Book Review: Pentland Hero

Pentland Hero by Roy N Pedersen Birlinn, 224pp, £8.99

THE live radio programme had five minutes left to go when a woman finally outed him.

"If you want to know about the dirty tricks used to stop the short ferry run to Orkney, why don't you ask Andrew Banks himself?" she said, pointing to a quiet man with a round, red smiling face.

"He's our hero," she said, simply, and the rest of the audience broke into polite applause.

Orkney audiences are not prone to such moving and spontaneous tribute. But then they knew what the rest of us did not – at the time. How an oilman turned fish farmer had survived the wrath of CalMac, Orkney Council and the Pentland Firth itself to offer Orcadians a quicker, cheaper crossing than the state-subsidised boat to Scrabster.

Roy Pedersen's well researched book is at once inspiring and depressing – if Andrew Banks had been Irish, he'd have been celebrated as the Michael O'Leary of the seas. But thanks to his modest and entirely unrapacious nature, Banks met obstacles every step of the way.

In 1997, Banks sold his fish farm to finance the purchase and refitting of the Pentalina B. But Orkney Islands Council – who owned the Caithness slipway after an earlier venture by partners including Andrew's father – would not sub-lease to this son of Orkney until he started building a brand new rival terminal beside their pier.

Orkney Council had been stung by the collapse of a linkspan at Gills Bay during a gale eight years earlier. I recall senior members of my own Caithness family shaking their heads in disbelief when Banks Junior announced his intention to rebuild at the same point.

Orkney Enterprise and two banks turned down his loan applications, Orkney Council refused to let him upgrade the council pier at Burwick and HIE rejected his grant applications. Undeterred, Banks switched to a slightly longer route via St Margaret's Hope, bought diggers, pile-driving and welding equipment and a caravan at a plant auction near Dundee and endured Force Ten gales to excavate, dredge and finally build a DIY linkspan at Gills Bay.

The first sailing, in May 2001, was half the price and half the journey time of the subsidised Northlink – for the first time ever Orcadians could get to and from the mainland in one day.

Meanwhile, the new Scottish government was piling more money into the rival run – 50 million in subsidy, new terminal buildings, piers and boats. They even allowed the Northlink consortium to re-tender for the "lifeline" Scrabster-Stromness contract, despite having to bail the company out to the tune of 63m. Banks responded by offering a free service if the subsidy was paid to him instead – a move which might have saved taxpayers 20m a year. It didn't. In 2008, after an epic voyage from the Philippines, the new Pentalina – a modern catamaran – arrived. Despite offering his "old" ships for new services on the Forth and the Minch, Banks has not yet found a way to expand his operations.

But he's certainly found eloquent supporters. The author, Roy Pedersen, was the architect of the SNP's Road Equivalent Tariff (ironically applied so far only to CalMac's Western Isles routes). The foreword is written by an exceptionally outspoken Lord George Robertson – a board member of Western Ferries – who observes: "This is the story of how the islands of Scotland ... have been betrayed by the very authorities they trusted to protect their vital connectivity with the mainland."

Andrew Banks has boldly gone where other islands short-changed by CalMac fear to tread. How much longer will Scotland ignore such talented, dogged, self-starters?

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