Those who have been dockside when a ship is launched say it takes the breath away: the size, power and potential danger as these majestic vessels crash into the water is something they will never forget.

In The Shipbuilders, George Blake’s searing 1930s novel about the death of a Clydeside shipyard following the Great Depression, he describes the scene as the yard’s last ship takes to the water: “the awful moment when the hammers thudded on the chocks and drag-chains rattled, and it seemed that she would never move; then moved ever so slowly, then seemed to stop, and at last slipped away, roaring and at a speed that brought the heart to the mouth, to take the water with a rush, plunge wildly once, shiver a little, then come to rest – safely launched and water-borne.”

In its heyday, the Clydeside yards witnessed so many launches they kept champagne producers in clover. Today, Ferguson Marine, the sole remaining commercial shipyard on the Clyde, has no need to bulk-buy bubbly since so few ships are hitting the water. Even the celebration around the recent launch of MV Glen Rosa was muted, because it will be more than a year before she will be in operation.

The Herald: Scotland's ferry service is in deep troubleScotland's ferry service is in deep trouble (Image: free)

The rightly called Ferry Fiasco that has dogged the Scottish Government for the past few years shows no signs of being resolved. If anything, it seems to get worse with every passing month. Just this week it was announced that one of the oldest ferries in CalMac’s fleet, the 31-year-old MV Caledonian Isles, which went into repair for rust in January, will not be back on the Arran route until at least August. That is well into the peak tourist season on one of the country’s busiest coastal services.

If this were not bad enough, then came news that the 29-year-old MV Isle of Lewis had been berthed last weekend for repairs. It joins MV Loch Shiva (18 years old), from the busy Largs to Cumbrae route, in the sick bay. None of this is any surprise, of course. Ferries of this age are inevitably going to break down regularly. Indeed, it’s testimony to their quality that while a car of the same vintage would be in the scrapyard, they continue to transport tens of thousands of passengers, cars and lorries.

Among the reasons the Scottish Government commissioned two new ferries in 2015 was to improve reliability, increase capacity, and cut emissions and fuel costs. Another priority was to reduce the average age of the fleet. As the interminable delay to the arrival of the newly-built ferries continues, the fleet’s old work horses are straining to meet the demands put upon them. If they really were animals, there would be an outcry at forcing them to continue to run. As it is, they stagger from one ailment to the next.

With three of CalMac’s geriatric fleet currently out of action, this summer could see a repeat of the unprecedented disruption of 2022. In that annus horribilis, islanders and visitors were frequently stranded; schoolchildren lost countless days in class; hotels, cafes, holiday lets and B&Bs haemorrhaged money, and visitors were obliged to cancel trips or make other last-minute arrangements. Sadly, such problems continue to persist whenever there is a hiccup in service.

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For the best part of a decade islanders’ lives and the Hebridean tourist trade have been blighted, thanks to the unreliability of the CalMac ferry service. There is not space here to reprise the catalogue of problems that has dogged the construction of two long-awaited ferries for Arran, the Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa, at Ferguson Marine. Suffice to say, neither is yet in service, six years after their original delivery date of 2018, with a price tag that has ballooned to four times the original £97 million.

Blame can be apportioned on all sides: the government’s ferry agency, CMAL, Transport Scotland, and the shipyard itself. What seems irrefutable, however, is that ultimately it is the government’s responsibility to take control of the scandalous delays and disruptions on ferry routes, which are a lifeline for the Hebrides.

These islands, along with the Orkneys and Shetland – happily served by a different ferry operator – are a large part of what make Scotland unique. Few countries in Europe have an archipelago on this scale, its islands and remote peninsulas among the most beautiful and wild landscapes in the world. Providing them with a reliable ferry service is essential for the tourist economy, on which their survival often depends. Yet giving their 100,000 or so inhabitants a sense of stability and security is even more crucial. Otherwise, continuing to live with such unpredictability will, for some, become untenable.

Will we one day look back on the ferry fiasco as the start of an unofficial new wave of clearances? The worst affected routes could see islands such as Arran or North Uist or Harris fall off the tourist map. Even worse, locals will feel they have no option but to leave, forced to relocate to the mainland just as the reluctant residents of St Kilda had to, nearly a century ago.

The Herald: Our cartoonist Steven Camley's take on the recent launch of Glen Rosa, which won't be ready for service for a yearOur cartoonist Steven Camley's take on the recent launch of Glen Rosa, which won't be ready for service for a year (Image: free)

In October 2022, the late Ian Jack wrote an expert, exhaustively detailed essay on the ferry scandal in the London Review of Books. Even though he was no fan of the SNP, he believed that, compared to many of the government’s shortcomings, including “the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe”, the ferries represented only “a minor failure.”

I would not be as charitable. The ongoing and seemingly intractable issues surrounding the ferries is a serious indictment of this government. It might affect only a tiny percentage of the population, but the attitude it suggests is revealing. The plight of islanders living with such uncertainty and disruption, we are led to believe, is not a priority. Left high and dry whenever a ferry falls out of use, they are effectively being treated as second-class citizens.

How can Holyrood allow such chaos to continue? The financing, production, delivery and running of ferries is no simple matter. Yet mired in controversy and failure as this service is, it should be at the top of the in-tray. Until this debacle is fixed, our leaders can rightly be accused of incompetency and even neglect. Sort it, and at least one of their many headaches will disappear. More importantly, islanders might finally feel like popping the corks.