PLANS to connect the Orkney mainland to some of its outlying islands by tunnel took a step closer reality yesterday.
A 20,000 study will examine the feasibility of building fixed links within the island group, but it might also advance the prospect of a tunnel beneath the Pentland Firth to the Scottish mainland.
Consultants will initially look at linking Shapinsay to test the viability and popularity of connecting islands permanently and report back early next year.
Stephen Hagan, convener of Orkney Islands Council, said he believed there was general support for fixed links and that a tunnel between the islands and Caithness would also win backing.
After the council's transportation and infrastructure committee approved the study yesterday, Mr Hagan said: "We think the geology is similar throughout the islands, so we will do the one study to see if it is a feasibility. We will then decide which island to look at, it may be Shapinsay, it may be Rousay or Westray.
"My feeling is that there would probably be more people for tunnels than against," he said. "I think people see it as the way forward. When we got the ro-ro [roll-on, roll-off] ferries, a lot of people thought that would spoil the islands, but all it did was open up the islands and tunnels will do exactly the same."
He said that while the priority is to investigate tunnels within Orkney, there is an interest for a fixed link to the Scottish mainland. "We have that very much on the radar."
Earlier this year, a Norwegian expert told the council that a 9.3-mile tunnel between South Ronaldsay and a point near John o' Groats could be achieved for 100 million.
On Shapinsay, while some islanders oppose a fixed link and believe it might mean a loss of island status, others say it would ensure the long-term prosperity of the community.
Local councillor Jim Sinclair said a tunnel, which would cost about 13 million, could be eight to ten years away.
At present, the population of 300 is served by a ferry that makes six 25-minute return trips a day to the Orkney mainland, just over a mile away. Mr Sinclair said: "I think most people are in favour of a tunnel because it would allow you to take a job on any part of the mainland and get home at night."