Ferries fiasco: Much-loved CalMac looks set to be let down by SNP government yet again – Brian Wilson

Amid unanswered questions over the Ferguson Marine scandal, other vital ferry routes are being hit by the failure to build new vessels

In the statistically improbable event you are passing through Lochmaddy in North Uist over the next few weeks, then you should drop in at the excellent local arts centre, Taigh Chearsabhagh, to see an unusual exhibition. It features a collection of ferry memorabilia dating back to the early days of David MacBrayne Ltd, predecessor of Caledonian MacBrayne. The exhibition represents a labour of love by John Macdonald, a long-serving CalMac employee in Lochmaddy, devoted to the MacBrayne traditions.

The exhibition includes 83 model boats, most of them built by a Belgian who used to visit every year. John says: “He started to make the boats and I’ve matched them up to photos of the originals and everything is bang on. He’s got the right number of windows, the right masts, the whole lot.”

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It’s an example of how the MacBrayne colours continue to attract a lot more affection than headlines of recent years might suggest. The name has been ingrained in island life for much longer than anyone can remember, conjuring up much-loved vessels and bold skippers who sailed in all weathers.

The long-delayed and over-budget Glen Sannox ferry may have finally started sea trials, but other CalMac vessels are breaking down with alarming regularity (Picture: John Devlin)The long-delayed and over-budget Glen Sannox ferry may have finally started sea trials, but other CalMac vessels are breaking down with alarming regularity (Picture: John Devlin)
The long-delayed and over-budget Glen Sannox ferry may have finally started sea trials, but other CalMac vessels are breaking down with alarming regularity (Picture: John Devlin)

More CalMac ferries built under Thatcher than SNP

Reminisces recorded to accompany the exhibition reflect all of that. Memories of the excitement around the pier awaiting the ferry’s arrival when families returned for the Glasgow Fair; how schoolchildren hoped for stormy conditions that would keep that at home for another day, when secondary schooling sentenced them to distant hostels.

Inevitably, however, the commentary turns to recent times and the economic and social carnage visited upon these islands by the unforgivable failure to provide vessels capable of delivering a reliable service. There are still, our First Minister may care to note, more ferries in the CalMac fleet that were launched under Mrs Thatcher than in 17 years of nationalist government.

One sound clip from an islander jumped out. Referring to the debacle at the Ferguson shipyard, Kenneth Macleod says: “This all hinges on the Builder’s Guarantee. I’ve had more than 100 ships built under our supervision. The Builder’s Guarantee is the most important thing. It’s like an insurance policy. A letter was written from the chairman of CMAL to the Scottish Government, to the Transport Minister, saying we cannot build this ship because you can’t get a Builder’s Guarantee and this is why you dare not proceed.“

No random islander

And there, in a nutshell, are the questions that have never been addressed or answered. Why was this advice ignored? Which politicians or civil servants were responsible? And why have none of them suffered any sanction, including dismissal or resignation?

Kenneth MacLeod is no random islander with an opinion. Until recently, he was chairman of Stena UK, Europe’s largest ferry company. He was president of the UK Chamber of Shipping. Prior to the fateful order, he was on the board of CMAL, the procurement quango ordered by Transport Scotland to give the contract to the Ferguson yard, without the Builder’s Refund Guarantee. When he says it is “a scandal bordering on criminality”, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

This debacle has not gone away because both islands and taxpayers continue to live with the consequences. At least £300 million and probably a lot more – the difference between contract price and final cost – has been squandered on an order that should never have been placed. How many hundreds of wasted millions must be involved before a single head rolls or a public inquiry is allowed, to determine the causes of a “scandal bordering on criminality?”

Blame Westminster

Instead, the cover-ups continue. The chairman of Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee, Richard Leonard, has written to the Permanent Secretary, John-Paul Marks, seeking his intervention to secure information that the cross-party committee asked for almost a year ago and is stonewalled on grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. Remember, these issues involve a publicly owned shipyard, a publicly owned procurement quango and a publicly owned ferry operator. So where does “commercial confidentiality” come into it?

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I heard some Scottish Government minister yesterday being asked about their failure to shift the dial on child poverty in Scotland. As usual, the answer was that “the UK Government” does not send enough money. They take responsibility for nothing. Yet here is a blatant case of a vast sum wasted with nobody else to blame and ministers’ only interest is in covering all tracks until it goes away.

Within the confines of ferry provision alone, the impact of these fateful decisions will continue to be felt for decades to come, even after the Turkish-built vessels arrive, on time and on budget. The next section of CalMac’s decrepit fleet in need of replacement comprises small but vital ferries which ply shorter routes along the west coast.

Long wait for replacement ferries

There has been a Small Vessel Replacement Programme on the stocks since 2017. In February 2021, CMAL predicted “procurement of the first tranche of vessels in the next 12 months, subject to approval of an outline business plan”. Three years later, no business plan has been approved and not a single ferry has been ordered.

Two crucial routes served by small vessels are in the Outer Isles, crossing the Sounds of Barra and Harris. Replacement ferries are not even in the first phase of the tentative programme so, at the most optimistic, will not arrive before 2030. The existing vessels are already breaking down with disturbing regularity.

As a I write, a message arrives from CalMac that the MV Loch Portain, which operates the North Uist-Harris route, is still stuck on the Clyde for attempted repairs. The message apologises for “the big impact on businesses and communities particularly as we come into spring and Easter Holidays – we are very sorry for this”.

In other words, here we go again – and 2030 seems an impossibly long way off. Not that anyone in Edinburgh cares about the consequences of their own unaccountable folly.



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