'Ferries are our motorways': How these islanders are feeling cut off from the mainland

Many of Islay's 3,000 residents feel that they're becoming cut off from mainland Scotland due to the ageing ferry service on which they rely, reports Louise Scott

Scattered around Scotland’s coast are the country’s gems – the islands. There are more than 900 in total, but around 90 are inhabited. The population: more than 100,000.

The main transport link is the ferry service, but its reliability has been on the decline. The ageing fleet is failing, and leaving islanders cut off from the mainland.

One of the islands affected is Islay, which lies on the southern Inner Hebrides. Three thousand people call it home, but often go days with no fresh produce in shops.

The three thousand people who live on Islay are often left without fresh produce Credit: ITV News

Grocery store Campbell’s of Islay’s owner Frazer Campbell said: “Either we’ve got completely empty shelves or we’re sitting on a load of stuff that arrives two days late. It has a negative effect on the business, it has a negative effect on everything pretty much. It’s deeply frustrating.”

Campbell’s of Islay’s owner Frazer Campbell said empty shelves were 'deeply frustrating' Credit: ITV News

Two ferries were commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2015 to be built at the struggling Ferguson Marine Shipyard in Port Glasgow. At that point, the vessels were due to be complete by 2018 and costing £97 million.

Two years later however, the first delays were reported and financial issues led to the Scottish Government giving loans to the shipyard.

By 2019, Ferguson Marine went in to liquidation and the Scottish Government took over the shipyard. The ferries would now be complete by 2022 with costs rising to over £200 million.

Audit Scotland’s latest report in March 2022, details costs now spiralling to at least £240 million. The ferries are now due to be completed next year, eight years after they were first commissioned.

A ferry under construction at Ferguson Marine Shipyard Credit: ITV News

The Scottish government has come under intense scrutiny and been accused of hastily awarding the original contract to an unsuitable shipyard.

Scotland’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said: “Nobody wants to see vessels that are delayed or over budget. We need to complete these vessels quickly, we’ve got an update schedule, updated cost figures; progress is being made. I think that’s what matters. Going back to the start of the process back in 2015, there’s obviously been a lot of scrutiny of the procurement process, we’ve learned lessons.”

It has also resulted in two new ferries for Islay being built on a shipyard in Turkey, despite Scotland once being known as the shipbuilding envy of the world.

But for islanders whose business relies on transport to the mainland, it’s two years too long. Farming requires moving stock and supplies across to the mainland.

One farmer told us he feels left behind. Scott McLellan said: “Farming here is hard enough anyway without all these additional ferry-induced issues.

"So say you’ve got your local motorway you commute to, and all of a sudden they just close 80% of the capacity of that motorway and say that’s for tourists, camper vans and everyone else and you’re trying to get to your work, your daily commute. That’s what ferries here are. They’re our motorways, our roads; they just float.”

Farmer Scot McLellan Credit: ITV News

There are nine whisky distilleries on Islay, attracting tourists from around the world - 50,000 visitors annually. Trips need to be planned ahead to ensure a space on the ferry, but if it breaks down and is cancelled; they may decide to go elsewhere.

Anthony Wills, who owns Kilchoman distillery, said: “It’s hugely frustrating for everybody on the islands, whether you’re just living here and trying to get on and off the island or if you’re running a business; we feel as though no one has listened to us. Tourism is a huge part of what happens on Islay and I think people are being put off coming here if they couldn’t get on a ferry.”

The Scottish Government has admitted it regrets the failings with the ferries so far, now they need to prove to Scotland’s islanders that their needs matter as much as those on the mainland.

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