It would be a well-informed assumption that Robbie Drummond was made to walk the plank at Caledonian MacBrayne on orders from Edinburgh in advance of the new contract to operate west coast ferry services.

A decision on whether to give CalMac the contract without competitive tendering is imminent as the current one ends in September. Anyway, there is little need for a competition in the certain knowledge that any other entrant would lose, so just get on with it.

That view would gain general support on the west coast though with markedly less enthusiasm than in the past. As a veteran of several campaigns to “save CalMac”, it saddens me that the brand has been so badly tarnished, through the folly of its Edinburgh masters.

Being in charge of CalMac should be a great job for anyone of a maritime disposition. It certainly was in the past for respected veterans like John Whittle, Colin Paterson and Martin Dorchester. It should have been the same for Robbie Drummond who did his level best in the role.

However, it is difficult to run a ferry company without ferries and the nightmare which has been visited upon CalMac is almost entirely not of its own making. In that context, it is difficult to see Mr Drummond’s summary departure as anything other than another piece of scapegoating.

The Herald: Robbie Drummond is leaving CalMacRobbie Drummond is leaving CalMac (Image: free)

Mr Drummond’s removal follows the dismissal of David Tydeman from the chief executive’s post at Ferguson Marine, having been held responsible – no doubt by the same firing squad in Transport Scotland – for the continuing rise in costs and fresh delays to the two Ferguson ferries.

These purges may be intended to convey the impression of a government in charge of affairs, making necessary changes to chart a new future. Instead, they confirm the cowardly characteristics of SNP politicians and mediocre civil servants who created the debacle but will trample on anyone to evade responsibility.

Last week, the parent company of CalMac, David MacBrayne Limited, published its annual report in which Mr Drummond spelt out the reality of the ferry company’s current position and warned of continuing tough times ahead for island communities.

“With an average age of 25 years, over one third of our 35 vessels are operating beyond the life expectancy of 30 years” he wrote. “This means that they require more and more maintenance and are more liable to suffer technical failures. It can also be difficult to source parts for older vessels because they are no longer manufactured”.

Just as I wrote last week that Mr Tydeman could not be held responsible for costly past mistakes at Port Glasgow which he had to painstakingly reverse, so it is impossible even for the control freaks in Transport Scotland to attribute blame to Mr Drummond for the legacy he inherited and which the politically-driven Ferguson debacle greatly exacerbated.


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Fergusons was a shambles - yet they shoot the messenger

While the operational challenges which CalMac have faced are inextricably linked to age and condition of the fleet, there are many other issues which need to be addressed in a new contract and probably won’t be. In short, the governance of the company is a disgrace, entirely designed in and for Edinburgh.

Where else is there a lifeline ferry company with no representation on its board from the communities it serves? Yet for years, it has been the objective of Transport Scotland, and compliant Ministers, to keep islanders off the MacBrayne board for fear they would represent island interests rather than those of “the shareholder” – i.e. the Scottish Government.

What a disastrous priority that proved to be since it has led CalMac’s management into constant conflict with island communities which are instinctively, through generations of close association, on its side. Invariably in recent years, Mr Drummond has been left on his own to do that firefighting. The chairman and board might as well not exist.

That takes me to the subject of the chairman, Mr Erik Østergaard, and the scandal within a scandal which his appointment represented. Previously, Mr Østergaard, whose day job is as chief executive of a Danish transport trade body, was chairman of CMAL, the Scottish Government’s procurement quango.

In fairness to Mr Østergaard, he was adamant that the two ferry contract should not be awarded to the Ferguson yard because it was unable to offer the standard insurance of a Builder’s Refund Guarantee. For purely political reasons, this was brushed aside and the doomed contract was indeed awarded to the Port Glasgow yard, then owned by Jim McColl.

The Herald: The political decision to award the ferry contract to Fergusons left CalMac with a headacheThe political decision to award the ferry contract to Fergusons left CalMac with a headache (Image: free)

So far, so honourable for the great Dane. It was years later when the fall-out from this disastrous decision was clearly manifesting itself that a Holyrood committee started delving into the detail of how the contract came to be awarded. At that point, one man who knew where every body was buried was Erik Østergaard.

Hey presto. Mr Østergaard was made chairman of CalMac, where he has remained silent and invisible for the past two years. As I wrote at the time of his appointment: “Of all potential candidates in Scotland, or even Denmark, he is one who should have been disqualified because he was so deeply compromised. Why would he even apply, unless encouraged to do so?”.

The very least we should expect is that he will follow Mr Drummond out of the door. Though Transport Scotland would recoil at the thought, there might even be a Hebridean with maritime knowledge who could do the job of leading CalMac!

If CalMac are to retain the contract, it should be on terms that island communities have been demanding: a re-merger of procurement and operations; senior management functions devolved to island communities; statutory island representation at board level; a massive improvement in community consultation.

None of these will provide a short-term fix to the shortage of serviceable vessels. But they would be a start in re-building Caledonian MacBrayne in a form worthy of the communities it exists to serve and the good people who staff its ports and crew its ferries.