, it will not resolve the inadequate schedule pattern. For decades, islanders have called for two simpler ships, with say 12-14 crew one dedicated to each of Tarbert and Lochmaddy to provide a more frequent regular schedule. The improvement to island life would be dramatic while the cost to the taxpayer would be reduced.

How to achieve all this. The answer, as described by Dr Alf Baird, is Norwegian-style de-bundling the Clyde and Hebrides contract. That works. The big grotesquely dysfunctional CalMac bundle does not.

Roy Pedersen is an author and consultant.